Saturday, November 26, 2016

DNA testing has helped me add to the Italian branch of our family tree

For the past six years, I’ve been passively searching for more relatives who descended from the brothers and sisters of my great grandfather Pietro Spadoni. Up until 2011, I didn’t even know Pietro had any siblings, since he died in 1904, and my closest living cousins in Italy were born much later and knew almost nothing about him.

In 2011, I discovered, by researching in the state and church archives in Pescia, that Pietro had had four brothers and five sisters (although at least three died in infancy). I found that three of them—Francesco, Angelo and Gioconda—married and had children. I knew that names of their children, and in a few cases, even their grandchildren, but most records after 1900 are not available to view for reasons of privacy, preventing me from finding any living descendants. In 2014, I managed to hunt down third cousins Silvano and Emo Celli, the great grandsons of Gioconda Spadoni (I finally have a talk with cousin Leino), but I had no success finding any descendants of Francesco and Angelo.

My technique for finding cousins in Italy consisted of looking up Spadonis near Ponte Buggianese in the white pages and dropping in on them unexpectedly. This is not something I do well, since my Italian is not great, nor am I particularly outgoing or extroverted. Nevertheless, I managed to meet various Spadonis: Leonello, Fausto, Ilio, Lara, Mauro and Bruna. All of them except Leonello proved to be extremely distant cousins, and even Leonello’s ties dated back a generation prior to Pietro.

Recently, though, I have found a great number of descendants of Angelo, through the unlikely resource of a DNA test that my brother Roger took. DNA testing has become both affordable and popular in recent years. It is primarily used to show people their historical ethnic backgrounds, but it has the added benefit of making it possible to contact other people who share one’s genetic history—relatives who could be as distant as eighth cousins.

Roger’s test showed up more than 4,500 cousins, and the number grows each week as more people undergo DNA testing and the database expands. Two of his first cousins have been tested and show up in the files, and several known second cousins are there as well. A vast majority of the relatives—at least 4,350—are in the category of fifth through eighth cousins, and likely we’ll never actually find out how we’re related. Most of these cousins don’t have family trees that extend back more than a couple of generations, and many don’t have trees in’s database at all.

However, one match caught my attention, and when I clicked on the person’s link, I saw an ancestor named Quartina Spadoni listed. We have a Quartina in our tree, a granddaughter of Angelo Spadoni. The dates of birth and other information matched between the two trees.

Ancestry doesn’t give out any contact information for the people who share your DNA, but it does allow you to contact them through Ancestry’s messaging system. I contacted this cousin, and we have since shared family information and become friends on Facebook. Now I have filled in considerable information about her branch of the family, including names of relatives in both Italy and the United States. I’ve also become Facebook friends with some her close relatives who are in Italy. One of them is a hair stylist in Chiesina Uzzanese, and we intend to meet in person next time I’m in Italy.

We’ve also been contacted by a few other people who noted that we are probably related by common Italian ancestors. The specifics of our connection are yet to be determined, but as we expand our family trees, we hope to come across the common ancestor. This is part of the fun of ancestry research—finding new puzzle pieces and trying to properly locate them.

In the days leading up the Christmas, popular genealogy websites such as and Family Tree DNA usually have sales on DNA testing. Even without sales, the cost of a basic ‟family finder” test is now under $100. The test will show general areas from where your ancestors hailed. It will also give you a long list of likely relatives who have already submitted their DNA for testing.

If you order a kit, you’ll be sent the testing materials needed, along with a return mailing envelope. You either take a swab from inside your mouth (Family Tree DNA) or provide a sample of your saliva (Ancestry). Results are usually ready in about two months. Since Ancestry began offering genetic testing in 2012, more than 1 million people had been tested by 2015; by June of 2016, the number exceeded 2 million. A day will soon come when knowing one’s ethnic makeup from a genetic standpoint will be as commonplace as knowing one’s blood type.

I just ordered ‟family finder” testing kits from both Ancestry and Family Tree DNA for both myself and Lucy, taking advantage of the pre-Christmas sale prices (I had previously had my Y-DNA test, but that doesn’t indicate overall ethnicity, and it only tests the male family line). It is our Christmas present to ourselves.

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