This is a post I wrote in 2011 but hadn’t yet published…
A while ago I went to the comune (city hall) in Torino to pick up a document for my sister, but it wasn’t available. I didn’t leave empty-handed though. I picked up my certificate of Italian citizenship and a transcription of my birth record. When I was about to leave, I realized that my mother’s last name was spelled incorrectly on the birth record transcription.
These kinds of errors are so easy to make, and they happen all the time. The reason the transcription contained a misspelling is because when I was born, someone recorded my mother’s name wrong on my birth certificate. Stapled to the original certificate was a correction, but the clerk in the comune didn’t bother to turn the page and thus copied down the erroneous name.
I wanted to go home so I almost let it slide, but something inside of me just wouldn’t let me leave without correcting the mistake. A little voice inside my head told me that it was important to fix it, and I understand where it was coming from.
I learned firsthand that such mistakes can make genealogy research much more convoluted than it might otherwise be.
I got a generous dose of this while researching my roots in Philadelphia in preparation for applying for dual citizenship. A lot of inaccuracies occurred when non-English speaking immigrants and American officials had to communicate during the years of mass immigration at the turn of the century, and my family was no exception. I ended up doing a lot more work than would have been necessary had all the records been correct.
Just performing an index search in an archives became several times more time-consuming because along with searching for the correct spelling of a surname, I had to search for its known (and possible) variations. This makes a difference when you’re scrolling through microfilm.
Finding information for one of my great-great grandfathers is a good example of what I experienced. The first time I went to Philadelphia City Hall, prepared with the names and marriage date of my great-great grandparents, the clerk was unable to locate their last name in the ancient index for that year in the late 1800s. That might not have been a problem as the records were also recorded under the bride’s maiden name, but there was no sign of her either. I found out later that this was because both names were misspelled!
The thoroughly nice and helpful clerk found a clue on the only document I actually had for that great-great grandfather (the clue was the address of the priest who married them in the 1800s), and he told me what to do to start finding more information about them. His tip led me on a long and emotional hunt all over the city. In the end, I pieced together enough clues to identify my ancestors in a different way, and the clerk then found their (misspelled) names in the index of the exact same dusty old book he had looked through earlier.
Inaccuracies are not allowed in the documents used to apply for dual citizenship, which meant that several of my family’s records had to be corrected. This was a time-consuming and expensive process. To correct the bride and groom’s last names on the marriage certificate, my sister and I studied booklets of court rules to learn how to change a record, and we successfully petitioned the court ourselves.
I don’t mind all of this now, since playing detective was fun and I learned a lot of information about these ancestors that has great personal value for my family, but at the time it was frustrating not knowing whether I would be able to find the necessary documentation to reach my goal.
Over a year later, with experiences like this behind me, something just wouldn’t let me leave the comune without correcting my mother’s misspelled name.
Researching my roots has helped me feel more connected to where I come from, and part of a larger reality that has existed long before I was born and will continue to exist long after I’m gone. What we do and who we are have implications that reach far beyond what we will experience in our lifetimes.
The correction was a simple process that took about five minutes, but who knows? It may save more time and frustration for a distant descendant trying to set the record straight.