The Human Side of Genealogy



The members of my family tree who intrigue me the most are the ones I know the least about: the shadowy, half-glimpsed figures who perpetually recede as I try to get an eyeful. I mean, of course, the persons about whose identity I have just a scrap: a name or half a name but nothing else.

Take my maternal grandfather's family, for instance. The baby of a brood of 17, 15-year-old Lucio Salvucci emigrated from San Donato, Italy to Philadelphia in May 1914. He left his elderly parents in Italy in order to join some of his siblings in America. Of their surviving descendants, most cannot name more than a few of these siblings in what seems to have been an enormous but somewhat disengaged and uncommunicative family.

With a desperation that only genealogists will understand completely, I badgered my mother into calling her first cousin Josephine, who has a blessedly retentive memory.

Josephine named my great-grandparents, Donato and Carmina, and listed their eight children surviving to adulthood as my grandfather Lucio, Alfonso, Antonio, Joseph, her own mother Laura, Antonia, Luigi, and Marietta. Invaluable as her list proved, it still left and leaves me hungry.

For starters, I wanted my great-grandmother Carmina's maiden name. Death certificates often list the full names of the deceased's parents, but the informant cited on my grandfather's 1976 death certificate, his widow, did not know even the first names of her in-laws. Poking through genealogical websites taught me that, if I obtained a photocopy of my grandfather's application for a Social Security number, it might inform me. After recording Lucio's Social Security number from the Social Security Death Index, I applied for his file. I exulted to see that on 5 December 1936, Lucio had named "Carmen Tocci" as his mother.

But that is all I have of Carmina: her mere name -- not even a year of death. With regard to her husband, I fare a little better. A distantly related descendant of Salvuccis who has combed the microfiches of San Donato vital records filmed by the Mormons, Donna has shared with me that she found two men named Donato Salvucci in the birth records: one born in 1852, the other in 1853. If either had married Carmina in the early 1870s, from the age of 20 (1872/3) to 50 (1902/3), he could have fathered the 16 children who predated Lucio's birth in 1898. In addition, my mother's first cousin Rudy produced a photograph of an elderly Italian man whom he hopefully identified as his never-seen grandfather Donato.

Of Donato and Carmina's 17 children, my mother's and Rudy's first cousin Josephine enumerated eight surviving to adulthood. Before and after a recent Salvucci reunion hosted by Rudy, I heard from descendants of his father Alfonso, Josephine's mother Laura, and their sister Antonia or Antoinette. But what of yet another sister, Marietta? I only know that she reputedly married and lived in Massachusetts instead of Pennsylvania. Her brother Joseph prospered in Philadelphia as a successful builder of houses.

Reminiscing that Lucio went back to Italy with a dying brother who perished at sea, my grandmother tantalized me with even more unanswered questions. Was this brother Luigi, about whom I have only his name? Or was he Antonio, who emerges twice in the documentation I have for my grandfather? When my grandparents married at Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church in October 1924, Antonio was Lucio's best man.

Not only did Antonio witness my grandparents' wedding, but he also signed as a witness Lucio's final Petition for Citizenship (April 1933). The contractor Anthony Salvucci affirmed of his "personal knowledge . . . [that Lucio Salvucci] has been a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States." I just noticed that the Petition lists Anthony as living at 514 N. 65th Street; perhaps the 1930 Census, once it becomes available to genealogists, will help me pin him, like an antique butterfly.

Complicating matters even further, my own first cousin Jim unearthed yet another brother when he kindly transcribed for me the ship's manifest for the S.S. St. Paul, on which our grandfather Lucio had sailed from Cherbourg to New York City in May 1914. Jim noted that the manifest reported that Lucio was bound to Philadelphia to live with a brother "___idio Salvucci, 611 _____ St. and deplored the "dreadful" handwriting of the officer that obscured the vital details of the brother's first name and his street address. Again, perhaps the 1910 or 1920 Census may clarify the mystery. I wish I could guess at an Italian first name for a male that ends with "idio."

Only another genealogist can answer the question of whether the pleasure of genealogy lies in confronting puzzles like these or in resolving them. Perhaps it lies in both.

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