Locating Italian Records in the United States

by Jennifer Holik | Oct 15, 2013

La Famiglia! The family! In your quest to find your Italian roots, have you exhausted the records in the United States and determined the town in Italy from which your family came? Have you located the original family name?

Before hopping a plane to Italy, check the records in the United States first. If you have not yet located the town of origin, determined the name, or exhausted all the records available in the U.S. keep reading. Here are some tips and resources that may help you in your search so you can jump across the pond.

Find the Original Name of the Immigrant

It seems every record we examine from city directories, census, immigration, and military records, shows us a different spelling for a surname. In cases where the surname is spelled several ways depending on the record and time period, it is important to search under all variations of the name.

Also keep in mind that the immigrants themselves sometimes changed the spelling unofficially. I've worked with a family that did such a thing with the surname Iacullo. The 'IA' sounds like 'YIA.' Some U.S. immigrants retained the spelling Iacullo while others changed it to Yacullo.

Once you have the original name and variations of the name, you should begin searching U.S. sources for additional information.

Search for the Collaterals

Unsure of which parish your ancestors were members? Remember that Italians tended to live near others from the same town. Examine census records to see who lived near your Italian families. Then look at church records to see if there are any clues as to the town of origin.

Church Records

Investigate parish records for the locales in which your ancestors lived in the U.S. The church records typically contained information on parents, sponsors, godparents, or witnesses which may be relatives. In some records, the town of origin is listed.

Ethnic Societies and Museums

Check the resources at ethnic museums and societies in the U.S. locale in which your Italian ancestors lived. These museums and societies may have collections of books, oral histories, archived files, video, photographs and other ephemera that may help you with your research. Consider the social history as you investigate these holdings. You may or may not find something specific to your family, but chances are you will gain knowledge of life in that Italian community at the time in which your family was living there.

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As researchers we know to be friendly, polite, and respectful of the people and records with which we work. Feel them out and don't give your entire family's genealogical history of course. But, it doesn't hurt to try to make friends with the people in charge of these small ethnic museums. One way is to ask if they accept donations. You could submit copies of your records or stories about the Italian family. Another is to discuss any special research or situation in which your ancestor was involved. This might open the curator or archivist's eyes to other materials they run across later that may be of help to you.

Fraternal Societies and Funeral Homes

Many fraternal societies, such as the Order Sons of Italy in America, were founded as mutual aid societies. Since its inception, the Order Sons of Italy in America evolved into a national organization which supports the language, culture, and history of Italian Americans.

The mutual aid societies served many purposes from providing a social outlet to moral and financial support of the member families in times of crises. The Order of the Sons of Italy in America kept excellent records on their insurance policies. Some of these can be found for specific states on Ancestry.com and provide a great deal of information. One example is Illinois, Order Sons of Italy in America, Lodge Records, 1925-1977

Other fraternal societies were set up based on the name of a town of origin. The town of Ricigliano had its own society, founded, according to Riciglianese lore, with the help of Jane Addams at Hull House, in Chicago called The Societa Agricola di Ricigliano. That society no longer exists and the location of any surviving records is unknown. If you talk with a person from Ricigliano or with Ricigliano roots, they can probably tell you a story about an ancestor who was part of this society.

Finally there were societies based on Catholic patron saints. These societies offered similar benefits to fraternal societies and tended to operate out of a specific church. Any surviving records may be held with the Catholic Diocese records.

It was common in many U.S. cities to handle the wake and preparation of a deceased love one in the home through the 1930s and even into the 1940s. When the switch was made from handling the dead in the home to a funeral home, then records were created. Talk to the funeral homes where your ancestors were prepared for burial and gather as much information as possible.

Both fraternal societies and funeral homes kept records. The question becomes, in cases where those societies and businesses close shop, is where are the records. Post queries on social media, talk to people who were part of those societies and businesses. Plant seeds everywhere. You may stumble upon someone one day who can tell you, "My uncle has all those society records in his attic."

Italian Language Newspapers

Look for Italian language newspapers in the locales in which your ancestors lived. Older newspapers may be held at ethnic museums or society locations; city historical societies; or major research or university libraries. Check with your state library or archives to see if they are mandated to microfilm and preserve old newspapers. In Illinois, the Abraham Lincoln Library is mandated to film and preserve. These films are available for loan throughout Illinois.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) may have assisted your city or state with a newspaper project. The Newbery Library has a website called the Foreign Language Press Survey. In Illinois, the WPA translated specific articles from foreign language newspapers and typed them onto index cards in English. These are searchable online and refer to the original source so you can attempt to locate the newspaper.

When you locate databases or foreign language newspapers, search under multiple surname spellings. Look not only for your ancestor, but also for associated people fraternal and church groups. Also look for the collaterals who lived and worked with your ancestors. All of those items may provide clues for your family history.

Online Groups, Pages, and Websites

Finally, do not overlook blogs, Facebook groups and pages, and websites that deal with Italian genealogy. Facebook has numerous groups and pages relating to specific regions in Italy and surnames. More bloggers are writing about their Italian roots, records they've uncovered, and resources they've used.

Get on Twitter and follow the hashtags #Italy, #Italiangenealogy and #Italianhistory and see what pops up. These may be individuals or businesses you wish to follow because of the information they provide here and abroad.

Final Thoughts

Be creative in where you look for Italian records in the United States. Plant seeds, make connections, and search every possible avenue for records. Look at the collaterals and talk to museum staff. Sharing just a bit of your family's story may present you with the final piece to the puzzle that allows you to jump across the pond.

Additional Resources

American Italian Cultural Center  - A New Orleans based Italian American Museum.

Italian American Museum - A New York City based Italian American Museum.

Italiamerica - An organization dedicated to the history of those from Southern Italy and Sicily.

Italian American Studies Association  An organization that promotes the study of Italian American history. This organization provides many resources online, through conferences, and publications.

Italian Genealogical Society of America - A genealogical society for Italians. This group holds meetings, offers resources, and publications.

June C. DeLalio, "Starting Your Search for Italian Ancestors."  

National Italian American Foundation - A foundation dedicated to preserving and sharing the history, language, and culture of the Italian people.

Taylor Street Archives - Read stories about life in Chicago and growing up in the Taylor Street/Hull House neighborhood.


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