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Cavaliere Anthonly Lascio

Cav. Anthony Lascio Chapter - PIP 1

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 “Passport to America”  
by  Cav. Anthony Lascio

We are all aware that our Italian forebearers had to leave their Italian homeland in order to resettle in the American land of opportunity.  But what most of us don’t know is the process which was required in order to actually relocate.  

When a person experiences the first bite of the genealogy bug, one of their initial thoughts is to chase down the emigrating ancestor’s passport.  This inclination is certainly valid, especially if some of the necessary basic information to identify the origin of the ancestor is unknown.  Surely, a genealogist would ponder, a passport would name the home town of grandpa or great grandma.  While this logical approach is commendable, the results of such a search may not be desirable. 

Of the various types of Italian record sources, the Italian passport may be one of, in not the, most difficult document to locate.

Prior to the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, Italy did not see the need  for it’s citizens to have authorization to either move about the country or to leave it altogether.  But the highly administrative oriented Napoleon instituted a system which required “papers” in order for a citizen to relocate.  After his demise in 1815, this system was scrapped for the most part.  The early Napoleonic “travel permits” can be located in the various state/provincial archives, if they exist.

When Italy became a unified nation after 1869, the passport (passaporto) as we know it today, became a requirement for all Italians who desired to resettle elsewhere.  But here is the hitch.  The American authorities did not require incoming immigrants to carry an entry document because of it’s “open immigration” policy.  Therefore, many arriving Europeans and primarily Italians, did not bother to obtain an official passport for their U.S. arrival.  Hence, the term WOP was coined, without papers.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, including Italy, state governments tried to regulate the departure of their citizens, particularly young males who the government viewed as “draft dodgers”.  The responsibility of issuing Italian passports then and now falls under the jurisdiction of the local questura (police headquarters).  The application records are maintained in the state archive and are not available for viewing by the public.  These records are accessible via written request to the district attorney (prefettura) if the requesting party has a legal motivation or need accompanied by an official stamp (cost unknown).

A second source for passport records is the minister of internal affairs located in Rome.  He was the final process in the approval chain of command.  If you choose to pursue this process, expect a long delay and possible rejection or even an ignoring of your request.  If you are fortunate enough to have your request processed, the data of this passport document will provide only minor genealogical information.  Besides the name of the individual, the remainder of the data will include a birth date, place of residency and application date.  What you may seek primarily, i.e. the port of emigration and destination of the ancestor may not even be included.  What you will not find is probably the most sought after information you require, i.e., the date of departure.  The reason for this missing data is the process itself.  When an Italian citizen applied and when he or she actually left the country could have been months or even years after the actual emigration request application.

Experience dictates that despite all of the preceding, the most valuable document concerning an ancestor’s emigration is the passport itself.  Many genealogists have located this worthwhile artifact among the personal possessions of the ancestor or retained by the ancestor’s family.  If and when located, the passport will provide a storehouse of information including the ancestor’s parents names, birth date, town of residence, occupation, a complete physical description and of course the date of departure, the port of Italian departure and American arrival, ship name and destination in America.  More recent passports even include the ancestor’s photo.

Most Italian genealogists are aware of the three principal ports of ancestral departure in Italy; Palermo if Sicilian; Genoa, if from the Northern half of the peninsula; or Napoli, if from the Southern half of the boot.  A few who resided in the Northeast corner of the country sailed from Trieste, adjacent to the former Yugoslavia.

One question many researchers wish to know is whether there are port departure records from these points of embarkation.  Generally and unfortunately, the answer is usually “no”. Although there are a few ship lists and minor departure information, no passenger lists have survived.  They were maintained by the individual steamship lines, but World Wars, climactic conditions and carelessness have resulted in their loss or destruction.  Thus, a potentially very valuable resource is gone forever.

© PIP Chapter 1, 2003 ~ Webmaster:  ~  page last updated on Tuesday, April 22, 2003