And I will tell you a story.
Sitting in a circle and listening to a storyteller recount a well-known and well-loved tale is one of the world’s oldest traditions. We’ve all sat at the feet of a storyteller—maybe even a grandmother or an eccentric uncle—who entertained, frightened, educated, and charmed us with their tales as they passed our collective history to the next generation.
One of the most powerful tools in family history research is reaching out to living relatives—both close and distant—to learn the stories that were passed down in their immediate family. While researching Valerie Bertinelli’s tree, we located a man named Pietro Possio who turned out to be Valerie’s third cousin, once removed. Pietro lives in Italy and had inherited the papers, legends, and legacy of the Possio family.
We had found a passenger list showing that Valerie’s great-grandmother Maria Possio left Genoa, Italy, on the S.S. Dante Alighieri on May 29, 1915, and arrived in New York on June 12. The same passenger list shows that the ship docked at Palermo, Italy, and picked up new passengers before leaving Italy for the open Atlantic Ocean on May 31. The passenger list provides critical clues for tracing Maria’s ancestry, but it gives only basic facts as she emigrated from her home country to an unknown land.
We got some insight into Maria’s experience when Pietro shared some documents that his family has kept over the years. Maria wrote a postcard to her cousin Pietro Possio on the day her ship stopped in Palermo. (Maria’s first cousin Pietro was the grandfather of Valerie’s third cousin Pietro.)
Maria’s postcard explains that she and her children stopped in Palermo and that they were going to be there from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. She says they were doing well, but it was very hot. She asks Pietro to say hello to another cousin and anyone else who was asking about her.
Maria’s words were not particularly poetic or inspirational, but they reveal the common humanity that we share with our ancestors. Her postcard from 1915 is something that anyone today might write back home about a long vacation, but for her, it was also her last chance to send a message to loved ones before leaving her country and home. We know from the postcard that she and her children left the ship and spent time in Palermo, a fact that is not revealed in the passenger manifest. We also know a little bit about the weather.
Since Maria sent the postcard to her cousins, none of her own descendants knew it existed. This is one of the most important reasons for finding cousins—they may have documents about your ancestors that were passed down along their branch of descendants but not yours.
Pietro showed Valerie the postcard from Maria, but the sharing was not a one-way street. Valerie had brought a picture of Maria at her gelato cart with a group of family members. One of the people in the photograph was Dominica, Maria’s mother, who was Pietro’s second great-aunt. When you get in touch with cousins, be prepared to share information from your branch that might be interesting to them, too.
Cousins also may have heard an old family story that you were told, only with slightly different details that help you understand the events more clearly. If your branch of the family left an old homeland, like a European country or an eastern state in the United States, descendants of those who remained behind will often have a much stronger tie to the old stories and places.
How do we track down cousins? It begins by picking an ancestor of interest, then tracing their descendants and the descendants of the ancestor’s siblings and cousins. This process is most challenging when we reach the modern era. At that point we switch from using historical documents like censuses and city directories to finding people using online trees, phone books, social networks, and general Internet searches (which are especially useful for finding obituaries). With DNA testing becoming more popular, cousin relationships surface every day through genetic matches as well.
We all hope there is a cousin somewhere out there who has the family Bible with a complete genealogy inked in the end papers, or maybe the handwritten letters, journals, stories, or even creative works penned by our ancestors. Even a simple “wish you were here” postcard in your ancestor’s handwriting can have amazing impact. Finding a cousin can be like finding a voice from the past, one that’s got a story to tell that you’ve been waiting to hear.
Learn more about Valerie’s journey or watch the full episode on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Wednesdays 9|8c on TLC.
Other episodes this season:
For those of you who were following along on Twitter last night, here is a recap of the posts shared by us and other participants in the chat: