Filling in the genealogical blanks

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A lot of people have asked me recently about finding more information about their immigrant ancestors. Names, dates and places are the bricks and mortar, but if you want to build a cathedral, you need to do some detail work.

Most of our immigrant ancestors did not tell us the story of their journey to America. In many cases, they did not want to recall the unpleasant experience of spending two to three weeks aboard ship, crowded, with little room to sleep, poor food, and poor facilities. If you don’t talk about it, then it didn’t happen! In other cases, you may never have met the immigrant ancestor because they died before you were born. It is very frequent that the immigrant ancestor died before you became curious enough about this family history to ask the right questions. Most of our immigrant ancestors also may lack basic educational skills and English language skills, so even if they chose to write their recollections for their future generations, it’s not grand literature. If you are lucky enough for there to be a written (or even oral) record of your grandpa’s journey to America, consider yourself quite fortunate. For the rest of us, we have to take the details we find on old records, combine it with a basic knowledge of the process of immigrating to America from Italy, and create some of the drama ourselves.

My old high school science teacher taught us some methods for observing change. What conditions are you starting with? What action was taken? What changed? Did the change occur as a result of the action? What were the ripple effects of the change that was made? I want you to ask yourself these questions in reference to the human act of leaving your home for another country thousands of miles away.

What was it like for your grandfather and grandmother to leave Italy for America? You may never know specific precise feelings or emotions, but you need to put yourself in their place to start. One morning, they lived in a small village as tenant farmers, and the next morning they got on a steamship. Why? This is a major decision and probably took a lot of careful thought. It did not happen overnight. The specific reasons they left are the hardest facts to acquire, unless you were able to talk to grandpa, and he was willing to tell you. There is always the generic “we were poor”. But it always gets much deeper than that. The more detail you want, the deeper you need to dig. A general book on the history of European emigration to America may dwell on poverty and religious persecution. Did your Italian grandfather face religious persecution in Italy? Probably not. Italy is mostly a Catholic country. The government and the Church did not always see eye to eye, and that may have caused conflict for Italian people, but so far you don’t have much specific information to go on.

If you find a good book on emigration from Italy to America (probably such a book is available at the Italian Cultural Center Library), you can find out about reasons specific to Italy and leave off the rest of Europe. But the reasons for leaving the south may be quite different than the north. Since a much higher percentage of southern Italians left than northern Italians, clearly there must be a major difference in their living situation. It is quite unlikely to find a book specific to your region or province. “Why People Left Abruzzi For America” would be of tremendous interest for genealogists and historians whose family came from there, but no publisher wants to publish a book of interest to only a few people. You may end up having to search genealogy magazines, or the POINT Journal, for articles written about very specific reasons for emigration, often the story of a single individual. The Italian Cultural Center Library has a series of cassettes and transcripts of interviews with 130 Italian immigrants from 1979/1980. A list of the interview subjects can be found at along with the towns they left. Maybe there is nobody from your specific village but if they are from a nearby town, the reasons for leaving might be pretty similar.

Millions of Europeans and others have immigrated to America, and each one has a reason why. What would be your reason? Imagine that you are so frustrated with your life that you decide to leave; not just leave Chicago for Indianapolis. Leave Chicago for Peking, or Prague. I know that today, you can earn enough money to fly back home and visit your relatives you left behind, but what if you KNEW you can’t? You have to be so totally dissatisfied with your life and your prospects that you are willing to leave everyone you know and never see them again. Sorry, there was no Skype or Facebook back then! The cost of leaving your home country one hundred years ago was very steep indeed, so the decision to leave all that could not have been taken lightly.

Though we can rarely find the exact reason for our grandfather leaving Italy, we can find out how he got here. Most stories we might have heard of our grandfather stowing away in a barrel of grapes and sneaking off the ship are usually the figments of someone’s imagination. Most of our ancestors saved money (or borrowed money from their relatives already in America) for a third class passage in a steamship, for around $12 ($120 or more today). You and I have bought appetizers at restaurants that cost $12, but when you make $1 per month, $12 is a lot of beans. Our ancestor had to book passage on a steamship heading for America to pick up cargo.

America by 1900 was producing a lot of goods for the rest of the world, and the steamships would come over from Europe with some goods for America, but not much. Thus the ships were often mostly empty. What a waste! So they offered very reasonable accommodations in steerage (the part of the ship where the noisy steering mechanism was). That way they could make a quick buck off the voyage here, dump off the human cargo, fill up with goods and head back to Europe.

Next month, we learn just what our ancestors went through on their voyage here, and we find the records that give us the building blocks to telling a compelling story about their journey!

Write to Dan at and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line.

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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