The process of finding your Italian roots can be one of the most rewarding endeavors of your life. You will learn something about yourself each time you connect with your native birthright. You will see how each Italian-American embodies a piece of the Italian past that is particularly their own. That is why the journey is so intriguing. You realize that you are descended from one of the greatest civilizations and cultures of all time. You rightly feel proud of the countless contributions made by Italians to society. From engineering and science, to law and literature, to art and music, to philosophy and finance, to polemics and theology, Italians have shaped the very essence of the western world. Every aspect of modern life has been influenced in some way by the insightful and creative genius that is so much an integral part of the Italian people. It is who we are.
Beginning with the research of my own Italian family history in 2006, I turned right away to Ancestry.com. The effort resulted in the successful location of my Italian grandparents’ passenger lists. My paternal grandfather arrived in New York in 1929; my grandmother came later in 1946. (Wow! How great is that?) I felt an immediate connection with my heritage. I wanted to learn more. So I dove headlong into an impassioned pursuit of my Italian roots—a pursuit that has become my avocation. I now trek all over Italy tracing the Italian family histories of clients as well as my own family. It is an enchanting career that gives me a wonderful feeling of purpose. I am so fortunate to be doing what I really love to do—genealogical and historical research and problem solving in Italy.
Over the years, Ancestry has continued to add valuable collections essential for pursuing Italian roots. As a professional Italian genealogist, I always begin my client project research with Ancestry.com.
Creating and storing your Italian family tree
In the beginning stages of documenting your Italian family history, it is essential to set up a reliable way to keep track of your growing family tree. Before doing anything else, I recommend putting all the information you know to be true in a family tree. Ancestry.com offers several solutions for storing your family tree data:
- Create your tree directly on the Ancestry.com website: http://trees.ancestry.com/tree. Click on “Create a new tree.” You have the option of creating a public or private tree to house your family data. Ancestry also has a fantastic mobile app for your tablet or smartphone that allows you to take your family tree with you anywhere.
- Family Tree Maker (http://www.familytreemaker.com) is a versatile and useful tool that allows you to link your family tree directly to Ancestry.com. With Family Tree Maker, you can also save your tree directly to your computer.
Interviewing family members for information
Once you have created a family tree based on the information you already know, the next step is to begin interviewing family members to find out additional family details. I recommend talking with older relatives first since they may have knowledge of your family’s ancestral town in Italy and other important details. In some Italian-American families, the key to locating your ancestral town is to ask!
Here are some good questions to ask when interviewing relatives:
- “When did grandpa, grandma, etc immigrate to the USA?”
- “Do you remember the name of the town in Italy our family came from?”
- “Do we still have living relatives in Italy?”
- “Do you have any old family documents, like letters, passports, or military papers?”
- “Do you remember the names [first and last] of your grandparents and/or great grandparents?”
Locating your Italian ancestral town using Ancestry.com
Finding your Italian ancestral town or towns is a central piece of successfully continuing your Italian family history research. For some families, grandpa or grandma’s hometown is common knowledge, for other it takes hours or even years of diligent research. The most important thing to remember is never to lose sight of your goal to locate your ancestral town. The task may seem impossible, but when broken down into manageable steps it becomes achievable.
Knowledge of your Italian ancestral town is essential to beginning your research using Italian records created in Italy. Knowing the region or province of your ancestor’s birth is a great start, but the exact ancestral town is needed to proceed effectively. Fortunately, Ancestry.com offers many collections essential to locating your ancestor’s hometown in Italy. Here are few collections on Ancestry that I recommend consulting first in your quest for your Italian ancestral town:
- Passenger lists
- Citizenship / Naturalization indexes and records
- Draft, Enlistment and Military Service Records
- Birth, Marriage and Death Records (non-Italian collections)
- Sons of Italy (USA) Records
- Newspapers, including obituaries and articles
Italian First and Last Names
Although your ancestor’s name was not changed at Ellis Island, as the popular myth suggests, it is entirely possible your ancestors began using different first and/or last name after arriving in the United States. When searching, keep an open mind about names. Giuseppe may have become Joe or Joseph; Francesca sometimes became Frances; and Vincenzo could be listed on records as Vinny, Vincent or Enzo to name a few.
Spelling is also variable to some extent. Italian first and last names sometimes lost or added letters, took on Americanized spellings or changed entirely. Bevilacqua sometimes became Drinkwater and Martino could have become Martin. Arriving at your ancestors’ original first and last names is also essential to continuing your research into Italian records.
It is also important to remember that because an Italian name is rare in the USA, doesn’t mean that it is also uncommon in Italy. For example, if your great grandfather was the only Giuseppe Esposito on Main Street in Woburn, Massachusetts USA in 1920, it doesn’t mean he was the only Giuseppe Esposito born in the Province of Naples between 1885 and 1890.
Italian Birth, Marriage and Death Records on Ancestry.com
There are actual Italian records on Ancestry.com? YES! Ancestry.com has digitized Italian Civil Birth, Marriage, and Death records and indexes from a select number of Italian provinces, towns and cities. In order to utilize these records, knowing your ancestral hometown and ancestors’ original name are essential.
- Agrigento, Sicily, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1844-1911
- Alessandria and Asti, Piedmont, Italy, Civil registration records, 1866-1938
- Aosta, Aosta, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1866-1939
- Belluno, Veneto, Italy, Civil Registration Records 1871-1938
- Caltanissetta, Sicily, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1866-1939
- Caserta, Campania, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1862-1939
- Como and Lecco, Lombardy, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1866-1936
- Falerna, Catanzaro, Calabria, Italy, Civil Registration, 1810-1936
- Genoa and La Spezia, Liguria, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1866-1938
- Lodi, Lombardy, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1866-1936
- Modena, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1866-1939
- Palermo, Italy, Births, 1896-1905
- Palermo, Italy, Marriages, 1820-1895
- Palermo, Sicily, Italy, Birth Records Index, 1876-1885
- Pavia, Lombardy, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1866-1937
- Potenza, Basilicata, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1861-1938
- Siena, Tuscany, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1866-1937
- Siracusa, Sicily, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1900-1929
- Varese, Lombardia, Italy, Indexed Death Records, 1866-1937
- Varese, Lombardia, Italy, Indexed Marriage Records, 1876-1937
- Varese, Lombardy, Italy, Civil Registration, 1866-1937
- Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, Piedmont, Italy, Civil Registration Records, 1866-1938
- Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, Piedmont, Italy, Indexed Death Records, 1896-1936 (in Italian)
- Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, Piedmont, Italy, Indexed Marriage Records, 1896-1929
Additional digitized Italian records are available on the FamilySearch website.
But the Records are in ITALIAN! What Do I Do?
Yes, of course, Italian records are in Italian (or Latin in the case of Italian Catholic Church records). It is noted that many 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation Italian-Americans do not speak Italian, but don’t let this hinder your research. Purchase an Italian dictionary, utilize online translation tools, hire a translator, but please don’t let the language of your ancestors stop you from pursuing your Italian roots!
I Can’t Read Italian Handwriting!
Who said something as rewarding as Italian genealogy was supposed to be easy 100% of the time? The best way to learn how to read Italian handwriting is to look carefully at a lot of records and try transcribing [writing out word for word] the records of your family. Transcribing the records first also makes it much easier to translate them.
Additional Italian Genealogical Resources on Ancestry.com:
- Leading Americans of Italian descent in Massachusetts
- Scanned and indexed version of Joseph William Carnevale’s 1946 publication of Leading Americans of Italian descent in Massachusetts. This collection contains biographical information of prominent Italian-Americans in Massachusetts.
- Long Island’s first Italian, 1639
- Interesting historical account by Byrne A. Pyrke of Pietro Cesear Alberto, the first Italian on Long Island, New York and reportedly, the first Italian in North America.
- Mr. William Diodate (of New Haven from 1717 to 1751) and his Italian ancestry
- Early published genealogy of Connecticut Italian, Mr. William Diodate.
Suggested Reading for Italian Family History & Genealogy
Italian American History & Culture
- La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience by Jerre Mangione & Ben Morreale
- The Journey of the Italians in America by Vincenza Scarpaci and Gary R. Mormino
Italian History & Culture
- A History of Italian Law, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 by Carlo Calisse
- The Italians by Luigi Barzini
- The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions and Their Peoples by David Gilmour
Italian & Latin Language
- Bantam New College Italian/English Dictionary by Robert C. Melzi
- 501 Italian Verbs by John Colaneri, Vincent Luciani and Marcel Danesi
- Ciao! [Italian language textbook] by Carla Federici and Carla Larese Riga
- Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin: With an Appendix of Latin Expressions Defined and Clarified by Leo F. Stelten
- A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin by John F. Collins
As you can tell, there exists a robust gamut of resources that will help propel you into the exquisite core of your profound Italian ethnicity. When you are reconnected with your ancestral roots, you will realize that you are the living personification of our wonderful heritage. You will understand why Italians are truly special people. Enjoy the ride!
About Mary Tedesco
Mary M. Tedesco is a professional genealogist, speaker, and author. She is a genealogist on the PBS TV series “Genealogy Roadshow” (season 2) as well as the Founder of ORIGINS ITALY, a firm specializing in Italian and Italian-American genealogical and family history research. Mary holds a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics from Boston University and a Certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University’s Center for Professional Education. In addition to her Italian ancestry (Calabria, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Tuscany) on her father’s side, she also has deep American roots (German, Irish, Danish & English) on her mother’s side and is proud member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Mary is a member of a number of local and national genealogical societies and serves on the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Genealogical Council. She can be contacted via the ORIGINS ITALY website.
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