I was exceptionally lucky when my father and I decided to pursue our Italian citizenship. We were visiting my Great-Aunt Herma in 2005 when she remembered that she had a small shoe box of her father’s things sitting never opened in her attic. This shoe box contained his original birth certificate, marriage certificate, and naturalization papers.
If you, like me, had all of your ancestors’ information handed to you in a shoe box, then you can skip this post.
Most people, however, do not have some deus ex machina intervention with their citizenship application process and need to do some in-depth genealogical research to learn more about their lineage. It is very likely that before you are even able to determine whether you are eligible for citizenship, you will need to perform at least some level of genealogical research.
Please keep in mind as you perform your research that you will be looking for names, dates, and places. The ultimate goal of genealogical research for jure sanguinis is twofold:
1. Learn enough information to determine your citizenship eligibility
2. Gather enough hard facts about your ancestors to be able to request their civil records documents later on in the application process. To request birth certificates, you will need to know your ancestor’s name, the place (including the city) where he/she was born, and his/her birth date. For marriage certificates, you will need to know the names of the bride and groom, the place (including the city) of marriage, and the date of marriage. I will go into these requirements in more depth later.
There are many ways to go about performing genealogical research, and in this article I will help walk you through a few options available to you.
Ask Family Members and Relatives
This sounds like common sense advice, but I have always been surprised by how many people come to me without having first asked their relatives if they have any information or documents concerning their ancestors. I understand that there are extenuating circumstances. Sometimes family dramas and traumas have lead to irreversible estrangements that make contacting family members impossible. If you are at all in contact with your family, however, start asking questions! More times than not, some uncle has done at least some genealogical research (we are a proud peoples) or some cousin has all of grandpa’s documents in a safe. At the very least, someone probably has some sort of useful information that will start you in a good direction.
This is also where facebook.com comes in handy. On Facebook, I have found several relatives still living in Italy – and they know quite a bit more about my great-grandfather’s family than I do. You can also find distant cousins who are living in the United States…who knows, maybe they have already gone through this process!
World Wide Web
There are a slew of websites that specialize in providing resources for people during their genealogical searches. The sites that I have seen used most often are:
Ancestry.com This website contains access to a staggering number of records, blowing the competition out of the water in terms of number of databases accessed. The site includes birth, death, and marriage certificates, passenger lists, etc. You are not guaranteed to find a record, but it is worth the 2 weeks free trial to sign up. Subscriptions range from $19.99 per year to $199.99 per year, depending on whether you want to search US or international records. When faced with the cost of hiring an independent genealogical researcher, the subscription may be worth the money.
MyHeritage.com MyHeritage is geared towards combining social networking with genealogical research – so this is not just a site where you search for your ancestors. The con here is that you have to be diligent about privacy settings, because the site apparently asks you to share personal information in the name of networking. The privacy issue is what accounts for the negative site reviews I have seen. The pro is that the site is an extremely powerful tool, and the basic subscription is free! The free plan allows for limited features. The paid plans range from $6.25 to $13.27 per month, depending on your storage and search needs. Subscription plans can be found here.
FindAGrave.com This is a free and useful website with information from over 121 million tombstones. Not every tombstone is on this site, and thus information can be a bit spotty, but you may be able to find your ancestor’s birth and death date information using this site. If your first search is not fruitful, make sure to query using alternate spellings.
EllisIsland.org A great tool. This is 100% free. The importance of this database is that it allows you to view the record of when your ancestor was processed through Ellis Island. The passenger search often shows the country AND city where your ancestor was born, which is extremely valuable when trying to locate records in Italy.
Sersale.org A very small number of Italian Comuni have digitized their vital records and have made them searchable. If you are lucky enough to have an ancestral line from one of these listed Comuni, you may be able to find some genealogical information here.
Vital Record Departments at Town and County Clerks (for US searches)
It has been my experience that individuals at the Town or County Clerk office who are in charge of Vital Records are very useful resources. They will often help you search for records, figure out how to request records, and give suggestions for other resources should your search with them return nothing.
Research by Written Request for Documents from Italy
Sometimes, the documents and information that you are looking for cannot be found through family members or the internet. Perhaps you only have a very general knowledge of your ancestors’ birth dates, places, etc. To request civil (birth, marriage, and death) records from Italy requires some very specific information, as Italian officials are not legally obligated to perform complicated searches for documents on your behalf.
There are a few documents, however, that you can request from Italy without too much specific information about your family that can also yield useful information for your genealogical research:
Military Conscription Record (Registro Di Leva) If your Italian-born ancestor was male and immigrated to the United States after he turned 18, chances are that he served in the Italian military. Thorough records of military conscription in Italy are kept for all males born after 1855. Conscription records are kept in Italy at the Province (Provincia) level, which is good news – often times, people have a general idea where their ancestor emigrated from, but do not know the Comune, which is the government level where most genealogical research must be performed. You can write the Provinicia where you think your ancestor may have been conscripted and request a Military Conscription Record for that ancestor. If the record is to be found, it should give you your ancestor’s name, date of birth, and Comune of birth. Very valuable information.
State of the Family (Stato di Famiglia) This document is unique to Italy. Starting in 1911, all Comuni began keeping this record, which is a list of vital records data of all members in a family tree. If you know the Comune where your family is from (there are 8,100 Comuni in Italy!), then you can request this document from the Stato Civile of your family’s Comune. If you need records of ancestors prior to 1911, you will need to pay-per-ancestor to reconstruct their record. The fee depends on the Comune. It seems reasonable, however, to expect to pay about $40.00 per ancestral reconstruction.
Once you have gathered more specific information about your family, you will then have a clearer route going forward. Learning your ancestor’s Comune and birth date will allow you to focus your future document searches within that Comune. The key to successfully gathering documents later on is precision of information, which is attained at the genealogical research phase. I will go into more depth on how to request Registro di Levo and Stato di Famiglia records when I begin to post information on writing for Italian records.
Hired Genealogical Consultants
If your family knowledge is exceedingly vague and you have no known resources that you can exhaust to find names and dates, then perhaps it is time to bring in a professional. There are many reliable sources through which you can hire independent genealogy researchers. Prior to hiring a genealogist, however, you need to first determine the “problem” the genealogist needs to solve – they will need specific guidance so they know how to help you. Familysearch.com has a great guide for what you need to know about hiring independent researchers, which can be found here.
Here are several accredited sources for finding a genealogist:
The National Archives In addition to providing an online portal for limited archive searches, the archive also publishes a list of independent researchers for hire that it recommends. This list is organized by the researcher’s specialty. You can contact one of these researchers, to see if they can help you in your quest.
ICAPGen (The International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists) The Commission provides a searchable list of accredited genealogical researchers.
Board for Certification of Genealogists This website likewise provides a searchable list of certified genealogists for hire, which you can sort by specialty.
Association of Professional Genealogists APG will help you find a genealogy professional by research specialty (one of the searchable items is “Italian American”).
You could also contact your honorary Italian Consulate or local international groups to check if they have any recommendations for researchers.
Have any questions or suggestions? Please clue us in!