This past October was National Family History Month and it encouraged me to do some “light” research into my background. I use the term “light” because I was only going to focus on direct descendants and skip the siblings and extended relations. While I managed to stay on track, I must say after a month of digging, I am exhausted. I must also mention that I was only using free resources available online through the New Jersey State Library, namely Ancestry Library Edition and FamilySearch. What I thought would take a couple days, turned into weeks, marked by highs and lows.
Growing up I was always told I was 50% French Canadian through my father’s side and 25% German and 25% Italian through my mother’s side…nice and simple. Yet when my father’s mother passed away, it was revealed that she was adopted around the age of 1 and was most likely of Irish descent. A few other assumptions informed my ancestry for decades and remained unchallenged until my foray into genealogy. For one, my mother always said her Italian side came from Sicily. As for my father’s side, they were Catholics that came from New Brunswick/Nova Scotia, but on my parents’ trip up there, they could not find any concrete evidence of Catholics with my last name. Third, as far back as my parents could remember, their immediate and extended family all lived in and around the Rochester NY area, unclear of how the families actually settled there.
With those assumptions in mind and essentially framing my search strategies, I began my quest and found some surprising results. For confidentially sake, I will be using initials when talking about some of my finds. The most important part of this process was to find out more about my grandmother’s unconfirmed adoption. I already knew her maiden name thanks to my parents and surprisingly found her S.S. Application and Claim index record, listing her father and mother. Her father was S.T. and mother was E.J. Unfortunately, I was unable to find anything on E.J., but according to the 1930 census, S.T.’s wife had the same first name as E.J. So they must have married at some point and didn’t include her maiden name on the census. Actually, in a plot twist, S.T married an E.C. almost 30 years before my grandmother was born and E.C. remained his wife through the 1940 federal census. Sadly, this mystery still remains, though perhaps DNA testing through Ancestry and close inspection of the NY Vital Records unavailable through Ancestry will provide more fruitful leads.
I continued looking into my father’s French Canadian line and was able to track them pretty easily. They stayed in the same geographical area in Nova Scotia, yet listed their religion as Anglican on the Canadian censuses, which is why my parents found nothing in the Catholic records on their trip to Canada. While we cannot confirm anything, my great-great grandfather’s brother was a mariner and there was a portrait of a mariner with the same name in a restaurant my parents ate at during their Canadian excursion. Ultimately, I was able to trace my great-great-great grandfather’s birth to 1797 in Nova Scotia, but he married a woman of German descent, so it seems the French Canadian heritage is losing some ground.
Once last experience I wish to share is related to the Sicilian claim from my mother and her father that turns out is both true and false. By going through the Federal and NY state censuses as well as the NY Marriage Index, I found my great grandparents marriage information from 1901. On their record, they both list their birthplace as Niwastre Italy. Well, there is absolutely no such place as Niwastre in Italy or Sicily. Given the high probability for human error in recording that information, I was able to find a small Italian commune, the Italian version of a small city or village, by the name of Nicastro in southern Italy. Can I definitely say this is the correct city, no, but the fact that you only need to replace two letters and the myriad of misspellings in official documents throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is a fair assumption that this was their birth place. Lucky for me, out of all of the communes and cities within the province of Catanzaro (where Nicastro resides in Italy) whose records are available online, Nicastro records are the only ones that were transferred to the Italian State Archives and unavailable online. So while I can’t trace that line back any farther, I did find out that Italy did not exist as a unified country until 1861. Previous to 1861, everything from roughly Naples south on the mainland was considered the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. Were my ancestors proud of that heritage and therefore referred to the old country as Sicily; it’s possible. But like so many instances in genealogy, possible is not proof.
To wrap up my ramblings, I’d like to point out a couple things. First, while the online resources available through Ancestry and FamilySearch are incredible and a wonderful source for starting your research, there are so many other resources available at state and local archives, public libraries, and churches that can include new or corroborating evidence so do not be afraid to visit, call, or email those places. Second, genealogy research is a great opportunity to bring family closer together. Whether everyone participates in the research or just adds to the family lore through stories, genealogical research is a powerful force. I hope I have inspired some of you to take a closer look at your ancestry and please visit the New Jersey State Library, both in person and online, to see our Genealogy Collection and resources.