Uncovering Your Italian Ancestry – A Step-By-Step Guide

Tracing your Italian family history can be a rewarding and thrilling experience. Learn about the reasons for immigration and migration, how to locate your ancestors’ town of origin, and how to navigate language, records, and resources in Italy. Start by asking your relatives about their history. Get their full original names and dates of birth to help you trace them in church and civil records.

Identify Your Ancestors

Italians are one of the largest ethnic groups in America, and their immigrant ancestors spread worldwide. Many resources are available to help you discover your Italian heritage and uncover the rich history of Italy. Begin your search by gathering as much information about your ancestors as possible, including their permanent residence in Italy. Talk to your family members and listen to stories they may tell you. It’s also a good idea to take a DNA test, which can reveal your Italian origins.

Before you begin, you should know that if any of your Italian ancestors were female, you might not find records in Italy because women weren’t allowed to pass citizenship on to their children under Italian law until 1948. 

This can be frustrating, but knowing that you can still research the rest of your family’s heritage is essential. You can search for baptism, marriage, and death records by town at Communi-Italiani. 

Find Your Ancestors’ Town of Origin

The first step in your research is finding your ancestors’ town of origin. This information is vital because nearly all records useful for genealogical purposes were created at the town or parish level. Knowing your ancestors’ town of origin will help you to target your search in Italian records.

Start by talking to your family members. Many people who came to America with Italian roots have relatives who know where their ancestors originated in Italy and may even have documents to prove it. It would help if you also talked to any older relatives who still speak Italian and might remember stories about their ancestors. 

The next step is to look at your ancestors’ naturalization records. These excellent, often very informative records tell you your ancestor’s exact village of birth. These are especially helpful if your ancestor arrived in the U.S. between 1880 and 1899. The best place to begin searching for these is with my book listed above and John Philip Colletta’s multi-volume series Italians to America: Lists of Passengers Arriving at U.S. Ports, 1880-1899 (Scholarly Resources).

Start Your Research

You can learn much about Italian genealogy by talking to older family members and requesting records from the Commune or other Italian offices where your ancestors lived. It would help to read books about the region and country where your ancestors came from. Start with the Italian genealogy group site and click the links to learn about the types of records available and how to find them. 

My book listed in step 4 and John Philip Colletta’s They Came in Ships are also excellent sources of information about Italian emigration. Since many of your Italian ancestors came to America seeking financial opportunity, look for them on passenger arrival lists. 

The online database that will eventually replace the Ellis Island collection will contain many more records for this period. You can also search the microfilms in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City or worldwide Family History Centers. If you’re researching southern Italians, check for them in multiple passenger lists because a high percentage returned to Italy after arriving.

Trace Your Ancestors’ Path to America

Genealogical research can be one of life’s most exciting, rewarding experiences. The payoff doesn’t stop with your family tree; your discoveries will benefit your descendants for future generations.

The first step to finding your Italian roots is to locate and gather as much identifying information as possible in American records, including births, marriages, deaths, and Catholic church records. Also, remember that your ancestors’ names may have changed in America. For example, if an immigrant’s name was Frank Miller in America but Francesco Mollo in Italy, it is essential to know this.

Several major emigration waves from Italy occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries. If your ancestors were among these, you’d want to find their naturalization records available at NARA and USCIS. 

You’ll also need proof that they were not naturalized if you plan to apply for Italian citizenship. If your ancestor died in Italy, you’d need to obtain a death certificate from the stato civile of that municipality. These documents can be challenging to locate, so ask relatives for help.

Start Your Research in America

Once you’ve nailed down your Italian family’s town of origin, you can trace their path to America. This is a crucial step to avoid skipping generations and missing out on essential records that could help you locate your Italian ancestors in Italy.

Final Words

Start by interviewing your oldest Italian American relatives to learn about their experiences and what they knew about their ancestors’ hometowns in Italy. You can also use United States records to find your ancestors, such as naturalization records. Also, search the Family History Library catalog to see what records are available for Italy. Remember that the Library has not yet microfilmed every record collection, so be patient. You can also rent films from a Family History Center near you. 


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