Italian Genealogical Research – Part I

Between 1880 and 1920, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States. During this same time period, there were significant Italian immigration waves around the world to South America, Canada, Switzerland, France, England, and many other countries. Italians remain one of the largest ethnic groups within the U.S., and interest in Italian ancestry and culture continues to grow exponentially. Professional genealogists, especially those working in the U.S., Canada, or South America, may encounter Italian ancestors when researching an extended family. 

The country of Italy was created from multiple city-states during a time period known as Italian Unification. Combining vastly different city-states with different cultural mores and dialects was especially challenging, and those differences are seen within the records. As not all areas of present-day Italy became part of the country during Italian Unification, understanding history can help locate hard-to-find records.

For example, between 1559 – 1713, Spain ruled Italy and some of the records captured during that time are in Spanish.  You will find many records, mostly in the northern regions, in German if they were noted between 1713 – 1796. Moving forward in time, many civil registers were destroyed between 1821 – 1831 due to revolts, many in the Sicilian region.  Another key change occurred in 1970 when civil divorce was made legal.

Beginning your effort to do Italian research can feel a bit overwhelming, but there are a plethora of resources you can access to begin your journey.   

Here is a partial list of some suggestions:

Italy Letter Writing Guide

Italy Handwriting

Suzanne Russo Adams, Finding Your Italian Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide (Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2008).

John Philip Colletta, Finding Italian Roots: The Complete Guide for Americans, 2nd ed. (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008). 

Lynn Nelson, A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Italian Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage (Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 1997).

I also offer a book that can assist you in researching your family’s ancestry:

The Family Tree Italian Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Family Tree in Italy, includes guides to navigating cultural and historical challenges, as well as, a step by step guide to do research.  You can purchase it here.

What You Need to Know

It is essential to know the ancestor’s town of origin, as nearly all records useful for genealogical research were created at the town [comune] or parish [parrocchia] level. If the town is unknown the research should first focus on the records created by these ancestors in the place of immigration. Once the town of origin is known, research can proceed in the Italian records.

In large cities, like Roma, Palermo, or Napoli, knowing the neighborhood [quartiere] where the family resided is essential to effectively research the civil records. Large cities had multiple town halls so the civil records are separated by the neighborhood where they were recorded. Not knowing the neighborhood may require paging through thousands of records for each town hall and each year, a time-consuming process.

Italian military records are arranged by military district, with only a few military districts within each province. Each provincial/state archives [Archivo di Stato] conserves 19th century military records for their province. Where a researcher can find pre-19th century military records varies. Research in military records could determine, for example, the town of birth for a male ancestor born after 1855, even though all that is known is that he came from the province of Napoli.

Understanding the major ports of Italian emigration is also important. Italian ancestors who emigrated out of Genova were usually from northern Italy. Ancestors who emigrated from Napoli were usually of southern Italian or Sicilian descent. While some immigration manifests show the port of emigration as Palermo, these ships also docked in Napoli to gather supplies and additional passengers for the transatlantic journey. Therefore, ship manifests that show Palermo as the port of emigration may also include immigrants from southern Italy.

Understanding the general area an ancestor may have come from could help determine the town of origin, as town names on immigration manifests are often abbreviated. For example, if an ancestor came from the town of Santa Maria, knowing the general area of origin may help narrow down which one of the twenty-plus towns in Italy that begin with Santa Maria is the correct one.

Italian women used their birth surname throughout their lives, even on their immigration manifests. Occasionally, you may find a record under her maiden and married surnames, with the word “in” between them. Ecclesiastical records may note only her first name once she reaches adulthood and she may be designated as “the wife of [husband’s name]” or “the daughter of [father’s name].” However, while the consistent use of maiden names was the practice in Italy, after immigration Italian women were recorded using their husband’s surname.

In the event you find a need to have some assistance, please contact us for free, one hour evaluation of your situation. In the event you decided to hire us, we work to the highest genealogical standards and are constantly studying and expanding our knowledge through a variety of educational opportunities.  While at times clients simply want us to find a document in an Italian archive, we go above and beyond simple document retrieval in the quality of our translation and analysis of each document. We think standards and education in the field are important. Because of this commitment, our client’s can expect the highest levels of service. To learn more, set up an appointment for your free evaluation.


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