Have you ever thought about family history research as a math problem? I have often thought of my conclusions as the sum total of the information I’ve found. Often, there isn’t a record that says, “This person is the father of that person,” especially when one person left the family and was never heard from again. But when you look at everything you know about both individuals, the sum total is the only thing that makes sense.
Giuseppe LoForte wanted a better life for his family. His brother-in-law had gone to the United States and sent letters back telling how great it was in California. So Giuseppe went to find out. He didn’t get to California, though. The concept that a whole continent as well as an ocean was between him and California didn’t sink in until he landed in New Orleans and found he still had a week on a train to finish the trip. But there were lots of other Italians in New Orleans, and they said they could get him a job so he could send money for his wife and children to join him. So that’s what he did.
Six months later the family was all together in New Orleans, but still the dream of California and the difficulties in New Orleans pushed them onward. Great-Aunt Rose remembered how everyone was talking about THE earthquake when they got off the train in Sacramento. She was 12, and the way she talked of it sounded as if it happened while they were on their way. We were excited to know exactly when they were on the train! Uncle Frank helped Giuseppe get a job with the railroad. They settled down and began living the good life. Only it wasn’t so good. Maybe he was too stressed, and perhaps mentally deranged (see footnote), but Giuseppe didn’t do a very good job of taking care of his growing family. Despite juvenile court rulings, and job after job, Giuseppe just didn’t support his family financially. By the time their seventh child was born, Maria was fed up. In 1914, Maria sued for divorce on the grounds of nonsupport. She didn’t want Giuseppe to be able to sell the house she’d managed to buy.
So Giuseppe left. Rumors floated back to the family in California. He visited friends in Texas. He was a cowboy in Nevada. John Skero, an old friend of the family and former husband of one of the daughters, showed up one day at a son’s workplace to tell him that Giuseppe had died in a veteran’s home in Utah. But it wasn’t until 1974 that my father asked about Giuseppe, and his Great-Uncle John (the son) mentioned the incident. Of course, by then he couldn’t remember clearly when John Skero had visited him. So how do you find someone that you don’t know much about? You don’t. You can’t. You have nothing to go on. It was up to me in college in 1994 to track Great-Great-Grandpa Giuseppe to his grave. (This was when the Internet could barely manage emails!)
When you start researching, you begin with the most obvious thing. I was in Utah, why not follow up on Uncle John’s story? I marched in to the Utah state Office of Vital Records and Statistics in Salt Lake City and requested a death certificate for one Giuseppe LoForte, born in 1867 in Italy. The office ladies went looking through their files and asked me if he went by any other name. Well, Joseph would have been the English translation of Giuseppe. They seemed to be conferring over something and finally handed me a certificate, of course, after I paid for it. Was it going to be that easy, after all these years of wondering?
The record included some good clues:
- Joseph “LAFORTE.”—Check. Who cares whether it is an “a” or an “o”?
- AKA Vito Spiarto—Huh? Maybe that’s why we’ve never found him.
- Death date: 30 December 1947—But is it him?
- Birth date: 1867—Check.
- Age: about 80—Check.
- Birthplace: Italy—Check.
- Marital status: Married—Hmm. Well, technically, in the Catholic Church they still were.
- Name of spouse: Unknown—Interesting.
- Burial: Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Salt Lake City.
But still, there wasn’t enough specific information to be sure that it was him. I investigated further. I went to the address listed on the death certificate as the location of his death. It was an infirmary for railroad workers, but it had changed ownership (and location) and didn’t have records from that time period. I went to Mt. Calvary Cemetery to locate his grave and got another close questioning there. The office woman finally directed me to his gravesite, with the additional information that a priest from the Catholic cathedral performed the ceremony for his burial, and that his grave wasn’t fully paid for! Well, I guess that makes sense if they didn’t know of anyone other than himself to pay for it.
I went to see Grandpa’s grave. Interestingly, it read Joseph “LOFORTE” on the tombstone. At the cathedral, the register of burials only gave the same information as the death certificate and the cemetery. He could have lived there and attended that cathedral regularly for the thirty years he’d been away from his family, but the only ordinance that he’d had there was burial. That was the only record they had of him.
So I still wasn’t any closer to KNOWING this was my grandfather than when I first received the certificate. However, when I looked at all the information that I had accumulated on this man who died in Utah, nothing was outright wrong to identify him as my great-great-grandfather. He wasn’t conclusively him, nor was he conclusively NOT him.
One day I mentioned my frustration to my grandmother (he would have been her grandfather-in-law), and she told me an interesting piece of information. While she was expecting my father, her father-in-law (Giuseppe’s oldest son, Victor) told her that “not too long ago,” Giuseppe had contacted the family, asking to be reunited because he was dying and wanted to make things right. Victor turned him down. My father was born late in 1949.
So here’s the sum total:
The Joseph LAFORTE who died on 30 December 1947 was about the right age, born in generally the right place, and LoForte isn’t a particularly common name. He died only a couple of years before my father was born. Great-Grandpa Victor was in his 50s at the time, so two years would probably feel “not long ago” to him. The death in Utah in a veteran’s home pretty closely matched Uncle John’s story from John Skero, and in spite of all the records at the cathedral and the death certificate giving his surname as “LAFORTE,” the tombstone clearly reads “LOFORTE.” I think he’s my great-great-grandfather.
A year after I graduated and started working, I paid the amount owing on his grave. Now if anyone asks, I tell them, “He’s MINE!”
1. Accuses Her Husband of Trying to Poison Family, Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, 27 October 1914, pg. 13.