3 Tips for Finding Your Italian Roots

Uncategorized Oct 23, 2020

Over four million Italians entered the United States between 1880-1930. My ancestors were among them. Are you looking for yours?

Many of us have a dream of finding our ancestral roots in Italy. It took many years, but I was able to trace mine back to Grimaldi, Italy.

Walking in the footsteps of my ancestors in Grimaldi, Italy.

The most important clues to tracing your Italian ancestors back to Italy is locating your immigrant ancestor’s original name and town of birth.

While towns didn’t change names, our Italian-American ancestors often had many name variations and changes. This can make locating records difficult. But, as I explain in my book The Name Game, knowing how to use names in your research can help you break through those brick walls and discover more family history.

As with any genealogy project, start with what you know and then using genealogical records carefully work your way backward to uncover the unknown. During your search carefully examine records that might include your ancestor’s original name and place of birth in Italy. These records include:

  • passenger manifests
  • draft registration cards
  • marriage licenses
  • passport applications
  • naturalization records

Tracing your Italian ancestors in the United States and back to Italy can be tricky, but not impossible. Here are three search strategies for Italian ancestral names I’ve used with great success. Use these tips and watch your famiglia  grow!

Tip #1 – Embrace Name Variations

If you have Italian immigrant ancestors, a common research problem you might encounter is the same ancestor going by two or more names.

This is not because their name was changed at Ellis Island. That is a myth. Many Italians adopted American versions of their names for a variety of reasons including a desire to assimilate, to avoid discrimination, or just to make their name easier to spell or pronounce.

During the early 20th century, faced with a large wave of immigrants, a nationwide effort known as the Americanization Movement sought through education and various programs to assimilate foreigners quickly to our country and culture. Adopting an American name, both first and last, was popular.

Official name changes appear in court records and can be found in some naturalization papers. Occasionally, our Italian ancestors never got around to the courthouse to make the change “legal.”

It is not uncommon to have our Italian ancestors appear in passenger records, naturalization papers, census records, and vital records with different names. For example, while your immigrant Italian great-grandfather was always known as “Joe Angelo” and he might have appeared in the U.S. census as such, he might appear in passenger records as “Guiseppe Colengelo.” If you only search for records using “Joe” or “Angelo,” you just might miss out on these important records that reveal his birth town in Italy.

The use of nicknames is another reason for name variations. Alberto might be listed as “Al,” Salvatore might be “Sal,” and Vincenzo “Vince.” And in some cases, our Italian ancestors might have gone by their middle name. In my family, many women were named “Maria” but they often went by their middle name. Searching for records using both their first and middle names helped me trace these women.

Many Italians Americanized their surname by dropping or changing vowels at the end. Some dropped letters at the beginning of their surname name.

And don’t forget, many name variations often occurred due to illiteracy or transcription errors.

Passenger manifests are one of the most important records you can locate. These lists were often completed at the Italian port of embarkation.  The way your ancestor’s name was spelled on the passenger list is most likely the way their name would have been spelled in Italian records.

When tracing your ancestors, search for records using their original and Americanized first and last name. Consider possible nicknames, middle names, and initials. Sound out the name and search using all possible spelling options. Be open and creative when using name variations when searching and you’ll be amazed at the records you can find. 

Tip #2 – Look For Patterns

Have you noticed that many Italian families seem particularly fond of a name? They might have three or four Anthonys, five Giovannis, and more Marias than you can count.

The reason is the Italian cultural naming tradition. Unlike today where unique and unusual names are popular, many Italian families followed the long standing tradition of naming their children after their ancestors. The practice was to honor their heritage and a sign of respect. Many Italians continued following this tradition even after immigrating to the U.S.

Traditionally, the pattern follows:

  • first son was named after the father’s father
  • second son after the mother’s father
  • third son after the father

 

  • first daughter was named father’s mother
  • second daughter after the mother’s mother
  • third daughter after the mother

 

Additional children were named after favorite uncles, aunts, or saints. When a new bambino arrived, there were no baby name books to consult or long arguments. No choice, no muss, no fuss. 

This naming pattern can be an important clue in identifying your family and birth order.  For example, on my Italian side of the family, the oldest son is named after the father’s father. I used that pattern as a clue in tracing my lineage back several generations in the U.S. and Italy. It helped me in my search for records, evaluating evidence, and locating additional ancestors.

This search strategy is not an absolute rule. Use it as a clue for kinship. There’s always rule breakers and this tradition has faded away in modern times.  In my family,  I’m the firstborn daughter on my dad’s side of the family tree going back six generations not to be named after my paternal grandmother.

Tip #3 - Explore Italian Surnames and Origins

If you know or have confirmed your original Italian surname, but you are unable to locate a record indicating your ancestral town, don’t give up. Italian surnames in of themselves can be clues for locating your family’s origins in Italy because certain surnames only exist in specific locations or regions.

Like others in Europe, Italians didn’t generally use surnames until the population started to grow and more families needed to be distinguished one from another. In the 15th century the upper class was first to adopt the use of surnames. In 1563, the Council of Trent emphasized the Catholic Church’s need to record baptisms, marriages, and burials, and use of surnames became common place in Italy by the 1600s.

Because our surnames reach back so far back in time, their origins can be clues about our distant family history - where our ancestors came from, what they looked like, or about their occupations.

There are many websites that will tell you where your surname is most prevalent in Italy. Three of my favorite are:

  • Gens: Will show you on a map the frequency of your surname in Italy. 
  • Italian Surnames: Allows you to search by region and shows you the frequency of your surname by the town.
  • Italian Names: Discover the distribution of Italian last names with an interactive map: see how many families in Italy have that last name and where they live.

So there you have it, just a few of my search tips for breaking through those brick walls when researching your Italian ancestors. If you would like more search tips, check out my book The Name Game. The facts and tips gathered in this quick little reference guide include everything you need to know about given names and surnames to start making more family history discoveries today.

After you have located your Italian ancestral town, you can begin delving into Italian civil and church records. Family Search has an excellent Guide to Italy Online Genealogy Records.

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