Starting Your Search For Italian Ancestors
by June C. DeLalio | Apr 18, 2011
Does the thought of starting research in a foreign country such as Italy keep you from starting that search? It's a scary thought but I can assure you that it's not that bad. With a little patience and diligence you will soon be sailing along. It's true that researching United States records is much easier with the advent of many websites offering much research data such as Archives.com. Italian records have started to appear online and, while not too much can be found now, more is being released all the time.
Before Starting Italian Research
It is important to spend some time getting to know your extended family in the United States. Knowing information about your parents, grandparents, cousins, uncles, etc. is the key to going forward in Italian research. It is in the United States records that you will find where they came from and where they settled. You'll learn a lot when you put all your information together and examine it.
The most important thing to know before you go ahead is your family's town of origin. This is because Italian vital records are found in each town with older records being kept at the State Archives in each province. Italy has no central archive for genealogists. Once you know where they came from as well as when they came to the United States, plus additional data such as common first names in the family, occupations, etc., you'll be ready to start.
As a starting point it is almost an automatic reflex today to look for family information on the Internet. You may be lucky and find other families whose background and names seem to fit in with yours. If you are from Sicily and Southern Italy your chances are very good for locating information on your family or town as many people post their family research online. For an example of database records transcribed by individuals online see Sersale.org.
If you don't know exactly what town they came from and it's not found in passenger manifests or naturalization records, there are two ways to resolve that. One excellent website is Surnames in Italy where you can search for your family name in Italy. The website can be viewed in Italian or in English. If you know the province or region where the family came from just change the first word in the address to the name of the region or province to: Surname in town of Province, Italy. Click on Surnames in left column. This is makes your search quicker and easier. You will find out how many people with that surname live in various towns in that province. The website also contains much more information and links.
Another useful website is Towns of Italy which will lead you to websites for most of the towns in Italy. Each town posts different information and photos of interest. If you have trouble reading it you can use Google translate which will translate whole websites into English.
Ready, Set, Go
Armed with solid family information, a good place to start is at Family History Library website, where the Church of Latter-Day Saints of Jesus Christ (commonly referred to as LDS) has online listings of microfilms, books and other materials for the town(s) you are looking for. The main starting point for genealogical research is finding the birth, marriage and deaths of the family in Italy listed under Civil Registration (Registri dello stato civile). The information to be found in vital records are parents' names and sometimes grandparents, ages, residences, occupations, besides the dates of birth, marriage and death.
The Library Catalog is under the main heading of ALibrary@. LDS has microfilmed the records of most towns in Italy for various amounts of years up to the early 1900's. The microfilms can be ordered at a local LDS Family History Center [FHC]. Find one near you on the above mentioned website. While at the website under "Search Records" look at FamilySearch.org's Record Search.
If microfilmed records for your town are not available, write to the town directly and ask them for the vital records you desire giving them as much information as you know about that person. In small towns there are many people with exactly the same name. It is suggested that you write in Italian particularly for small towns. In Italy you will find most English speakers in tourist areas and large cities. When writing to the State Archives which holds the records from about 1805 to 1865, you can write in English. There may be a fee for their records.
Form letters allow you to send your request letter in Italian easily and can be found at Italian Letter Generator. Just fill in the blanks and send it off as directed on the website. Most towns are very good about replying. If you are lucky enough to have relatives still living in that town they may help you obtain records.
Your best bet, however, is to access the microfilmed records of the town. In most towns the record books are indexed by surname at the end of each year. You look for the group of surnames under first letter. The surname is listed with the page or document number. Go back on the film to the record, look for the surname in the document and, if possible, make a copy of the document at the FHC so you can later examine it or ask someone to help reading it.
Assuming you do not read Italian like most Italian researchers, it is possible to read these records once you recognize at least six words. The most important words are:
Of course, if you don't have the time or interest to spend much time researching, you can hire a researcher here or in Italy. There are different advantages to each. You could also follow the dream of most Italian researchers and go to see the beautiful country of Italy and find your relatives in Italy.
Many beginners think they should look for church records. The rumor has been that Italy's church records were lost during wars or burned. This is true in some cases but on the whole it is not. Catholic Church records are difficult to obtain and contain much less information than civil records. They are also written in Latin. The records are kept in the individual churches and not always under ideal conditions. Use www.ChiesaCattolica.it (in Italian but translate it) to find the church you want. Many churches in Italy have been closed so it's necessary to check and to find the Mother Church in a town or city. This is where the records of a closed church would be.
Due to a shortage of priests in Italy they often have to cover two or more churches. Last summer I had to make an hour trip for an appointment with a priest in Italy and when I arrived he said I could only stay for 22 hours as he had to go to his another church. When reading Latin records from the 1700's, you can't accomplish too much in that amount of time.
If you are writing to a church it is considered necessary to offer a donation to the church in the form of a check in Euro. Since civil records only began in 1804 in Italy, any research done before then means turning to church records and you will have to find them to continue your family story.
Of course, there are other types of records to use but they are not readily available. These records are military service records and notary records which encompasses wills, bills of sale, donations, dowry agreements, etc. Notary records go back many centuries. Some of these are online Censuses are taken every ten years in Italy since the late 1800's but are not for public viewing.
Do it yourself
It takes time to do genealogy but you can do it at your own pace. Starting your research you find surprises. Go to your local library or purchase a book on Italian genealogy to use as a reference in your research. Once you have plunged into it you will find it fascinating. All of the above just get started. This article is giving you an overview of what Italian research is all about. Dive in and I'm sure you will be pleased with what can be found.
Adams, Suzanne Russo. Finding Your Italian Ancestors: A Beginner's Guide. Provo UT: Ancestry Publishing Company, 2008.
Cole, Trafford. Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil Ecclesiastical & Other Records in Family History Research. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, 1995.
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