There is perhaps no activity which can more vividly reawaken one’s sense of history and ethnic awareness than the compiling of a family history. For Anglo-Americans this can be a relatively simple process, for thousands of volumes have already been published specifically dealing with English, Scotch, Welsh and Irish genealogy and are relatively accessible in any large public library. The Cleveland Public Library, for example, has over 150 separate works dealing only with British ancestry, not including various periodicals such as the Parish Register Society and the Publications of the Northamtonshire Record Society.
Parish records in England, Ireland and Scotland have been well kept and many are available at the Western Reserve Historical Society and the Public Library. In this country each state Historical Society has compiled documents and other primary sources dealing with early settlers in their state. In sum, the original interest in family history has rested primarily with this Anglo-American community. Consequently the materials currently available reflect this group’s pedigree.
Americans of Continental descent have had little printed material from which to work in their attempts to trace family histories. To further complicate matters one must also contend with language barriers and the almost continuous shifting of boundaries over the last 200 years. Thus, depending on when and where a relative was born, his “official” language may have been Austrian while his vernacular speech would have been Slovenian, Croatian or Italian.
The Anglo-American can, with relative ease, trace his or her ancestry to a neatly kept collection of parish records in County Cork or Yorkshire. The uninitiated Italian-American would quickly realize that attempts to go beyond a paternal grandparent would end in frustration and failure. The problem is knowing how and where to look. Some of these questions will hopefully be answered in this essay.
This essay was prepared to assist those of Italian extraction in ascertaining their own individual family histories. It will require work, but the rewards of knowing more about your particular history should more than compensate for the efforts.
(1). The task of tracing a family history falls into two distinct categories. The first task lies in tracing the history of one’s family in America and the second should deal with following those pertinent individuals back to Italy as far as possible. The first task should be approached in the following manner. Contact all relatives who can give any recollections about origins such as who was the first from your family to come to America. When did they arrive, and where? What section and town did they come from in Italy? These are really the most important steps in recreating a family portrait, because they will determine the framework for the genealogy. This step is essential, because these living relatives can later clarify initial problems encountered in subsequent research.
(2). For the city of Cleveland you can trace your recent ancestors within the last 100 years or so by consulting the city Directory, available from the early 1800’s to the present. The Directory can be used at the Western Reserve Historical Society or the Cleveland Public Library. They are arranged alphabetically and will include the name, address and occupation of the individual you are seeking. By using these on a yearly basis you can determine changes in occupations, ethnic mobility from one neighborhood to another, even changes in spelling of names. For example, Francesco de Nicola may appear for six consecutive years at a particular address and suddenly appear as Francis or Frank Nicols at the same address. Obviously there was a name change in the Americanization process but the original name is most important for tracing previous ancestry.
(3). Also at the local level, one should consult church records which will indicate additional information about the individual’s background such as date and place of birth, marriages, baptisms, etc. Usually family members are allowed such access with permission from the parish and/or the diocese. The address of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese will be found in the last page of this essay.
If a non-Catholic member is involved, local civil information can be obtained by checking with the County Courthouse for such materials. Some helpful guides have been prepared by the government on finding especially difficult civil materials. At a nominal fee of 35¢ each, one may order guides entitled “Where to Write for Birth and Death Certificates” and “Where to Write for Marriage Records” from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Superintendent of Documents, Washington, D.C. 20402.
(4). Since we are dealing with Italian aliens of the first generation who may or may not have become citizens, one should also contact the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization for official documentation which would determine general and occasionally specific information on a recently arrived immigrant.
Prior to 1906 information required for an immigrant in the process of naturalization was very sketchy. Most Italians immigrated to America about this time, so specific information would be marginal. These materials on naturalization would be kept in the local courthouse where the individual applied. If immigration occurred after 1906 copies of the naturalization papers would be housed locally as well as at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
I was reminded by the Bureau of Immigration that anyone wishing this kind of information must apply for it through the local Immigration and Naturalization office. In Cleveland this bureau is located in the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building.
(5). It is also possible by writing or visiting the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to obtain a photocopy of a Federal Census record which would also indicate pertinent information about the individual in question. This listing required more sophisticated questions at the turn of the century when Italian immigration was greatest. Thus, the interested party could trace back his or her grandparent by using the Federal Census lists if aware of that person’s city of habitation during a particular census period. Microfilmed copies of the Ohio Federal Census from 1820 to 1880 are currently available at the Western Reserve Historical Society. After 1900 the information must be obtained directly from the National Archives.
To do this contact the National Archives in Washington and determine which of its 11 branches is nearest to you. Write to that branch and give them the state, county and census year. They will give you the number of the microfilm roll containing the census information about your ancestor. Ask the Cleveland Public Library to borrow that film for you and you can get an accurate accounting of a particular ancestor’s past.
(6). It is also possible in some cases to use the Federal Archives to determine the actual vessel which was used to transport one’s relatives by utilizing Ship’s Passenger Lists. These microfilmed collections would contain the name of the vessel, the ship’s master, and most important, the names of all passengers, port of embarcation, age, sex and port of immigration. For the majority of Italians this port would be Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore or New Orleans. There is a special form for obtaining this information, Form GSA-7111, the official request for passenger lists. This must be done through the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Once you have traced your roots back to your relatives who first immigrated to America, the trail doesn’t have to end there. You can indeed trace them back to the country, region and town from which they came.
An excellent place to begin is the massive library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) in Salt Lake City, Utah. It holds information on people of every race, creed and nationality, from some forty countries. The library contains more than a billion names and genealogical data from 1538 to 1885. It maintains a staff of 75 around the world who are constantly microfilming records in national and local archives, museums, cemeteries, churches, etc. The six storehouses for this unique collection of microfilm are chiseled into a mountain in the Rockies.
Most of the information in the main library is available from any of the 216 local branches of the Mormon Church in the United States. None of the libraries accept requests by mail to trace ancestry but you can do it yourself on the premises free of charge. The address of the local branch is also located on the last page of this essay.
Thus, by using relatives, local records and Federal repositories the serious researcher should be able to trace the history of his or her own ancestry in this country. Who was the first Italian in your family to settle in America, where and when did he settle and from what area of Italy did he originate? Equipped with the answers to these questions, one is ready for the second major undertaking, that of tracing back one’s genealogy to the region, town or frazioni (village) from which they originated.
This aspect for the Italian-American researcher is especially difficult because rarely have there been any guides to follow in this pursuit. One work in English by Joseph G. Fucilla, entitled Our Italian Surnames deals only with the origins of names rather than actually tracing back the individual family histories. Dante at least had Virgil and Beatrice to guide him through the uncertainties of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The Italian-American researcher could encounter formidable problems and without a working set of guidelines could lose his way in a labyrinth of manmade obstacles.
Although each individual’s efforts will vary, certain standards can be set down establishing rules and procedures. If the exact area or town in Italy is known there should be fewer problems. In this case two sources are indispensable for research. First, the Civil Communal Archives of each town should contain all legal documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and death notices. These records were standardized in Italy in 1869, but in the south of Italy Civil Registration began in 1820.
Birth registers were required by law to show the exact time and place of nativity, sex, name of the child, surname, occupation, residence and occasionally the age of the father and maiden name of the mother. In some instances the names of the paternal grandparents are also indicated. Thus by writing or visiting the town where your ancestor originated you should be able to acquire knowledge of several generations.
The address of each communal archive may be acquired by writing to the Institute Italiane di Cultura, 686 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10021. Another source is the two-volume work The World of Learning, 1976-1977 Italy in Volume I lists about 150 civic libraries and repositories in Italy by city with the addresses. Noel C. Stevenson’s Search and Research (1959) also lists various European libraries and archives of benefit to the genealogist.
The Cleveland Public Library has several works in Italian on Italian genealogy, but they deal usually with Italian nobility and heraldry and usually would be of little value unless one’s ancestors were titled nobility in Italy. Works of special note are the Dizionario Biografico Degli Italiani, a scholarly dictionary of national biography which began in 1960. Another monumental compilation is Vittorio Spreti’s Enciclopedia Storica Nobiliare Italiana (6 Volumes, 1928-1932) which is helpful in identifying some Italian families.
By using the municipal archives one should be able to trace one’s ancestry back to the early 19th century. If, however, this information is not available because of lost or damaged records another source is available. This is the Parish Archives which date back to an Edict of the Council of Trent in 1563, authorizing each parish to maintain a complete listing of its parishioners. The Parish Archives are usually in Latin and cover even the most remote villages in the district. An application to the diocesan chancery is usually required before the local parish records are permitted to be used. Microfilming and/or xeroxing of pertinent information will not usually be available, so a letter with the needed information may be the contents of a reply from an Italian parish request. Names and addresses of pertinent ecclesiastical authorities in Italy may be obtained from the Institute Italiano di Cultura in New York or from the local diocesan office in Cleveland.
Also included in some parochial registers will be a Status Animarum, literally the “state of souls,” which will list the particulars of a household. Included would be the names, ages, residence, birth dates, occupations and occasionally remarks about the spiritual status of the family. In some regions the Status Animarum was well kept and updated every two or three years while other areas were not as scrupulous in their clerical preciseness.
An interesting problem could arise when researching your Italian ancestry. In some cases there may be many persons in one town or village with the same surname as yours. One genealogist discovered that in a north Italian village of about 1400 people, 850 had the same last name. In a town in Sicily of some 6000, 80% of the population could be divided into 7 surnamed groups. It is for this reason that the Parish Records and the Status Animarum will be of significant value in ascertaining one’s particular ancestry.
In addition to the Communal and Parochial archives one may also consult the Archivio di Stato or state archives, which exist currently in about 72 cities, each the chief city in a particular province. There are also state archives in the larger urban centers such as Rome, Naples, Palermo, Venice, Turin, Milan, Genoa, Florence, and Bologna. Addresses of these state archives are available from the Instituto Italiano di Cultura.
Within the archives notorial registers or minute books can be located which will contain information of a legal nature, usually marriage contracts, sales of property, etc. In addition military conscription registers known as Leva, covering a whole military district, may be consulted for persons born in the last 100 years. The Leva will reveal the exact birthplace of an individual as well as other pertinent information.
For the Italian-American of Sicilian ancestry who wishes to trace back his or her cultural roots there is an American-based travel organization which specializes in tours to Sicily for just that purpose. Perillo Tours in New York has plans to institute a speciality package which will specialize in genealogical searches in Sicily. The address of the Perillo Agency can be obtained from any travel service in Cleveland.
The following addresses will facilitate the interested researcher in obtaining preliminary information on an Italian-American family history:
The National Archives
8th and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20408
The Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
50 East North Temple Street
Salt Lake City, Utah 84150
25000 Westwood Avenue Westlake, Ohio 44145
Instituto Italiano di Cultura
686 Park Avenue
New York, New York 10021
The Italian Consulate: Cleveland
Consul Mario Anziano
Hilton Office Tower
Cleveland, Ohio 44115
The Italian Embassy
1601 Fuller Street
Washington, D.C. 20009
The Western Reserve Historical Society
10825 East Boulevard
Cleveland, Ohio 44106
The Cleveland and Catholic Diocese
1027 Superior Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44114
Phone: 216 696-6525
The Federal Archives and Records Center – Chicago
7358 South Pulaski Road
Chicago, Illinois 60629
Some Italian names and addresses for continental genealogy:
Vital Statistics (Italy):
Instituto Centrale di Statistica
Via Cesare Balbo
Wills and some legal documents:
Via Flaminia 160
Rome Italian National Archives:
Archivio Centrale della Stato