Main Street in Leechburg, Penn., back in the day.
Main Street in Leechburg, Penn., back in the day.

Reading between the lines

Although I've never written about it on, I've spent a fair amount of time and travel over the past 20-odd years digging up my family's past. A lot of people have done this and always with varying degrees of success.

There are genealogists out there that are amazing. They know all the Soundex codes by heart and they can navigate like your kid can navigate "Grand Theft Auto." I'm not a club genealogist, although I certainly respect what they do. In fact, I'm not even really a genealogist, I think. I'm just more of a solitary researcher. And an obsessive / compulsive one at that.

I think maybe because I'm from a family of cops and am a journalist and historian, I have something of a detective's eye when it comes to this kind of work. But sometimes even the simplest concepts elude me when I'm digging. It's that whole not seeing the forest for the trees business.

Digging in New York City, I assembled birth, marriage and other records and looked at the 1910 and 1920 censuses to come to the conclusion that my family never left Manhattan from the day my great-grandparents arrived in 1907 and 1909. Besides, no one in the family ever talked about any place but Manhattan.

But, for some reason, I couldn't ever find a birth certificate for my grandmother, born in 1915. But that's not necessarily odd in and of itself. I'd often run across name misspellings, incorrect dates and similar things that could hinder a successful search. 

But between the broad lines of the 1910 and 1920 census a lot can happen, right? Well, I found a World War I draft card for my great-grandfather and he lived in New Kensington, Penn.! Who knew? Checking a map, I saw that New Ken (as it's called by those in the Pittsburgh area, apparently), is pretty close to Leechburg, a town with many emigrants from the same small town as us in the Old World. Suddenly, I thought I might know where to find my grandma's birth certificate.

Eighteen dollars and a few days later, I learned that not only is it true she was born in Pennsylvania, she was born in Armstrong County, where Leechburg (but not New Ken) is located. 

The thing that never fails to surprise me is how often coincidences pop up, reminding me what a small world we live in.  The coincidence here is that while researching a book on Piemontese emigration to the U.S., I learned about Leechburg and started corresponding with an elderly gentleman from there whose father was from our village.

Today, I got to tell him that it seems pretty likely that his dad and my great-grandfather knew each other. If not at home in Zanco, then certainly in the small, tight-knit Zanchese community in Leechburg. Ninety or so years later, our paths have again crossed.

Stories like this have turned my history for that side of the family from a two-paragraph document into one that now runs just under 200 pages.


brunocarlson | May 8, 2008 at 3:20 p.m. (report)

35104 I have done "amateur" ancestry involving my Italian based family and I always get side track by the interesting stories by my relatives from long ago and far removed. It is always interesting and not one person can be condensed into a few paragraphs. Good job so far, and good luck with your searches.

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T15 | May 8, 2008 at 12:26 p.m. (report)

As long as you don't find out that your grandparents were brother and sister, this type of stuff is rewarding.

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