Tag Archives: genealogy

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)

How does one begin to research their family tree?

13 Jun

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
  • Stepchildren
  • Adoptions
  • 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


  • 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

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