I wouldn’t be a proper reflection of my Italian roots if I let this month pass by without at least acknowledging a very important day. National Linguine Day (mark your calendars!) is September 15th, so in celebration I’m sharing my favorite free websites for researching Italian ancestors. More than 4 million Italians entered the United States from 1880 through 1925. The majority after 1900 were fleeing dire poverty in southern Italy, like my grandparents. Today, Italian-Americans are the nation’s fifth largest ethnic group.
I can be a broken record when I say “start with your relatives” but it’s always true. Invite them over for a nice Sunday dinner and be prepared with questions. The elders in your family contain a treasure trove of information. Your job is getting it out. Cannolis can help.
Next, use U.S. genealogical records to work your way back to Italy. Uncovering your ancestors’ town or village of birth is essential as Italian records are kept at a local level. Marriage, death and immigration records may list this vital information necessary to finding them prior to immigration. Searching the database at statueofliberty.org/ellis-island can get you started. Surnames can also be a guide as to where your family is from. Find Italian surname maps at italianames.com.
With village name in hand, head over to FamilySearch.org which is one of the largest sources for online Italian records. Take some time to explore the Italy research page to find birth and death records, censuses, church records and more. Church records can be especially helpful in Italian research as they have been faithfully recorded since the 1500s. ChiesaCattolica.it is the website of the Italian Catholic Church and here you can search for town parishes. While only active parishes are held at this site, records of defunct churches were likely transferred to a nearby church so have a map handy.
The first website I found when starting my research is Il Portale Antenati (The Ancestors Portal) (www.antenati.san.benicultali.it). Sponsored by the Italian government, this site allows access to digitized Italian civil registers in the State Archives. Not all records are available at this time but the hope is that they will be in the future so it's worthy of a bookmark. There is an English language option for this site in the top right.
Communi-Italiani provides information on Italy’s municipalities and is useful in locating archives throughout Italy. Because towns and parishes created nearly all genealogical records, your research will eventually lead you to the Town Vital Records Office where your ancestor lived. Use Comuni-italiani.it/ to locate contact information for these offices. With this information in hand you will want to write a letter requesting information. You can find wonderful information and sample letters at http://geocities.ws/paulanigro/italian-genealogy-online/italian-form-letters.html. Although your patience may be tested while you await a response, it’ll be worth it. I had little faith when I dropped my first letter in the mail but was thrilled to get a response about eight weeks later. The office clerk asked for a nominal fee, which I was happy to oblige. Within a month an envelope arrived with information about my aunt who was only 3 when she died, prior to my grandmother’s voyage to meet my grandfather in the United States.
I have to mention the obvious. Italian records are in Italian or Latin in the case of Italian Catholic Church records. Don’t let this hinder your search! As a language dictionary hoarder (donations accepted!) I find it useful to keep one by my side. You can also use online translation tools but by using a dictionary, my knowledge of the Italian language has expanded. Although frustrating at times, climbing your Italian family tree can be rewarding. Perseverance is key. Happy hunting and “Non mollare mai”! [Never give up!]
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a National Genealogical Society member, Association of Professional Genealogists member as well as guest lecturer and freelance writer. She also holds a board seat and is president of the Niagara County Genealogical Society. Send questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.