December 7, 2014

The Search for our Ancestry (VII)

How do you spell that?
By Angelo Coniglio
I’ve reviewed factors that are important in determining an immigrant ancestor’s name as it was used in Italy and Sicily.  Once the name is known it can be used in searching for other information about the person, that is, the other genealogic ‘keys’: date of immigration, date of birth, and town of birth.  Future columns will contain many references to various types of American and Mezzogiorno records, which often are indexed so that a record may be searched for by a person’s name, address, or other identifier.
Such searches may be undertaken at local libraries, churches, civil offices, genealogic societies and other repositories of paper documents, or they may be done on line using sites like the free Mormon church site the subscription site or the official Italian ‘Antenati’ (ancestors) site at 
Whatever form the search takes, be forewarned that even though you may think you know the ‘correct’ spelling of an ancestor’s name or place of origin or residence, it may be mis-spelled or mis-recorded in the documents you are searching.  
Consider these errors to watch out for on records and indices:
Mis-spelling on original documents.  Often our ancestors were illiterate.  The Mezzogiorno and Sicily were poor, depressed areas, and literacy was vitually non-existent among the common folks.  This meant that a name on a record, even an original record, was spelled in whatever way the clerk making out the document thought it should be spelled.  If later records were made by someone who spoke a different language than your ancestor, as in census documents, even more errors could be introduced.
Mis-spelling by computer transcribers.  When records are transcribed into on-line computer databases, the work is done by ‘indexers’ who read the original document and ‘digitize’ the information, so that it can be searched for by a person’s name.  An image of the record is placed on line, and some sort of search engine is used for you to enter the name.  If the name you enter is in the data base, the proper image of your ancestor’s document is displayed.  However, the indexer may not be an Italian-speaker, and may not recognize archaic handwriting, so he may have transcribed the name incorrectly.  If so, searching with the right name or the name commonly accepted by your family may not yield results!
Mis-spelling by sound.  If the record is one for which an ancestor (even if literate) pronounced his name, but it was written by another person, as in a census or license application, that person may have mis-heard the name: Andolino for Andolina, De Marco for Di Marco, etc.
Mis-spelling by looks.  An indexer unfamiliar with archaic handwriting and with Italian names may mistake one look-alike letter for another (u for n, j for i, i for e, etc.)   A common error is to transpose i and u, spelling GUIDO as GIUDO, GIUSEPPE as GUISEPPE, and so on.
Switching given and surnames. Italians often said their surnames first, as in Alessi Rosa, Coniglio Gaetano, etc. An English-speaking clerk or indexer unfamiliar with this custom, and with the names themselves, might write the first name as the surname, and vice versa.
The moral of all this is that when you search for an ancestor’s record by name, don’t give up if you don’t get results for a name that you “know” is right.  Try spelling the name differently, as it would sound, or replace “i” by “e”, or try the person’s last name as the first name in the search, etc.  Be flexible.  You may be surprised to learn how some of your ancestors’ names were listed!
Coniglio is the author of the book The Lady of the Wheel (La Ruotaia), based on his genealogical research of Sicilian foundlings.Order the book in paperback or on Kindle at Visit his website,, and write to him at