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
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
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:
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
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.
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.
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
Genealogical Group P.O. Box 626Bethpage, New York 11746
An international organization with ten meetings per year, ten
newsletters per year, a surname database and website.
Office Box 14966Las 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
Genealogy Society of America P.O. Box 3572Peabody, MA 01961-3572
Di Cultura (Italian Cultural Institute) 686 Park AvenueNew
York, New York 10021
A Select List of Helpful Italian Websites
Chiesa Cattolica Italiana (Italian Catholic Church) (in
Name Cross-ReferenceAllows you to cross-reference Italian given
first names to their English equivalents
Genealogy GuidesIncludes 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
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
Italian Telephone DirectoryTelecom Italia
of Italy (in Italian)
State Archives of Italy - (in Italian)wwwdb.archivi.beniculturali.it/UCBAWEB/indice.htmlRead
an overview of the above site in English