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Finding Our Immigrant Ancestry. Basic Research.

by Angelo F. Coniglio - I’m often asked questions related to genealogical searches for immigrant ancestors.  Usually what these have in common is a lack of specifics, as: 

“Could you help me locate information on my grandmother?  Her name was Margaret Polito, and she came to America with her father James Polito and mother Mary, from Italy, in about 1911.”

There is little that anyone can help with in this case, based on the small amount of information provided.  Before we can find original (that is, from their native land) birth, marriage, or death records, we need the following key pieces of information about your ancestor:

1) Name (in its original language); 2) the Date of immigration to America; 3) Birth date; and 4) Place (town and nation) of birth.

Considering these ‘keys’, I would respond to the above question in this way:

“So far you have only parts of the required information about your grandmother: her surname and an Americanized given name, the year of her immigration; no birth date; and  her birth country, but not the town.” 

Starting with the Name:  If your grandmother was born in “Italy”, it’s unlikely that her given name was Margaret.  Possibilities are Margherita or Margarita.  Check family records (or memories), to see if she was referred to as Margherita or another Italian variation.  Believe it or not, her name may have been Domenica (doh-MAIN-ih-kuh), shortened to Mamie, then Maggie, then ‘upgraded’ to Margaret! Further, her parents names in Italy would not have been James and Mary.  Any searches you do of Italian records or immigration records should use the Italian variations of the given names.  Early census records may give the “Italian” names, before they were Americanized.. 

Knowing your relative’s name in its original language is important. Before you start searching old records, try to determine the right name and spelling. Below is a short list of given names in English, with Italian names from which they may have been derived, and a pronunciation guide, in which the emphasized syllable is shown in CAPITALS.  Note that vowels in Italian have the following sounds: A is “ah”E is “eh”I is “ih” or “ee”O is “oh”, and U is “oo”. “ AEIOU” in Italian is “ah, eh, ee, oh, oo”!!  The English sound of I (“long i” as in “eye”) is given by the combination “ai” in Italian.

  Some names were translated literally.  Filippo (fih-LEE-poh) became Philip and Michele (mee-KAY-lay) is Michael.  But many names were not.  Felice (fay-LEE-chay) means Happy (Felix), but often in America it was translated as Phil or Philip.  Sometimes the name was difficult to pronounce, or one prominent syllable of the name became the basis for the Americanized name. For example, Vincenzo (veen-CHAINZ-oh) became James. Sometimes the person was given a nickname that was later transmuted into a completely different name. Barbaro (BAR-buh-roh) became Bob, which then became Robert, and Alfonso became Al, then AlbertDiego (dee-AY-goh) became Dick, then Richard, etc.

  In Italian, male and female names have different endings, signifying gender. This USUALLY means a man’s name ended in “o” and a woman’s in “a”, e.g. Angelo and Angela, Vincenzo and Vincenza; Pietro and Pietra, etc.

Exceptions to this rule include: Gianni and GiannaMichele and Michela; and Felice and Felicia Other exceptions include Andrea (Andrew), which is from the Greek root 'andros', meaning 'man'.  Andrea means 'manly', and in Italy and Sicily it was originally exclusively a man's name, with no feminine form.  Another exception is Nicola (Nicholas), a variant of which is Nicolò or Niccolò.  The feminine form of Nicola or Nicolò is Nicolina.

See my page at http://bit.ly/ItalianNames for a more complete list of  given names in English and Italian.  More on Siclian/Italian given names 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.