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ANCESTRY - ITALIANS AND SICILIANS

by Angelo F. Coniglio - Many Americans of Italian descent make the same plaintive comment when asked about the origins of their immigrant ancestors: “My parents (or grandparents) never talked about it.”  I hope, through this column, to help you discover long-lost information about your Italian or Sicilian roots.  You may ask: “Sicilian, Italian – aren’t they the same?”  A short history is in order. 

The iconic, boot-shaped peninsula that we all recognize had been called ‘Italy’ for millennia.  But before the modern era, the nation ‘Italy’ had existed only briefly, in medieval times, as a small northern alpine kingdom, and later for a few years in the early 1800’s under Napoleon, again only in the north.  That was well before the 1860 ‘Risorgimento’.  Led by Garibaldi, it united northern and southern states and nations (including Sicily) into modern Italy.  The many mainland states had their own rulers, laws and customs, which were melded into one cohesive nation.  The northern peninsula and its center have the grandeur of Rome and its engineering marvels; Venice with its romantic canals; and Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance, nestled in the beauty and mystery of Tuscany’s lush hills.  Italian contributions to the visual arts, music, oratory, and to the foundations of the very laws that today define civilization, justifiably make Americans of Italian descent proud of their heritage. 

Sicily, which today is part of the nation of Italy, existed as a country (under numerous crowns) long before its neighbor to the north had achieved nationhood.  Sadly for its people, during much of its history it was ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Normans, Germans, French, Spaniards, and others.  This milieu affected much of the southern Italian peninsula.  The area from Naples to the south, including Sicily, acquired a special name, ‘Mezzogiorno’ (noontime), for the blazing hot sun that is its trademark.  Sicily developed into a multicultural land, evolving Sicilian, the first ‘Romance Language’, and producing treasures like the Greek temples at Agrigento and the Norman splendor of Monreale.  The first cog in Italian unification, Sicily eventually became an ‘autonomous region of Italy’.

North and south together are now ‘Italy’, which has made such great contributions to the world, and has provided millions of immigrants to the United States, comprising the highest ethnic concentration in the Tri-State region.  As with other nations, those who emigrated were generally folks who suffered economic or political hardship and were looking for a better life.  A lot of Italy’s émigrés were from the ‘Mezzogiorno’, and most of those were from Sicily: often peasant farmers, day laborers, and sulfur miners, some with skills such as stonemasonry, carpentry, or shoemaking. 

There were differences in culture between north and south.  After millennia of subjugation, Sicilians distrusted ‘outsiders’.  The Sicilian language preceded the Tuscan tongue used in the north, but is not as refined.  Urbane northerners often viewed Sicilian-speakers as somehow inferior.  The differences led to cool relationships, even between immigrants to America.  Thankfully, those feelings have been largely subsumed in our great melting-pot, and those of northern and southern heritage alike celebrate their ‘Italian’ ancestry. 

This history is significant to genealogists, because 18th and 19th century records of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths on mainland Italy differ somewhat, in availability and type, from those of Sicily.  The former are more variable from region to region because of the varied historical political systems of their locales, and have generally been more subject to loss or damage due to war or natural causes.  Because Sicily is physically isolated, records across the island are found to be more uniform and available.  These differences between the records of north and south can be important, depending on your ancestors’ origins.

The Mormon Church has collected microfilm copies of civil birth, marriage and death records, as well as many records from churches of various denominations, from around the world including Sicily and Italy.  Before we know where to look, and what to look for, some research must be done using records made in the U.S., concerning our ancestors.  And even before searching American records, we need to follow some basic principles, which I’ll address next time.

Visit Angelo's website, www.bit.ly/AFCGen, and write to him at genealogytips@aol.com.   He is the author of the book The Lady of the Wheel (La Ruotaia), based on his genealogical research of Sicilian foundlings.  See www.bit.ly/ruotaia for more information, or order the book at www.bit.ly/racalmuto.