When Michael Cassara submitted his proposal 21st-Century Italian Genealogy to the RootsTech committee last year, he had no idea that he would be listed as one of FamilySearch Blog’s 20 Can’t Miss Sessions to “dive into your ancestry.” Speaking to a full house of Italian genealogy enthusiasts, Michael shared some often overlooked sources for identifying an Italian ancestor’s comune [town of origin] as well as an impassioned plea for Italian researchers to lead the campaign for good sourcing and thorough research.
Michael’s premise is that Italian genealogy is becoming easier and easier as records continue to be digitized and posted online, yet identifying the comune [town] of an ancestor can be a researcher’s greatest challenge. He listed 4 resources that may help those of Italian descent find their ancestor’s place of origin:
- Immigration and Naturalization Records — specifically NARA A-Files (Alien files)
The National Archives Records Administration A-files are not an online source but contain a plethora of information if your ancestor is found. Visit the NARA website for more information.
- Social Security Applications (SS-5)
This is another document that is not available online, but as Michael says, for $27 a researcher can obtain vital information, including the names of parents and the commune of birth.
Michael volunteers to document the stones of the oldest and largest cemetery in the United States, Calvary cemetery. He shared an experience that he had when he went to help a fellow genealogist by taking a photograph of an ancestor’s tombstone. It took about an hour to find that one stone! Anyone who knows Calvary cemetery knows that one can get easily lost and that is exactly what Michael did, or so he thought. A few steps away he found the tombstone of his own great grandfather with information beneficial to his own research. He said that we can call it whatever we would like, but he called it serendipitous.
- Italian Genealogy Group found at http://www.italiangen.org
I was so happy Michael identified the Italian Genealogy Group to help find the comune of origin for one’s ancestor. [And, even though the group is called the Italian Research Group, it’s not only good for Italian research but also for Irish research and anyone else who lived in New York City.] The Italian Genealogical Group is an organization dedicated to furthering Italian family history and genealogy. IGG has indexed many of NYC’s vital records: deaths as early as 1862; marriages as early as 1864; and births as early as 1878. The time period depends on the boroughs and counties. John Martino and his fellow members continue to do a great work in providing this database to those researching their New York ancestors, specifically, the Italians.
As all Italian researchers know, the town of origin is the key necessary to unlock many more generations in the family tree in Italy.
Once the town of origin is known, other records will help a researcher strengthen the roots of their family tree. Again, Michael presented 4 resources for researchers to consider:
- Civil Records
Michael highlighted the vast amount of Italian civil records that continue to be made available online. He also reminded participants that not all available records are online and can only be found on microfilm. He highlighted the Italian collection at familysearch.org.
- Church Records
Church records in Italy may be much harder to obtain, but can help a researcher trace their lineage back many more generations. The challenge researchers face is that these records are rarely microfilmed or digitized, there is limited access, and they are mostly written in Latin.
- On-site research, researchers, and translators
Currently, not all civil records are digitized or on microfilm and language may be a barrier. Michael stressed that anyone tracing their Italian ancestry would benefit from exhausting all stateside resources first. He said that when the time is right, a trip to Italy may be in order.
There are 3 ways to conduct family history research in Italy:
- Go in person. This may require that you hire a driver, translator or guide, or a professional researcher to accompany you.
- Hire a researcher to go for you. Michael says that this option may cost a fraction of what it would cost to visit Italy yourself.
- Conduct research via correspondence. The FamilySearch wiki can assist you in writing to the civil offices or church parishes of your ancestors.
Michael acknowledges that those who descend from Italians are not yet heavily involved in DNA testing for genealogy, but highly encourages more people and their relatives to get involved.
Michael Cassara also feels strongly about leaving “the research landscape better than we found it.” He suggests the following activities:
- FamilySearch Indexing
In his presentation, Michael encouraged everyone to begin or continue indexing Italian genealogy records with FamilySearch. Later, I interviewed Paul Nauta with FamilySearch who reported that at the current rate the Italian digitized collection will take over 100 years to index. [This is not exciting news for anyone with Italian ancestry but thanks to the Innovator Challenge we have hope. The second place winner of a $7000 prize went to Planet’s ArgusSearch. They have created handwriting recognition software. Although they have not yet expanded the capabilities to Italian handwriting, the demonstration video can be found on YouTube, titled ArgusSearch. In the meantime, keep indexing!]
- FamilySearch FamilyTree
As we contribute and source our family trees in FamilySearch FamilyTree, all will benefit.
- FamilySearch Memories
Photos and stories will only enhance our efforts to connect with family.
Michael believes that “we are blessed with some of the richest and most consistent genealogical records available.” He is excited about the new technology that can augment the effectiveness of Italian research methodology.
Lynn Broderick is a writer by birth, a teacher by profession, and a researcher by passion. She enjoys researching individuals of the past in the context of family, community, and social history. Known as the Single Leaf, it just so happens that she is also of Italian descent.