Starting Your Genealogy Research

Updated:Dec 08, 2016

Italian ImmigrantsWhile your Italian roots may go back to Giovanni Perugini, who came to America with the Dutch in 1635, more likely you will discover that your immigrant ancestor came to America between 1880 and 1920 and landed in New York City and other ports. More than 5 million Italians have settled in the U.S. since immigration records began to be compiled in 1820. Mostly they came from southern Italy — particularly the provinces of Abruzzi, Campania, Apulia, Basilicata (Lucania), and Calabria — and from the island of Sicily

Most of those who left southern Italy after 1880 were men between the ages of 16 and 45 who hazarded the trip with the idea of remaining for a season or two in the U.S., working at any available job, saving as much money as they could and then returning to Italy. Many of these immigrants, transplanted from the sunny fishing villages on the Mediterranean coast and tiny farming communities in the interior mountains, came and went seasonally. They were called birds of passage, because they labored in the U.S. as long as weather permitted, then returned to their families in Italy for the winter months. Many remained birds of passage, but most who came once, twice, three times or more ended up bringing their wives and children and staying in America. Today the descendants of Italian immigrants number in the millions and are spread throughout the U.S.

Three basic facts about your immigrant Italian ancestors are critical before research in the old country can be successful:

Many Americans of Italian descent are removed just two or three generations from their immigrant ancestors, so interviewing relatives can be productive. Learn as much as you can about the town of your ancestors, because many towns in Italy have the same or similar name.

Why was my ancestor's name changed during immigration?

- A common problem in genealogy is tracing people who have changed their name. This occurs most often when someone immigrates to another country.

There are undoubtably many reasons attributed to the changes in our Italian surnames upon entrance into the United States. The most common seem to be:

Illiteracy of the immigrant (couldn't write own name properly or at all).

Immigration officials changed the name either on purpose or mistakenly.

Some stories indicate shortening or Americanizing the name to make it easier to pronounce. An immigrant, having spent a fortune to book passage probably would not speak up against this because of fear of not being let in the country.

Poorly written name. This could cause misinterpretation of the proper spelling of the name of the immigrant.