Six Tips for Researching Your Italian-American Family History

Updated: Feb 7, 2019


Ponzano Romano, Lazio. Photo by Laura Roselle 2018

There's great information out there about researching your Italian-American ancestry. In doing research for myself and others, I’ve learned a few things. Here are six tips that I haven’t seen covered in too many other places.


1. Passenger manifests


One of the first things you need to know, if you don’t already, is who came to the US from Italy and where exactly your Italian ancestors came from. Passenger manifests can be found on Ancestry.com, for example: New York - Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957; New Orleans Passenger Lists; and Boston Passenger Lists or at https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger. These records sometimes tell you a hometown (often in the last column) and may even include information on the family left behind and who the immigrant is planning to join in the United States. Here’s a tip: make sure you check to see if there is a second page associated with your ancestor’s information. You may click to the next page and get the last columns of information associated with your ancestor.




Here’s the record for Marianna Gasparrino and her children arriving in New York in 1912. On the first page, it lists the name and place of the nearest relative who stayed behind (her sister Elisabetta). One the second page, it lists to whom she is going (her husband) and her place of birth (Caserta, Italy). Online publication - Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.Original data - Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M237, 675 rolls)

2. Women’s names


Another important thing to note is that women in Italy go by their birth names even after they are married. If you are looking for your great-grandmother, for example, you will probably find her on a passenger list under her birth name while her children will have their father’s last name. This is true in looking through other kinds of records too. My great-great-grandmother Chiara who was married to my gg-grandfather Epifanio Roselli was listed under Pierdominici (her birth name) when she died in 1900. If I had looked through the index for a Chiara Roselli, I would not have found her.





3. Alien Registration forms


One excellent source for information could be your ancestor’s alien registration form - or AR-2 form - available via the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. If your Italian ancestor did not become a US citizen and was in the United States between August 1940 and March 31, 1944, there is probably an AR-2 form for them. You can access information on these forms here: https://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/genealogy/alien-registration-forms-microfilm-1940-1944#WhatAreAr2. Most people will access your document in a two-step process. First you must request a search to find your immigrant’s A-number unless you have it in other paperwork. (Currently that is $65.00.) Then, when you get the A-number, you can order the document (for an additional $65.00.) My great-grandfather’s Alien Registration Form contained information we never knew - that he came to the US via Mexico and then through Laredo, Texas and that he served in the Italian infantry from 1887-1890.



From United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Alien Registration Form, Celestino Roselli, 1940.


4. Understand the history


It is really helpful to understand the history of Italy broadly and the more specific details associated with your ancestors’ locality. Italy is a land of regions with different histories and views of history, different dialects, different foods, and different customs. To understand your ancestors’ lives and to understand how to look for records, it is important to understand this fact. Do not assume that because there are records for one region or town available online, that there will be records for all places. I will give you an example. You can access the records for many regions at www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it in Italian and there are many records at www.familysearch.org. I even found the birth record of my great-great-grandfather in Pianella from 1844 (before the unification of Italy). However, the birth records for another town I was researching, Ponzano Romano, in the region of Roma, only go back to 1874. To find documents before this, you may need to have someone consult Catholic Church records. This is related to the history of the unification of Italy. Lazio remained part of the Papal States, controlled by the Pope, until 1870. Knowing the history will help you know why you might not find records and suggest a different avenue to try.



5. Facebook groups


Facebook groups can be a great way to learn and get help and suggestions for doing research. If you type in Italian Genealogy in your Facebook search bar or in a Google search, there will be a number of groups that come up. Some are focused on all of Italy, and some focus on particular regions. Some focus on documents, others focus on DNA results. Most often you submit a request to join a group and the moderators admit you to the group. Here’s an important tip: Read the group’s rules! Moderators are spending a considerable amount of time making sure the group runs smoothly and they get to set the rules. Some rules may not be the ones you would choose - but you are not the moderator. It’s helpful to follow the posts to see how people interact in the group before you jump in. When you feel as if you understand the group’s norms, feel free to ask questions about sources. People may even be willing to help you translate parts of documents.




6. Hiring someone to help


Finally, there are records that are not online and that can only be obtained in Italy. You may be able to go to Italy, know the language, and be able to read difficult handwriting from a hundred years or more ago, but most people will be missing at least one of those. Hiring an expert to go through records can be a great investment. You can hire researchers by the hour. Facebook groups are sometimes good places to get recommendations - although make sure asking for those are ok according to the rules. If you want to see what a researcher - Emidio Spinogatti of Abruzzo Genealogy - found for me in the archives in Abruzzo, see my blog post.


I hope at least one of these tips is helpful for you. Have a great time researching your Italian ancestry! If we can help you with research or in creating a research plan, send us an email at familynarrativeproj@gmail.com


~Laura Roselle