Identifying Your Immigrant Ancestors – Part 3

Exhaust What Records That Can Be Found in the U.S.

U.S. Sources to Consult for Immigration Clues

Before turning to the Italian records in your research efforts, you should exhaust what records can be found in the United States. This heavy lifting in the beginning of your research will provide a solid base for your research when it eventually turns to Italian records, allowing you to establish the year your ancestor came to the United States. The Family Tree Magazine records checklist can guide you in finding those sources.

This blog will discuss the three most common U.S. records for researching immigrant ancestors: census records, passenger lists, and Naturalization records.

Federal And State Censuses

US Federal censuses have been conducted every 10 years since 1790, but due to privacy restrictions only records that are at least 72 years old are released to the public. Federal census records between 1790 and 1940 are some of the most widely available records, with indexes and images of census records on a variety of websites like ancestry.com, familysearch.org, and myheritage.com.

Federal census records have recorded various information throughout the years, and each enumeration had slightly different questions. Notably, Census records provided a year of immigration and whether an ancestor was a naturalized United States citizen or resident alien. Census records also play a key role in determining relationships and occupations, and they can reveal children who passed away before reaching maturity.

State censuses can also provide clues to an immigrant’s birth year, relationships to other members of the household, and many other types of information useful to building your Italian family tree. They can often be used to supplement Federal censuses that are missing or have been destroyed. Check the websites of your State library to see what censuses it conserves. You can find out what years State censuses were taken for your state of Interest through the US Census Bureau’s website. Note that States censuses were often made in duplicate, so you may find an additional copy in another archive.

In general, since censuses only provide a country of birth, though you’ll occasionally see a region listed along with the country. Some Italians actively avoided the census enumerator, as interaction with authorities in the old country was usually not pleasant. Sometimes they would use fictitious names.

As the majority of Italian emigration post-1880 came from Southern Italy and Sicily, the historically poorer regions of the country, many Italian immigrants were not literate. This often caused misunderstandings when a census enumerator asked their designated questions (and, of course, an illiterate respondent couldn’t check the document to make sure the information was recorded correctly). Therefore, information on Census records should be supported by other evidence. In particular, an ancestor’s age and year of immigration are often estimated and may change from one census to the next. Fading memories and multiple informants compounded this problem.

Passenger Lists

Italian immigrants entered the United States through various ports, and all Ships carried lists of their passengers and crew members. The National Archives and Records Administration has microfilmed passenger list in their collection for the major US ports as well as many smaller ones. A complete listing of their holdings can be found at www.archives.gov. The six major ports of entry for Italians were Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

Called a customs list prior to 1891, a passenger list can provide a lot of information about an immigrant. The list that follows demonstrates the wealth of information one might find on a passenger list, so what information you actually see will depend on when and from where your ancestors left :

  • Age and marital status
  • Relationship (listed as relatives)
  • Date of immigration and emigration
  • Name of Ship
  • Place of last residence
  • Amount of ticket and who paid passage
  • Whether ever in the United States before
  • Name of relatives / destination in the U.S.
  • Physical characteristics and condition of health
  • Nationality and place (town) / country of birth
  • Country of birth for father and mother

Note that, after 1900, Italians were usually designated as South Italian or North Italian, an important distinction because the United States had different quotas for the two regions. This distinction can be a clue to your ancestors’ town of origin. For example if your ancestors passenger manifest says he was born in San Pietro and was Northern Italian, this could help you narrow down to the list of possible towns of birth when there are multiple towns by the same name in Italy.

Immigrants purchased their departure tickets at the shipping line’s main office before traveling to the point of departure. For example, most Sicilian immigrants did not travel to the port city of Napoli to buy their ticket, then go home for a few weeks, then return to Napoli to board the ship to America. Rather, they purchase their ticket at a satellite office in a closer town (usually in Palermo) several weeks or months in advance. Occasionally, you will find an Italian ancestor who purchased a ticket but did not get on the ship; these “passengers” were then crossed out on the passenger list.

Even if you already know the name of your immigrant ancestors and where they came from, and approximate birth year, and when they immigrated, your ancestors passenger list will provide an age and maybe even a place of birth, last place of residence, and the name and town of residence of the closest relative back in Italy.

To learn more, purchase The Family Tree Italian Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Family Tree in Italy!

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