This is a question many people ask me. The answer is………no matter what your ethnic background, your family history story will begin with information and materials you can find within your own family. “Home sources”, meaning what you can learn by asking questions of your relatives, and rooting in family attics is the first step.
Your project will later proceed to original research that you will conduct at government offices, archives centers, libraries and historical societies. If you begin in the correct order, the research will proceed one step at a time, from the known to the unknown. Your family tree will eventually begin to grow. It will be accurately documented with each step, before proceeding to the next earlier generation.
You may choose to start by researching only your father’s side, and later on begin your mother’s line, or vice versa. Or you may choose to work on all lines at once, but only one generation at a time, since you can’t skip to earlier generations without a solid well-documented foundation. For the inexperienced beginner, I would recommend choosing one single line to research until you gain some experience, or maybe until you get that line back to the immigrant generation.
Your specific goals will get revised along the way. Types of records needed will change as you get back into earlier time periods. You will study the local history of many different towns that are part of your family’s story, including eventually towns in a foreign country. Many people seek the help of a professional researcher when they hit this point, especially if they don’t know the foreign language necessary to read the documents.
Genealogy research can be very time consuming. A professional can do it faster than you can get it done yourself, even if you are capable of reading 19th century documents written in Italian. Busy people may not have time to search microfilms, choosing to spend what little free time they have with their family. The Pallante Center has the experience and a network of contacts in Italy to build your family tree in a fraction of the time it would take you to do it yourself. Here are some guidelines for beginning a research project on your family history.
1. START WITH YOURSELF – proceed from “known to unknown” in correct order.
- Enter what you know into a genealogy software program such as Family Tree Maker (or on paper family group sheets and pedigree charts)
- Genealogy traces biological bloodlines Other relationships must be recorded truthfully, or left blank if this is a problem
- Keep emotions out, it’s about “facts” …… or don’t do it. Do not record lies or distortions as if fact.
2. INTERVIEW RELATIVES - especially the oldest living generation
- Looking at old photos together will help trigger their memory
- Take notes and get a signature to avoid others disputing you after your elders are gone). Also, remember that other relatives may have further information, or a whole different viewpoint about the same story.
- The info from relatives must be verified. Human memory gets confused over time.
- Primary sources (created at the time of the event) vs. secondary sources (perhaps written by people not in the position to know for sure)
- The information you record may end up changing, once verified or disproved
- Ask to make a copy of old photos or documents relatives have in their pocession.
- Interviewing relatives is ongoing throughout your research, as new questions will arise.
- Don’t forget to interview your ancestor’s neighbors, or friends of the family
3. ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW – TECHNIQUES
- Do prior background research on the person you will interview.
- Determine questions to ask: Chronological approach or Topical approach
- Conduct the interview—from the interviewee’s viewpoint–it’s their interpretation. You’re interpretation will be what you extract from it. Allow at least one hour, never more than two.
- Record the date of the interview and person’s full name.
- Hold the interview in a quiet place
- Interview only one person
- Inform interviewee of your purpose
- Engage in casual conversation
- Let the interviewee speak freely
- Never alter original taped interview
*Don’t press on sensitive issues that may upset people. Don’t publish ,or share, details on living people without that person’s written permission !
4 . PROCEED TO OUTSIDE RESEARCH -Names and dates must be verified with official documents. Review your information and decide what is missing. Set a goal for something specific you want to try to find.
First check to see if someone else has already researched these people.
- Online sources – Ancestry.com family trees submitted by members.
- Published biographies in libraries.
*Caution: If you find a published genealogy, you must still find the actual documents that support the information. You cannot trust that this person’s research is accurate.
Next check sites such as Ancestry.com for census records, ship records, etc. – the actual image is often online. This saves you from needing to make a trip in person to the National Archives, or a county historical society, especially if it’s an out-of-state trip that would be needed. But eventually you will need a record that is not easily available online. It’s possible that you may be the first person to do the research on the line that you need to document.
- Original research. Where to go? What archives office, library, or historical society will have what you need for your specific goal?
- o Depends what type of information needs to be verified or learned. Original research usually utilizes “primary souce” records (such as an official birth record on file in a government office), and may be supplemented by some secondary source information such as an obituary published in the newspaper. Where the individual type of record source needed is currently housed may differ from state to state and county to county.
If a birth record is needed only for the purpose of genealogy, an unofficial version may be found on microfilm or issued from a government office for a reduced fee. Beyond certain dates may be at the county archives building vs. the active Department of Vital Records. A primary source document is the actual record that was created at the time of the event (a birth, baptism, marriage, death record, will etc.) These types of records can sometimes be gotten by mail from the town hall or county archives building, if you don’t live nearby. Information about costs and the mailing address are usually displayed on their official website. There are also genealogy websites that compile genealogy related addresses and online databases by state and county, such as http://www.usgenweb.org/
“Secondary source” materials such as newspaper obituaries could be at your local town library, or the county historical society. Save yourself some trouble by first asking relatives if they have saved any obituaries of family members in a scrapbook. Remember that information given in an obituary could contain errors. It depends on the person who wrote it and how far removed they were from facts they are writing about. If written by a grandchild or a spouse they may not have known for sure some details as well as a son or daughter (but maybe those of closer relationship were no longer living at the time it was written). There may be some things in error, but it may also provide much valuable information.
Tombstone engravings are also often with errors, as they are sometimes added years after the death, and anybody can put whatever they want without it being verified. These things are to be used as “clues” to lead you to primary source materials.
Detailed descriptions of all the various types of sources that genealogists use to conduct their research, and how to understand each one and get the most out of them, is something for a more advanced discussion. This brief overview is intended for the person just beginning or thinking of beginning and wondering where to start.
If you have done your research in your own country and have reached the point of documenting your story up to your immigrant ancestor, you will now need to find specific types of resources that will reveal your ancestor’s town of origin in the old country. In some families, there may be an older relative who knows this information. But if you have to do original research to learn the answer to this question, here is a list of sources where you may find at least some clues about your ancestor’s place of birth (which may differ from his/her last place of residence before leaving the old country). Some sources listed below are easily available through Ancestry.com Most pertain to immigrants who entered the USA during the years of peak immigration through Ellis Island and other ports of entry in the late 1800s and very early 1900s.
- Ship records (be careful to note if it says “last residence” vs. “place of birth”–not always one and the same thing.
- Baptism records of children (though often may just say “Italy”), may also give the mother’s maiden name
- Declaration of Intention, Petition for Naturalization, passport, and other immigration related records are a major source for place of origin.
- WWI and WW2 military draft registration cards
- Census records (some years contain info on the year of immigration (though often a bit off as human memory gets confused over time). Census rcords may reveal which children were born in the old country, which is a clue to look for a marriage record in the old country, or based on the age of the oldest child, when to look for a marriage record of the parents in either the old or new country.
- Death records (althrough the vast majority may just say “Italy”)
- Obituaries (occasionally, but also info in such could be wrong)
- Public trees found online may mention shared ancestors and may have info on the place of origin
- Interviews with your own relatives for any clue at all about the place they came from (was near a volcano, near the seashore, farmland, a city in the north, bordering France…. such clues could at least tell you if it was north, central or southern Italy or Sicily.
- Occupations of the immigrant on the earliest known record can sometimes be a clue (eg. a marble cutter may have come from one of a few major marble regions in Italy, allowing for some type of focus)
- It may sometimes be easier to find out where other people who lived in the same town came from, as many Italians followed relatives and friends from their village to the same towns in the new country
- Searching the online phonebook of Italy http://www.paginebianche.it/
- and surname distribution maps such as http://www.gens.info/italia/it/turismo-viaggi-e-tradizioni-italia?cognome= can occasionally help narrow the focus at least to a general region where the surname exists–if the surname is not extremely common all over Italy.
- If all that can be learned is the name of a province in Italy, and your immigrant ancestor is male, sometimes he will have an Italian military record (if he didn’t leave Italy before adulthood). If he registered for the military (whether or not he actually served), the military record will give his date and place of birth and parent’s names (as well as a physical description). But to identify the correct person you would need to already know his exact date of birth from another source, or at least the year of birth and parent’s names.
*In general, if the source of information is something that the person would have filled out themeselves, such as a marriage application, draft card, or Social Security application, it is more credible than sources where a realtive supplied the informtion (and may have been in error) such as a death record, tombstone or obituary. (I will post some examples of actual records that show an Italian immigrants place of origin shortly.)
Copyright 2012 Debora L. Hill, All rights reserved.
Due to privacy laws, the Pallante Center can accept your case for research pertaining to items needed that are at least over 75 years old (some towns may have a 100 year limitation). In Italy, the law is the same. If you need a document from Italy that is more recent than 75 years, we can sometimes obtain the record if we can provide your signed letter of permission and your photo ID with the request. We do not encourage this type of request, unless it is needed for dual citizenship and something you must obtain for purposes other than genealogy.
Likewise, in the USA, we prefer to pick up your research project beginning with your immigrant ancestor, or as close to the immigrant as you can get, after you have collected documents in the pocession of relatives, and sent for any documents that fall within privacy law. We can usually figure out the town of origin in Italy, if you have provided enough background information about as many people as possible in the early family, even if some projects may take longer than others to discover the place of origin.
To get started with the Pallante Center, send a check for $50.00 made payable to PCIR,
along with details about the line to be researched, including copies of birth, marriage, death, church documents etc. that pertain to your direct line ancestors involved, as well as obituaries, tombstone photos or any other materials you may have to show the linking of your earliest person beyond privacy laws to the immigrant.
Please provide as much background information as possible on the immigrant family.
Names of children of the immigrant can be important if they followed the Italian naming custom, and may aid in recognizing the correct family of the earlier generation. Spouses of the immigrant’s children may also provide insight to the larger story, if marriages were kept to people from the same village, or at least “Sicilian” vs. northern Italy etc. Names of children can also aid in finding hard to find census records, where the immigrant’s name is badly mispelled.
Rather than speaking in confusing narrative with terms such as “my grandfather”, it is best to use actual names. It also helps if you sketch out a pedigree chart in diagram format, even if just handwritten on paper to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. Upon studying your starting information and documents, and verifying research already done (not to be repeated), we will investigate resources that exist for your ancestral town in Italy, and plan research strategy (which may not necessarily be shared as sometimes this involves proprietary information regarding our special contacts in Italy and what they can do).
To begin actual research and get started on your family tree in Italy, then will require an advance payment of $399. You may choose to send the $50 application fee at the same time to speed up the process.
It is important to state in advance if possible, whether you will want a full family tree, eventually resulting in a spiral bound family history book, or only a limited number of months–modified smaller project.
This will affect how the research is done from the beginning, especially for research that will be done by microfilm. In this case, each time a film is searched, if doing a full tree, all people by one surname will be extracted each time (even if some may not be able to connect to the tree until much later on in the project) to avoid needing to search the same film over again later. Otherwise, if you are only doing a one month session, the research will focus on finding only the specific people requested.
If you have questions about what to send in to begin a research project with the Pallante Center, just email me at : Debora_Hill@yahoo.com