This brief article is meant to be an overview of an ocean of possibilities.
Here are some facts and figures gleaned from various sources: In 1850, less than 4,000 Italians were reportedly in the U. S. However in 1880, merely four years after the influx of Italian immigrants began in earnest, the population skyrocketed to 44,000, and by 1900, to 484,027 people born overseas. From 1880 to 1900, people from southern Italy were the predominant Italian immigrant and it stayed that way throughout the mass migration. While there are certainly places where Italian immigrants moved to outside the larger cities, most did stay in urban areas such as Little Italy's and the like. This helps with research since records tend to be in a more closely defined area.
So, where can you begin to find information? What sources are there? Where do you find them? Can you contact people back in the old country?
As always, start with the information closest to home. If there are older people who were or knew the immigrants first hand, talk to them. Since the vast majority of Italians came during the period of 1880-1920 or so, it is entirely possible that the children of some of these immigrants are still alive, albeit aged. From 1880 to 1920, an estimated 4 million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, the majority from 1900 to 1914.
Start with home-based sources. You may find birth, marriage, and death certificates; journals, photographs, and pictures; family letters, naturalizations, obituaries, a family Bible, and even tickets from the immigrant's boat. And commercially available databases do have many passenger lists available online - they could very well say the town of origin in Italy.
Often families have traditional stories of where they came from, favorite recipes from a certain place, or family stories mentioning people and churches. Before spending a lot of time of looking in old records, talk to old people. Once you get a grip on that then other avenues open up.
Such as what?
Church records are also good sources of vital record information. Marriages and deaths might give the place of birth. Also, try civil records in the USA - cities and counties may well have detailed information from those times. Obituaries of Italian Americans will often give a lot of personal information. In 2011, I helped some students researching Italian American businessmen in my town, and we found several obituaries for them which mentioned their parents, who had been born in a specific town. So, even current newspapers can give such information.
Also, be sure to check all kinds of legal records. Court cases, whether civil or criminal may give nativity information, as would probate records listing the people who have an interest in the estate. County clerks and private courts can be extremely useful in your research.
These resources might be in town, city, county, state, and federal records, so it will be productive if you try to think of all of these and see what you can access. Many items are available on commercial databases, but many are also available in local sources such as libraries, historical societies, and affinity clubs (the Sons of Italy for example). Try each place that your ancestors lived. They may have left records there. Look in the parish registers to see what might be recorded.
And there are organizations such as the POINTers (Pursuing our Italian Names Together) that have local chapters all over the country. These folks are specifically concerned with Italian genealogy.
Since the vast bulk of Italian immigration was in the 20th century, the naturalization law passed in 1906 may be extremely useful. It mandated certain kinds of information, which might well ask which port the immigrant arrived in and where they were from in Italy. Since Italy was not basically a united country until about 1870, records can exist in all kinds of archives. Many times men (the father and older sons) immigrated first, and the women would come later after the men could send passage money.
Spelling challenges abound. It is not unknown to have all sorts of variations on a person's name. What else could explain the variations of Ana Maria, Anna Maria, Anna, and Maria? Or maybe Marie, Annemarie? Nana? The there are Patsy, Pasquale, Rocco, Rocky, and "Rock." The reasons I mention this should be obvious. If you think a person's name is DiMarco, and in reality they spell it Demarco, you will not find them if the indexing is accurate. That happened to a class visit recently, where looking under DeMarco rather than DiMarco made a great deal of difference. Then there was the lady who was sure that her great grandmother was English, because the family had a written record that she was named Chatt. All well and good, save that a marriage record showed that it was in reality Cetta. Once she discovered that, she was able to find other religious and immigration records and the names of other family members. Did women keep their own name or assume the husband's? In America, they may have taken the husband's name. But back in Italy, the convention was to keep one's own name.
Be sure to try the standard methods of looking in printed family histories, although since most migration was in the 20th century, and southern Italians tended to be persons of not great wealth, this might be hard to find . Think of the scenes shown in the TV series, "Who Do You Think You Are," with working a class people not leaving many records. There are also many websites which accept contributed data online, and that could be a viable way of finding others working on your or your extended family.
When you do get a town overseas, see what sources are available online or via email, as well as microfilm made by the Latter Day Saints genealogical filming program. There are a great deal of films available to view for Italy, and many could already be online due to the LDS scanning project. Check the towns that you find at FamilySearch.org. The Family History Center (FHC) library has many records filmed from archives in Italy, although not many from libraries or other local repositories.
Church records are great sources for accurate information on names, dates and places. of births, marriages, and deaths. Sources say that nearly every person who lived in Italy was recorded in a church record during the last 200 to 300 years. Church records are essential for research before the government started keeping vital records in the early 1800s.
Write to archives and local churches overseas, although do also remember that the people there have real lives and responsibilities, and your overseas genealogy request might take a while for them to get to. Some addresses are given in the books mentioned later.
Remember that dates may vary, and allow for people not being exactly the age that you think they are.
As one can expect, there are a lot of web sites devoted to Italian genealogical research. Since the one that you find your family on is for you the most valuable, it's hard to narrow it down to ten million or so. But as always there are a few basic ones on which to start your research.
- CyndiList.com - Italy, etc.
- Italian Heritage and Genealogy Home Page
- The LDS genealogy pages - (not only are there films and other records listed there, but also form letters, translation guides, and useful wiki's of information).
- Italian Genealogical Group
- Italian Genealogical Group (Based in NY City, they have indexed millions of records which can be searched on that site for free.)
- Italian Genealogy & Family History
- Pointers (Pursuing Our Italian Names Together)
- Joe's Italian Genealogy Page
- Sons of Italy, and Sons of Italy, Culture & History
Here are some books that may be useful. Do be advised that as there is more and more information available online, an older title will not make reference to current information.
Adams, Suzanne Russo, Finding your Italian ancestors: A Beginner's Guide. Ancestry, (2009)
Carmack, Sharon DeBartolo. Italian-American Family History: A Guide to Researching and Writing About Your Heritage. Baltimore. Genealogical Publishing Co., (2010).
Cole, Trafford R. (Trafford Robertson). Italian genealogical records: how to use Italian civil, ecclesiastical & other records in family history research, Salt Lake City, Utah. Ancestry, (1995).
Colletta, John Philip. Finding Italian roots: the complete guide for Americans, 2nd ed. Genealogical Publishing Company, (2009)
Nelson, Lynn. Genealogists Guide to Discovering Your Italian Ancestors: How to Find and Record Your Unique Heritage, 1st ed. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, (1997).
Ott, George, Guide to the genealogical resources of Italy. Region of Sicily - with maps and full index of included towns. Heritage Creations, (2004)