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Don't Give Up When Your DNA Match Has a Puny Little Family Tree

You've got new DNA matches. And their trees are bare. Where do you start?

On Saturday I took a look at my growing list of DNA matches on Ancestry.com. There were so many I hadn't reviewed at all. I chose a match—let's call him Joe—who's also a match to my father.

Joe has a 7-person family tree:
  • Joe
  • his 2 parents
  • his 4 grandparents
I was eager to figure out this relationship. I could see his ancestors' last names are from my grandfather's hometown in Italy.

His tree is so minimal, it has no specific dates or hometowns for his parents or grandparents. Luckily, I have an ace up my sleeve.

When your DNA match doesn't know his roots, why not find them for both of you?
When your DNA match doesn't know his roots, why not find them for both of you?
I have thousands of documents images from the town downloaded to my computer. (See how I built this genealogy research collection.) My match's parents are too young for their birth records to be available. I had to start looking for his grandparents with little information. Joe had a birth year for one set of grandparents, so I started with them.

I went through my document collection, year by year, searching the indexes. I love it when a birth record has the person's marriage mentioned in the column. I knew I had the right Giorgio Zeolla because it said he married Mariantonia Nigro. That's my guy!

All day Saturday I kept looking for more records. When I found a birth record, I had 2 more names to search for. Marriage records helped me go back another generation.

With Italian marriage records, if the bride or groom's parents are dead, you get their death certificates with more names. And if the groom's father and grandfather are dead, you get the grandfather's death record with another generation of names! (See "The Italian Genealogy Goldmine: 'Wedding Packets'".)

I was building Joe's family within my own family tree, but disconnected from me. Each time I added a new name, I compared it to other names in my tree, trying to find a possible match.

By the time I felt I'd followed every possible lead, I'd added about 20 people to my DNA match's branch. That when I noticed something.

One of Joe's great grandmothers was Pietronilla Nigro. I didn't find her birth record, but I knew her husband was born in September 1863. There wasn't a single Pietronilla born around 1863 in the town's records.

How could I prove they were the same person? There are 2 good options.
One of Joe's great grandmothers was Pietronilla Nigro. I didn't find her birth record, but I knew her husband was born in September 1863. There wasn't a single Pietronilla born around 1863 in the town's records.

All I knew about my Pietronilla Nigro was that she was born on May 12, 1857. If she was Joe's great grandmother, she would be 6 years older than her husband. That's not hard to imagine.

How could I prove they were the same person? There are 2 good options:
  1. The town's marriage records between 1861 and 1930 are not available. But I can search for more of this couple's children and hope that one birth record has Pietronilla's father's name or her age.
  2. Since this is a small town, I can search several years' worth of birth records looking for another Pietronilla Nigro. I did this. There was only the one who was already in my family tree.
You may have to add a few generations to the tree before you find your connection.
You may have to add a few generations to the tree before you find your connection.
To be thorough, I will look for those other babies' birth records for more clues. But for now, I'm pretty confident that I've placed Joe into my tree correctly. He's my 4th cousin once removed. He's related to me through my father's mother.

I've got other search options, too. My new cousin's tree tells me his father died in the Bronx. That means there are U.S. records to find. Right now I'm looking at a military compensation record for Giorgio Zeolla. It's as jam-packed with facts as a good naturalization record, death record, or passport application. It has his wife's full (maiden) name, his children's names, and his parents names, including a misspelled Pietronilla Nigro.

You know what the best part of all this detective work is? Adding these extra branches will help me find my connection to lots of other DNA matches.

If you have relatives who've taken a DNA test, search for your shared matches. Start working with their information and see what you can piece together. Whether you have a breakthrough or you get hopelessly stuck, reach out to your match. Tell them what you've found. Ask them what they think.

Hopefully this type of genealogy research will draw more and more matches to you and your glorious tree. Then, none of your research work will go to waste.


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