Columbus Day Turns Over a New Leif

By Family Tree Editors Premium

Italian-Americans won’t be the only ones celebrating their heritage on Oct. 9, Columbus Day. This year they share the date with Scandinavian-Americans, celebrating “Leif Ericson Day” and the 1,000th anniversary of the Vikings’ arrival in North America.

Though they might argue over who “discovered” America, both ethnic groups helped build this country. More than 15 million Americans trace their ancestry to Italy, making them the fifth largest US ethnic heritage. Almost 11 million Americans have roots in the five Scandinavian nations; a greater percentage of the populations of Norway and Sweden emigrated to the US than any country besides Great Britain.

Americans seeking their Italian roots can find clues in the way their ancestors lived. Your family’s food habits, for example, can help pinpoint the region they came from. You can unscramble your southern Italian genealogy by understanding the traditional pattern for choosing first names: naming the first son after the father’s father and the second son after the mother’s father, for instance.

You may find that your Italian ancestor was a “bird of passage,” appearing on several ship passenger lists. These went back and forth several times before bringing their families over.

Understanding the ways of the old country can also be key to unpuzzling Scandinavian roots. Armed with your immigrant ancestor’s correct name and home parish, you can tap church records going back centuries.

But for centuries throughout Scandinavia, it was common to take your last name from your father’s first name. If your father’s first name was Magnus, for example, your last name in Sweden would have been Magnusson or Magnussdotter (depending whether you’re male or female). Other names might come from the farm your ancestor worked, or have been changed in the Army or in America.

You can get started tracing your Italian or Scandinavian ancestors with tips from our August and October issues. Discover guidebooks, social histories and cultural, heritage and travel links that will help you with Italian genealogy. You’ll find links to databases, dictionaries, organizations and more for family history in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. And check out our features archive to see other ethnic ancestry features.