I held a workshop at the Phoenicia Library to teach people to write about their ancestors, but those who attended seemed more interested in learning to research their families. Debbie and Richard claimed to know almost nothing about their ancestors. As we searched online, sometimes the records that popped up eerily corresponded to family stories they could remember.
On Ancestry.com, Debbie found a handwritten document attesting to the marriage of her grandparents at a synagogue in Montreal in 1918. She had heard that her grandparents were first cousins, and the document indicates that the bride’s father and the groom’s mother had the same last name.
Richard found a 1940 census record suggesting that his father, Harry, at the age of 21, lived in Poughkeepsie with an aunt and uncle, Adeline and Harold. Harry is listed as an unemployed garage laborer.
“Yes, I had an Aunt Adeline!” Richard exclaimed. But he doesn’t know why Harry would have been living with his aunt and not with his mother. “If he was unemployed, that might explain why he joined the army,” Richard mused.
He found a World War II enlistment record that matched Harry’s name and many particulars, dated August 21, 1940, four months after the census was taken.
On the other side of Richard’s family, there were records for several Italian brothers who emigrated to New York. Seeing the names, Richard recalled family lore that said one of his uncles was refused entry to the U.S. for some reason and was put back on the boat. Rather than return to Italy, he jumped overboard and was drowned. “I wonder what was so bad in Italy that he’d rather die than go back,” said Richard.
Debbie tracked down a ship’s passenger list that included her husband’s grandfather, Antonio, who emigrated from Italy to Mexico in 1924. A 1930 Mexican census record for Antonio’s family listed four children, including two-year-old Manuel. “We saw Manuel the last time we went to Mexico,” said Debbie. “He’s 80 now. We’ll have to show this to him.”
She added, “It’s so visceral, coming across these records. Even though you’ve heard stories, finding the documents makes you feel that these people were real.”
The same day, I stumbled across confirmation of a family story about my grandfather, Attilio Ciliotta. He left Valle di Cadore in the Alps and took a train to Genoa, intending to board a ship for New York. It was his first train ride, and he was so excited, he spent the trip with his head out the window. Smoke and cinders from the engine flew into his face, so by the time he reached Genoa, his eyes were inflamed. The customs officials decided he might have a disease and wouldn’t let him board the ship. He had to take the train back to his village.
Family records show that he arrived in the U.S. on July 1, 1922. Online, I found a ship’s passenger list from December 30, 1921 that shows both 17-year-old Attilio and his older brother Emilio, listed as sons of Pietro Ciliotta and residents of Valle di Cadore.
There’s a black line through Attilio’s name.