Reconnecting Lost Family Tree Branches with DNA

by Finding Your Roots Genetic Genealogy Consultant, CeCe Moore

Tom Colicchio's Family Tree

The family tree of chef Tom Colicchio

Many have told me that last week’s episode featuring the three chefs was their favorite yet. Although it is impossible for me to choose which episode I have enjoyed the most since so much work was invested in each one, the research that I did on Tom Colicchio’s Italian family tree turned out to be one of my favorite cases of the season.

This is an example of an occasion when DNA helped the research significantly behind the scenes, but the details of how this was accomplished did not make it into the show. Tom’s family tree had a huge genealogical brick wall just above his maternal great grandparents until DNA came to the rescue. Tom’s great grandmother Rosa Patricco Migliore, as his family knew her, was born after the 1880 Census and married prior to the 1900 Census, so she was never found in the census records with her parents and siblings. As a result of this and another factor I will explain later, the “paper trail” research team was unable to determine who her parents were.

Fortunately at one of the companies where Tom’s autosomal DNA was tested, he had a match named Elena who was predicted to be his 2nd – 3rd cousin based on the amount of DNA they shared (2.40%). This means that he and Elena had a common ancestor, most likely at either the great grandparent or 2nd great grandparent level. Elena had a full family tree, but intriguingly no common ancestors could be found between them on the existing branches of Tom’s family tree.

Mitochondrial DNA

Researchers used mitochondrial DNA to solve the puzzle of Tom Colicchio’s past

Since Elena and Tom had a large amount of shared DNA on their X-chromosomes and the X-chromosome has a unique inheritance pattern, this allowed us to narrow down the potential ancestor(s) who could have contributed to their matching DNA and, thus who their common ancestor(s) could be. This pointed directly toward the big hole in Tom’s maternal family tree as the source of their shared DNA. Interestingly, when looking at the Elena’s family tree, we were intrigued to discover that her father’s grandmother’s maiden name was Maria Petrizzo and she lived just six miles from Tom’s great grandmother Rosa Patricco Migliore in New Jersey.

Thorough research of Maria’s family revealed no known connection to Tom’s great grandmother Rosa. Further, none of the many online family trees with the Petrizzo family included Rosa as a sibling of Maria and no paper records were located to directly support a connection, but there were many thought-provoking clues that pointed to a familial relationship between them. Luckily, Rosa happened to be Tom’s direct maternal great grandmother and Maria was Elena’s father’s maternal grandmother, so a comparison of Tom’s and Elena’s father’s mitochondrial DNA would be able to disprove or further support our theory. To my great pleasure, their matching mtDNA further strengthened the case.

Having positive circumstantial evidence of a connection, Elena helped us to locate the Petrizzo family church where the many Petrizzo daughters were married. I called the church and asked if they would be willing to search the records from 1897 to see if they could locate the marriage of Tom’s great grandparents Rosa Patricco and Vincenzo Migliore and they agreed. It took them a few days to search page by page in the old Latin church books.

When I finally got the call, I literally did a “genealogy happy dance” because the nice lady at the church had located Rosa PETRIZZO’s (not Patricco) marriage record and it confirmed that her parents were indeed Elena’s 2nd great grandparents Nicolina Santarsiere and Giovanni Petrizzo! Not only that, but the record gave the names of the previously unknown parents of Rosa’s husband Vincenzo Migliore as well. This one record added four of Tom’s 2nd great grandparents to his tree where there was once that large empty spot and we were able to take several branches further back from there using traditional genealogy research. If it hadn’t been for the DNA match, we would have had no way of knowing that Tom’s family had passed his great grandmother’s maiden name down incorrectly as Patricco instead of Petrizzo.

One of the things I loved about this case is that we used three different types of DNA to discover the answer and significantly extend the branches of Tom’s family tree. Maybe even more importantly, because of genetic genealogy Rosa has been reunited with her lost family. From now on, she will not be forgotten in the family trees of the many descendants of Giovanni and Nicolina Petrizzo.

Don’t miss tonight’s episode that looks at the genetic history of Angela, Nas, Valerie and their enslaved ancestors.