1492 and all that…Basic Strategies and Resources for Italian Genealogy

By Carolyn L. Barkley

Most of us learned that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” while in grade school. For those with Italian heritage, this bit of doggerel may have prompted an interest in their family history. As Columbus Day 2008 approaches, I think it’s fitting to learn briefly about the holiday itself and then take a quick look at strategies and resources for Italian research.

Columbus’ landing in the New World was first celebrated in New York City in 1792 on the 300th anniversary of the event. One hundred years later in 1892, President Benjamin Harrison invited all citizens to celebrate the 400th anniversary. The observance first became an Italian-American celebration on October 12, 1866 in New York. The holiday was further popularized by a California lawyer with Genoese roots, and San Francisco has the second oldest Columbus Day celebration, dating back to 1869. In 1934, following a request from the Knights of Columbus fraternal order, Congress designated October 12th, Columbus Day, as a federal holiday. In 1971, the dates of many U.S. federal holidays were altered to allow for three-day weekends (leaving many unaware of the “real” date – but that’s another issue!), and Columbus Day is now observed on the second Monday in October.

For many of us, contemplating research in a non-English speaking country can be daunting and some background research will be in order. According to John Colletta’s Finding Italian Roots, the first Italian immigrant was Peter Caesar Alberti who came to Long Island with the Dutch in 1635. Despite this early beginning, the majority of Italians did not emigrate until the 1870s and 1880s. Significant numbers arrived between 1890 and 1924, with millions emigrating in search of employment. Between 1876 and 1976, although many Italians emigrated to South American countries, the U. S. was the emigration-site-of-choice. On arrival in the U.S., these Italians tended to settle in different regions depending on where they had lived in Italy. New Orleans gained a large Sicilian immigrant population; Neapolitans and Calabrians settled in Minnesota; northern Italians moved to California. In addition to the Deep South (Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama) and California, Italian enclaves could be found in major cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, and New Orleans. An understanding of the impetus for Italian immigration, the locations in which the immigrants settled, and the occupations in which they were employed will help you in your research.

Remember that the strategies you have already used in beginning any genealogical research are still applicable and provide an excellent starting point: (1) Talk with members of your family to learn as much about past generations as possible; (2) review all available family papers to glean additional information; (3) do all the U.S. census work possible; (4) research all available passenger arrival records and immigration records (including the Ellis Island web site) either on microfilm or online to pinpoint immigration date, ship, and address of origin in Italy; (5) consider requesting government documents such as passport applications and alien registration files under the Freedom of Information Act. In addition, Social Security application files may provide helpful information. Once you have learned all you can about your immigrant ancestor in this country, have established the original and full name of your immigrating ancestor, have verified dates of birth, marriage, and immigration, and have placed his or her feet on the ground in Italy prior to emigration, take a deep breath and begin the next phase of your research.

(1) Read materials on Italian research. You will want to read John Colletta’s Finding Italian Roots, as well as the 40-page Family History Library Italian Research Guide. The latter is available online and can be downloaded in PDF-format. Both are important in providing you with an understanding of the various types of records you will want to consult and where they may be located. Six categories of records will be important in your research: Civil Registration Records (1804-1866); Civil Registration Records (1866-present); Church Registers; Census Records; Military and Conscription Records; and Certificates of Family Status. This latter group of records is unique to Italy and may be dated as early as 1869, although most pertain to the period after 1911. They are available from the local registry office and provide information on the entire family, not just the person who emigrated. These records can provide names and relationships as well as the date and place of birth for every family member, including those who might have moved away or died.

(2) Obtain at least a working knowledge of Italian genealogical terms. (A basic knowledge of Latin will also be helpful.) For example, you will need to know that Registri Parrocchiali refers to Church Registers and that Censimenti refers to census records. An Italian genealogical word list can be found at familysearch.org.

(3) Learn about the history and customs of the region from which your ancestor emigrated. Get a map of the area. Generations of Italian families usually lived within a small geographic radius and you will want to be familiar with the place-names of the area. Consult gazetteers and parish locators to determine the church and record offices that apply.

(4) Consult the Family History Library Catalog to identify microfilm pertinent to your research. The Library has more than 28,000 rolls of original documents from Italy. As always, there is no point in traveling abroad to look at materials that are available on microfilm here at home.

(5) Consult online resources. Cyndi’s List includes 424 links for Italy. ItalianAncestry.com is one of the best sites that I found. Described as the “ultimate jumpsite for all things Italian,” it includes 12 different sections, including links to other genealogical sites, information about Italy in general (government, history, etc.), links to information about Ellis Island, passenger lists, and naturalizations; information about Italians in America; as well as cultural topics including recipes, sports, religion, train timetables, etc. I also looked for mailing lists pertaining to Italy and Italian research and was able to print 13 pages of links, some focused on Italian research in general (GEN-ITALIAN); some specific to a region as in ITA-SICILY-TRAPANI, dealing with the Trapani area of Sicily; and some specific to narrower geographical areas as in grimaldifamilies, a list for anyone with a genealogical interest in the town of Grimaldi, Cosenza, Calabria, and the towns in the surrounding area.. Still others are for those interested in Italian immigrants in New York, or in Pennsylvania, or for those who have an interest in sharing information about Italian surnames.

Eventually, however, you may exhaust the resources available to you either online or on microfilm. I would recommend that you then hire a researcher located in the appropriate region of Italy to assist you in completing your specific research objective. In a country where families lived in one area for generations, the interest in genealogical research is not what it is in the United States. Responses to requests for documents may not receive timely attention – or may receive no response at all. Contract with an experienced individual who is knowledgeable about the records in your area of interest. One caveat is that your communication should be in Italian. There are several ways to accomplish the translation if you do not read or write Italian. First, you may have a family member who will be able to write the letter for you, or if you live in an area with a large Italian-American population, perhaps a member of the local Italian Catholic Church, or the local Roma Lodge would be able to assist you. The familysearch.org site provides a letter-writing guide. If all else fails, try Babel Fish on Yahoo!, a site that allows you to enter a block of text up to 150 words and receive a version translated into the language you have specified. I have not tried this myself, so I can’t comment on whether or not genealogical terms will cause a problem.
Beginning research in any new geographical area – whether a new county, a new state, or a new country – takes time. A researcher who invests the time and effort to become well-grounded in the basics prior to beginning any specific research will be more successful. As we often hear, our ancestors have been there for many years, they aren’t going anywhere any time soon! Buona fortuna!

Basic research resources include:

  • Finding Italian Roots: A Complete Guide for Americans by John Philip Colletta (2nd edition, Genealogical Publishing Co., 2003, reprinted 2008).
  • Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical & Other Records in Family History Research (Ancestry, 1995).
  • Our Italian Surnames by Joseph G. Fucilla (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1949, reprint 2003).
  • Ships of Our Ancestors by Michael J. Anuta (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983, reprint 2006).
  • They Came in Ships: a Guide to Finding Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Arrival Record by John P. Colletta (3rd rev. edition, Ancestry, 2002).
  • International Vital Records Handbook by Thomas J. Kemp (4th ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000, reprinted 2002).


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