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Italian Studies, Deparment of Languages, Literatures and Cultures


Genealogy: Exploring Your Italian Heritage

Genealogy is on its surface the investigation of the past, the study of those who have gone before you. But it is also much more than that; it is, indeed, the scrutiny - through the opaque lens of Time - of the family bonds from which you ultimately derive own your luminous individuality. While you are in college, you have remarkable opportunities to learn a great deal about the world and people around you. You study innumerable lofty accomplishments of philosophers, artists, and scientists as well as innovative approaches to futuristic fields of research. You are exploring vast expanses of historical landscapes and confronting unfamiliar ways of thinking about subjects that now seem more complex than ever before. During this period in which you are embracing a wide variety of human experiences you should also give some thought to the people who most immediately contributed to putting you in the position in which you currently find yourself. By this we don't simply mean those who pay your tuition, but also those who made staggering sacrifices to ensure a brighter future for their descendants: the immigrants who left their homeland and from whom you descend. In striving to understanding your ancestors, you will inevitably come to appreciate more profoundly those unique characteristics that make your family the way it is and make you who you are. In the case of Italian Americans, like most other immigrants to America, the research you carry out will lead you to consider larger issues than those documented in the archives. As you work your way back in time, you will doubtlessly discover many who stoically persevered in the face of overwhelming adversity, who fought prejudice and inequality with the hope that their children, and their children's children, may one day enjoy a quality of life superior to their own. These heroic figures, in many cases long forgotten, are the connection to your own past and to a fuller understanding of your place in the world today.

How do I begin?

Once you have decided to investigate your family tree, you must start by accumulating as much information as possible from your immediate relatives. Where were your parents born? Your grandparents? Because most Italian Americans are only a couple of generations removed from their immigrant ancestors, you may even be able to find in someone's attic copies of birth certificates or other vital records as well as an old passport belonging to the first generation of Americans in your family. Once you have collected as many facts as possible through family interviews and photo albums, you should enlarge your search to include archival records. Most useful at this stage is a trip to the local branch of the National Archives Administration to consult the available census forms (currently the latest public records are those from 1930). There you will find information regarding citizenship information and ship passenger lists. Do you know when your Italian relatives arrived in this country? Do you know how they came over and where they settled? If not, you will most likely find out here. Once you've located the very first members of your family to set foot upon this continent, you should continue your search as best you can to find out more about where they lived in Italy. Indeed, you may discover relatives now living in Italy whom you never knew. Although research becomes somewhat more difficult as you move back in time and eastward across the Atlantic, you may be able to locate documents regarding births, deaths and marriages in your family from state archives in Italy (Archivi di stato).

One last bit of advice: be patient. If you do not immediately succeed in finding the information you need, it doesn't necessarily mean that you have reached an insurmountable obstacle. Simply try some other strategies. You will find a great wealth of resources on the Internet that may serve to open new doors. Who knows? You may even stumble upon some long lost relatives by sending out a few strategic requests for information by email. If you don't yet know Italian, sign up for a course...

In the meantime, in bocca al lupo!

Resources for Italian Americans

General Genealogical Sites