Discovering Your Italian Heritage

Celebrate your Italian ancestry with background information where Italians emigrated to and what their lives were like when they got there.

When asked what they remember most about their upbringing, most Italian-Americans will talk about food, family, and Community. Family members lived in close proximity to each other and were an important part of each other’s lives. You had Sunday dinner at Nonno (Grandpa) and Nonna’s (Grandma’s) house Every week – if they didn’t live with you already. If you got in trouble at school, your cousin Giovanni had already told your mother by the time you got home. You learned to respect your parents and grandparents and took care of them in old age. Dinner conversation was Lively and accompanied by shoving and teasing from your siblings and cousins. Your nonno took great pleasure in secretly giving you more almond cookies than your mother would allow.

Italian customs and holidays often evolved so they were part Italian, part American. A turkey may have appeared on the Christmas table, but so did your Nonna’s octopus pasta with gravy (spaghetti sauce), Zia (Aunt) Lucia’s panella (a type of fried polenta), pannetoni (a sweet bread), and the chicken Zio (Uncle) Batta brought to the back door of your grandparents’ home a few hours before the meal. Maybe you celebrated the Feast of The Seven Fishes, a Christmas Eve tradition brought over from the old country. Or perhaps your ancestors cross themselves repeatedly to ward off the malocchio (the evil eye), A Superstition that a jealous or envious look from another person could cause physical harm.

All of this is part of Italian-American history, tradition, and culture. The sense of family and tradition is what we hope to keep alive for our children and grandchildren.

Our Italian ancestors often sacrificed a lot to emigrate to the United States, leaving behind their families and a life they would always miss. They ( like my great-grandfather Antonino Lo Schiavo) worked hard, focused on their families, pressed onward when life presented difficulties, and made a better life for themselves and their descendants. All of this should make us proud of where we come from and truly grateful to those who came before. 

ITALIAN IMMIGRATION AND SETTLEMENT PATTERNS

Italian immigrants have always been part of the United States’ ethnic makeup, but Italians didn’t arrive in large numbers until the 1850s. The earliest immigrants were often artisans or laborers recruited by US railroads, mining companies, and other large manufacturers for a certain job as the western part of the United States was settled. Most of these emigrants came from the Northern areas of Italy, and they sought opportunities to open businesses and own land in the United States and Latin American countries.

The major wave of Italian immigration to the United States occurred between 1880 and 1924, when the United States accepted nearly 4 million immigrants from Italy. Most came in through the ports of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, although you will find significant Italian immigration into other US ports, such as Baltimore and Los Angeles. Many of these immigrants settled in large cities, where jobs were plentiful and living conditions less costly, particularly after 1890. Others intimidated by the hustle and bustle of city Life move to outlying towns after a few years of city living. Some were even bound for jobs in Montana or California, depending on where other immigrants from their town or province had already settled.

Many Italian immigrants from 1880 to 1910 were driven from their homeland by poverty and lack of jobs. Changes and property and inheritance laws and the entrenched feudalism in many areas of the country prompted the lower classes to emigrate. With no possibilities of getting a job, they had to find a way to put food on the table and provide for their families.

Some countries, like Argentina, needed settlers to colonize the vast amount of unsettled land and sent representatives to Italy to recruit immigrants with the promise of free land, an attractive offer considering nearly 80% of nineteenth-century Italians worked in the agricultural industry. The ability to own land – especially enough to support your family – was a key factor in many immigrants’ decision to leave their home country. 

Some Italian immigrants intended their stays to be temporary, either for a season or for a particular job. Their plans were then to return to Italy, often with enough money to support their families and perhaps by a little plot of land. These men were called “birds of passage,” many going back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean several times over the years.

Most left the homeland for economic reasons, while other Italians emigrated to avoid mandatory military conscription. Those from the southern areas of the mainland and Sicily, especially, felt little loyalty to the national government, which continued some of the same policies after Italian Unification that had kept the working class in poverty for many years. 

Prior to 1880, more immigrants came from the northern provinces, usually emigrating through the ports of Genoa, in Italy, or Le Havre, France. But the bulk of Italian immigrants were Southern Italians seeking economic opportunities. After 1880, most Italian immigrants came from Southern Italy and Sicily (historically the poorest regions of modern Italy), emigrating from the port of Napoli. In fact, statistics show that 80% of the United States total Italian immigration came from Southern Italy and Sicily.

At the time, US lawmakers were concerned that immigrants, Italian or otherwise, will become public charges immediately upon entering the United States. As a result they crafted an immigration law that attempted to ensure Italian immigrants were financially soluble. Immigrants were required to state the amount of money in their possession, the name of the person they were going to stay with, and where the person resided. Each person also needed a sponsor, someone willing to support them financially until they were able to find jobs and support themselves. This was often a family member, be it a sibling or a distant cousin. This helped ensure they had sufficient financial means of support.

Immigrants also received a thorough physical at their port of entry, and those who didn’t pass because of physical ailment were sent back on the next ship heading to Italy. Others were detained until the ailment had abated. Records of those detained can be found amongst the immigration manifests, usually at the end of each ship’s passenger list. 

It wasn’t until 1869 that Italy began to record the number of emigrating Italians. Initially, most 4 headed for temporary employment in other parts of Europe and South America, where they did not intend to settle permanently. Their focus shifted to the United States around 1880. 

Initially, living conditions for immigrants were poor, but they quickly improved so much that they exceeded what the immigrant had left behind. Italian immigrants often live quite modestly during the first few years, as they save enough money to support their families back home for purchasing tickets so the rest of their family could join them in America. Even some immigrants who didn’t originally intend to stay in the Americas wound up sending for families to permanently join them.

Unlike records from some European ports, Italian immigration resources (except for passenger lists, which came with immigrants and are held at American repositories) were largely destroyed. Italian officials felt they had no historical value, and that’s the passenger list, passports (or documents needed to get them print the sea, and ship passenger tickets found in a family’s possession are the only likely source of emigration information on an Italian ancestor. 

ITALIAN-AMERICAN LIFE: LA FAMIGLIA (THE FAMILY)

For Italians and those of Italian descent, la famiglia, or “the family,”has always been the most important social unit, putting focus on family, church, and Community. Immigration to other countries was often the only means of providing for and protecting their families when jobs and opportunities were lacking. Starvation was a reality in the lives of many Italians prior to emigration, and was a powerful motivator when it came time to decide whether or not to move. 

Many immigrants practice chain migration, a system of sponsorship amongst families and friends. The father of a family usually came first, followed by an eldest son and eventually, the rest of the family. However, if an immigration was intended to be temporary, the father and eldest son might immigrate at the same time, enabling them to save double the money. 

Despite the difficulties, what immigrants found in the new world was usually far better than what they left behind in the Old Country. Those who chose to settle permanently in the United States worked hard to create lives for themselves.

In many Italian immigrant families, it was common for couples to speak Italian amongst themselves at home but to insist their American-born children speak and learn only english. This was their way of ensuring that their American-born children would have as many advantages as possible, many of which were not possible for the average person in Italy.

Extended family members settled close to each other or remained close to spite their town of residence within the United States cousins of all levels knew each other and grew up knowing they had an extended family unit to rely on when things got tough. Reliance on public charity was considered disgraceful unless there were absolutely no family members left to depend on.

Fraternal organizations dedicated to helping Italian-Americans begin their lives in the United States began to appear in the mid- to late 19th century. Membership dues supported those organizations, which provided help to new immigrants and served as a connection to their homeland. Many Italian immigrants purchase life insurance policies through their fraternal organizations, as an assurance that their families would receive some sort of financial assistance were they to pass away. The Order Sons of Italy in America and the Sons of Columbus were two such organizations. However, smaller groups more specific to an Italian region or town also existed.

Many ancestors married someone from the same town or region, even after immigrating to the United States. This concept, known as regionalism, was common because of the prevalent opinion that the bride’s and groom’s family should be well acquainted with one another. This practice served to strengthen family ties by expanding that all-important family unit which supported you in times of trouble.

My book, The Family Tree Italian Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Family Tree in Italy, was created to help you have an easier time at doing your own research work. It includes detailing useful record types, discussing recent changes to conservation, and identifying upcoming trends that might affect where you find records. In the age of the internet, more and more resources can be mined online for information about your ancestors, their society, or the historical time. They lived Within. These resources are constantly changing and expanding, allowing easier access to more resources. It covers the following important topics:

  • Linking Your Family Tree to Italy
  • Getting to Know the Old Country
  • Tracing Your Family in Italy
  • Advance Resources and Strategies
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Learn more about potential next steps to learn about your Italian history or pursuit of dual citizenship.