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  • Ethnic Research: Italian Genealogy - How Hard Is It?

    June C. DeLalio, CG

    If you are new to genealogy or just turning to an Italian branch of your family, it can be a bit intimidating to start researching a foreign country. Italy, however, despite dealing with a foreign language, is relatively easy to research. Nevertheless, some researchers find it very easy to go back centuries to find their Italian ancestors while others find the task nearly impossible to do for various reasons beyond their control.

    Resources in the United States

    The first question you should ask yourself is, how much do you know about your Italian family who came to the United States? This is the most vital part of tracing the family. If you are absolutely sure of the town in Italy where your family came from, you can skip this part of the article and go to the next section. If you need to find that elusive town or if you have found out that the town you thought they came from is wrong, then you must research your family in United States records. That is the only way to find the town of origin; you cannot find it in Italy. Even if you know the town in Italy and can get a jump start on the research, in the long run, it may be best to slow down a little and get additional data on the family from United States records before “leaping across the ocean.”

    Researching United States records will yield valuable information on your ancestors such as the exact date they came to America, who they came with, their occupations, if they made the trip several times, and who else in the family, such as brothers, parents, etc. came to the United States too. In genealogy, the basics are always dates, names, and places. The more details you have, the more successful you will be in avoiding the so-called “brick walls.”

    Of course, some of your information will be obtained from relatives and friends. This information is priceless, but only if you verify the data to ascertain that those facts are accurate. Most of us have hazy memories about dates and places of events in our family’s history. Personally, as a Mom who has to fill out school forms, government applications, and other paperwork for my children, I know the dates and places of birth, marriage, etc. for all my children and my parents. My husband, however, does not. If you have ever tried to interview an older family member, you soon find out that they rarely know exact dates and can usually only give you approximate dates in relation to a war, a World Series, another family member’s wedding, or some other event in their life. This is reality. We remember dates and times by their relationships to other events. Therefore, you can see the need to do research.

    In addition, you need to see the structure of the whole family, which entails constructing a family tree with what you know, which will quickly show what you don’t know. For Italians, the focus of research is generally on the twentieth century as most Italians immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1925.  During the peak years of 1881 to 1915, about 13.5 million Italians came from Italy to the United States. This trend continued until Congress passed an immigration law in the 1920s, which limited immigration from Italy.

    Twentieth-century records therefore are important to Italian research. Looking at the 1900, 1920, and 1930 censuses will be especially beneficial to your research. (Note: The 1910 census for most states is not indexed and therefore not easily searched.) Each of these censuses will give you important data on your family. The 1900 census will tell you what year your ancestors arrived in the United States, the month and year of their birth, and how long they were married. If married, it will tell when the wife came to the United States, which often was much later than her husband. Of course, the census has other important information but for Italian research these items are the most important. I have mentioned the 1900 census since it may be the first one for the family after it came to the United States. You want to obtain the information from the census closest to the date of immigration before memories become fuzzy and inaccurate.

    In all census records it is important to note which children (as well as the wife) were born in the United States and which were born in Italy. In the 1920 census, besides basic personal information, there was a question on what year a person immigrated and even more important, what year they became a citizen. These questions were also asked in the 1930 census with an additional useful question to genealogists - at what age was the person first married? With all the added information you glean from the federal censuses, you can generally proceed with the assurance of having correct dates and places in your family history.

    What would be next? Look for the naturalization records. These records can be found at the regional national archives nearest to the ancestor’s residence or in the local courts that handled naturalizations previous to 1906. The waiting time for application to obtain citizenship was five years and most people obtained their citizenship within ten years after immigration. It is important to note, however, that many Italian immigrants did not file for naturalization for various reasons. When U.S. involvement in World War II became likely in 1940, non-citizens living in the United States had to register with the government. In 1940 and after, many Italians decided to obtain citizenship. So if you don’t find an application in either the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) files at the National Archives, or at the local county clerk’s office, during the period after immigration, try looking at the early 1940s.

    What if you know that your ancestor never became a citizen? Are there records for them? There most certainly are. At the beginning of 1942, all Italians, then classified as enemy aliens, had to re-register with the government and were subjected to personal restrictions. The records under this Alien Registration Act contain pages of personal information including date of birth, place of birth, date of first and last arrival in the United States along with much other personal information. You can apply to the INS for this Alien Registration Form (AR-2) by writing to:

    Department of Justice
    Immigration and Naturalization Service
    FOIA/PA Unit
    425 “I” Street NW
    Washington, DC  20536

    If you have a death certificate for the subject or if he/she was born before 1895, you do not have to fill out a Freedom of Information Act form to obtain this file as you would for most government records. If you are totally uncertain whether the person became a citizen or not, you may write to the INS and request “all information” concerning that person. You should be sure to send them as much identifying information as you have so they can discern that particular person from others of similar name if necessary. The INS should have either a citizenship file or an alien registration file or both for Italians living in the United States in the 1940s.

    By utilizing the naturalization records and alien registration records, you should be able to obtain the place of birth of your ancestor. You can then proceed to obtain Italian records. It is crucial to know the names of your ancestors’ parents, and, if possible, his/her siblings, to obtain records from Italy.

    Another very popular way to find the town of origin is through passenger lists. For Italians, the Ellis Island website is a godsend. Covering the years 1892 to 1924, this database coincides with the years of heaviest Italian immigration. It has been estimated that as much as ninety percent of all Italian immigrants came through the Port of New York. The Ellis Island database gives, in most cases, the name of the immigrant, ethnicity, place of residence, date of arrival, age on arrival, gender, marital status, ship of travel, and port of departure. You must register to view the full record, but there is no charge or commitment. You may also view an image of the original ship manifest that lists your ancestor. These passenger lists can also be accessed through films at the National Archives and local Family History Centers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Copies of such films are available at many genealogical research libraries. There is also a splendid series of books entitled Italians to America (see bibliography), which indexes the names of Italians who came to this country between 1880 and 1903 (the last book published). When using these indexes be prepared to find many people with the same name, particularly if you don’t have an approximate year of immigration.

    Summary: Use records in the United States first to identify or verify information on your family, looking particularly for dates and places. The most important records for Italian genealogy are the federal censuses, naturalization records and/or alien registration files, and passenger lists. For more information on using other United States records, refer to general genealogy books for beginners.

    Resources in Italy

    You know the town of origin and you are ready to start obtaining information on your Italian ancestors. How and where? While the previous section stressed knowing the structure of the family, the focus of this section is knowing the structure of Italy. The most notable thing to know is that there is no centralized place for records in Italy. Italy has existed only since about 1870 as a unified country. It is broken down into twenty regions and further subdivided into 106 provinces. Each province is named after its capital city, thus Rome is in the province of Rome, Palermo is in the province of Palermo, etc. Each province is made up of numerous towns and villages. The key to doing your research is finding the province where your family originated.

    Assuming that your relatives came to the United States anytime from the 1870s up to recent times, the records you need to access are in the local town. Records earlier than 1865 are kept at the State Archives in each province. Now that you know where to go, how do you do it and what can you obtain?

    Italian Government Records

    The records of a town [comune], which often includes the records of some surrounding villages or hamlets [frazioni], may have been microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints. If this is the case, you may be able to access them through a local LDS Family History Center. Check your phone book or their website for the nearest one to you. If the town’s records have been filmed, you can order those films at a nominal cost and have them at hand in a few short weeks. These records are much more detailed than anything you can personally obtain from Italy. By law, Italian offices can only issue an extract or certificate of a document and they do not allow you to make copies of the original records (which often have been microfilmed by the LDS). Don’t ask about the logic of this!

    Looking at these films can be daunting at first glance. The handwriting is at times illegible, but the saving grace is that there usually are indexes at the end of each year or a cumulative index for five or ten years to help you. You really only need to find the surname you are looking for and then refer back to the record. The index is also helpful in deciphering handwriting. If you cannot understand what you are looking at, make a copy of it from the film and find help. You will find that there are books, websites, and other aids to help you read these records. Often they are written on a printed form so you only have to decipher names, dates, and places. By studying the names and/or words you do recognize and by using an Italian word list , you will soon become familiar with the records and begin recognizing words and letters of the alphabet.

    You may find that the vital records of the town you want were not filmed or that there are some years missing. In that case it is necessary to write to the town Vital Record Office [Ufficio dello Stato Civili] to request one to three records at a time. These letters should be written in Italian. Form letters are available in books and other sources listed in the bibliography below. You just have to fill in the blanks. When writing to a government office, you may or may not want to send money to cover the costs. There are various opinions on this. By sending a check in Euro you will know that they have been compensated for any costs. Conversely, some offices do not request a fee for this service and will send you the documents requested without any payment.  Some Americans send a United States check or cash. I would strongly advise against sending a United States check since the cost of exchange into Euro is so prohibitive that they are likely just to throw your check away. Sending cash is another option but only for those who are comfortable with doing so. I do not recommend it. It is important to know that by Italian law a government office is obligated to respond to your request. If you do not get an answer after at least two tries and about six months of waiting, you could write to the mayor reminding him of the law and requesting action.

    A most important and wonderful document that can be obtained from the General Registry Office (Ufficio Anagrafe) is the certificate of the Original Status of the Family [Certificato di Stato di Famigilia Originario]. This document can give you several generations of your family with dates and places of birth, marriage, and death, including if and when they emigrated from Italy. The form is a little different in each province but all of them give a great deal of information. In small towns, the General Registry Office and the Vital Record Office are virtually the same place but this is not so in large towns and cities. The General Registry Office keeps track of all the citizens who move into and out of the town and has copies of the censuses of Italy for that town. This certificate takes the employees some time to research and because of the work involved they usually do want a fee for it. The amount of fee differs greatly from town to town. A suggested amount to send would be 25 Euro (almost $25 as of this writing) but it could cost much more or much less.

    Catholic Church Records

    Historically, Italy is a Catholic country. Genealogists just starting their Italian research often think the local Catholic Church in Italy has better records than the government. In fact the opposite is true. Trying to get information from the churches in Italy is often difficult and in many cases impossible. The reason is that each church holds its own records (except for certain dioceses, especially in the north). The priest is in charge of these records and it is up to him whether he can or will research them for you. He is under no obligation to do so (unlike the government official). Also, many parishes of the Catholic Church in Italy today do not have a priest on site or if he is there, he is very overburdened with care of his parishioners’ needs and your letter may seem insignificant to him.

    In any case, if you write to the priest at the local church, it is strongly recommended that you write in Italian and send a donation. The amount is whatever you are comfortable with and should reflect how much the records mean to you. The reason it has to be in Italian is that most Italians do not speak English. According to an article in the New York Times last year, only twenty-seven percent of Italians speak English, the lowest figure in Europe.  If you are on a tour visiting big cities, you will meet plenty of Italians who speak English but this is not true for small towns and villages. Form letters for writing to churches are also available in books on Italian genealogy and on the Internet. A very useful guide to writing letters in Italian can be found at the FHL website.

    There will come a time when you have no choice other than writing to or even going to the local church in Italy for information on your family. Civil registration of vital records only began in Italy after the introduction of Napoleonic Law in the early 1800s. The civil registration can begin as early as 1804 in the north, 1809 in southern Italy and 1820 in Sicily. However a large section of northern Italy does not have civil vital records available until 1866. Once you have exhausted the civil records back to that time period, you will have to move on to the church records and hope that they are available for your town.

    Other sources of information

    Vital records are at the core of Italian research. You probably will do most of your research in the microfilms of the Family History Library, but there are other types of records available.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also filmed records called Pubblicazioni, Allegati, Memorandum, Diversi, Cittadinanza, and Cresime.

    I. The Pubblicazioni records are marriage banns (announcements) that had to be published for several weeks before a marriage. In some towns they are the only surviving records relative to a marriage as the original marriage records have been lost or destroyed. They have a great deal of information on them.

    II. Similarly, the Allegati are also records pertaining to a marriage. They are the documents a bride and groom had to bring to the town hall, such as their birth records, death records for any previous spouse or their parents, and so on. As you can imagine, they can hold a treasure chest of information on more than one generation of the family. However, they are not available for all towns and time periods.

    III. Memorandum and Diversi refer to other documents that may be related to births, deaths, or other items. They are not indexed and difficult to read.

    IV. Cittadinanza, which means “citizenship,” would sound like a useful document but is not. It is generally a statement about the population of the town signed by the mayor, which sometimes records people who moved in or out of the town.

    V. Cresime are confirmation records, a sacrament of the Catholic Church, bestowed on children from the age of seven to fourteen plus. They are not too informative, but do let you know that the family was still in the town at a certain time.

    VI. Stato delle Anime is a church record very useful but not found too often. These were church surveys taken either yearly or every few years that recorded the people in a family living in the town, their names, age, birthplace and relationship to each other. They also recorded the sacraments people received during the year, which is why it is called the “Status of the Soul”. Few of these records still exist.

    VII. There are also military records, a great source of information and extremely useful when you are not sure which town a person came from in a particular province. Few have been microfilmed, but you can write the State Archives and request the military record for a person if you supply his parents' names and the year of birth.

    VIII. Notary records are filled with information about people, but few of these records have been filmed. They are legal contracts for property sales, marriage contracts, wills, etc. They are difficult to find as they are organized under the name of the notary. In cities there were numerous notaries and you would need to know which one did work for your family. These records are kept in the State Archives and/or in the Notarial Archives in each province.

    Summary

    • As mentioned in the first section, the information you gathered from United States records is the surest way to get a good start in your Italian research.
    • Try to obtain the certificate of the Original Status of the Family before tackling each and every documented event in a person’s life. The certificate provides a concise report that will save you months or years of work.
    • Concentrate first on obtaining birth, marriage, and death records from the civil records of the Vital Records Office.
    • Wait to research church records until necessary.

    Addendum

    Research on-site in Italy can also be rewarding if planned well beforehand and if you have your family data with you. In other words, don’t rush there until you have gotten a good start in your family history research. Then the rewards will definitely be great. Just seeing your ancestral town will be worth the trip, even if you are unable to obtain records while you are there. Italian research is fun, full of ups and downs, and reveals the lives of those living far away and long ago in an unfamiliar landscape. The picture you can develop of these ancestors can be incredible. The challenge is up to you.

    Bibliography

    Books:

    Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. Italian-American Family History. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1997.

    Cole, Trafford. Italian Genealogical Records. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Incorporated, 1995.

    Colletta, John Philip. Finding Italian Roots: The Complete Guide for Americans. Baltimore, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1993.

    Fucilla, Joseph G., Our Italian Surnames. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1949 rep. 1998.

    Glazier, Ira A. and Filby, P. William, editors. Italians to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at U.S. Ports, 1880-1903. 16 volumes. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources 1992-2001.

    Lener, Dewayne J. Italian Genealogical Research, Orting, WA: Heritage Quest, 1995.

    Nelson, Lynn. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Italian Ancestors. Ohio: Betterway Books, 1999.

    Additional Sources for Help

    Italian Genealogical Group
    P.O. Box 626
    Bethpage, New York
    11746

    An international organization with ten meetings per year, ten newsletters per year, a surname database and website.

    Pointers
    Post Office Box 14966
    Las Vegas, NV 89114-4966

    A quarterly magazine dealing with all things Italian, having chapters in various areas of the United States and a yearly surname database publication

    Italian Genealogy Society of America
    P.O. Box 3572
    Peabody, MA
    01961-3572

    Istituto Italiano Di Cultura (Italian Cultural Institute)
    686 Park Avenue
    New York, New York 10021

    A Select List of Helpful Italian Websites

    Chiesa Cattolica Italiana (Italian Catholic Church) (in Italian)

    Foreign Name Cross-Reference
    Allows you to cross-reference Italian given first names to their English equivalents

    Italian Genealogy Guides
    Includes guides to Civil Records, Latin genealogy and Italian profession terms (with English equivalents), Italian form letters, addresses, and many links to other sites containing useful information.

    The History of Italy

    ItalianAncestry.com
    "The Ultimate Jumpsite for All Things Italian" features links to a multitude of Italian genealogical websites, as well as a few links to general sites about cooking, geography.

    Italian Postal Codes (in Italian)

    Italian Telephone Directory
    Telecom Italia

    Maps of Italy (in Italian)

    Research in Italy

    State Archives of Italy - (in Italian)
    wwwdb.archivi.beniculturali.it/UCBAWEB/indice.html

    Read an overview of the above site in English

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