Posted by Pam Velazquez on October 21, 2013 in Family History Month, Research, Webinars, Website

In case you missed last week’s episode of “The Barefoot Genealogist with Crista Cowan” discussing Top Tips for Italian Family History Research, here is the video and a run down of what was covered.


Roughly four million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1860 and 1920.  With economic problems in Italy, many Italians came to the U.S. looking for better working conditions and due to severe loss of life and health during the U.S. Civil War, there was a large labor shortage and many of these immigrants were recruited for work in several areas throughout the United States. Unlike Jewish immigrants, Italians weren’t fleeing persecution.  Most of them were coming to American purely for work, becoming, in a sense, ‘migrant workers’ of their day. Often the head of the household and older sons would travel to the U.S. to work and would then return to Italy. Many of them never intended to stay and make a life here, just to work and then return to Italy. As you can see in passenger lists and other records, many of them returned to Italy multiple times before bringing their families.  Some returned to Italy and stayed there. All of these things are important to consider when researching family who you suspect emigrated from Italy.

Italy has an interesting history pertaining to genealogy because prior to 1861, Italy was not unified – meaning there were no records kept at the national level. This means that it is very important for you to find out where in Italy your family lived as this is where you will most likely find any records – at the town or city level. As you research pay close attention for any indicator of what town or city your ancestors lived in prior to coming to the U.S.


Start with the census. Look for:

  • Immigration year – Try and pin down the year that your ancestor moved to the U.S. – this is particularly important with Italian immigrants because as mentioned many of them came and went multiple times before settling in the U.S. which can cause inconsistent immigration years in the records.
  • Naturalization status – Census records will indicate your ancestor’s naturalization status with AL (Alien), NA (Naturalized) or PA (Have submitted papers). If they are naturalized, locating naturalization records would be your next step.
  • Birthplace of children – Knowing where the children were born can help you try and pin down the immigration year, or give you clues as to whether or not the head of the household ever returned to Italy before his family emigrated.


If they were naturalized, look for those papers next:

  • Get the complete packet, not just the certificate – Although you may have a Certificate of Naturalization that is just one document in the set that you’ll want to find. You will also want to find the Declaration of Intent and a Petition for Naturalization. If your ancestor was naturalized in a district or circuit court you will likely find those records online at  If they were naturalized in a county court, you will need to contact the courthouse.
  • Look for date, port and ship of arrival – Naturalization documents very often will list this information that allows you to easily locate your ancestor on a passenger list.
  • Look for spouse and children – Prior to 1920, wives derived their naturalization status from their husbands and so would be listed in the naturalization documents, along with any under age children.


Passenger Lists are next, look for:

  • Birthplace and/or last residence – This is a great clue as to where you might be headed next to find records in Italy.
  • Who they are traveling with – Not just the people who have the same surname but also other people that have the same last residence. Often groups of people who are traveling together are from the same place and this can be useful when, for example, you can’t read what was written as a birthplace for your ancestor, but maybe it looks a lot like what is written for several others.
  • Who they are joining – This will indicate who in the U.S. they are meeting and their relation to your ancestor. It is also a great indicator of who followed who – was a father coming to meet his young son or a family reuniting with their father, etc.
  • Who they left behind – Pay close attention to the “nearest relative” in Italy. Use this information to determine who was left behind.  Did this person come over later? Did they stay in Italy?  Use all of this information to establish a timeline for each person in the family.
  • Also consider passport applications – As mentioned, since Italians weren’t fleeing any kind of persecution, many of them returned to Italy, even after they became U.S. citizens, so look for passport applications. If they became citizens and then decided to return to Italy to visit, they may be in our passport application records. They contain information about where in Italy the person was born and asked for information about where their family was born and have a lot of great clues that will help you discover more information. Sometimes there is even a photo attached on the second page of the application.
  • Always be looking for a county or town name – In passenger lists or passport applications, always be looking for a more specific place where your ancestor lived in Italy.


Think broader than just the immigrant!

Remember to keep an eye out for a spouse, children, siblings, witnesses, friends, and neighbors – anyone that could have had a relationship with your ancestor. These people will help you track down your ancestor when the trail runs cold.  Remember that people generally stuck to groups and groups may have been formed based on where they lived in Italy, where they ended up working, etc. and can give you insights to what happened to your ancestor.


Be prepared with some of the challenges:

  • Some men came to America several times before finally bringing their families over – Their immigration year may be trickier to pin down if they came and went several times.
  • Some people came and then went back to Italy, their intention was never to settle here – since many were just looking for work, they came to the U.S., worked for an extended period of time and then moved back to Italy. Maybe a son or other family member immigrated later and that’s how your family got started in the U.S.
  • Some people Americanized both their first and last name – Names may be different and might have several variations depending on the record.


Now start searching Italian Records:

  • Use the Card Catalog – Explore what records are available and more specifically for the region that you are looking for. Use the left sidebar to narrow down the pool of records you are looking at by location.
  • Remember, these records are in Italian – Don’t be discouraged because you don’t speak Italian, just make a list using Google Translate of possible words or phrases you might want to be looking for such as “First Name”, “Birth Date”, “Age”, etc.
  • Many Italian records are not indexed – This means you will have to “browse” the records much like you would a reel of microfilm. Narrow down the set of images by location and time period, until you find the one you are looking for.
  • If the records are not online, use the message boards – Use our message boards to find out more about your specific region and surname.  Ask for information about contacting the town in Italy that has the records you might need.


Italian research has its own particular challenges, but equipped with historical context and some tricks up your sleeve, you’ll be finding your ancestors in no time!

1 Comment

  1. Paula Tillman

    I have been searching for my grandmother’s family for years. Her last name was Colello and she was born in Vieste, Foggia, Italy in 1912. She and her parents came to Boston, MA in 1913 (NOT Ellis Island as I originally thought!) I was able to get her father, Michelo’s, naturalization papers. Thanks to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, I was able to get microfilm from the town she was born in to locate her parents birth certificates. Since I don’t speak Italian, they were very difficult to read. Still trying to decipher everything! I ordered a book from Amazon by Trafford Cole on Italian records and it has helped a great deal. I will be ordering more records on microfiche soon once I read Trafford Cole’s book!

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