Italy has a long tradition of exploration and emigration, from Amerigo Vespucci to Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) and John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto). For centuries, Italians have been explorers, inventors, and adventurers. Since the 1800s, Italians have immigrated to other countries for a variety of reasons, but most prominently for growth and employment opportunities. Millions of Italians immigrated to Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Canada, and other countries between 1880 and 1920. Nearly 80 million descendants of Italian immigrants1 live outside of Italy today, making tracing one’s Italian heritage a popular quest worldwide.
A Brief History—Who Were These Italian Immigrants and Why They Left
“Our people have to emigrate. It is a matter of too much boundless life and too much space.”
—Pascal D’Angelo, Son of Italy
Italy was historically made up of city states that became unified (the Unification) between 1859 and 1871 to help them be more independent from foreign rule. The new government had new ideas and caused political and cultural changes. At various points, they emphasized Italian colonialism and propagating the Italian language and culture across the world. The Unification resulted in increased taxes and socioeconomic divisions between northern and southern Italy. Many citizens, predominantly poor southern Italians in rural areas, resolved to escape poverty and improve their status by seeking better employment and future growth opportunities in other countries. These Italian emigrants were mostly impoverished laborers and farmers, but included were some craftsmen, merchants, and artisans. They shared a strong work ethic.
Prior to the 1890s, a higher majority of Italian immigrants originally came from northern Italy. After 1890, a majority of the emigration was concentrated in the mezzogiorno area of Italy—Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily, and Sardinia. Between 30 and 50 percent of Italian emigrants returned to Italy within five years2. Those who didn’t, replanted their deep love of their family and Italian heritage and culture in their new countries, and many sent much needed money to support family still in Italy.
Italian Immigrant Destinations
The major ports of embarkation from Italy were Genova, Naples, and Palermo. The top destination countries were Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Venezuela, and Canada—but other destination countries might surprise you (see the table below).
There were usually several ports of entry in each country. For example, when researching Italian immigration to America, you might start looking for immigration records from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, as these were a few of the major ports. Make sure you don’t limit yourself to one port in your Italian ancestry research. My grandmother told me that my great-grandfather Bartolomeo Gambino entered the United States through New York. The reality is that he came through Boston. Also, do not be surprised if you find ancestors entering their new country multiple times. Some Italian immigrants did not intend to stay permanently, or once they did arrive, they decided to go back to Italy and retrieve family members or to visit Italy for a time. Because the peak Italian emigration periods were in late 1800 and early 1900, family members often have living memory of where and when their family may have immigrated and better records to identify places of origin.
Italian Immigration Records
You can consider many types of Italian immigration records when researching your Italian genealogy. The key record types differ by country. In Italy, the following records may exist.
- Passport Applications: When an Italian emigrant prepared to leave the native homeland, he or she would have completed a passport application. (Unfortunately, most of these applications were destroyed; however, some still exist locally.)
- Military Conscriptions (draft and service records): These records can be a great source for identifying an ancestor’s birth town.
- Church Records: These documents often include christenings, births, marriages, and deaths, often with information about multiple generations.
- Civil Registrations: Look in these civil registrations also for birth records, marriage records, and death records.
If you are unsure where your Italian ancestor was born, a good rule of thumb is to begin exploring the records created in the country they immigrated to. You might have inherited documents from family members, such as alien registrations or green cards; passports; birth, marriage and death certificates; obituaries or funeral cards; letters and other correspondence; naturalization papers; and so on.
In destination countries, you can also consider the following records created by government and church officials or local organizations:
- Federal and State Censuses
- Birth, Marriage, and Death Records
- Church Records
- Passenger Lists
- Naturalization and Alien Registration
- Military Records
- City Directories, Newspapers, Societies, and Associations
Pictured here, a record of my great-grandmother Maria Accetta traveling with her daughter Filippa Russo in 1909.
Other Italian Genealogy Research Tips
The way an Italian immigrant ancestor’s name was spelled on a passenger list is most likely the way the name would have been spelled on records in Italy. The lists were often filled out at the port of embarkation before the ship left Italy. Contrary to popular belief in the United States, names were not changed at the port of entry, but rather as Italian ancestors assimilated into their new neighborhoods. For example, my great-grandfather’s name was Matteo Russo. I have found him on a variety of documents in the United States as Mike, Matt, and Martin.
Keep in mind that Italian women typically use their maiden names on official documents in Italy, which means that on passenger lists, you will often find a woman travelling under her maiden name with minor children travelling under the father’s surname.
Passenger lists and other useful records to locate your Italian family can be found on FamilySearch, Ancestry, and MyHeritage. In addition, FamilySearch is publishing nearly the complete civil registration of Italy online.
For more information and clues about how to find your place of origin, consider these sources:
- Italy Gathering Information to Locate Place of Origin
- A Family Tree Italian Genealogy Guide
- Finding Your Italian Ancestors: A Beginner’s Guide
In many instances, Italians didn’t travel alone. If you can’t find a place of origin on the records of your direct ancestor, branch out to siblings, neighbors, and associates. After all, it’s a family thing.
Additional Historical Sources on Italian Immigration
- Mark I. Choate, Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008).
- Pascal D’Angelo, Son of Italy (Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2003).
- “Italy Emigration and Immigration,” FamilySearch wiki, last modified 28 April, 2018.
- Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience (New York: Harper Collins Publ., 1992).
- Joan Rapczynski, “Italian Immigrant Experience in America (1870–1920),” http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1999/3/99.03.06.x.html.
- “Italians,” Wikipedia.org, last modified 26 July, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italians.
- Trafford R. Cole. Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical, & Other Records in Family History Research (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Incorporated, 1995).
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.