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Lockdown Genealogy. Making Your Family Tree Better When Everything Is Closed

Lockdown Genealogy. Making Your Family Tree Better When Everything Is Closed

How to start, develop and improve your family tree when you have no access to genealogy research materials during the worldwide pandemic. By genealogist Lynn Serafinn.

Without a doubt, the COVID pandemic has affected all of us in some way. For family historians, it has presented unexpected challenges, as the LDS Family History Centres around the world, where so many people (including those of Trentino ancestry) do their research, have all been closed. And although the Diocesan Archives in Trento are finally open again, travel restrictions have prevented many of us from going to Trento to do research.

Hopefully, we may finally be starting to see the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ of this situation. But as there have been so many setbacks and disappointments, we really cannot predict how quickly life will fully feel ‘normal’ again.

For that reason, I thought it would be a good time to write an article on ‘lockdown genealogy’, because ‘lockdown’ does NOT mean our genealogical progress needs to stop.

In this article, I will share a few ideas for how you can start or improve your family tree, even amidst these challenges. While some of these ideas are specific to Trentino research, most of them are pertinent to any kind of genealogical research.

Getting Started – Ideas for Beginners

Understandably, many beginners want to dive right into finding their Trentino ancestors.

But as tempting as this is, it is crucial that you start your research by recording everything you can about your family AFTER they arrived in their adopted country. I have seen many beginners ‘leap over’ this part of their research, and end up tracing the WRONG Trentino ancestors as a result. So, find everything you can about your family after they immigrated. Look for census records, birth/marriage/death records, military records, naturalisation records, arrival records, etc. Glean every clue you can from these, as they may contain the names of your ancestors’ parents and/or the village from which they came (if you don’t already know it).

Once that is done, and you can then begin searching for your ancestors on Nati in Trentino, a database of births in Trentino between 1815-1923. I’ve mentioned Nati in Trentino in various articles on this website, but it was recently updated. You can find two video tutorials on how to use the new Nati in Trentino database at https://trentinogenealogy.com/genealogy-video-tutorials/.

MORE READING:   Searching Online for 19th & 20th Century Trentini Ancestors

TIP: To create a tree, you can set up a free account at sites like Ancestry dot com, Family Search dot org, etc. You can also use specialised software, such as Family Tree Maker (the program I use), which can synchronise with your online Ancestry tree. Family Tree Maker also makes it much more manageable to perform some of the other tasks I will discuss later in this article. That is NOT an affiliate link, by the way, and I don’t make any profit if you buy the program.

Scan Documents and Photos

If you have a boxful of documents and family photos gathering dust, now is the perfect time to scan them into digital format using a flatbed scanner. There are many economical ones on the market, and many printers also have flatbed scanners.

For archiving or printing purposes, I recommend scanning at a resolution of 600 dpi (dots per inch). However, for images you intend to upload online, it’s better to use a smaller resolution of about 300 dpi. I tend to keep high-resolution images of old photos, and then make copies of them at the lower resolution when I put them on my tree.

Create a System for Naming Images

The more digital images you have, the more difficult it will be to locate them unless you have a system for naming them. Sometimes a new client comes to me and none of the images are labelled in a way that clearly identifies what the image is, or who it is for.

If you have been haphazard with your labelling, now is the perfect time to relabel your images so they are easily findable. The system I use is, date, surname, first name, event.

For example, for documents I would use labels like this:

1930_SerafiniLuigi_USCensus

1919_SerafiniRomeoFedele_baptism

1914_SerafiniL_OnoratiM_marriage

The same labelling system will also work with photographs, although sometimes you might not know the exact year. In such cases you might label your images like this, with ‘c’ standing for ‘circa’ (about):

1944c_SerafinnRalph_USArmy

Alternatively, you might have a group photo, where you have to decide whether to label everyone, or identify a head of household. For example:

1927c_SerafiniLuigi_Family_BrooklynNY

I guarantee that using such a labelling system will make it easier to find your images when you want them.

Fix and Standardise Place Names

Many people end up with a mishmash of place names in their trees. I have seen trees where the same place is entered five or six different ways. This can easily happen if you have merged a lot of sources from different online websites.

I strongly recommend going through all your place names and make sure the same place is entered only ONE way. This is easiest to do in a program like Family Tree Maker.

Be sure to include the county/province, state/region, and the name of the country (I have found that many Americans tend to leave out ‘USA’ in their place names).

Here are some examples of properly labelled place names:

Hazleton, Luzerne, Pennsylvania, USA

Revò, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

In the case of Trentino, you may also wish to include the name of the comune, especially the frazione is so small it is unlikely to be found easily on a map. For example, my father’s hamlet of Duvredo, I tend to put:

Duvredo, Bleggio, Trento, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

Technically, my label is no longer ‘correct’ as the comune was recently changed from Bleggio to Comano Terme. However, Comano is actually part of a different parish, and nobody (except the local government) really thinks of ‘Bleggio’ as being part of Comano. The key thing is that I have chosen this way to label that frazione and it is consistent throughout my tree.

TIP: Some older documents have antiquated and/or dialect versions of place names in them. These variants are not ‘errors’ per se (except in non-Trentino sources, such as US docs), but simply the result of natural linguistic evolution OR dialect. For example, my grandmother’s frazione is Bono, but in dialect it is ‘Boo’ (pronounced like ‘Boh’). And some places like ‘Denno’ and ‘Dorsino’ don’t have the ‘D’ in older records, as their names were originally ‘Enno’ (i.e., D’enno) and ‘Orsino (i.e., D’Orsino). Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘Enno’ is a different place from ‘Denno’, etc.

Standardise Spellings of Names

Prior to the 20th century, there was no concept of standardized spelling for names in Trentino documents. For example, while my family surname is usually recorded as ‘Serafini’, you will also see it entered as Serrafini, Seraffini, etc. The same is true for personal names. You might see your great-grandmother’s name spelled Cattarina, Caterina, Catharina, etc. Moreover, it might appear one way in a person’s baptismal record, a different way in the marriage record, and still another way in the death record.

Our trees will become a MESS if we enter every variation of name or surname as they appear in the documents. It is essential to choose and use one spelling throughout your tree, regardless of how it was entered into a document. This can help identify family connections more quickly, as well as help avoid accidental duplicate entries. The exception, of course, is when names changed after immigration (such as my surname, Serafinn).

TIP: Names in older documents were written in Latin, even though they would have been known by their Italianate versions. For example, a document may well say ‘Johannes’, but the person was actually known as ‘Giovanni’. Occasionally, you will also see Latin versions of surnames. For example, ‘Rubeis’ is the Latin form of ‘Rossi’, and ‘Lepores’ is the Latin form of ‘Levri’. Always use the local version of the name, not the Latinised form.

Cite Your Sources!

‘Sources’ are the documents that provide evidence of a fact. Many people enter facts into their family trees without saying where they obtained the information. Thus, they have no way of proving the information is correct, nor any easy way of finding the document again. I have just spent the past 3 weeks helping a client identify all the sources on a tree he researched some years ago. In doing so, I discovered that some of the facts he had in the tree were actually wrong.

If you have not cited or linked your sources in your family tree, you might use this time to do so. If you’ve never developed a system for citing sources, you may wish to read an article I wrote sometime back on this subject called ‘Genealogical Breadcrumbs’.

MORE READING:   Genealogical Breadcrumbs: Notes, Sources & Reviewing Research

Run Error Reports

If you use a program like Family Tree Maker, this is a great time to run error reports to identify any missing or duplicate information in your tree.

You might also want to run an ‘undocumented facts’ report, to see where you have not yet linked any sources.

That should keep you busy for a while!

Closing Thoughts

I hope this article has helped inspire you to work on your family tree, even during these challenging times.

I know that some of the suggestions I have made might sound tedious or boring, but I guarantee that they will help make your tree more rigorous as a piece of research. You are also likely to discover a few things you may have missed in your earlier work.

I must say that I feel truly blessed to have been able to continue research for most of my clients during the pandemic, as I have many thousands of parish records in my home library. I don’t know what I would have done if that had not been the case.

But blessed as I am, I really cannot wait until I can get back to Trento again.

If you found this article to be helpful, I do hope you’ll subscribe to this blog, using the form below. 

Until next time!

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn
7 March 2021

P.S. As you can probably surmise, I am still not sure when I will be able to go back in Trento, as we are still in lockdown here in the UK, and the government is still advising against making any travel plans.  Fingers crossed, I will be able to go there by the summer, but there really is no way of knowing for sure at the moment.   

However, as mentioned, I do have resources to do a fair bit of research for many clients from home, and I now have some openings for a few new client projects starting in May 2021.

If you would like to book a time to discuss having me do research for you, I invite you to read my ‘Genealogy Services’ page, and then drop me a line using the Contact form on this site. Then, we can set up a free 30-minute chat to discuss your project.

Join our Trentino Genealogy Group on Facebook: http://facebook.com/groups/TrentinoGenealogy

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How Much Do You REALLY Know About Your Ancestors’ Names?

How Much Do You REALLY Know About Your Ancestors' Names
C. 1909. Anna Corona Onorati and her sister Rustica Fausta Onorati of Bono, Santa Croce del Bleggio. Rustica hated her first name, so she changed it to ‘Lena’ when she grew up. Few family members knew her actual birth name.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn talks about how our ancestors named their children, and gives tips for making sense of names in their often-confusing parish records.

Last time, we took a whirlwind tour around the many idiosyncrasies of the surnames of Trentino. I really just scratched the surface in that article, aiming simply to provide some rules of thumb when researching Trentini family names. Now, as promised at the end of that article, we’re now going to take a look at our ancestors’ FIRST and MIDDLE names. We’ll be looking at how our ancestors’ names changed when they migrated across the ocean, how and why parents chose names for their children, and crucial things to remember when working with old parish records (1500s – 1800s).

SIDENOTE: While I will be referring to my own research (with specific examples from Bleggio in Val Giudicarie), the basic principles I will share here are useful for ANYONE constructing their family history within countries that utilise parish records to record baptisms, marriages and deaths.

Name Changes After Migration

Most of you reading this probably have a family member who changed his/her first name after leaving Trentino for the Americas. If your grandfather was known as ‘Joe’ in America, chances are his birth name was the Italian equivalent, Giuseppe. Antonio would become Anthony or Tony, and Giovanni would become John. In my family, my grandfather was born Luigi, but he changed it to the English equivalent ‘Louis’ about ten years after he migrated (he also changed our surname from Serafini to Serafinn, as I discussed in the previous article).

While many first names were easily translatable into English, some names had no real English equivalent. When that was the case, people often changed their name to something that sounded like their Italian name, rather than a translation of it. That means your Uncle Ned and Auntie Mabel might actually have been Zio Nerino and Zia Amabile.

There are also cases where a person’s name bears hardly any resemblance to the original at all. For example, my father’s first name at birth was ‘Romeo’ – hardly a good name for an immigrant boy in early 20th century USA where ‘men were men’. So, he changed his name to something unquestionably masculine and ‘rugged’ – Ralph. Except for the first letter, it has nothing in common with his original name.

Some people changed their name simply because they didn’t LIKE their birth name. My great-aunt Rustica Fausta Onorati changed her name to ‘Lena’, solely because she hated the name Rustica! Unless you happened to know her birth name was actually Rustica (fortunately, I did), you would never find her in the parish records, as the two names bear no similarity to each other whatsoever.

TIP: I often come across family trees where a person is listed under their ‘adopted’ name rather than their birth name. Personally, I find this very confusing, and I think it can lead a researcher down many dark alleys. I believe it is always best practice to use the name a person was given at birth, and cite any aliases or name changes in your notes about that person. On Ancestry.com, for example, you can write these aliases in a field called ‘also known as’. You can also put them in the ‘person notes’ in software programmes like Family Tree Maker.

Keeping Names in the Family

These days, many parents go out of their way to find unusual names for their children. But most of our ancestors were named after elders – parents, grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of the family. Knowing this can often help you identify family groups more easily when searching through old records. Just this week, my brain was going into a twist when I was trying to figure out which of two men named Eleuterio Parisi (born about the same time in the same village) was my 9x great-grandfather. The definitive clue was in the names of his children: his eldest son and daughter were named after his parents, Pietro and Maria.

This practice of keeping names in the family can even help you identify the order of children, as the first son was frequently named after their paternal (and, in some cases, maternal) grandfather.

Another common practice was to name a child after a family member had recently died. Sometimes this person was a wife of the father who may have died shortly after childbirth. I have seen many instances where the first daughter of a second marriage is named after the deceased first wife.

The deceased person could also be an older sibling. If you see a couple with three daughters named Margarita, it means the first two died in infancy or early childhood. My 2x great-grandfather was the fourth Matteo in his family, having had three older brothers, all called Matteo, who died shortly after they were born. In fact, of their 14 children, no more than 6 (and possibly only 3) of them lived long enough to have children of their own.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

Family group sheet of Alberto Serafini and Margherita Giuliani. Most of their 14 children died in infancy. My 2nd great-grandfather, Matteo Luigi, was the only one of 4 'Matteos' to survive to adulthood.
Family group sheet of Alberto Serafini and Margherita Giuliani. Most of their 14 children died in infancy. My 2nd great-grandfather, Matteo Luigi, was the only one of 4 ‘Matteos’ to survive to adulthood.

This brings up another important tip: if you find a birth record with the right name and parents, don’t immediately assume it is your ancestor. Keep looking ahead to locate the births of all children of that family, to see if there is a later child with the same name.

Ordinal Names

Something you might find amusing is that you occasionally see names that indicate which number this child was in the family. For example, boys’ names like Primo, Secondo, Ottavio and Decimo would indicate they were the first, second, eight and tenth born, respectively. While you might find these names less than ‘inspired’, they can be great clues in your research.

Spelling? There’s NO Such Thing!

In the previous article on surnames, I already mentioned that the concept of standardized spelling did not exist in Trentino until relatively recently. While surnames are affected greatly by this, first names are even MORE variable. Here are a few common examples (but the list is almost endless):

  • Bartolomeo, Bartholomeo, Bortholamio, Bortolo
  • Margarita, Margherita, Margaretha, Malgarita
  • Elisabetha, Elisabetta, Isabetta or Helisabeta
  • Cattarina, Chatarina, Catherina, Chatalina

See the previous article on surnames for a few general rules of thumb on how spelling can vary.

IMPORTANT: Always remember that variations in spelling do NOT indicate different people. The same woman might appear as ‘Isabetta Rochi’ in her birth record, but as ‘Elisabetha Rocche’ in her marriage record.

Brush Up Your LATIN!

If you work with parish records, you will discover that nearly ALL first and middle names tended to appear in their Latin forms until the 19th century. What’s interesting is that many Latin names actually look like English. You’ll see Joseph (for Giuseppe), Anthony (for Antonio) and Jacob or Jacobi (for Giacomo). Some Latin first names resemble German names, such as Johannes or Johann (for Giovanni) or Joachim (for Gioacchino). You’ll also see some fabulous old names like Hieronymus (for Girolamo) and Aloysius (for Luigi).

When looking at 19th century records, you might start to see the shift from Latin to Italianised spelling. For example, I’ve seen many an ‘Aloisio’ in early 19th century baptismal records who was later listed as ‘Luigi’ on his marriage record. If you’re not aware that this could be the SAME name (and same person), you might miss the record altogether.

Middle Names Are VERY Important

Before the 18th century, middle names were not commonly used, except in the case of noble families (which were more common than you might imagine). Later, especially from the 19th century onwards, giving a child one or more middle names became a more widespread practice. While the shift towards using middle names was probably seen as a practical means of distinguishing one person from another, it’s my belief that it was also a reflection of the shift in worldview spreading throughout Europe from the end of the 18th century, when beliefs about the importance of the individual and personal expressiveness were becoming increasingly popular.

In our modern, English-speaking culture, middle names are often seen as ‘extra’ names. But for the Trentini genealogist, middle names are extremely important when constructing your family tree, because some people come to be known exclusively by one of his/her middle names. For example, everyone in my family knew my great-grandmother as Europa. If you look at her marriage record, she is called Europa. If you look at her children’s birth records, she is called Europa. But if you try to look up Europa Parisi in the birth records, you won’t find her. Why? Because her birth name was Domenica Filomena Europa Parisi. That’s a mouthful!

Sometimes, you might know the name of the parent of a child, but you cannot find the parent’s birth record anywhere. A few weeks ago, I spent four hours looking for a man named Pietro, who was the father of about 10 children. After trawling through every possible baptismal record, I concluded that his birth name was Giovanni Pietro.

I’ve also seen many instances where a child’s baptism was registered in more than one parish, and the first and middle names were recorded in a completely different order in each of them. When such a thing happens, how can you possibly know which one is THE name of the child? The truth is, you can’t. Sometimes the priest will give you a clue by UNDERLINING the name by which the child will be known. But unless he was insightful enough to do this, you’ll find yourself without a clue of how this child came to be known until you dig further down the line to find their descendants. Also, if you are using transcriptions for your research, instead of images of the original parish records, you will never even be aware the priest underlined the preferred name (unless the transcriber was very thorough).

BOTTOM LINE: Using a middle name as one’s primary name is extremely common in Trentino. So, if the father of one of your ancestors is supposedly Luigi, but you cannot find a Luigi in the birth records, try looking for someone with the middle name of Luigi. (Incidentally, the ‘Matteo Luigi Serafini’ in the family tree above, WAS known as ‘Luigi’ throughout life, not Matteo.)

ABBREVIATIONS are Everywhere!

If you work with parish records, you will also encounter many abbreviations of first names. Sometimes these are just shortened versions of the name, such as Bortolo for Bortolomeo, or Gianbatta for Giovanni Battista. But other times, you will see actual abbreviations. You will frequently find Francesco and Domenico written as Fraco and Domco (‘co’ in superscript), and Francesca and Domenica as Fraca and Domca (‘ca’ in superscript). Similarly, Antonio will be abbreviated as Anto (superscript ‘o’) and Antonia as Anta (superscript ‘a’). Needless to say, you have to read very carefully to make sure you’re looking at the record for a male or a female.

One very common (but rather odd-looking) abbreviation is ‘Gua’, which stands for Giovanni. To make things even more confusing, you’ll see Latinized names abbreviated, such as Jo. Bapt for Giovanni Battista, or Domcus (‘cus’ in superscript) for ‘Domenicus’ instead of Domenico.

TIP: The words ‘figlio’ / ‘filius’ (meaning ‘son’) and ‘figlia’ / ‘filia’ (daughter) are almost always abbreviated as figo / figa,  fils / fila or simply fo / fa.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

Baptismal record from 1708 of Domenico Antonio Salizzoni of Cares in Bleggio. The priest has used Latin abbreviations for his first and middle names (using ‘cus’ in superscript), and Salizzoni is spelled with only one ‘z’.
Baptismal record from 1708 of Domenico Antonio Salizzoni of Cares in Bleggio. The priest has used Latin abbreviations for his first and middle names (using ‘cus’ in superscript), and Salizzoni is spelled with only one ‘z’. The word ‘filius’ (‘son of’) is abbreviated with ‘s’ in superscript.

The Link Between Names and WHERE Your Ancestors Lived

Being familiar with the names of the various frazioni (the tiny hamlets) in which your ancestors lived is also crucial to building your Trentini family tree. In a later article, I’ll talk more about frazioni and how they are tied to our ancestral roots. But for now, as we’re talking about first names, it’s relevant to mention that all parishes – and most frazioni – have their own church, and every church has its own patron saint.

It is not uncommon to see many people in a particular frazione or parish with the same first name because they are named after their local patron. For example, you’ll see a lot of boys named Felice in the frazione of Bono in Bleggio, where their patron is Saint Felice. Giustina is a common girls’ name in the frazione of Balbido (also in Bleggio), where Saint Giustina is the patron. On a parish-wide level, the boys’ name Eleuterio was extremely common in Bleggio during the 1500s, as St. Eleuterio was one of the patron saints of the parish at that time (the parish was not known as Santa Croce until after 1624). In the parish of Saone, I recently discovered a glut of boys named Brutius (Latin for Brizio), as their local patron is Saint Brizio.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

The 14th century church of San Felice in Bono, Bleggio.
The 14th century church of San Felice in Bono, Bleggio.

Proximity to Patron Saints’ Feast Days

Aside from village patrons, there are also patron saints for specific days. I came across a record for a Giorgio (George) who was born on April 23rd – the feast day of Saint George. I have seen more than one Giuseppe Maria (Joseph Mary) born during Christmas week. I also found a girl named Epifania born on the day of the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) and many baby girls named Pasqua around Easter time (Pasqua means Easter). Being aware of the various patron saints can help you understand why your ancestors may have been given their specific names.

Closing Thoughts

If you really want to find out who you are, it all starts with the names of your ancestors. Far more than simple designations, these names are drenched in meaning, culture and history. If you’re like me, sometimes you’ll find a particular name that draws you in and gets you really curious. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself loving this great-great-great-grandparent because of their wonderful name. These emotions are what give genealogy the power to connect us with our past and transport our ancestors into the present. If you haven’t yet started to trace your Trentini ancestry (and all the other ancestral roots you might have), I encourage you to make a start.

Coming Up Next Time…

Next time, I’ll be giving you tips on finding your FEMALE ancestors from Trentino. Finding your great-great-great-great-grandmother is not always as straight-forward as you might think! Drawing upon my own research for the ‘One Tree’ project, I’ll be sharing some of my very best ‘genealogical detective’ strategies for finding all the wonderful women who contributed to your DNA through the centuries.

I do hope you’ll subscribe to Trentino Genealogy blog (see the form on the top-right side of this page), to receive that and all future articles on this site.

Until then, I look forward to reading your comments or questions about this article below. And if you have any comments OR questions about Trentini genealogy, I cordially invite you to drop me a line via the contact form on this site.

I look forward to connecting.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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Lynn on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LynnSerafinn

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View My Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

View the Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.

What’s in a Name? A Short Tutorial on Trentini Surnames

1937 - Romeo Fedele Serafini (aka Ralph R. Serafinn), age 17
Born Romeo Fedele Serafini in 1919, my dad’s name changed to Ralph Serafinn around the time this shot was taken in 1937.

Genealogist Lynn Serafinn shares tips for researching your Trentino family history, and tells what you need to know about your ancestors’ surnames.

When it comes to family history, all research springs from one thing: a NAME.

Our Trentini ancestors had wonderful names – rich in meaning, culture and history. Having a solid understanding of the names of Trentino is crucial to constructing an accurate picture of your family history. That’s why, over the next few articles on this blog, I’ll be looking at some of the idiosyncrasies of our ancestral names so you can more easily identify your ancestors in historical records, and have a better understanding our colourful heritage. In today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at cognomisurnames.

SIDE NOTE:  I’ve made a searchable database of Trentini surnames on this site. CLICK HERE to view it and see if your surname is currently on our “One Tree” project family tree. 

Changes to Surnames after Immigration

The first thing to remember is that many of our ancestors who immigrated to the Americas changed their surnames to make them sound less “foreign”. Surprisingly, some descendants might not even be aware this change occurred. Such was the case with me. When I was growing up, neither I nor many of my cousins knew our family name was actually Serafini. But after my dad died, I discovered our original name when I started digging into our family history. I even found the official change of name request my grandfather had filed in the 1930s. This meant that my dad had been known by the surname Serafini until he was in his late teens, but (for reasons unknown) he chose not to tell me. It was a bit of a shock to discover that something I had been told since childhood was an untruth. Be prepared for the possibility of unearthing a few of your own skeletons as you do your research!

Natural Evolution of Surnames Over Time

Prior to the 18th century, surnames were still in a state of evolution, and your surname will probably look very different the further back you go in time. One example is the surname Gusmerotti. This name is likely to be written as Gosmero or Gosmeri in records from the 1500s and early 1600s. This is because Gusmerotti comes from the masculine first name Gosmero plus the suffix -otti (meaning large).

Click on the image below to see it larger.

Santa Croce del Bleggio - Example of surname Gusmerotti spelled as Gosmeri in parish records
Santa Croce del Bleggio – Example of surname Gusmerotti spelled as Gosmeri in parish records

Another example is the surname Devilli. Prior to the 19th century, you will typically find it written as either “de Vigili” or simply Vigili. The term “vigili” refers to someone who keeps guard. As a name, it was first used to refer to specific branches of the military during the reign of the Prince Bishops. Thus, knowing the origins of your surname can sometimes give you a clue as to what some of your ancestors did for a living.

Latin Version of Names in Parish Records

Until the late 18th century, Latin was the language used in Trentini parish records, rather than Italian. While this practice was nearly always used in the spelling of first and middle names (which we’ll explore next time), it could occasionally also alter the spelling of surnames. One example is the surname Onorati, which was frequently written in its Latin forms, Honoraty, Honorati or Honorato.

Click on the image below to see it larger.

1596. Baptismal record of Francesco Onorati, son of Valerio and Giustina. The surname is spelled "Honorato".
8 Feb 1596. Baptismal record of Francesco, son of the noble Valerio Honorato (Onorati) of Bono and the lady Giustina. Santa Croce del Bleggio parish records.

Forget About Spelling!

Even after modern surnames began to “stick”, there was no concept of standardised spelling until relatively recently. For example, the surname Caliari can also appear as Calliari, Cagliari or Caliary.

Along the same lines as the Devilli example above, any kind of “conjunct surname” (one that was originally two separate words) could appear either as a single word or two separate words. For example, the name Daldos might show up as Dal Dos or Dal Doss.

Generally speaking:

  • Consonants in between vowels might be doubled or left single (Benassuti, Bennasuti, Bennassuti)
  • The letter “a” is often interchangeable with the letter “o” (Bonomi, Bonami)
  • The letter “e” is often interchangeable with the letter “i” (Rocche, Rocchi, Roche, Rochi)
  • A “g” can sometimes appear before an “ni” or “li” (Cagliari, Caliari, Benini, Benigni)

This flexibility means it is not uncommon to see different surname spellings in the birth, marriage and death records for members of the same family (or even for the same individual). So, it’s important to remember that variations in spelling do not normally indicate the person is from different family, as it would in modern English-speaking culture.

SIDE NOTE: Research become even more complex when you add to this the plethora of variations you will see in first and middle names (which we’ll look at next time)!

Surnames of Women in Trentino

When researching your female ancestors, you need to remember that women in Trentino do not take their husbands’ name when they marry, but retain their fathers’ surnames throughout their lives. So, when researching your female lines, don’t try to find them under their husbands’ names, as you won’t find them. Also, if you use software for your family tree, make sure it is set so it doesn’t automatically change the women’s surnames to their husbands’.

Soprannomi – A Blessing or a Curse for Family Historians

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning “soprannomi” (plural). A soprannome (singular) is an add-on or nickname sometimes given to one branch of a family to distinguish it from other branches. While saying “Giovanni son of Giovanni” can help distinguish that person from “Giovanni son of Pietro”, sometimes there are just too many Giovannis to know who is who. That is where a soprannome can be useful. For example, the branch of the Serafini family from which I am descended was given the soprannome “Cenighi”. This soprannome was chosen because Margherita Giuliani, the wife of my 4x great-grandfather Alberto Serafini, came from the village of Ceniga in Drò parish.

For the genealogist, a soprannome can be a blessing OR a curse. You might come across a baptismal, marriage or death record where the priest used ONLY the soprannome, omitting the person’s surname completely. When that happens, if you don’t know the soprannome (or you’re not paying attention) you might accidentally gloss over the record you’re looking for.

Coming Up Next…

BOOK: Guida cognomi del Trentino, by Aldo BertoluzzaI hope this article has got you interested in knowing more about all the wonderful Trentini surnames that make up your heritage. If you’d like to dive more deeply into the subject, there are many excellent books available in Italian. One I use almost on a daily basis is Guida Cognomi del Trentino by Aldo Bertoluzza.

Next time, we’ll be looking at things every family historian needs to know about our ancestors’ first and middle names. If you subscribe to Trentino Genealogy blog (see the form on the top-right side of this page), you’ll be sure to receive that article via email, along with all upcoming articles.

Until then, I look forward to reading your comments or questions below. And if you have any comments or questions, I cordially invite you to drop me a line with me via the contact form on this site.

Warm wishes,
Lynn Serafinn

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https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

Lynn Serafinn, genealogist at Trentino Genealogy

LYNN SERAFINN is a bestselling author and genealogist specialising in the families of Trentino. She is also the author of the regularly featured column ‘Genealogy Corner’ for Filò Magazine: A Journal for Tyrolean Americans.

In addition to her work for clients, her personal research project is to transcribe all the parish records for the parish of Santa Croce del Bleggio (where her father was born) from the 1400s to the current era, as well as to connect as many living people as she can who were either born in Bleggio or whose ancestors came from there. She hopes this tree, which already contains tens of thousands of people, will serve as a visual and spiritual reminder of how we are all fundamentally connected.

View the Santa Croce del Bleggio Family Tree on Ancestry:
https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/tree/161928829

CLICK HERE to view a searchable database of Trentini SURNAMES.