Navigating the ropes of finding your Italian ancestors can be tricky, but those of us who’ve been tracing our Italian roots since the Dark Ages, long before the word online existed, have managed just fine. In fact, I traced my DeBartolo and Vallarelli lines back to the mid-1700s without leaving US shores and without the aid of a computer. If I can do it, you can, too—following these four key steps.
If you know the town where your ancestors originated, you’re one step ahead to connecting your immigrant ancestor to his forebears in Italy. But sound genealogical research means starting with the present and working back one generation at a time. So first, gather all the identifying information you can in US sources. After all, you don’t want to be tracing the wrong Antonio DeLeo in Italian records. Plus, your ancestor’s name may be different in America from what it was in Italy: An immigrant I’ve helped research named Frank Miller was born Francesco Mollo. Ask family members if they know your immigrant ancestor’s Italian name. In US census records (on microfilm in large libraries and online at subscription sites such as Ancestry.com ) search first for the American name. If you get no results, try the Italian name.
Especially important to note on the passenger list is the column “Whether ever before in the United States; and if so, when and where?” Many Italians were “birds of passage,” sailing back and forth between Italy and America one or more times before finally bringing their families to the United States. Frank, for example, had lived in Philadelphia from 1896 to 1901. That means there’s another passenger list to look for, the 1900 census to check.
Once you’ve exhausted the potential records America has to offer on your ancestor and learned his Italian hometown, it’s time to cross the Atlantic. The Mollo family knew that “Rogiano” was actually Roggiano Gravina in the province of Cosenza and the region of Calabria. But if you’re not sure of the spelling or full name of the town, run a Google search to find alternate spellings. Or try an online gazetteer, such as the Directory of Cities, Towns, and Regions in Italy. Next, check Comuni Italiani for details such as the town’s province and region.