Tip #1: Check your surname first
Do a quick surname check so you know what kind of search you’re in for up-front.
There’s a useful website (www.gens.info/) that maps out where your surname exists in Italy. Just click on the map of Italy until you see the search box up top. Enter the surname in and click “trova” (find) to see where your name shows up and how common it is.
Type in the name “Russo” and you’ll see that it appears in a whopping 3,160 comuni (towns)! So if you’re hunting for a Giuseppe Russo, you’ll need to be that much more careful in your search to make sure you’re tracing your Giuseppe Russo and not one of the hundreds of other Giuseppe Russos that might turn up.
On the other hand, if a name comes up “non trovato” (not found), you might be in for a different kind of challenge. That’s a clue that the name may have changed spelling. Ask family members if they heard of the name being changed and keep your eyes peeled for different spellings in your searches.
Tip #2: Do a thorough US search – no matter what!
My company, Roots in the Boot, insists on doing a preliminary US search to find or verify information before moving onto the Italian records. Some people feel they have enough information to jump straight to the Italian search without any preliminary work, but that’s never a good idea.
Most of our Italian ancestors came to the US about a hundred years ago, or more, and a lot of information can get distorted or forgotten in a hundred years – that is, if it was ever passed down to begin with. Gather US records to build a solid foundation, no matter how sure you think you are of your family’s information.
Tip #3: Use census records like a pro
Start your US search with census records – and read every column on the census. Don’t make the rookie mistake of taking a quick look at the names and ages of people in the household and saying “yep, that’s them!” then racing to find your next record.
Census records contain so many details about a variety of events that they can serve as a roadmap for the rest of your US search (and even the start of your Italian search).
In addition to the basics like names and ages, they can contain information about: immigration and naturalization dates, marriage dates, how many children a couple had and how many are still living, military service, employment information, and the list goes on.
It’s easy to get excited when you find your family and it can be tempting to skip ahead to your next discovery, but take a few minutes to note important details on the census records before you move on. Wouldn’t it be easier to find a marriage record in Italy if you already knew the approximate year that the marriage took place?
Tip #4: Look for the unusual
If you’re doing a search online at a site like www.ancestry.com, increase your chance of success by focusing on anything unusual in your tree.
For example: let’s say you’re looking for your grandparents in the census and they had a fairly common last name as well as the common first names of Mary and Joseph. Ask yourself if they had a child living with them with an uncommon name. If so, search for the child instead of Mary or Joseph.
Likewise, look for a cousin/grandparent/in-law who lived with the family (or next door) and had a less common name.
Tip #5: Have an open mind – but not too open!
If your mind isn’t open to the possibility that your family’s oral history may not be 100% accurate or complete, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. Dates are almost certain to be a year or two off. And don’t be surprised if spellings, names, and even places are off too.
But while it’s good to be open to surprises, being too open-minded can get you into trouble too. Being a family history detective involves gathering a lot of puzzle pieces and fitting them together to tell your family’s story. But just like a real puzzle, if you have to force one of those pieces to fit, chances are, it’s not the right piece.
Tip #6: Take your tree from shoeboxes to inboxes
Start an online family tree so you can organize, preserve and share your family history, even if you have family members that live far away. It only takes two minutes to start one; you can make your tree private if you choose, it’s FREE – and it’s fun! – so there’s no good reason not to do it.
Ancestry.com’s family trees make it easy to get started. They’re simple enough that anyone who can type a name can make one, yet they have impressive features for more advanced users too, like the ability to add photos and even videos to bring your tree to life, and the option to print a book when you’re done (which makes a great gift, by the way).
If exploring and sharing your family history is something you’ve “always wanted to do”, as many of our clients tell us, but you didn’t know how to start or what to do next, I hope some of these tips help you to begin (or continue) your journey of discovery.
Aliza Giammatteo is the owner and lead researcher at Roots in the Boot, an Italian genealogy firm headquartered in Las Vegas, NV. She’s also a syndicated columnist and feature writer for Italian American publications across the United States. To learn more about your roots in the Italian “boot”, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (646) 255-9565.