October 8, 2015

The Search for our Ancestry (XVII)

Italian and Sicilian Civil Birth Records
An image of Gaetano Coniglio’s birth record
By Angelo Coniglio
When I began seriously searching for ancestral information, I expected that it would be difficult to access good original records. For no particular reason, I thought record-keeping in the old country in the 1800s and early 1900s might be slipshod and hit-or-miss. I had a surprise in store!  In the early 1800s, throughout Europe, Napoleon instituted civil records including those registering births, marriages and deaths were kept in a format called “Napoleonic” records. No nation of ‘Italy’ existed at that time, and records in the northern Apennine Peninsula varied somewhat from town to town. The southern peninsula and Sicily, being under one Kingdom and administration, kept more uniform records.  Records in the south, less subject to wars, generally survived in better condition and more completely than those of the north.
“Birth certificates” were not used in those days.  No record of birth was given to the parents. The births in each year were recorded sequentially in a large Registro, or register.  Napoleonic civil birth records generally include, for each year, an index of all the year’s births. These are usually, not always, directly after the records for a given year. In the best case, indexed names are alphabetized by surname, and each has a number indicating the page or record for the person. Often the alphabetization was by first letter only, but in some cases it was fully alphabetic. Or the index was listed alphabetically by first name, or simply by an un-alphabetized chronological list.
The actual record can contain valuable bits of information, as follows: record or page number; child’s name; registration date and time (not necessarily the same as the birth date); name and rank of the presiding civil official (Uffiziale dello Stato Civile); birth date; father’s name; paternal grandfather’s name; the father’s age, occupation, and address; mother’s name (with her birth surname) occupation and age; and the maternal grandfather’s name. This data is followed by the names, ages, and occupations of two witnesses (not to the birth, but to the registration of the birth), and by a statement saying that the record was read to all present and signed by those who knew how to write. This can be an unexpected bonus:  If your ancestor’s father knew how to write, you’ll see an image of his signature!  
Below is a full translation of a typical civil birth record, that of my father, Gaetano Coniglio, in the format used from 1875 through 1910.  These records were “boilerplate”, that is, the basic format was pre-printed and the same for most towns. Understanding one of them opens the key to all. Underlined italics represent handwritten entries.

Record Number 158
Gaetano Coniglio 
In the year one thousand eight hundred eighty-nine, on day twenty-seven of April, at ten AM, in the Town Hall
Before me, Pasquale Vaccari, Secretary delegated by act of the Mayor on twenty-four April one thousand eight hundred eighty-eight, duly approved
Official of the Civil Status of the Town of Serradifalco appeared Gaetano Coniglio, age fifty-three, a sulfur miner living in Serradifalco, who has declared to me that at five PMon day twenty-six of the current month, in the house located at via Migliore number ten, by Carmela Calabrese, his wife, a housewife, living together with him was born a baby boy who was presented for me to see, and who was given the name 
To the above, and to this record, are present the witnesses Vincenzo Barile, age thirty, a sulfur miner, and Salvatore Barile, age thirty-six, a sulfur miner, both residents of this community.
The present act was read to those in attendance but is signed by me alone, the informant and witnesses having said that they don't know how to sign [Signed] P Vaccari

From the father’s age, his birth year can be estimated as 1836, and his birth record, in turn, can be found. Witnesses may have been casual observers, or family members, or paid a small stipend. This particular record also had a “margin note” written years after the birth, stating Gaetano Coniglio married Rosa Alessi on December 1st 1912”.  To see the original record, in Italian, go to http://bit.ly/1889BirthRecord  
Coniglio is the author of the book The Lady of the Wheel, inspired by his Sicilian research. Order paperback or the Kindle version at Amazon.com. Coniglio’s web page has helpful hints on genealogic research. If you have genealogy questions, or would like him to lecture to your club or group, e-mail him at genealogytips@aol.com