3 Simple Ways to Discover Your Italian American Heritage

June 10, 2016  - by 

Italian Americans have a wonderful legacy. I should know; I am one! There is so much to connect with—the food, the history, the culture, the food— But, many Italian Americans know little about their heritage beyond the little they have heard from a relative about the “Old Country.”

If you want to connect more with your own Italian roots, here are three simple ways to start.

  1. Discover where your ancestor immigrated to in the United States, and where in Italy they came from.
  2. Learn enough of the history of Italy and the immigrant experience to understand what the lives of immigrants were like.
  3. Pick up a little of the Italian language along the way.

Discover Where Ancestors Came From

When I began the search for my Italian ancestors many years ago, I found I didn’t have to go far to find the answers I needed to discover their places of origin. Most Italian immigrants to the United States came sometime between 1880 and 1920, making us one of the more recent immigrant groups. As such, it is possible, even likely, that you have a living relative with firsthand knowledge about the trip your ancestors took from Italy. This living memory can provide valuable information about your ancestors’ places of origin.

Knowing the approximate year your ancestors came can also provide valuable clues. For example, if your ancestor came to the United States after 1900, they are more likely to hail from the south of Italy; that’s just the way the numbers play out. In fact, my own grandparents grew up in the United States speaking the Sicilian dialect—even before they learned English in elementary school. My grandmother liked to tell how she would trade her tomato sandwich for peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and jelly was not something her parents even fathomed. They cooked and lived as they had in the Old Country.

Vintage Italian phot
If you don’t have the benefit of living relatives or aren’t sure of the place of origin of your ancestors, there are many historical records that can provide clues and fill in the gaps. Start with what you know, and use those facts to begin your search. Consult the records and resources from the United States that are available on sites such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. You’ll find many types of records on these and other sites that can be helpful. Among the most valuable are census records, city directories, obituaries, immigration records, and, of course, birth, marriage, and death records. Give searching a try. You may be surprised by what you find.

Click here for more resources to help in your search.

Learn Some History

One important fact to know when learning about the world your ancestor lived in is that Italy wasn’t a unified country until between 1860 and 1871. This fact meant that many immigrants identified with a local town or region more than they did with the nation of Italy. Even as many Italians were immigrating, Italy took great pains to ingrain in its citizens a feeling of oneness or “Italianitá.” This effort was lost on many Italians, including my own family, as they didn’t stop identifying heavily with Sicily rather than other regions of Italy.

To guide you as you learn more about Italian history or the immigrant experience, the following are a few of my favorite books and online resources.


  • Christopher Duggan, A Concise History of Italy (1994, Amazon).
  • Harry Hearder, Italy: A Short History, (2001, Amazon).
  • History of Italy,” WikipediaAlways a good first stop, right? This article provides a thorough treatment of Italian history, with photos.
  • A Concise History of Italy,” the Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, which was founded in 1911 to promote Italian history, language, and culture.


  • Mark I. Choate, Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad (2008, Amazon).
  • Pascal D’Angelo, Son of Italy (2003, Amazon).
  • Italian Emigration and Immigration,” FamilySearch wiki.
  • Jerry Mangione, La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience (1992, Amazon).

Learn a Little of the Lingua

Since many of our ancestors didn’t speak English when they arrived in the United States, here are few tips for learning some important Italian words. Knowing even a little can help you figure out what the original Italian given names and surnames might have been, which will help in your search for information in the records of Italy.

Italian flag
Names and Naming

  • Consider that names might have been anglicized. For example, “Matteo” becomes Matt or Matthew. This website is a good place to see the possible Italian equivalents of anglicized given names.
  • Surnames could have been changed too. A common surname such as “Russo” could have become Russe, Russa, Russell, or even Russ.
  • Consult these websites for ideas about Italian surname spellings:
  • Search for the entire family, and watch for naming patterns! Chances are your Italian ancestor came with relatives to the United States. Watch for this typical naming pattern on records in the United States and Italy. The first son would be given the name of the paternal grandfather, the second son would take the name of the maternal grandfather, the first daughter would take the name of the paternal grandmother, and the second daughter would take the name of the maternal grandmother.

Clues on Records

  • Locate an ancestor on a census, and look for information about the year of immigration or naturalization.
  • Try to locate an ancestor on a passenger list based on what you found in a census. The way the name was spelled on the passenger list is most likely the way the name would have been spelled on Italian records. The lists were often filled out at the port of embarkation before the ship left Italy. (By the way, the most popular ports out of Italy were the ports of Genoa, Naples, and Palermo.)
  • Look for a place of birth or origin on records in the United States. Sometimes the place of origin might be spelled incorrectly. Use Google to try to identify the correct spelling, and try these resources too:
  • A. Bruno, Nuovo Dizionario dei comuni e frazioni dei comuni con le circonscrizioni amministrative (1954, Family History Library Catalog, Family History Library microfilm 795276).
  • “Storia dei Comuni” (elesh.it/storiacomuni/cercacomuni.asp).
  • Italiapedia (italiapedia.it/comune-di-arta-terme_Storia-030-005).

Word Lists

FamilySearch Document Translations

Article by Suzanne Russo Adams, MA, AG®. Suzanne works in content strategy for FamilySearch and was previously employed by Ancestry.com. She is a graduate of Brigham Young University, with a B.S. in sociology, a B.A. in family history and genealogy, and a master’s degree in european history. She has served on the boards of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), Utah Genealogical Association (UGA), and ICAPGen. She is the author of Finding Your Italian Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide and was a lead researcher for season 1 of NBC’s hit series Who Do You Think You Are?


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  3. Thanks for your great information on Italian family history. Tomalino seems to be a rare surname even in Italy. I’ve thought that finding the meaning might be helpful but I have no success there.