Finding the town of origin of Italian immigrants

Finding the town of origin of Italian immigrants

The town of origin

The town of origin is the most important piece of information needed to begin your research of Italian ancestry. This is because Italian vital records are found in each town with older records being kept at the State Archives in each province. Italy has no central archive for genealogists. Therefore, it is essential to know the town of origin for an immigrant ancestor so that the records of that town can be studied. Usually, the hardest thing to do in the research process for any immigrant ancestor is to determine the precise town of origin. In fact, it is often more difficult than adding four or five new generations to the pedigree once the location is known. For some Italian-Americans, their ancestors’ points of immigration to the United States are recent enough that they know the town, province, and region their family came from. But for some researchers, the task is not that easy.

It is important to begin your Italian research (whether at home or abroad) with a place of origin. Understanding when and why your Italian ancestor left Italy may help to shed light on his or her town of origin. The years 1880 to 1920 were record years for Italian immigration to the United States. A vast majority of these immigrants came from southern Italy, or an area commonly referred to as the mezzogiorno. They came for many different reasons, but most were seeking a better life in a new world.

Many immigrants identified themselves by their town (comune) and province (provincia) before they identified themselves with the nation-state of Italy.

Some immigrants may even have named their frazione (fraction or hamlet) if they were from a larger city such as Rome, Naples, or Palermo. Immigrants remained loyal to the local body rather than the national body because Italy was not fully unified until 1871. It is, therefore, not uncommon to hear Italians referring to themselves as Genoese, Neapolitan, Sicilians, Tuscans, Venetians, and so forth.

If you do not yet know exactly where your family came from in Italy, here are a few places that could provide you with that information:


As a starting point it is almost an automatic reflex today to look for family information on the Internet. You may be lucky and find other families whose background and names seem to fit in with yours. For an example of database records transcribed by individuals online see Italian Vital Records Online.
Armed with solid family information, a good place to start is at Family Search website, has online listings of microfilms, books and other materials for the town(s) you are looking for. The main starting point for genealogical research is finding the birth, marriage and deaths of the family in Italy listed under Civil Registration (Registri dello stato civile). The information to be found in vital records are parents’ names and sometimes grandparents, ages, residences, occupations, besides the dates of birth, marriage and death. FamilySearch unites with Italian Archive Organization to digitize Civil Registration Records, see Portale Antenati.

Family Records

Communicate with other relatives who may remember details about your family. Clues to the origin of your Italian ancestors may be found in your own home. Search for family documents such as birth, marriage, death or church christening and confirmation certificates.
Form letters allow you to send your request letter in Italian easily and can be found at Italian Letter Generator. Just fill in the blanks and send it off as directed on the website.

Vital Records

Death and marriage records from the U.S. may list an exact place of birth for an immigrant. Birth and death records of an immigrant’s children may also provide this information. Search in Italian genealogical records online.

Immigration Records

Fortunately, Italian immigrants are generally much easier to trace back to their town of origin than other ethnic groups. This is because of two main reasons. First, the largest wave of Italian immigration took place when U.S. record sources were very informative as to place of origin. Second, Italian culture was such that origin was part of the oral traditions often passed on to posterity.
U.S. incoming passenger lists were regularly kept since 1820. However, these records were generally not very detailed until about 1890. Fortunately, this is about when the big wave of Italian immigration began. Most immigrants came into the port of Ellis Island in New York, though other ports such as Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore welcomed many Italian immigrants as well. Passenger lists can be searched in a variety of ways.
From 1861 to 1985 30 millions of Italians immigrated to different places of the World. A large number of Italian immigrants left for the Americas from French and English ports.
In 1869 the Italian government began requiring people to obtain passports to move within Italy, The Italian government used passports to make sure young Italian men did not emigrate to avoid the military draft. Consequently, police were responsible for passports. Passports are still issued today by the questura (head of the internal police) in each province. Although you may write to request passport information, the archives where these records are kept are not open to the public. You will generally find passports among the personal papers of the emigrant’s family in his or her destination country.
Because passport records can be hard to find and access, you may want to check with the anagrafe (registrar’s office) in each comune. This office keeps records of residency changes and emigration along with dates and probable destinations. Some passport applications have survived the years and are currently being digitizied and indexed by the BYU Immigrant Ancestors Project. Although it is an ongoing project, you may do a name search on the information indexed to this date.

Naturalization Papers

Typically, U.S. Naturalization records after 1890 list an immigrant’s exact place of birth.

Next Steps

After you have identified an exact place of origin and have collected other details about the family such as birth, death and marriage details, then you’re ready to begin searching in original records!

Related Links

Tracing Immigrants Arrival Search Tactics
Finding the Emigrant’s Town of Origin. Unfortunately, few Italian emigration records exist. You can, however, find many records in the United States of Italians who moved there. (FamilySearch Wiki)
Finding Place of Origin of Italian Immigrant – The most important step in doing your initial research is to find out exactly which comune in Italy your ancestors came from and where they were born. The place they were living in Italy before they emigrated may NOT be where they were born. (Italian Genealogy Online)
Find a birthplace
5 Ways to Research Your Italian Heritage Without Leaving Home