Archive | July, 2012

Ancestral Villages: Demographic Perspectives for Genealogists

14 Jul

© April 15, 1999  Debora L. Hill  All rights reserved

(Reprinted from Comunes of Italy Magazine Vol. 3 : 12 Jan.-Feb. 2000 pp 10-12)

An exciting aspect of family history research is the discovery of an immigrant ancestor’s village of origin. It would be hard to fully understand your family’s history without knowledge of the historical and cultural context that shaped your ancestor’s lives. There are many approaches to learning about the local history of your ancestral village, including political, socio-economic, and anthropological perspectives. There is also a demographic perspective, which may sometimes be overlooked. Perhaps this is because statistical data at the village level may not be easily available. However, lacking published sources, you can always do your own demographic study utilizing LDS microfilmed records.

Genealogists can see their ancestors in context with the rest of the community by comparing data found on their individual records with statistics compiled for the village as a whole. Of course, the study need not be sophisticated and may not be entirely accurate for the purpose of drawing any academic conclusions regarding demographic behavior.Often information found in Italian vital records is only an estimate, such as a person’s age for example. But for genealogical purposes, it can provide insight on what went on in the village throughout most of the 19th century. How long did the average person live? What was the average age at marriage, and what time of year did the majority of marriages take place? Was infant mortality high? How common was your great grandfather’s occupation in this village? What else did others do for a living? In your pursuit to learn the answers to questions that arise, you will learn more about the general history and culture of the village.

By constructing a simple graph, you can get visual pictures of all of this, which will reveal patterns and exceptions, such as a steady increase in life expectancy or an unusual number of deaths in one particular year (an epidemic)? Plotting data for five or ten year intervals, will allow you to see how things changed throughout most the 19th century (depending on how much of the historical record survives and has been microfilmed). You can measure infant mortality or gain insight into marriage traditions, but you also need to check other resources to understand the .why. behind statistical patterns that emerge from examination of individual historical records.

If you plan to write a book on your family history, a demographic study of your ancestral village, taken together with other sources, such as printed histories, oral histories, correspondence with current village residents, and local historical societies, will make it more interesting. Your ancestors did not live in isolation. They lived within a framework of a local community which in turn existed in a regional framework.

As an example, statistics gathered for the village of Avezzano (AQ) in the Abruzzo Region of Italy, represent a first step in doing a demographic study for the purpose of genealogy. The methodology used is simply to pick a year to begin with and sit down with all of the LDS microfilms that contain records for that year. Go through the films frame by frame and keep a tally of how many deaths (broken down into male or female groupings and noting the age at death and the month). The groupings will in the end reveal patterns that exist, such as an unusually high number of deaths in any certain month or a higher life expectancy for females than males etc. You can keep a tally of births by month or just tally males and females and their ages. You might want to include the age of the parents at the time of birth and their occupation to check differences in birth rate amongst various social groups or age groups. Marriage records provide the opportunity to study the occupations of both the marriage couples and their parents. From marriage records you can also get a sense of immigration into the village from other areas by looking at the birthplace of the couples and residences of the parents. This can also be noted from birth and death records. If there are an extraordinary number of people showing up as not having been born in that village, there may have been a migration. In any case, from this information you would be alerted to seek out more information about the cause via anthropological and other perspectives.

Statistics from Avezzano records reveal many interesting things about this village. For example there are quite a lot of people who make their living as seamstresses and spinners. Avezzano has historically been a sheep farming village. If you are familiar with the Italian culture, this may seem obvious, if not, you might not make this connection unless you also consult a printed history of the village. The statistics that emerge should also peak your curiosity to find out more via an economic perspective.

It’s always possible that important events in the history of the village will be missed, if every single year is not examined. But that would not typically be feasible. A graph covering five or ten year intervals should be sufficient to provide a general overview of demographic behavior. Data for other years in Avezzano history has not yet been compiled, thus the final graph is not presented here. However, the graph below shows how total population changed over time in the village of Longano (IS), in the Molise Region, based on population figures provided in a manuscript. This makes an interesting visual for a family history book.


You can customize your graph(s) however you wish, or just report statistics in the text. It’s your story. But do more than just retrieve individual records for ancestors and list names and dates on a chart. Utilize all tools and resources available and apply as many methodologies and approaches as you can to build the fullest history of your family. Diversity of resources is vital to all types of historical research and extends to genealogy as well. The more resources you utilize, the more chance of uncovering conflicting data and realizing bias. For example, stats for your ancestral village may not jive with generalizations published in the literature. The average age at marriage, may be higher than what is said to be typical for Italians. For the purpose of family history, your individual ancestor should be compared to others in his or her own village, rather than stats derived from other villages that were used to make broad generalizations, perhaps primarily intended to support a writer’s theory for an academic research paper.


Demographic perspectives on ancestral villages for genealogists can provide insight into customs and traditions at a more personal level, with actual names attached to the data, (your ancestor’s real neighbors) that can be tallied to reveal change over time, and also visually represented with graphs and charts or woven into the text of a book on the history of your family. Check libraries and historical societies for existing published sources relating to your ancestral village and then do your own study.

Debora L. Hill owns and manages the Pallante Center for Italian Research (PCIR). It is a network of native Italian researchers based in various locations throughout Italy and Sicily and also includes a network of microfilm and onsite researchers in the USA.

© April 15, 1999 Debora L. Hill All rights reserved
(Reprinted from Comunes of Italy Magazine Vol. 3 Issue 12 Jan.-Feb. 2000 pp 10-12)

%d bloggers like this: