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When to say when

I enjoy receiving e-mails from my readers, especially if they give me an idea for a column! Someone recently asked me whether it was worth their time and effort to extract everyone with the same surname in a town. They’re all related, right? Probably. Should I spend the time? Depends on the scope of your research and other factors.

Let’s start by discussing the scope of a very simple genealogy. If you are lucky enough to find all your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents etc. going back six generations, you have to find 127 people starting with yourself. To go all the way back to the beginning of your Italian civil records (1809 if you’re lucky) you need to go back at least eight generations, which means you have to more than over 500 ancestors, without using church records or without tracing any brothers or sisters of your ancestors. That’s 500 birth records, 250 marriages, and 497 deaths. Sounds like a long project as it is.

Let’s decide to trace the descendants of just one set of ancestors from the 1809 generation. On average they had nine children and five of them died as infants. The four who lived long enough to marry had 9 children each, losing five along the way, and so on. The process of looking for all brothers and sisters of a single family is tricky indeed. You have to search for the marriage of the parents, then search births from that year forward until the mother is about 50 years old, just to be on the safe side. Sometimes the mother or father dies young, which means you don’t have many kids. Sometimes they have up to 21 children (yes I have one family of 21 and another of 20 in my files!) If you trace all those families down to today, the good news is that you will run out of Italian records to work with, and as they become more American, the families get smaller. But the descendants of one couple could easily reach 10,000 people, even if you exclude all the infants that died without issue. You would have to do this for 250 different families!

So if the process of tracing the descendants of one couple will take this much work, why would you also trace people who are potentially NOT related to you?

We Italians can feel lucky that no matter how common our surname may be, it won’t be as common as Smith and Jones. However, we have to consider that when we search in a small Italian town, there will be names that seem just as common. Unlike the United States, which has many ethnicities and thus many different types of surnames, Italian towns typically only have a small number of names that are common in the town’s history, and as travel became easier, other names from nearby towns start to appear. Today, in the age of international travel, you might run into John Smith in a small town in Italy!! But 150 years ago, when travel was mostly by mule, most people stayed in the same town for generations, and their surnames did not spread far beyond their city limits.

So is it worth it to extract everyone with the same surname within a town? If the name is not that common, how much work can it be? Actually, quite a lot. It can depend on the size of the town. If there are only 100 or so births in a town for every year, you may find 5-10 of your family name, or maybe only one. It’s hard to tell. But if there aren’t that many people in town at all, you won’t have that many names to extract. If your town is a little bigger, with 500-1000 births per year, you may have 25-50 or even 100 records to extract per year.

If you want to know how people are related to each other, you need to trace not only your surname, but your mother’s surname, her mother’s surname, your father’s mother’s surname etc. If they’re all from the same town, you’ll be looking for 5000-8000 of each of those surnames, and you might end up extracting everybody in town. Now we are way past the project of tracing your own genealogy.

So the point of all this is that if you choose to extract every one of a particular surname in a town, you will find that a good percentage of them are not related to each other unless you also make the great leap to working with the church records. If you are fortunate enough that your church records are microfilmed, you will go back far enough that just about everyone in your town is related to each other at least in one line, and sometimes in many lines. If you must travel to Italy to visit the church and hope you can work with the records long enough to extract all of your surname from the church records,

So my personal recommendation to you is to NOT extract everyone of a surname from a town, unless you are far enough along in your research that you can plan to work with the church records also. You need to decide if your lifestyle will allow you to spend the number of hours necessary to complete such a herculean task. If you’re up in age, have difficulty getting to and from the family history center, or if you are young and have three children of your own to take care of, do you really think you will finish such a project? If you painted the Mona Lisa but only were able to finish from the forehead up, would you really show the result to anybody?

I guess my conclusion here is that you need to decide how much time you can dedicate to genealogy over a period of years, and keep the scope of your projects manageable. I am in my 27th year of painting Mona Lisa and she still doesn’t have eyes!!

If you have any questions, send me an e-mail at italianroots@comcast.net and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line. Have fun!

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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