Another in a 2014 guest column series which builds on the one in 2009 where 50+ had written about how science/tech has evolved their hobby/interest.
This time it is Catherine Marenghi, a superb marketer and communicator. She writes about her decades-long effort to trace her family roots. It is deserving of an Ancestry.com commercial!
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to know where my Italian grandparents came from. I knew they were Italian, of course, but I wanted to know exactly where they were from. The 20 regions of Italy are as diverse as European countries. Calabria is nothing like Piemonte, and the Veneto is nothing like Puglia. If I could pinpoint the place, I could go and see where they came from. I could even qualify for dual citizenship. It was a mystery, and I was driven to solve it.
My grandparents were among the great waves of Italian immigrants that spilled onto American shores at the turn of the 20th Century. My grandfather, Stefano Luigi Marenghi, died before I was born, and my grandmother, Celesta Abretti Marenghi, died when I was a baby. By the time I was old enough to ask, my father and his siblings had no memory of being told where their parents were born, and what’s more, they didn’t seem to care.
With the advent of the Internet in the 1990s, I thought I finally had the tools to solve the mystery. New genealogy sites were springing up as well as hundreds of family blog sites where families posted their family trees. I spent hours on fledgling websites like Ancestry.com, but most of the information was incomplete and poorly indexed. I was actually scrolling through pages of microfiche -- yes, microfiche – trying to manually pluck out information from images, one screen at a time.
After years of dead-ends, I found my grandparents’ marriage records online. They were wed in Milford, Mass., in 1903, and it listed their birthplaces as .... Italy. Just Italy. But where in Italy?
I found U.S. Census records for 1910, 1920 and 1930, which list place of birth. And I found my grandparents’ ever-growing household on 7 Hayward Street, Milford, Massachusetts, in the same town where I grew up. But not one of them listed the town in Italy where my grandparents were born. Just Italy!
Then there was EllisIsland.com. When immigration records were made available online, about 10 years ago, I signed up for an account. The first roadblock was very poor transcription of handwritten manifests. There were hundreds of Marenghis, but no Stefano Marenghi. After trying a few spelling variations, I found a Stefano Morenghi. And sure enough, I pulled up the original manifest that went with the record, and I could see the beautifully handwritten name of my grandfather, Stefano Marenghi. He was 25 years old when he landed on Ellis Island in 1895. And his place of origin was ... Italy! Just Italy! Apparently not all manifests listed the town or city, especially before 1900, when they were less detailed.
I did find the manifest for my grandmother, Celesta, who arrived in 1899 at the age of 14. Her birthplace was listed as “Panna” – no such city. It was a transcription error. Apparently she was from Parma, and she later met and married my grandfather in the U.S. But my grandfather’s home town remained a mystery.
A Fresh Look
A few months ago, I re-registered on Ancestry.com to see what was new. The records were easier to read and better indexed. And certainly Internet speeds have improved.
I found immigration records are now on Ancestry.com, including ship manifests, and they are easier to search than on EllisIsland.com. I pulled up the ship manifest for my grandfather for a fresh look, and I noticed his name listed just a few lines above a man named Pietro Marenghi. I never noticed that other Marenghi before. What was the likelihood that there were two Marenghis on the same boat, arriving the same day, listed just a few lines apart, both headed to the same place – and not being related? Who was this Pietro Marenghi?
I did a separate search on Pietro. I found him listed on a 1912 marriage certificate as the father of the bride, Rosa Marenghi, married in my home town of Milford, Mass. Could I find where Rosa came from?
A new search on EllisIsland.com revealed Rosa Marenghi arrived in 1907 at the age of 15, with $10 in her pocket. Her destination? It actually said she was going to 7 Hayward Street, Milford, Mass., to visit her uncle – the very address of my grandfather! And where was Rosa from? The manifest said Parma, Italy.
So there was my answer. Rosa and her father Pietro were from Parma. My grandfather’s brother was from Parma. And so was he. And I have since been able to explore sites like Gens (in Italian) which show the concentration of surnames in Italy. I entered “Marenghi” and saw clearly they are all concentrated around Parma, in the region of Emilia-Romagna.
So far the tools of genealogy may seem simple – a computer and a browser -- but the Internet has brought together nuggets of insight that were once locked in dusty archives, town halls, and family Bibles in far flung locations. Images of gravestones, newspaper obituaries, and family photos now embellish those family trees, making them much more than just org charts.
And as more and more people willingly contribute their genomic data for public sharing, creating an explosion of big data, who knows what new secrets we will find in our shrouded pasts?