You’re not alone if finding your Italian roots is difficult. That’s why it helps to have a few pro tips!
Italy is divided into 107 provinces and 7,926 comuni (cities/towns). Civil birth, marriage, and death records are kept at the local municipality level.
Start with What You Know
The first step in tracing Italian heritage is to start with what you know. This includes your family stories and any black-and-white photographs you might have. Talk to your relatives and be persistent! They can give you a clue leading to the next step.
Many families in America came from Italy during massive waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries. If your ancestors were among them, you could look for them on passenger arrival lists like those available at Ellis Island. You can find tips for doing this in my book The Complete Guide to Tracing Your Italian Ancestry or in John Philip Colletta’s They Came in Ships (Genealogical Publishing Co).
If you can’t locate your ancestors on arrival lists, you can still learn where they came from in Italy by searching church records such as the status animarum or church censuses. These are a genealogy goldmine and can provide information on multiple generations in the same household. These can be found in the diocesan archives or at Ancestry.
Look for Your Ancestors’ Town of Birth
One of the most critical steps when researching your Italian ancestors in Italian genealogy records is locating their birth town. You will need this information to retrieve Italian vital documents, such as baptism and death certificates. You will also need this information to locate church records, including Estratto per riassunto dell’atto di matrimonio and Estratto per riassunto di morte (certified extract of marriage and death records).
These documents can be challenging to obtain, especially in remote villages or smaller towns in Italy. You may need to hire a professional researcher or travel there yourself.
The best place to start looking for your ancestor’s town of origin is on passenger lists. Look for all entries with their name, including maiden names if applicable, and make a note of the village of origin. Once you have this information, you can search for their birth certificate from the municipality where they were born. This would be easier if they became naturalized citizens after 1906.
Start a Family Tree
Once you have your ancestors’ names, dates, and places, it’s time to put everything together on a family tree. This is one of the most satisfying parts of genealogy, as it evokes that “Eureka” moment when you discover a great-grandfather or cousin you never knew about!
Remember that you should trace each family as an individual unit – not just your grandparents but also their parents and siblings. Don’t ignore photos in your collection either, as they may have clues written on the back or other details that make them more important than you think.
Also, replace any dummy pictures you find online with real ones from your collection. It will look more authentic that way! Be cautious about using information from other people’s trees, though. Always source everything fully, as even well-meaning researchers can make mistakes. This is especially important if you plan to share your tree with others or enter it in competitions. You want to be able to prove each fact. If you can’t, you could lose credibility and ruin your research.
Research Your Italian Ancestors in America
From Amerigo Vespucci to Christopher Columbus and beyond, Italian explorers have left their mark on cultures worldwide. Today, an estimated 60-140 million people globally can claim Italian heritage. Whether they speak a little Italian, listen to Andrea Bocelli and Enrico Caruso, or love to eat pasta and pizza, they know they’re part of an extraordinary family story.
It’s no wonder that many Italian genealogists are interested in tracing their Ancestry. Luckily, the free genealogy website FamilySearch has been working with archives throughout Italy since 1975 to preserve digitally and index many historical records in their collections. The indexed images are available for everyone to access online.
FamilySearch also maintains passenger lists, which are especially helpful for finding Italian ancestors who immigrated to America. If you find your ancestor on one of these lists, note their town of origin—it may be the key to identifying them in more Italian records. You can learn more about these and other Italian records on FamilySearch’s Italy Research Page. The page lists indexed historical records, image-only historical records, and learning aids all in one place.
Write Your Family’s Stories
When writing your family history, include details that will bring your ancestor’s story to life. This means capturing not only their physical appearance but also their cultural struggles and experiences that they endured as families. Even stories about their flaws and failures can help future generations understand their ancestors’ humanity.
If your ancestor’s story has a message or purpose, ensure you know what it is before writing it. This will give you a clear direction to follow and keep your research on track. It will also prevent you from “jumping the ocean” by tracing too many generations before your ancestor arrived in America.
Once you’ve decided who will be the focus of your family story, you can start to record their stories. Remember to include first-person narratives and source citations so future generations can verify your facts. Adding photos, pedigree charts, and maps will add to the appeal of your family’s story. Cookbooks are also a great way to share favorite recipes and stories about the people who created them.