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Interviewing Italian villagers

27 Jan

In the year 2000, I visited my ancestral village of Longano (Province Isernia)

and  found a woman who was 103 years old.  It was awesome to meet a living person who co-existed with my great grandfather, Francesco Pallante, who was born in 1869 !   He left Italy for America in 1903.  I asked if she knew him, or remembered what was going on in the village that year. But she was just slightly too young to remember that far back.  Her son and his wife had the surname Pallante.  They were not direct releatives, but they were delighted to show me around the village.  Years before, in the early 1980’s, I had corresponded with the village priest (before the LDS created microfilms for this village).  He helped me construct my Pallante family tree by mail.  This priest was no longer there, but I remembered the name of a villager he had said was a direct relative of my Francesco.  That man “Umberto”, showed me the house where Francesco was born.  It sat empty but Umberto took care of it.  There was a shovel propped up against the door, as if work there was done…… “gone to America”.

Outside the church where Francesco was baptised was a very old tree.  Villagers thought it must have been just a very tiny sapling when Francesco left in 1903.


LaRuota and Trovatelli

21 Mar

Many tracing their ancestry will come to the point where they cannot proceed because on a marriage or death record there are words such as “trovatello”, “proietto”, “esposito”, or “innocenti” ( meaning “foundling”). This refers to infants (orphans who aren’t really) who were ”found” at the regional ospezio (hospice), after being taken there by unwed mothers (willingly or not), or by a midwife, then given to other people, in another town. It started out centuries ago when in old Rome there was alarm at the number of dead infants found by fishermen in the Tiber River. It was first meant as an alternative to infanticide.

Somehow it later evolved into a forced system where all unwed mothers were required to give up babies (for no other reason than illigit), as a social institution got out of control. Forgetting the original reason to preserve life, hundreds of thousands died during transport, or from starvation at the foundling homes. Anonymously, babies were placed on “laRuota” (a wheel resembling a lazy susan) that turned to the inside of a local foundling home, where the baby was collected for processing at a larger regional home, and ultimately redistributed to another family. Here is one example that existed in Isernia (photos from the museum with permission).

Infants who made it alive to a foster family, usually remained in the same province.  Transported by wagon over land routes, they could only attempt to go so far. Typically, the infant would bear the surname of the town where they were born to the unwed mother. But you won’t be able to link to the family of origin, unless through a DNA study. Sometimes foundlings were sent a long distance by boat, such as from Sicily up to Genoa in the north. (However, Sicilian surnames near port cities on the mainland could also indicate people who fled Sicily during the 1837 cholera epidemic). If the latter, you’ll be able to trace the roots in Sicily. If a foundling, you’ll see one of the words that indicated this. Each regional government did their own thing when it comes to details of how the system functioned. If you have a foundling in your history, it could have happened centuries ago, or relatively recently. You will know when you can no longer trace the names of the next generation back and encounter one of these terms. (Note: “ignoti” could indicate something entirely different)

For more information on the foundling system, see David Kertzer’s book, Sacrificed for Honor. The system was widespread all over Italy. In the Molise Region, an example of a typical foundling wheel can be seen at the Museum of Isernia at

Ship records lead to a Cleveland family’s roots in Italy

20 Feb

We have located the village of origin for the Frate Family of Cleveland, Ohio…Rionero Sannitico (originally Province Campobasso, now Province Isernia). As it turns out, a great many Italian-Americans in Cleveland’s Little Italy emigrated from Campobasso area. Learn more in Gene Veronesi’s book, “Italian-Americans & Their Communities of Cleveland.”

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