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  • Looking-Glass Del Vecchios of Moltrasio and New York: A Case Study in Tracing Italian Ancestors

    David Curtis Dearborn

    Published Date : December 1991
    As we prepare to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ historic voyage to the New World, it is appropriate to examine the roots of one of our country’s most important ethnic groups - the Italians.  A year ago, Ellis Island reopened as a national museum of immigration, and instantly became one of New York’s most popular tourist attractions.  The nonprofit organization responsible for the Ellis Island restoration was headed by Lee Iacocca, whose parents were Italian immigrants.

    In sheer numbers the Italians certainly rank among the largest immigrant groups.  Between 1880 and 1920 - the peak years - about 4 million Italians came to North America.  Most hailed from the southern provinces of the Italian peninsula and the Island of Sicily, and their chief destinations were the larger cities of southern New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Most made a clean break with their rural, peasant roots, working in this country at manufacturing or service jobs in the cities.  It is also important to remember that perhaps as many Italians emigrated to South America (principally Argentina and Brazil as to the United States and Canada.  Additionally, some Italians made the trip several times, and there were those who, after saving a sufficient amount of money, returned to Italy permanently.

    Italians were coming to these shores long before the major immigrant waves of the late 19th century.  Beginning with the arrival of the first known Italian to New Amsterdam in 1635, New York was a major focus of settlement.  Many early immigrants were merchants or skilled craftsman.  The depradations of Napoleon’s armies across northern Italy in the early 1800s brought such well-known families as the Delmonicos to New York from the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino (see B-Ann Moorhouse, “The Delmonicos and Their Connections,” New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, 121 [1990]:1-9, 87-93, 138-43, 199-204).  A good general discussion of early Italian immigrants can be found in Giovanni Schiavo, The Italians in America Before the Civil War (New York, Vigo Press, 1934).

    Cities like New York and Boston developed flourishing “Little Italys” that continued as cultural centers even as Italian-Americans moved to the suburbs in large numbers after World War II.  Here in Massachusetts, the focus of the Italian community is Boston’s North End, although there are sizable Italian populations in the northern suburban cities of Somerville, Medford, Malden, Everett, Winthrop, Revere and Woburn, as well as in outlying Gloucester, Milford, Lawrence, Springfield and Pittsfield.

    Italians tend to think of themselves first not as Italians, but in terms of their native region or village.  Village and family ties were perpetuated in this country.  To an outsider, Boston’s North End might seem to be uniformly Italian, whereas locals knew that until recent times, at least, Sicilians lived along North and Commercial Streets, Abruzzesi on Endicott and North Margin Streets, and Avellinesi in much of the rest of the area (for an in-depth study see William M. De Marco, Ethnics and Enclaves: Boston’s Italian North End [Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981]).  Thus the name of the village of origin may still be remembered by someone in your family.

    As in other European countries, Italy’s vital records have not been centralized.  In order to conduct ancestral research in Italy, it is essential to know the town (commune) or village (frazione) of origin.  “Somewhere near Naples” is not good enough.  Sadly, with the passing of the immigrant generation, much of this genealogical knowledge is disappearing, and in the future, since modern death certificates usually list only “Italy” as the place of birth, it will be difficult for descendants k identify exact places.

    In the preceeding article Joan and Donald Fields show how they were able to trace the descendants of Joan’s Avellinese families here in the Boston area using Massachusetts vital records and other sources.  Few Americans of Italian background, however, have actually attempted to do genealogical research in Italy. Many of the essential records have not been microfilmed, and most of the published literature (besides being written in Italian!) deals with families of the nobility rather than the peasantry.  Other reasons are Americans’ unfamiliarity with Italian genealogical records and the isolation of ancestral villages, far from the usual tourist haunts of Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples.  But the situation is gradually improving. The civil vital records for many towns in southern Italy and Sicily covering the years 1809-1865 have been microfilmed and are available from the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City.  For the beginner, a number of helpful articles explain the basics of research in Italy.  Among these are Trafford R. Cole, “Researching Your Italian Ancestors,” Genealogy Digest, 18:1 (Winter 1987):25-29; “Italian Genealogical Record Sources,” Genealogical Helper, 34:5 (Sept-Oct 1980): 9-13; Priscilla G. De Angelis, “Buon Viaggio: How to Plan a Genealogy Research Trip to Italy,” Heritage Quest, 22 (May-July 1989):16-17, 21; “Italian American Research,” Heritage Quest, 9 (Mar-Apr 1987): 32-34; and Madeline R. Gloret, “Italian Genealogy,” Colorado Genealogist, 44:4 (Nov 1983): 225-3.

    Once you have exhausted all relevant genealogical sources on this side of the Atlantic, and identified the village or town of your ancestor’s origin, you are ready to make a trip to Italy.  Perhaps you or some other member of your family has corresponded over the years with relatives still living in or near the ancestral town.  Besides the excitement of meeting cousins for [199] the first time, you will have the added benefits of your cousin’s familiarity with the language, area, and local customs.  Perhaps you can even persuade them to explore some of the local record repositories before your arrival.

    In the fall of 1982 I made just such a research trip.  Although not of Italian ancestry myself, I have long been interested in a certain family named Del Vecchio that lived in New York City in the early 1800s.  In the course of researching a branch of my mother’s family, I found that the wedding of my great-grandparents, Mark and Harriet Ann (Irish) Wray, at Flushing, N.Y. 16 October 1850, was actually a double ceremony. Harriet’s sister Emma married Joseph John Paul Del Vecchio the same day (New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, 110[1979]:72).  Additionally, I found that an Irish family Bible owned by a cousin showed that Joseph Del Vecchio died in 1866 (see David Curtis Dearborn, “The Irish Family of England and New York City,” The Genealogist, 3[1982]: 5, 12-13, 21).  The more I researched the Del Vecchios, the more fascinated I became. Joseph’s father, Charles Del Vecchio (ca. 1787-1854), along with several of Joseph’s uncles, came to New York City in the first decade of the 1800s and these brothers quickly established themselves as makers and sellers of looking-glasses and dealers in prints, frames and artists’ supplies (see Betty Ring, “Check List of Looking-Glass and Frame Makers and Merchants Known by Their Labels,” Antiques, 119 [1981]:1182; Desmond Fitz-Gerald, “The Dublin Del Vecchios,” Antiques, 120 [1981]: 910-14).  Happily for me, two of the uncles, Joseph and John, died unmarried in New York City in 1815, leaving wills with nearly identical provisions and naming their mother, Giovanna Del Vecchio, of the parish of Moltrasio on Lake Como in Italy.  Now I knew where to look in Italy to find their ancestors.

    Lake Como is nestled among the Italian Alps on the Swiss border, less than an hour’s train ride north of Milan.  It is one of the most scenic and charming spots imaginable, and has been a popular vacation retreat since ancient Roman times.  The small city of Como, located at the southernmost tip of the fjord-like lake, is also the capital of the province of Como, and a modest pensione near the waterfront became my base of operations.  Not knowing anyone in the area and not being able to speak the language were handicaps, but pocket dictionaries and phrasebooks allowed me to communicate my needs, and at last I had found a place where my somewhat rusty high school Latin could be used!  At local bookstalls I purchased detailed maps of the area and English-language guidebooks with illustrations.

    It was helpful for me to be in a popular tourist area, but I found that nearly every small village in Italy is accessible by bus or some form of public transportation.  The small village of Moltrasio lies about six or seven miles up the lake, and is accessible from Como via a very picturesque ferry ride.  Because this area of Italy did not begin keeping civil vital records until after unification in 1860, my main objective was to examine the parish registers kept by the Roman Catholic Church for baptisms, marriages and burials. Although I had not made a prior appointment to see the local parrocco (priest), I was armed with letters of introduction.  The late genealogist John Insley Coddington, who in 1960 had planned (but never undertook) a similar research expedition to the neighboring parish of Rovenna, supplied me with letters to the local bishop and parish priest written by a personal friend, a monsignore attached to the Vatican Secretary of State.  I presented these, along with a cover letter written in Italian by John, to the parrocco. Impressed, he generously allowed me full access to the registers, which were arranged in a series of small books in fine condition, kept in a cupboard in his office.

    The priest spoke no English and he had no photocopier, so it was up to me to make what sense I could of the registers.  There were separate books for baptisms, marriages and deaths, and all were written in a clear, Italic hand.  Later entries were in Italian, but before about 1800 they were kept in Latin.  Because the words and phrases used for each entry were repetitious, I had little difficulty in understanding the text.

    The registers showed the baptisms of twelve children of Giovanni Del Vecchio, son of Pietro (in Latin, Joannes, son of Petrus), and his wife Giovanna Donegana, daughter of Francesco, between 1765 and 1787. After the name of each child, the names of godparents were listed. Giovanni Del Vecchio and Giovanna Donegana had been married at Moltrasio 26 April 1764.  Further research showed that Giovanni was baptized there 17 May 1739, son of Pietro (son of Alterio) and Domenmca Peduza (daughter of Bernardo), while Giovanna was baptized at Moltrasio 17 May 1744, daughter of Francesco Donegani (son of Giovanni) and Cattarina Durini (daughter of Francesco).

    The registers of deaths were equally informative.  I learned that Giovanni had died at Moltrasio on 14 April 1809 “aged about 72 years” and that his wife Giovanna died posidente (wealthy) on 5 February 1822, aged 76, of pneumonia.  What was most fascinating was that the [200] deaths of several of their children who had emigrated to other parts of Italy, as well as England and America, were carefully recorded in the Moltrasio registers.

    While in Moltrasio I also visited the local cemetery.  I was disappointed to find almost no old stones.  Like the rest of the town, the cemetery was terraced into the side of the mountain, and there was no room for expansion.  The cemetery, having filled all available space long ago, now made room for new burials by disinterring older plots, generally those more than thirty years old.  It was rather shocking to see this performed matter-of-factly by laborers armed with pickaxes the day of my visit!  The high stucco walls surrounding the cemetery, however, were covered with many old plaques commemorating dead from both world wars, past parish priests, and members of many of the town’s families, including Del Vecchios.  Some of these plaques dated from the eighteenth century.

    Back in Como, I next visited the local Archivio di Stato, or provincial archives.  Each of Italy’s 95 provinces has an archivio located in its capital city, where many civil records useful to the genealogist can be found. Among these are vital records before 1865 (in those provinces where they were kept), military and draft records (useful for finding the town of origin of late nineteenth century ancestors when only the province is known), tax rolls and censuses.  The staff at the Archivio di Stato in Como was very friendly and helpful. Except for one young lady whose English was only a little better than my Italian, none spoke English.  It took only a little broken conversation on my part for the staff to produce several manuscript censuses of Moltrasio for the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries listing every householder with a description and valuation of his land, and even a giant map of the town, circa 1750, handpainted in ink and watercolor on a dozen silk sheets, depicting every dwelling and its occupant.

    Perhaps the most important class of records found at the provincial archives are notarial records.  Notarial records include all types of land and property conveyances, probate documents, and other legal records. The Archives keeps a list of the notaries who served each comune for given periods of time.  A single notary might have conducted all legal business in a small town for many years.  Each notary kept a log of his recorded documents, arranged either chronologically, or by surname and then chronologically.  To my knowledge none of these records have been microfilmed.  The Del Vecchio family notary was Giuseppe Antonio Caldara.  There were many entries in Caldara’s ledger under “Gio qm Pietro” (Giovanni son of the late Pietro).  The one that caught my eye was document #5686, dated 1 December 1802 and identified as testamento (will). Typically for a genealogist, I found this record twenty minutes before the Archives was to close on the last day of my Italian visit!  It was the joint will of Giovanni and Giovanna (Donegana) Del Vecchio, naming all their children.  Finding this will was a fitting close to my Italian sojourn.

    There are many important classes of Italian records that I did not have a chance to explore on my brief trip. Of special interest to Americans with recent immigrant ancestors are the civil vital records by each conmune, which are found in the Ufficio di Stato Civile, discussed more fully in the how-to articles listed above.

    Researching ancestors in Continental European countries may be too great a challenge for many genealogists. Certainly it is not for the beginner.  However, if you know the town of your ancestor’s origin and have read everything available on genealogical research and records in the native country, there is no reason why a personal research trip to Europe can’t be the genealogical experience of a lifetime.

    David Curtis Dearborn is Head Reference Librarian at the Society and a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.  Recent NEXUS articles include “Searching for the ‘Mill English’: The Meadowcrofts of Lancashire (8:20-23) and “George and Rhoda (Dearborn) Dearborn of Biddeford, Maine (6:199-200).

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