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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 22:  Italian and Hispanic Ancestors

Finding ancestors' exact origins in the "old countries" can be among the most difficult tasks a genealogist encounters. So don't get discouraged if it takes time and effort to locate this information. To continue research in the "old country," you must know the specific locality in which your ancestors were born or resided — just a province or region is usually not enough. Don't assume that if you can find your ancestor on a ship passenger list, that it will provide this information. Seldom is this the case.

Few American ship passenger lists prior to 1891 recorded more than the immigrant's country of departure, and it was not until 1906 that the place of birth was listed. Also, contrary to popular belief, Ellis Island, which opened Jan. 1, 1892, does not have immigration records. However, New York City ship passengers lists are extant, and they can be found at the National Archives and the Family History Library. However, not all of them are indexed. Visit the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild for many transcribed passenger lists and for additional information and links pertaining to the immigrant experience.

Tracing Immigrant Origins. Don't neglect country of arrival records or overlook valuable clues in your family's papers. Check with your relatives for old certificates, family Bibles, diaries, military papers, passports, letters (even postmarks can be helpful) and photographs. If your immigrant ancestors arrived in the United States after 1880, naturalization papers often include the birth place. For earlier immigrants, the most useful information is the immigration date. That date also can be obtained from some American census records. Death certificates sometimes include the actual place of birth, but most do not. Obituaries are usually an excellent source of biographical information and some tombstone inscriptions list the birthplace. Usually it will just be the country, but sometimes the town is noted. The 1920, 1910 and 1900 U.S. federal censuses asked for the individual's country of birth, year of arrival, and whether or not naturalized.


While your Italian roots may go back to Peter Caesar Alberti, who came to America with the Dutch in 1635, more likely you will discover that your immigrant ancestor came to America between 1880 and 1920 and landed in New York City. More than 5 million Italians have settled in the U.S. since immigration records began to be compiled in 1820. Mostly they came from southern Italy — particularly the provinces of Abruzzi, Campania, Apulia, Basilicata (Lucania), and Calabria — and from the island of Sicily

Most of those who left southern Italy after 1880 were men between the ages of 16 and 45 who hazarded the trip with the idea of remaining for a season or two in the U.S., working at any available job, saving as much money as they could and then returning to Italy. Many of these immigrants, transplanted from the sunny fishing villages on the Mediterranean coast and tiny farming communities in the interior mountains, came and went seasonally. They were called birds of passage, because they labored in the U.S. as long as weather permitted, then returned to their families in Italy for the winter months. Many remained birds of passage, but most who came once, twice, three times or more ended up bringing their wives and children and staying in America. Today the descendants of Italian immigrants number in the millions and are spread throughout the U.S.

Three basic facts about your immigrant Italian ancestors are critical before research in the old country can be successful:

Many Americans of Italian descent are removed just two or three generations from their immigrant ancestors, so interviewing relatives can be productive. Learn as much as you can about the town of your ancestors, because many towns in Italy have the same or similar name.

The majority of Catholic registers in Italy begin the early 1600s, though some start in the 1500s. Most of these records remain at the local parish or are in diocesan archives. You probably will need to correspond with the local priest in order to obtain information from these church records. Hone up on your Italian or find someone who can translate for you as you will have greater success if you submit your requests in Italian.

Italy WorldGenWeb

PIE (Pursuing Our Italian Names Together)

POINTers: The American NETWORK of Italian Genealogy

Italy WorldGenWeb: Where Do I Start?

Italy WorldGenWeb: How to Research Links

Joe's Italian Genealogy Page

Italian Genealogical Word List, Letter-writing Guides and Research Outlines

Latin Genealogical Word List


How Do I Get Started? by Alfred Sosa

Hispanic research varies in different countries depending on the type of records created and the history of the locality. Access to various records also will vary. Most people of Spanish heritage have at least two surnames; some more. This is the case for those whose family names consist of compound surnames as in Hurtado de Mendoza, which has come to be considered one surname. A child was given his father's first surname and a second surname acquired from his mother's first surname. Women in Hispanic societies do not take their husbands surnames as their own. This simplifies genealogical research — sometimes. There also is no usage of the mother's first surname as a given or second name for her children as occurs in Anglo-Saxon or other European cultures. If you encounter an ancestor with the surnames of Diaz Rodriguez, it may be safely assumed that the father was surnamed Diaz and the mother Rodriguez, not vice versa.

This dual system of surnames works well and is easy to follow and trace. However, from about the middle of the 19th century back, the system is fuzzy in some localities and becomes somewhat complicated. The main cause of the problem is that women used one set of surnames and the men another. In early times, Spanish surnames were interchangeable and sometimes the mother's surname was placed first instead of second. It has been only within the last 150 to 200 years that the spelling of Hispanic surnames has become standardized. So it is not surprising to find early records with surnames spelled several ways.

"It is not always possible to trace every Hispanic ancestor across the border or through the extant records, but it is certainly just as easy, if not more so, than trying to trace an Anglo-European, African, or Asian pedigree," according to Lyman D. Platt. Platt, a fellow of the Utah Genealogical Association and president of the Institute of Genealogy and History for Latin America and author of major portions of Hispanic American Genealogical Sourcebook.

Some records specific to Hispanics include: notarial records, hidalguias and heraldry, Inquisition records, records of the religious orders and records of the secular church.

Information about immigrants who entered the United States through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California are found in a wide variety of collections. From the period of 1906 to 1953 approximately 1.5 million individual records were created at the Immigration and Naturalization office in El Paso, Texas, with about 600,000 of these being entries made prior to July 1, 1924. These documents relate to aliens immigrating to the U.S. who were granted border-crossing privileges all along the border of Mexico from California to Texas. They also include records of some U.S. citizens living in Mexico.

Spaniards or Mexicans entering the United States by ship between 1820 and 1903 usually did so through Galveston, Texas, New Orleans, San Diego or San Francisco. Immigrants were required to state their name, age, sex, country of birth, where they intended to settle, and their occupation. Lists of the names of those entering as passengers were furnished to the customs officials by the ship's captain.

Tracing your Hispanic roots may involve research in old American records as well as Mexican, and eventually lead you to Spain, where genealogical records are among the oldest and best in the world.

Since most Spanish and Mexican immigrants were Roman Catholics, church records are among the most valuable for genealogists. It is usually best to start your search in church records rather than civil records because the children of many newly arrived immigrants to the U.S. were usually born at home with the assistance of a midwife or neighbor and civil birth records may not be recorded. However, infants were usually baptized shortly after birth and the baptism record will have the same information as a birth certificate.

Marriage and death records also will be found in Catholic church records. In early Mexico the missionary priests kept separate parish registers for Spaniards, Indian, mestizos and mulattoes. The church records in each register will vary in content, so be sure to check all of them for your family's names. Some parish registers start as early as 1524, but most begin in the early 1600s.

One problem researchers encounter in Mexican church registers is the family surname. Sometimes both men and women took the surname of the father, as is the current custom. However, sometimes they took the surname of the mother, or even of a grandmother. Quite often you will find the use of two surnames. This is often the name of the mother preceded by that of the father. Many of these double names were used for several generations and then later dropped or changed.

Access to the Mexican parish registers is fairly easy as many of them have been microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and you can borrow the ones you need via interlibrary loan through a Family History Center library near you.

Mandatory civil registration in Mexico began in 1859. These records are in the office of the civil registrar in each separate municipality. Many early records are in the central depositories in the state capital, and each state has its own archives.

Church records are the primary source for genealogical research in Spain also. Catholic registers go back to about 1650 in most cases — some much earlier. The Family History Library has been microfilming various diocesan archives in Spain, so consult this library's catalog for details.

Portuguese ancestors

According to official U.S. immigration records 434,837 Portuguese came to the United States between 1820 and 1977. Almost all of the early immigrants were Azorean men from the west-central and western islands of Sao Jorge, Pico, Faial and Flores, who served on whaling vessels.

Church records are the major source for genealogical research in Portugal and most parish records begin in the late 1500s or early 1600s.Civil registration in Portugal began officially in 1878, but was used only by non-Catholics, since the Catholics had vital events recorded in their church registers. However, in 1911 civil registration was made compulsory. These records are in the local registry offices — called Conservatorias do Registo Civil — in each municipality. When records are 100 years old they are transferred to a district archives with a copy sent to the national archives in Lisboa (Lisbon).

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SPAIN-L — A mailing list for anyone with a genealogical interest in Spain. The language for this list is English.
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SPAIN-ISLAS-CANARIAS-L — A mailing list for anyone with a genealogical interest in the Canary Islands, Spain. Interested individuals may want to check the Canary Islands WorldGenWeb page at


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GUATEMALA-L — A mailing list for anyone with a genealogical interest in Guatemala. Interested individuals may want to check out the Guatemala WorldGenWeb page at
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HONDURAS-L — A mailing list for anyone with a genealogical interest in Honduras.
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South America

SOUTH-AM-EMI-L — A mailing list for the discussion and sharing of information regarding emigrants from the United Kingdom to South America during the 18th and 19th centuries.
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BRAZIL-L — A mailing list for anyone with genealogical interest in Brazil. Uma lista para qualquer pessoa interessada em genealogia no Brasil.
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CUBA-L — A mailing list for anyone with a genealogical interest in the country of Cuba. Interested individuals may want to check out the CubaGenWeb genealogy site (part of the WorldGenWeb Project) at and the Cuban Surname Query Bulletin Board at Postings may be in English or Spanish.
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Dominican Republic

REPUBLICA-DOMINICANA-L — A mailing list for anyone with a genealogical interest in the Dominican Republic.

Puerto Rico

PUERTORICO-L — A mailing list for anyone with a genealogical interest in Puerto Rico.
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Links to Websites

Suggested Reading & References

Additional Resources

Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)

  • Ship Passenger List
  • Ellis IslanD
  • National Archives
  • Family History Library
  • Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild
  • Tracing Immigrant Origins
  • Naturalization Papers
  • Hone Up on Your Italian
  • Italian
  • Italy WorldGenWeb
  • PIE
  • POINTers
  • Italy WorldGenWeb: Where Do I Start
  • Italy WorldGenWeb: How To Research Links
  • Joe's Italian Genealogy Page
  • Italian Genealogical Word List, Letter-writing Guides and Research Outlines
  • Latin Genealogical Word List
  • Hispanic: How Do I Get Started?
  • Family History Library
  • Azorean Men
  • Family History Library Publications
    • Word Lists: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin
    • Letter-writing Guides: Italian, Portuguese and Spanish
    • Research Outlines: Italy, Mexico, Latin America, Philippines
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    • AZORES-L
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    • AZORES-D
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    • MEXICO-L
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    • MEXICO-D
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      • Guatemala WorldGenWeb
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    • BRAZIL-L
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    • BRAZIL-D
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      • soc.genealogy.west-indies
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    • CUBA-L
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      • CubaGenWeb
      • Cuban Surname Query Bulletin Board
    • CUBA-D
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  • Links to Websites
    • MediterraneanGenWeb Project
    • AzoresGenWeb
    • MéxicoGenWeb
    • Genealogy of Mexico
    • CaribbeanGenWeb
    • Cuban Genealogy Center
    • NorthAmGenWeb
    • SouthAmGenWeb
    • Hispanic Genealogy
    • Hispanic Genealogical Society of New York
    • Hispanic vs. Latin
    • Hispanic Genealogy Sources
    • PhiLinks
    • Philippines Genealogy Web Project
  • Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.
  • Hispanic American Genealogical Sourcebook
  • Introduction to Italian Genealogy
  • Genealogical Research Conditions in Italy
  • Cyndi's List
    • Italian
    • Hispanic