How to Start Looking for your Italian Heritage
Doing your own genealogical research can be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences you can have. With each layer uncovered, with each relative pulled from the forgotten past you discover another piece of your own personal puzzle. The rewards of researching your Italian family tree do not stop with personal discovery, but will continue to benefit your descendants for generations to come.
At times your work will seem tedious or downright futile, but a little patience and perseverance can go a long way, especially when dealing with resources in Italy. It may become time consuming, but genealogical research should not be expensive. In fact you may have a already have a wealth of information closer than you think at your next family get-together or holiday.
Italian Family Tree: Gathering Family History
The wealth of family history contained in your living relatives is the single most valuable resource at your disposal. Of course this depends upon the age and memories of living relatives, but it is surprising just how much information you can get from the younger generations as well. Depending upon the family, you may gather several generations of information in one sitting. Holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving or locally celebrated festivals are perfect for information gathering since they usually bring the whole family together.
If you are interested in documenting more than just names and dates, bring a tape or video recorder and let the grandparents tell some stories or allow them to narrate as you look through their photo albums. You never know what you can discover in this setting, suddenly a story you heard hundreds of times has a different ending because an aunt remembers it differently than your grandmother. That is one of the aspects of genealogical research that make it so addictive, there is always more to uncover.
Italian Family Tree: Verification and Documentation
However there will be a point where this resource will not be enough, especially if there are any gaps or discrepancies in their information. For Italian Americans whose families left Italy a century ago, much may have been lost. Grandparents may not remember much of their own grandparents, or where they came from in Italy. Some immigrants had their names changed, some were stowaways and jumped ship to avoid deportation. At this point it is best to thoroughly document and verify the information gained from your living relatives before delving any deeper.
There are many ways to verify what you have discovered so far: birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, immigration/naturalization papers, census records, newspaper announcements, even gravestones can help sort out the various names and dates. Some of these documents may already be in the hands of family members, make sure to photocopy them. Other records can be found in the city hall where your family settled, contact the clerk's office first to see if there are any fees for obtaining copies. If you happen to live too far away to visit your family's city hall or have reached a roadblock in your genealogical search, then it may be time to see what electronic resources have to offer.
Italian Family Tree: Online Resources
The arrival of the Internet has been a great boon to those doing genealogical research. Besides the ease of use and speed of tools like Email, there are countless websites dedicated to genealogy, some require a fee but many others are free to use. A thorough list of Italian Genealogy Websites can be found at the link.
If your ancestors arrived in New York City, www.ellisislandrecords.org is an invaluable free resource for ship manifests spanning the "melting pot" immigration years. However without verifying the information you have previously gathered, the ship rolls, filled with similar names and countless misspellings may not be much help. Keep in mind that New York was not the only point of arrival from Italy as many immigrants arrived in other port cities like Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
By discovering when, where and how your ancestors arrived from Italy, you have made it possible to tackle the most daunting aspect of Italian genealogy - getting family information from Italy.
Italian Family Tree: Resources From Italy
This is where things can get difficult, but do not despair. Before attempting to wade through Italian bureaucracy it is imperative that everything up to this point has been documented accurately. You must know which town your ancestors came from in order to get any information from Italy such as birth, baptismal, civil and military records. Ship manifests and immigration records are invaluable for this, especially if they include place of birth and not just last place of residence or port of departure. However even knowing this information does not guarantee a response, you can expect your first written request to go unanswered. Allow a fair amount of time to pass before sending a follow-up letter re-requesting the information.
Even when your request finally is fulfilled, you may have to write several more times to different government offices to get more information. To get church records the process is similar but may require finding exactly which parish church your family attended in Italy as well as writing directly to the local parish priest. It is easy to get frustrated and give up after your letters go unanswered, but your patience will be rewarded with vital information that would be impossible to obtain though other means. There are templates online to help with your formal letter writing but remember to have a native speaker proofread your Italian, letters in bad Italian or in English will not be answered.
Italian Family Tree: Organizing the Information
Whether you use the latest genealogy software or the tried-and-true spiral notebook, an organization system is what turns a pile of names and dates into a family tree. There is plenty of genealogy software on the market of varying complexity and price. Free genealogy software can be found on the Internet, but much of it is of the bare-bones variety and may not be for everyone. Some researchers start off with genealogy software only to revert back to using a notebook. Most if not all of the online genealogy websites offer some sort of program to store and organize your research, but remember that if you use an electronic tool to print a hard copy of your work occasionally. Maintaining a paper trail of your work could save hundreds of hours of labor if your computer crashes.
One thing to keep in mind is that creating your family tree will always be a work in progress. There will always be more of the past to uncover and there are always new family members being born. In many ways it is a project that is much bigger than the person doing the research, revealing to family members their forgotten ancestors as well as potentially helping other families in their own research. What you have in the end is more than just a hobby, it is an heirloom.
By Justin Demetri