From Jersey Shore to Postiglione: Finding Italian Ancestors
You never know when and where your Italian ancestors will show up. How one genealogist found her Italian ancestors on a most unusual family vacation.
It was the summer of 2016. As was my extended family’s tradition, we rented a house at the Jersey Shore for a week in the summer. As is the goal of all family vacations, the hope is to create new memories and forge stronger connections between members.
That is why my family could not comprehend why I suddenly chose to spend a week devoted to the beach in my room with the air conditioner on full-blast. Honestly, I had come intending to spend hours with them on the sand. But that was before I received THE text message.
It was from my genealogist friend, Cath. She had BIG news.
The records from my ancestral Italian village, Postiglione, were available on Portale Antenati, the Italian Archives website. This was different from the kind of notification you dismiss like your car warranty is almost expired. This was major. I knew Cath, a family friend, was just as excited by this as me! I had been waiting for this day for decades.
Of course, when I revealed this amazing breakthrough to my family, they responded with ecstatic cheers and tears of joy! Just kidding. I got the half-smile and the obligatory “That’s nice,” we genealogists have heard all too often.
The Brick Wall: I Don’t Speak Italian
While everyone was walking out the door, I opened my laptop, ready to feverishly type my ancestors’ names into a digitized database to see….oh, wait. Postiglione records (like most villages’ records) are not in Antenati’s digital index. There was another huge roadblock. These records were all in handwritten Italian. At the time, I did not read Italian. I was not going to let this stop me. Luckily my friend Cath and Google Translate were ready to help.
The first thing I needed to do was understand how Antenati worked. The default language of the website is Italian, which can be overwhelming. However, in the upper right-hand corner of the website, there is a little flag where you can choose your language. I selected English and Ta-da! Automagically, the unfamiliar text transformed into a metaphorical roadmap.
After much trial and error, I discovered the best way to enter the desired record collection was through the “Browse the Archive” tab.
Then I selected State Archives of Salerno and was brought to a page where I was greeted by a green flag letting me know indexing was complete for this archive. I noticed other state archives had yellow or red flags indicating the availability of their record collection.
Family History Research Pro Tip: Search the Registries
- Choose “Search the registries,” where the side margin lists various communes or villages; record types; years; and time periods.
- I suggest beginning with selecting your commune.
- From there, choose the year or hit “expand” on the year collection to see what is available.
- Once you have narrowed down a year, go to the record type (birth/marriage/death) you are interested in researching.
Now, just when you think your great-great grandpa’s record is a click away… bam! You’re bombarded with 495 images. At least, that is what happened to me (and as an Italian researcher, is now a daily occurrence).
About three images in, I called my friend Cath. Luckily, she is on the West Coast, and it was 10 pm, so it was ok I was calling at 1 in the morning my time. I went into my lament that I could not do this. I would just wait another decade or two until these records were transcribed and digitized. I mean, my ancestors were not going anywhere, right. (We all know those excuses we make.)
The Secret to Researching Italian Ancestors: Use the Index
Thankfully, Cath would not let me shut the door to my past. She then imparted this important tidbit; each image record collection contains an index!
This index is (usually) on the last image page(s). To quickly access the index, go through the following steps.
- Open the record collection of interest.
- On the top of the image, you will see an icon that looks like a book with a line under it. Click it and choose “gallery.” It will then show you all the images as thumbnails.
- Scroll to the last images to find your ancestor’s name in the index. The index will usually provide an entry number, page number, and/or date.
Again, click the book icon for faster navigation. Remember, the index numbers do not reference the computerized image index number! Of course, it would be too easy for record collections to follow the same format.
A few more tips to navigating the index.
- Be ready to search alphabetically by surname, by the first time, or by date.
- Most indexes are in the back of the collection. Yet, some are in the center, others are in the front, and other index collections can be missing altogether.
- Also, Italian women did not change their surname after marriage, meaning you’ll find them under their maiden name for their lifetime in Italian records!
The Final Obstacle: Deciphering Italian Ancestors’ Handwriting
After discovering how to find my ancestor in the index, I came across my next dragon to slay: deciphering what the record said! While many people may find the old Italian handwriting overwhelming, I was primed from spending my entire life receiving cards and letters from my grandma, who had matching penmanship, thus allowing me to focus on the translation. (These blog posts about deciphering old handwriting might help you as well.)
I tried Google Translate word by word as well as sentence by sentence. After many hours, I noticed patterns and repetitions. My computer screen was full of widows containing names of Italian professions and number translations. Of course, when I got stuck, my friend Cath was ready to lend an eye.
Connecting With the Past
Slowly but surely, my ancestors came to light. I saw them as babies, presented by their fathers to the civil officer. I noticed how they had taken on the trade of their father’s father. I marveled at the mother’s strength as she birthed and cared for so many children. And my heart sank for her as she buried three babies in two years. By the end of my week at the shore, I had extended my tree back an additional four branches.
My family, some bronze while others burnt, could not fathom why I “wasted” my vacation. To me, though, it was anything but. I had spent the week recording memories of the past and reestablishing bonds lost over a century ago. It was the perfect family vacation, at least for this genealogist.
If you are looking for your Italian ancestors and need assistance, our expert genealogists are ready to help you break down brick walls – even on vacation. Contact us to see if we can assist in reuniting you with your Italian ancestors.