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genealogy lecture notes
extra tips, goodies and oldies

By Deborah K. Millemaci
(return to genealogy)

John Philip Colletta, one of America's most popular genealogical lecturers.
I was going through some papers in my files the other day and came across some notes and an outline relating to genealogy, and I thought this would be a good chance to share some of what I learned although I'm sure you may have heard some of it before.

Many years ago (1993) I had the opportunity to attend a genealogy seminar and the guest speaker was noted Italian researcher and author John Philip Colletta, Ph.D. As this was my first genealogy seminar, I was unaware at the time the valuable information I would be taking home with me. The subject of Mr. Colletta's presentation was: "Climbing the Family Tree: Researching Your Immigrant Ancestors in America and Overseas." We were given an outline that covered the topics for the day as well as an excellent reference bibliography, and handwriting samples.

The four W's
Mr. Colletta began the seminar by explaining the story of immigration which detailed an immigrant?s leaving of their ancestral home using what I call the four W's: Where they lived, Why they left, When did they leave, and Where they arrived in the U.S. He also explained the voyage itself, the abhorable conditions the immigrants endured while on ship. An interesting side note is that single women were not allowed entry through Ellis Island if they were traveling alone. Upon arrival in America, life for immigrants would prove more difficult than what they experienced in their homeland. They were shunned, made to feel inferior, and given menial work for low pay. But the impact of America's society on the immigrant did not deter their spirit. They worked harder to win the trust of others, and to establish themselves within their community. They would open small stores or shops, work long hours to support their families, and proved they were an asset --not a liability-- to others.

related books...

They Came in Ships : A Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor's Ship

Finding Italian Roots : The Complete Guide for Americans

Our Italian Surnames


Learning About Your Immigrant Ancestors
We next moved to the next phase of the discussion which was the starting point for researching. Sometimes the obvious isn't so. Knowing your ancestors full name, along with the town they were born in and approximate date of birth is where most of us begin. This information can be found in birth, baptismal, marriage, and death records.

Most of the time these records accompanied the immigrant to America. But many times for one reason or another this was not the case.

Explore Living Memories
The interview is still one of the best ways to acquire some of this key information. This includes interviewing and writing to family members about the ancestor you are researching. Just remember to go prepared for your interview. Have questions ready and be specific. Become familiar with genealogy terminology and learn what you can about the cultural background of your ancestor. Ask if you can use a tape recorder for the interview as well as your questions, and conduct your interview with elder family members first. Many people also remember dates and events by association so keep this in mind.

During your interview, show interest in the relative you are interviewing and try to make them as comfortable as possible. Some people have trouble talking to a machine. Ask specific questions making them simple to understand, and listen to their responses. Use props such as old photos, family heirlooms, charts, etc. and be sensitive to your family member. If they are having trouble remembering an event, let them know this is ok, and you can always talk to them about it another time. A good tip here: Conduct your interview in a conversational way and not just fire questions at your relative. Don't interrupt when an elder is "on a roll" - you can always note your thought and go back to it later. Also, take note of of any other names that may be mentioned during your interview as they may be clues to finding more relatives.

After meeting with your elder family member, be sure to thank them and stay in touch with them as they too like to know they haven't been forgotten. Group interviews can be conducted at family reunions and good preparation will make this type of interview a great success! The interviewing aspect of genealogy can be very rewarding, but remember to tell your relatives something before you ask for something. Keepsakes and family heirlooms such as passports, U.S. citizenship certificates , military service papers, steamship ticket stubs, and family photographs can be used as props when conducting your interview, so keep this in mind.

Published Materials Available in Libraries
Mr. Colletta then moved onto his next topic which was Published Materials Available in Libraries. He couldn't stress enough that a researcher should understand the culture- how it was created and why. The place of settlement in America explored what attracted immigrants to a specific area. State and county histories of the 1880's show what types of industries there were, churches that were established, etc. Ethnic histories researched cultural backgrounds. Also published genealogies and U.S. Biographical Dictionaries could contain this type of information. Just remember when using these sources to double check against original records as mistakes were often made when documenting information. Maps and gazetteers - well you can't research genealogy without them! They are valuable as they contain census information. An example of this is the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. It lists urban areas around the country as well as every street, house, type of house construction, etc. Genealogical Societies and Journals provide support and resources for anyone interested in genealogy.

We then learned about resources available for researching a place of origin overseas. Ethnic genealogy societies exchange information and will even assist in translating letters. Surname dictionaries will explain the origin of family names (an example of this would be "Our Italian Surnames" by Joseph G. Fucilla.) National biographies of European countries are written in the language of that country. Published genealogies usually deal with royalty and nobility as well as listing the closest port near the town or village. A Gazetteer will list all the communities, co-ordinates, population as well as the founding of the town. A town's local history will also be profiled.

YES, we did have a couple of breaks during the seminar!! The areas I will wrap up with for the first half of the seminar notes deal with many of the records I'm sure you are familiar with. The Federal Records housed at the National Archives include census, ship's passenger lists, and naturalization records. These are also known as 'key records' and I will go into more detail about them in the second half of my seminar notes next month.

" One short note here about the Federal Census: The 1930 census will be available April 01, 2002 and you will find a lot of information (32 questions). To find out about the information included on this census, please go to: National Archives and Records Administration.

Key State Records have information on colonial censuses, state censuses, vital records, and courthouse records. And key local sources include cemetery monument inscriptions and records, English and foreign language newspapers, immigrant family church records, and other miscellaneous records.

An example was then given - information on "John Smith" was discovered using the following sources: 1900 Federal Census, Army discharge papers, oral interview, map of his ancestral town, local history of Buffalo, church records, 1885 N.Y. State Census, real estate records, and naturalization papers. By combining all the information contained from these sources, one is able to see the pieces of a puzzle beginning to fit.

Ok..everyone - time for LUNCH !! When we return (next month) we will conclude the afternoon portion of the seminar I attended.

©Deborah K. Millemaci - 2002
No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.


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