Italian Genealogy


[Introduction][Research][Second Surnames, or Sub-Surnames][Chain Migration]

[Ships of our Ancestory][Peter Corgatelli's Ship][Bibliography]

Back to Genealogy Homepage

Back to Smith Homepage



The land in Italy is very limited, families could not inherit enough to make a living, and a general migration to the United States began roughly in 1871 and continued until 1920. Four million Italians left their beloved homeland and set out to make their fortunes in the booming mining, railroad, and plentiful opportunity in America. Many realized their dreams.

In Northern Italy, along the Alps, the economy was based on the silkworm industry. When a blight of the mulberry bush, which was raised as food for silkworms, ruined the silk industry and left the entire region destitute. The U. S., Brazil, and Argentina became the new Meccas of wealth and prosperity for northern Italians. Since many people from the north were skilled carpenters, they often settled in the coal and mineral mining towns of Pennsylvania and Colorado, where they built the wooden supports for tunnels or cut ties for the railroads. Others found the climate of Northern California similar to their own and created a large Italian community there, introducing Italian grapes and wines to the region. Italians worked as unskilled and semiskilled laborers on railways, canals, roads, and in mines in the north central and western regions.

The emigrants were predominantly male (80 percent), of working age and mostly married. The largest number, however, traveled as singles to the U. S. They were not from the poorest classes, since they were able to afford the costs of migration. They were the offspring of a traditional premodern social order in an advanced stage of disintegration in their home country. They were mostly illiterate. In the Little Italies they preserved the customs, cultures, and traditions which they had left behind and tried to protect themselves from discrimination, hostility, and violence in their new home.

Considering how much Italians loved their beloved "Place," the large wave of immigration becomes on the most pathos filled chapters of Italian history.




Research in Italy itself brings advantages. It may seem incredible to people in the U. S. Where, today half the population moves every five years, but in Italy families traditionally stay in the same village or town for centuries. There are several reasons for this, some geographical and some historical.

Two major mountain ranges one of which is the Alps, which run east to west where Italy borders Austria, Switzerland, and France. Flat lands are found in the Po Valley in the north.

Because, in ancient times, coastal areas were often attacked by marauding pirates and invading navies, most towns were built inland for better protection. The populace lived in towns for protection and tilled the surrounding land. Grapes, oranges, olives, meat and dairy products are easily produced in hilly areas. Each town was isolated from the others; sometimes with horse and donkey transport, it was a whole days journey to the nearest town. This relative isolation and the varying political rivalries made people suspicious and wary, and any stranger, even one from a nearby town, might be treated as an enemy. The inhabitants of the towns tended to marry people from within the same community or from nearby towns.

In the Middle Ages the economy depended totally on the products of the land. There was very little commerce, and needs were met through bartering. Each town and city had to be self-sufficient. This independence created a strong sense of property. To retain sufficient land for the sustenance of each family, the property was not divided but was always passed on to the firstborn son. Other male children either had to work for the firstborn or find a vocation in the church or military service. Only exceptionally wealthy families could afford to purchase new land for other sons.

Houses, too, were passed from father to firstborn son. Because they were built to last for centuries, families lived in the same ancestral homes for generations. This lack of mobility is a true blessing to the genealogist. Imagine being able to trace all branches of your family for centuries from the same record source. To anyone who has traced ancestors in the U. S. Who moved once or more in each generation and married people from other towns, often from different ethnic backgrounds, Italian genealogy is a dream come true! The tendency of immobility is true of most of Italy.




Interesting surname variation: In the Piedmont region near France, is the second family name. These are not nicknames as appears in some other regions of Italy. Whereas a family nickname is derived from some personal characteristic of a family member and stays with the individual throughout life, it is not continued from one generation to another.

Here are specific differences in second family names in Piedmont. Vincenzo Tamburin, defines them "sub-surnames," were acquired through marriage and heredity, were clearly stated in written historical documents, and lasted from one generation to another, sometimes for centuries, with little alteration.

The second family surname was used to distinguish among several branches of the same family line and thus was most frequently used when the family name was very common in one town or area.

The number of different sub-surnames that were given to a family depended considerably on the prosperity of the family itself. As a family prospered and became more numbers in the village, the lines were expanded to more, each with its own distinct sub-surname.

It is possible a second family surname originated from a nickname of some fame member that distinguished him from the rest of the family.

More common, however, is the beginning of a second family name through marriage. In northern Italy, most families owned property. When a family had no sons, the first daughter had rights of inherence. These women were much sought after because they provided a means for the second or third-born male in a family to acquire property and have a family. Quite often, when she married, such a womans surname became the second family name of her husband. This name was kept for their children, thus forming a new family line.

In the Piedmont region the two surnames are often hyphenated, giving more credence to the idea that they should be considered second surnames. Examples of common surnames found in the area are Corgiat-Bondon, Troglia-Gamba. Our surnames as of 1996 research, are Picca-Garin and Osella-Abate. There is also the Osella, Levra & Picca-Piccon name in Corio, we may someday connect to them.

Italy is a land of history and scholars, so past events have been recorded and passed on. Every town in Italy has a unique history and usually some unknown treasure to admire; an ancient cathedral, a mural painting by a great master, one breathes history. Family history has been recorded as well. Each town in Italy has civil records dating back to at least 1870, some dating to 1809. The Catholic parishes situated in every village and town have records from much earlier periods. Most parishes have records dating back to 1595 or at least the beginning of the parish. Faithfully recorded baptisms, marriages, and deaths from these early periods to the present form a vital source of genealogical information.

Other sources exist also: university records to the 1200s notary records document all property transactions, wills, dowries, land sales, census and military records. Most can be found in the archive of each province (similar to U.S. county) in Italy.




By the 1890s Italian migration was largely a matter of chain migration, in which family networks played a crucial role. (These networks also supported repatriation for around two million Italians who were able to return home.) Chain migration was a system in which an earlier generation of migrants provided transport, accommodation, employment, and support for more recent arrivals, generally through primary social relationships. The pioneers provided the initial support and stability for the rotating generation that arrived after 1900.




Steamships began making regular crossings of the Atlantic i