You Are Who Went Before You

Desire to know first step back in time


In the seventh grade, I interviewed my grandmother for an afternoon and wrote a two-page report about her life for my social studies class. That was the extent of my knowledge of family history, until I decided to trace my genealogy this weekend, with the help of the Northern Gila County Genealogical Society.

My ethnicities -- Irish, Italian and Lithuanian -- were formerly empty labels.

In these days of constant distractions, children seldom sit in the midst of relatives and listen to family stories. We become disconnected from our past.


Genealogist Peggy Gray gestures toward volumes of resources for researching family history at the Northern Gila County Genealogical Society's Genealogy Library.

In a matter of hours, I compiled five generations of names on my mother's side and three on my father's on a pedigree, or ancestry chart.

Through sleuthing on the Internet and calls to my family in Connecticut, I discovered 10 of my direct-line ancestors who lived in the United States and even more overseas.

The primary documents, or firsthand proof, of birth, marriage and death certificates, along with military and census records, began to form a story of the family that lived long before I was born.

Northern Gila County Genealogical Society: Beginning Genealogy ClassWhen: 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday. Classes continue the third Wednesday of each month or by appointment.Where: Genealogy Library, 302 E. Bonita St.Cost: $25 for nonmembers, $5 for membersCall: (928) 474-5015

Before, I had not even known the names of my grandfathers -- one passed away prior to my birth and the other shortly after. I now know them as Ugo Opizzi and Richard Horan. Finding the information was as simple as asking my parents.

Other relatives were more difficult to track.

My mother dug through a box of old documents salvaged from my grandmother Olive Opizzi's house after her death a few years ago.

"I found your great-grandmother's passport and a marriage certificate written in Italian," my mother said. It not only revealed her maiden name -- Luigia Zanetti -- but those of her parents and the region in Italy where she lived.

The thrill of discovery seized my mother, as well.

"I never even knew that my great-grandmother's name was Olivia," she said.

Using the information my mother provided, I then conducted a simple search of immigrant records on

I hit a perfect match. Luigia arrived from Verona, Italy, on April 27, 1912. She was 21 and married to my great-grandfather, Donato Gaioni, who traveled to the United States with her on the ship, Principe De Piemonte.

The box also contained Donato's death certificate. His first name was changed to Daniel and his last name spelled "Gioni."

Although official documents are excellent sources, they are not immune to mistakes, said genealogist Peggy Gray, who introduced me to the genealogy process.

"My great-grandmother was named Jeanie and they recorded it as Irene on her death certificate," Gray said. "You can be told anything about your family, but without proof, it's mythology."

My father does not know much about his paternal father except his name, Richard Horan, since he left when my father was young. My grandmother, Ellen

Dolan, said she tries to forget her former husband. Yet I was able to pry enough information about his family background to verify a census record from 1930.

My inquiries led to unexpected stories.

My grandmother described meeting Richard when he worked as a firefighter with her father. She said that her father, Joseph Dolan, met her mother, Sarah Higgins, while she was working as a chambermaid at a hotel in Hartford, Conn. Both came through Ellis Island from Ireland during World War I.

The census record was written in cursive. I needed a magnifying glass to read the two-page printout. The detail the document contained was astounding.

Richard was 7 years old at the time and had a younger brother and sister.

His father, Thomas Horan, worked as a police officer and paid $35 a month to rent a house in Hartford at 71 Court St.

Thomas' parents hailed from "Ireland Free State," or Saorst√°t √Čireann, an area of Protestant Northern Ireland freed from rule of Great Britain in the early 1920s.

The parents of Richard's wife, Mary Dorian, were born in Lithuania. I found her father's name, Garvis, on her death record, but was unable to trace further.

So far, my knowledge of my earliest direct ancestors extends to the late 1800s. The next step poses the challenge of exploring overseas records most likely written in the native language of each country.

Each of us is the result of a long line of circumstances, most of which we are unaware. A desire to know is the first, small step toward piecing together the puzzle of our ancestry.

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