The genealogist McFly

Not too long ago, my daughter asked me if I would look into the Danish ancestry of a “new friend” of hers – a guy named Charlie. Now Jen’s usually quite secretive about father learning anything at all about her prospective beaux, so I jumped at the chance to take a look at the ancestry of her new fellow – a guy who just might easily show up to our house for Sunday dinner. I knew I had to be a bit careful about it all, too. I wanted to make sure that I researched Charlie’s Nordic connections as respectfully as possible, not only for his sake, but to make sure that my daughter would continue to value my counsel – and not summon one of my mother’s ancient curses against me. (Little did I know that in doing all of this, my hubris and I were about to experience an embarrassing genealogical gaffe…)

Researching Charlie’s questions about his Danish ancestry went easily enough. I haven’t had a lot of experience in the Rigsarkivet, but I found many of their records on and[1] The Danes look to have been great at record keeping, and aside from their naming practices (and a slight propensity to repeat an unvarying number of first names), researching “Denmark” in my living room made for an enjoyable place to look for Charlie’s “roots.” Yes, it all went together quite well, and I was happy to at least clarify two more ancestral generations for Charlie’s direct paternal line.

Charles, 6 David, 5 John, 4 Valdemar Johnson, 3 Jens, 2 Peder Jorgensen1

As I had gone about linking Charlie through his immediate generations back to that of his great-great-great-grandparents, I’d been careful to make sure that I had enough ‘connective tissue’ to support each generation. Charlie had given me the rudimentary family data to build from, and by the time I delivered my findings to him I believed myself finished with the research. Further, as I went over all of what I had found out about his ancestry, I remarked to Charlie, “Did you know that you have Italian ancestry too?” (You see, Charlie had not mentioned any other ancestry, let alone an Italian grandmother – because, indeed, he was not Italian…) Charlie, quite amazed by this, said, “Please, you must tell me how?!”

And such my friends were the beginnings of my genealogical gaffe…

Now Charlie is an educated man, got his degree from Boston University and, indeed, I’m the one who’s ‘supposed’ to be the genealogist – but boy did I miss the mark. Charlie had of course supplied his father’s direct ancestral lines (his father was David and his grandfather was John) and it had been (even in the absence of original vital records) easy enough to locate Charlie’s and his father’s dates of birth (1948 and 1976 respectively) through city directories and various indexes. However that being said, it had been up to me to fill in the blanks (as it were) from there and beyond. It all went easily enough, or so I thought, especially so when I found the obituary below – at least I thought it had. See if you can see my gaffe:

“Catherine E. Johnson, 71, of Francis Street, died peacefully on Monday, Feb. 25, 2002, in Cooperstown. She was born Sept. 27, 1930, in Herkimer, the daughter of the late Alessandro and Angelina (Macrina) Ciuffa. A lifelong area resident she was raised and educated in Herkimer where she graduated from high school. On Nov. 25, 1954, she married John W. Johnson in Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Little Falls. The shared a loving and devoted union of 41 years until his passing on June 20, 1992. She was self-employed realtor of 20 years, retiring in 1990. She was a member of the Real Estate Board and the Women’s Bridge Club of Utica. Surviving are son, David W. Johnson and his wife Jeanne of Keene, N.H.; a daughter, Karen Johnson-Kimball and her husband Wayne of Conrad, N.H.; a brother and his wife, [sic] Bernedict and Barbara Ciuffa of Kalamazoo, Mich.; three grandchildren, Charles…”[2]

Yes, there it was! All of Charlie’s immediate ancestry tied up in a tidy little published source – and with Italian ancestry to boot (no pun intended…). Well, I quickly closed up shop here, it seemed there was nothing left to do, perhaps order originals, locate a grave or two, or a more historical obituary. Yes, and wouldn’t it be great fun to let Charlie know that his grandmother was Italian? Yes, the ancestry of Alessandro and Angelina (Macrina) Ciuffa could not be more Italian.[3] I was so surprised that he hadn’t at least mentioned it before – I mean think of all the really great food! How could he have forgotten all of that??

Yes, the ancestry of Alessandro and Angelina (Macrina) Ciuffa could not be more Italian.

Charlie’s surprise at my “Roman proclamation” caused me to go back and re-examine my work. While I couldn’t quite believe that in addition to his Danish roots that he wasn’t also Italian, I remembered now that I’d felt slightly ‘uncomfortable’ as I whizzed past the birth year for Charlie’s father David Johnson (that of 1948). I mean it did seem a bit odd that his parents weren’t married until 1954 … but after all the obituary for Catherine (Ciuffa) Johnson clearly stated that she was “survived by son David W. Johnson” and [grandchildren including] “Charles…” The U.S., Cemetery and Funeral Home Collection, 1847- Current even offered a further confirmation that David’s mother was indeed Catherine Johnson.[4] It felt untoward to bring up this slight ‘variance’ in polite conversation; I mean, perhaps John W. Johnson and Catherine (Ciuffa) Johnson had been married to each other earlier or even to each other twice? (Yes, I know, I know, assumptions and narratives … please don’t tell Alicia.)

Well, I don’t know how many of you have ever seen the old movie, Back to the Future, but there’s a line from the movie I like to use when someone is being an utter dunce (in this instance me) and that line is: “Hello, McFly?!”[5] (And please, no offense to anyone born under the banner of that noble name…) You see when I went back to take a closer look at Charlie’s supposed Italian ancestry, it became pretty evident that I hadn’t done my due diligence and gone well past that obituary. The Italian ancestry in question, the very same Italian ancestry in that obituary, was that of Charlie’s step-grandmother – and despite what it said in that obit., there was not a biological tie. (Score 1 point for gaffes and take away two points away from Jeff…)

So I come to you today, heart and pride in hand, to talk about how easy it is to give into (what I like to call) “the propriety of the facts” or, in other words, facts do gossip. For me, this was a cookie cutter rookie error in documentation, and one that could have been easily resolved if I had bothered to just look a wee bit past propriety (and a damnable abstract or two) and at the actual timeline of events and relationships in getting at the truth of the matter. Sadly, I must report to you that yours truly, your very own Genealogist McFly, found no Italian ancestry for Charlie. (Shocker!) There is, however, a silver lining to my silly remedial gaffe. My daughter Jen has had a good laugh over dad’s genealogical foibles, and her new friend Charlie has give me another chance – this time to examine the ancestry of his actual not-so Italian paternal grandmother’s line. Hopefully, this time I will be paying a bit closer attention to details, and enjoy a chance at saying arrivederci to my own personal nemesis, the terribly myopic Genealogist McFly.


[1] Rigsarkivet – the Danish National Archives.

[2] memorial no. 90264322 for the obituary of Catherine (Ciuffa) Johnson (1930-2002).

[3] Alessandro Ciuffa (1898-1968) and Angelina Macrina (1907-1995).

[4] As viewed on, though I suspect this “second” verification was an extraction from information contained in the first, that of Catherine Johnson’s original obituary.

[5] Back to the Future, a 1985 science fiction film by Robert Zemeckis, and per, the expression “Hello, McFly?” is heard whenever [character] “Biff demanded better than average ‘thinking,’ he knocked a victim on the head with a closed fist saying, ‘Hello? Hello? Anybody home [McFly]?’”

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

15 thoughts on “The genealogist McFly

  1. Ah yes, we all have done this, but most of us don’t write about it. It’s a great cautionary tale. I’ve been dabbling in my grandsons’ Danish and Italian ancestry also, but I’ve met the great-grandparents with Italian roots. Yes, excellent food!

  2. % Chuckle % We’ve all done that. Which, why re-reading what I’ve written out loud is now a treasured fact-checking technique. Gives your brain a chance to go Wha?

    Then there’s the This Is ALL Too Confusing We Are Not Going To Think About It tactic by earlier researchers. You can not call what’s presented as an “error” when all facts were scrupously reported in 1879 (as I’ve confirmed through original pages imaged at Ancestry). The error is in not dealing with the facts, in not interrogating the documents for what they really say.

    N is born in August 1750, dad had marriage intentions posted in October 1750 — wha? Let’s just go with saying N is the 1st daughter of the 2nd wife — which would make her a John Billington descendant. That relationship has been repeated ever since The Cleveland Genealogy printed it. The compilers “saw” the facts, printed them as facts, and then kept on with the 1st assumption: 1st wife had only one daughter because someone else had said she had died about 1748, so if dead, how could she have a baby in 1750, eh?

    Child born 1948, parents married in 1954? Oh, Jeff, sorry the alarm bells did not go off soon enough for you. But then it has taken me 25+ years to getting around to dealing with my original Wha? response to those facts above.

    Think I’ve got an MD article here, eh?

    1. FOLLOW UP:

      Does anyone see the problem with three “facts” in this excerpt from the RCA page on John Billington as posted here under the publicly open Mayflower page?

      MARRIAGE: By about 1607 Elinor___; she married (2) between 14 and 21 September 1638 Gregory Armstrong and was living as late as 2 March 1642/3 [MF 5:34].


      JOHN BILLINGTON, b. say 1604; d. Plymouth between 22 May 1627 and September 1630 [PCR 12:12; Bradford 446].
      FRANCIS BILLINGTON, b. about 1606 (deposed 10 July 1674 “68 years of age” [MD 2:46, citing PCR 1:81]); in the Plymouth tax list of 25 March 1633 and 27 March 1634 assessed 9s. [PCR 1:10, 27]; m. Plymouth [blank] July 1634 “Christian Eaton” [PCR 1: 31]. She was CHRISTIAN (PENN) EATON, widow of FRANCIS EATON [PM 187].

      Just asking.

    2. Robert – I so enjoy seeing your comments on my ‘tales.’

      I especailly liked, “The error is in not dealing with the facts, in not interrogating the documents for what they really say.”

      Indeed, I am thinking of changing my middle name to “Wha…” 😕 ( I daresay the light in my little brain may be growing dimmer by the day!)

      Best to you –

  3. I’ve done this too! I found my friend’s great-grandfather William Henry Landrie (1898-1982), in the 1910 census with his father Delphis, and Delphis’s wife Julia. Assuming Julia was William’s mother, I went all the way back to 17th century Quebec on her ancestry. If I had paid closer attention to the 1910 census, I would have noticed Delphis and Julia were married only 8 years, and she was William’s step-mother (his mother dying in 1901) …

    1. Chris!! Thanks for understanding! Sometimes I think it’s a good way for me to re-check myself and any methods by reviewing my oversights and where I “lost track” before. I am hopeful that if I remember the last (of many) mistakes I made in reviewing any particular line, that well, I will not let the hammer strike me on the head twice. (Granted, in my case that is no doubt wishful thinking!) The above “McFly” moment has regrettably been one of many!

      But you’ve left me hanging sir – just who did William’s mother turn out to be?? 🙂

  4. I’m giving you a bit of a pass on this, Jeff. At least you had the correct Johnson family, and Catherine was married to Charlie’s grandfather. I was afraid that you’d traced the entirely wrong Johnson family back to Denmark! All the given names are so common that you could have easily snagged the wrong ones.

  5. Ha, one other thing when asked to do something for which a request is made through a specific male line is that not making suggestions for anyone else is better:) It gets me in trouble every time seems the male line is always more important of course. But if then asked I make suggestions for how to do it themselves, often they have learned enough to go ahead and enjoy doing more themselves:)

  6. My recent mess up was with two sisters born 2 years apart in the 1870s. One was named Minnie Mary and the sister was Marie. The husbands had similar names too. At first I thought there was a lot of bigamy going on. Sorted it out when I slowed down and did more research, as I have been doing for 39 years!.

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