Social Security Death Index (SSDI) search is not necessarily as straight forward as you might think. We’re going to explore what SSDI records are, their range of availability, and how they compare across the Genealogy Giants records websites.
If you’ve been dabbling in genealogy research for a while, then you are very likely familiar with the Social Security Death Index, more commonly referred to as the SSDI. But even experienced researchers have questions, like the one that Marti sent me recently:
From Marti in Texas:
Thank you so much for all your helpful resources on your website!! I just listened to the SSDI Working Backwards podcast episode (Family History: Genealogy Made Easy episode 3) and my grandparents passed away in 2012 and 2014. Do you know when the last time the index has been updated, I cannot locate them.
Thank you so much!!
This two-fold question is a good one. While many genealogical record sets have privacy laws that dramatically restrict more recent records from being available, the SSDI is not one of them. But even if the records are available, there may still be times when we have trouble locating our relatives.
Whenever you run into a road block finding ancestors in a record collection, do what good detectives do, and go back to the beginning. In this case, let’s learn more about the collection itself.
Social Security Death Index Background
The Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt. By 1937, more than 30 million Americans had registered. Today, the Death Master File from the Social Security Administration contains around 90 million records of deaths and they are publicly available online.
Some data goes as far back as 1937, but most of the information included in the SSDI dates from 1962. This is because the Social Security Administration began to use a computer database for processing requests for benefits in 1962. Some of the earlier records back to 1937 have not been added.
It’s important to know that the SSDI does not have a death record for everyone. It’s also very possible that you may occasionally find an error here and there if something was reported incorrectly. But don’t let that stop you from tapping into this major resource! It’s a wonderful alternative source for finding people who were counted in the 1890 census (which was unfortunately mostly destroyed) because they may still appear in the SSDI. Also, those who were born before vital records registration in their home state began, may also show up. Remember, working folks just had to live past 1937 to have been possibly included. That means some people could have been born sometime in the late 1800s.
Now that we have a handle on the history of the SSDI, let’s look at who has it and how recent their records are.
Where to Find the SSDI
The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is available on all of the ‘big 4’ genealogy records websites, which we here at Genealogy Gems refer to as the “Genealogy Giants.” The links below will take you directly to the SSDI search page for each.
MyHeritage (It is not stated how current the database is, but a search for 2014 did retrieve results)
(No dates or citation provided, but a search for people who died in 2014 did retrieve results)
In Marti’s case, she will want to search every single one of these websites for her ancestors. The good news is that they all appear to be up-to-date, but that doesn’t mean they are all exactly the same. The same collection of genealogy records can appear differently from site to site for a number of reasons such as accidental omissions, variations in the power of their search engine, differences between indexers and scanners, and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) inaccuracies. These may or may not affect the SSDI, but the point is that you can’t go wrong searching each one of the Genealogy Giants just in case. And since SSDI search can be conducted for free at all of the Genealogy Giants, it doesn’t cost you anything to do so.
A quick way to find all of the websites that include the SSDI is to Google SSDI genealogy. Here’s a link to the results.
SSDI Search Head-to-Head Comparison
Another excellent reason to search the SSDI on multiple websites is that each website displays the information a little differently. And as you can see from the chart below, when it comes to the Genealogy Giants, there are definitely differences.
It’s interesting to note that Ancestry is the only website that provides information about the year that the Social Security number was issued. It isn’t exact, but it’s more than the others offered in my search for Alfred H. Sporan.
The differences between the 4 major websites can be sometimes subtle or quite dramatic. Understanding their strengths and weaknesses, as well as free versus subscription offerings, is key to successful research that is both efficient and cost-effective.
The quick reference guide Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites is a must-have for anyone serious about getting the most out of free and paid subscriptions.
The author of this 4-page full-color cheat sheet, Sunny Morton, is Contributing Editor here at Genealogy Gems, and she’s packed this guide with everything you would ever want to know, and many things you probably didn’t know that you needed to know. You can pick up your copy here in our store.
SSDI Search and Beyond
There is another database at Ancestry that is worth keeping your eye on. It’s called the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index and it shouldn’t be missed! Currently, this covers 1936-2007, but who knows, they may update it in the future. It includes even more information. It was first released in 2015. Read more about it here at Genealogy Gems.
Gems: Share Your SSDI Search Experience!
I invite you to take a moment to share your SSDI search experience in the comments below. Have you had any surprises? Did you find a difference between the records found at different websites? We want to hear your story because we all benefit from each other’s experiences.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
Family History: Genealogy Made Easy
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 8: Best Genealogy Websites, Part 2
In a follow up to last week’s episode about subscription genealogy records website, in my first segment our guest is Yvette Arts, Director of Content Partnerships at World Vital Records. She tells us about exciting developments at the website that have helped make it a success.
In our second segment we look at five organizations that provide free online access to genealogy records for those with North American roots: FamilySearch, the National Archives of the United States, Ellis Island Foundation, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and Library and Archives Canada.
Now for some updates on these sites and MORE since the show first aired:
FamilySearch.org is still free and growing exponentially. It captures records from all over the world, not just North America and the U.K. It is now home to over 3.5 billion names in searchable databases, with over 35 million new records added every month. In addition, they’ve added over 60,000 digital books to the site. The layout of the website has changed dramatically since I described it in the original show. Click on Search to get to their databases, then enter an ancestor’s name and, if you can, a life event (birth, marriage, residence or death). A significant portion of new online records are browsable but not yet indexed. So now, after you search for individuals in their databases, scroll down to the Browse section below the search fields. There you’ll be able to see what records you can browse for a locale (choose the international region, then you can choose more specific locations). You can still order microfilmed records at the Family History Library to a satellite FamilySearch library near you. From the Search screen, choose Catalog, and you can search for and order available records by location.
The National Archives (U.S.), also known as the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) also offers more on its website now. The portal for genealogists looks a little different now but still helps you see how to search and use the site for genealogy. There’s a direct link to the 1940 census, with images, maps and descriptions. Remember that Footnote, the subscription site I mentioned that’s digitizing military records, is now Fold3, which we talked about in Episode 7.
EllisIsland.org still offers free access to the passenger records of those who landed at Ellis Island. In addition, you can still look at ship information (click on Ships from the home page). The Immigrant Experience and timeline I mention can be found by clicking on the Ellis Island tab.
The National Archives (U.K.) links from the home page to resources for ordering birth, marriage and death certificates for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Read about updating order information, including costs, at these sites. There is still a portal for genealogists from which you can learn all about the various record groups I mention in the podcast and more.
Library and Archives Canada continues to add more valuable genealogical data to its site, including census data! Start from its Genealogy and Family History page. In addition to the features I mention in the show, they’ve improved their online indexes: scroll down on the above page and you’ll find the Ancestors Search (Databases) link to a main search engine and individual databases for vital records, censuses, immigration, land, military and several directories.
The 1950 census must be indexed so that we can search for relatives by name, location and much, much more. You can help with this exciting project, and no special skills or background are required. Jim Ericson of FamilySearch 1950 Census Community Project explains what’s happening and how you can get involved.
Lisa: The 1950 US federal census was released by the National Archives just a short time ago on April 1 2022. But it was just a release of the digitized images of the census pages. The indexing of those records happens afterwards. It’s really the indexing that makes it possible for all of us to be able to search the records and find our families. Here to tell us about that really important indexing project. To get all this done is Jim Ericson from FamilySearch. They are heading up this project. Welcome, Jim.
Jim: Thank you, Lisa. It’s wonderful to be here with you today.
Lisa: I know you guys are so busy. You’re right on the heels of Rootstech which just wrapped up. And now we’re here with the release of the US Federal Census for 1950! Do you have somebody you’re looking forward to seeing in that census record?
Jim: Yeah, both of my parents will be there. My dad will be 20 years old. He turned 21 that year after the census. And my mom is 15, she will just have had her 15th birthday.
I know where my mom was. She was in Salt Lake City. But I have no idea where my dad was in 1950 as a 20 year old. He’d left college and I know that he had enlisted in the in the army. But I don’t know. He also worked in San Francisco for a couple of years. I don’t know if he’ll be in San Francisco, or where exactly where he would have been in 1950 when the census was taken so there’s a little mystery right there.
Lisa: Absolutely, and that’s a perfect example of why the indexing is so important, because you’ll be able to name search for him when this is done.
The History of FamilySearch
Before we jump into that indexing project, for those who maybe aren’t familiar or haven’t used FamilySearch, tell us what familysearch.org does and what it offers the genealogist.
Jim: FamilySearch is a nonprofit organization. We were founded in 1894 as the Genealogical Society of Utah.
FamilySearch is more of a recent incarnation of the organization that kind of reflects when we went online, and when we started publishing CD ROMs in the 1990s.
We’ve been microfilming and digitizing records since 1938. We started a worldwide project to go and collect records from around the world. Microfilm was really the innovation that allowed us to store all those records in a library. Getting a whole bunch of books or physical records in one location was difficult.
Since then, all of our record operations are now digital. All of our records are captured digitally now. We have worldwide operations in hundreds of countries. We publish over about a billion records a year.
As a nonprofit, we partner with commercial entities who have an interest in profit, because we know that they know how to innovate. And that also helps our resources go further through partnerships with these commercial entities. The 1950 census is actually an example of that sort of a partnership. We’re working on this with Ancestry and using the resources that they have.
FamilySearch has a collaborative family tree where you can see what others know about your family. We have, like I mentioned, 10 billion records that are online. We have free resources to learn how to do family history. And we really try to just bring people wherever they are, to the experiences that can help them learn about their family.
(04:32) Lisa: It’s amazing how much it’s grown! I remember the days of the CD ROMs with the record sets that we used to order. And now so much is available for free from home. Users just need to sign up for a free account to use the website and take advantage of the records. And I love the Wiki. It’s such a wonderful treasure trove of knowledge when it comes to genealogy research
Let’s talk about the most exciting and the newest record collection, which is the 1950 census. When it was released by the National Archives did you get all the images? Does that mean instantaneous publication on familysearch.org? How did that work initially?
Jim: Well, 10 years ago, in 2012, when they released the 1940 census, we were actually waiting at the National Archives with a van and hard drives. We had to transfer all the data onto hard drives and take them to our data facility in Virginia.
This time, everything was available online. Everything was downloaded and uploaded to our servers immediately. There was high demand. So that was one of the challenges that we faced was making sure that we’re going to be able to download those images, over 6 million images is a lot of images to be able to download. And those images include records for 151 million people. So that’s a lot of information at high quality, resolution. So that was actually the first hurdle.
And since we are doing this project with Ancestry, we also have to wait for Ancestry to do the same thing and download the images, to be able to process them to create their computerized index with their own handwriting recognition technology that then comes to us. It makes it so much easier to review an index as opposed to starting with transcription from scratch. So, there are so many innovations that have taken place. But from the National Archives, the online delivery of images was one of those innovations.
Lisa: How fantastic to be able to do that online. I can imagine that speeding it up. And then you’ve got artificial intelligence, which is already impacting how we use genealogy websites, how we access digitized books, and here you are using it to help index the records.
I’d love to know kind of a comparison between the speed at which you indexed the 1940 census which I thought was pretty darn quick to how that looks for 1950.
Jim: There is a great question, and we’re still learning how this is going to play out with the 1950 census.
The history of census indexing by FamilySearch
One of the first projects that we did as FamilySearch when we were publishing, CD ROMs was the 1880 census. The 1880 census took us more than a decade to press on to CD ROM. It was a huge project! It was crowd sourced, but before the advent of the internet. It was sending packets and physical papers around and then gathering them and then creating a CD ROM.
We went from a project like that, to doing the 1940 census just over a decade later in a matter of about six months. So already the technology was just astounding because of what you’re able to do because of the internet. Now you have the artificial intelligence, the handwriting, character recognition, and then you have innovations that we’re doing with the crowdsourcing. And all of a sudden, you’re able to take those tasks that we’re all human, I guess bounded by human capabilities, and you’re now allowing the computer to do what the computer can do.
With the 1950 census, we are actually indexing or reviewing this automated index for every single field that was captured in the 1950 census. It’s way more data than we were dealing with for the 1940 census. Because of the cost and the time, we just wanted to make sure that we just had the most logically relevant fields captured, so occupation, and some of those fields were seen as extra fields. But for 1950, we recognize that we can do a lot more in terms of the experiences that we can provide and that these other entities can provide if we have a full index, so that’s one of the big innovations. It’s going really well.
When will the 1950 census index be complete?
We have a goal to get it all done by Flag Day, so that’s June 14. That will be about two months from when we really got the project going and up to speed. That just depends on how many people come and participate.
There’s more than one way to participate. We feel like we have a lot of options, and it’s more accessible than it’s ever been because of how recent (the 1950 census) is. Recognizing handwriting from 1950s is not that different from recognizing handwriting from a week ago. Things haven’t changed that dramatically. And so, it’s a really accessible experience. And these are people that everybody knows. It’s kind of fun to come in and see what you can find in those areas where your family is from.
Innovations in the 1950 Census Index
(11:07) Lisa: Exactly. You said something which I hope everybody really appreciates, which is that you indexing every field. I mean, you must have gotten excited when you heard that was really going to be possible. It’s a game changer because now you can slice and dice data in so many ways. You can look up everybody who worked on the railroad or whatever the fields are that were filled out. What do you think the impact will be of that? Will that change anything about genealogy research?
Jim: Yes, it will. And not just genealogical research but also understanding the makeup of our country in 1950. And really understanding the history of our nation because that is part of your family history is enabled by capturing those additional fields. Being able to see differences in income, differences in occupation from region to region, being able to easily see, neighborhoods.
The address for the 1950 census is similar to the 1940 census in that it’s a vertical capture down the side of the forms. So that is something that just allows people to see what’s there today, if their house is still there. These are experiences that that we’ve dreamed of but without the index it is impossible to provide that sort of an experience. And so now with the commercial entities and what we’re trying to do, you’re going to have a lot of different experiences now that are unlocked and available because of these innovations. And especially with Ancestry’s (technology) it has enabled us to do this.
Is the 1950 census available for free?
(13:06) Lisa: Since you’re partnering together, is it available at Ancestry for free as well as for FamilySearch?
Jim: Ancestry will make their own businesses decisions. But yes, initially, it’ll be available for free. They’ve opened up the 1940 census recently, and that’s been available for free. I don’t know what all their future plans are. It allows them a lot of flexibility on how to do that. Of course, we make everything we can available for free at FamilySearch.
Again, there’s going to be a lot of different experiences that are available around this record set. So, it’s exciting going all the way back to how the National Archives made it available. It’s really democratizing the records. I think their goal is to just make it accessible to as many people as possible. And then it’s these other organizations that have a vision for what they can do with those records.
Lisa: Yes, and you guys certainly had the vision around the indexing project. That’s something that is such a skill that you’ve all developed and really fine-tuned. You’ve been able to crowdsource so much of what then becomes available to everybody.
Tell folks how they can get involved in it. And I’m really interested in some of the changes. I was very excited to hear that people will be able to have, in a way a more personal indexing experience. Tell folks about that.
Jim: Something that everybody wants to do when they come in and volunteer and get involved in a project is to find their own family. That will be expedited. When the index is published and available, after it’s been reviewed, everybody’s going to have that wonderful experience. But even on the review side, we’ve made it so people can search for a specific location down to the county level, or, in some cases down to the city level. Then you can actually search for a surname, or last name within that location. Now, if your family hasn’t already been reviewed, you’ll be able to review it if it hasn’t been reviewed. That just means that it’s going to be published sooner, because progress has already been made. And then you can come back and review it.
How to make corrections to the 1950 census index
(15:42) If for some reason, the person who reviewed it did it wrong, you can still make corrections. We do corrections on FamilySearch. Ancestry does corrections on Ancestry. And we are sharing whatever corrections are made on FamilySearch with Ancestry so they can get the benefit of any corrections that are made on our website as well. So that’s terrific.
For the 1940 census we had 163,000 people come and help and get involved. And with how easy it is for 1950, we think that we’ll have well over 200,000 people who will come and want to review these names.
How to volunteer to index the 1950 census
(16:30) If you want to get involved, there are a couple different places you can go. But the easiest place to remember is familysearch.org/1950census. And on that page, there’s a lot of information. Near the top of the page there’s a big link to join the project and to come over and participate.
The project is ongoing. All the states are there, some have already been published. Come and get involved and see what you can do. It’s going very quickly, and people are really enjoying it. We’re glad that it’s along as quickly as it is.
Lisa: Volunteers can do this from home from their computer. Is there a certain minimum commitment that they have to make or a certain minimum amount of technological ability?
Jim: No. This is again one of the things that’s kind of fun. I mentioned that briefly before there’s actually more than one experience or a way to participate.
(17:42) The standard way that most people who’ve done it before want to participate is what we call the Household Review. With the household review we try to identify from the head of the house, all the members of the household or the family to the next head of the house. That can sometimes cross pages on the census forms. That is an every field review. You can review as many of those fields as you want. And then the next person can come and pick up where you left off. So that’s really fun. It does require you to be on a computer.
(18:27) There are two other types of tasks. One doesn’t require you to be on a computer. You can be on your handheld device, your smartphone. It is what we call Name Review. So, instead of reviewing all of the fields, you can download our app called Get involved. FamilySearch Get Involved is available on the iTunes Store or the Apple Store, as well as from Google, the Android store. You can download the app and you can just start looking at the images where we have the names of the people in the census. Then you can compare that with what the computer thinks it is. You can either say yes, that’s right or no, and you can actually enhance or fix what the name is. You can do hundreds of these in an hour. I’ve done it, and it’s a fun activity. It’s really engaging if you like seeing that you’re making a difference in terms of volume. It’s a really fun way to participate.
Again, the computer doesn’t always get it right. So, you have to be really careful in the review process. But it’s super easy to just look at the image and look at the index value for the name and just make sure it’s right. You don’t have to have the app though.
(20:00) So, there’s the Household Review or the Name Review. And then the other task is the Header Review.
every census image, every census ledger, has a header that includes all of the location information and the information about the enumeration itself. And reviewing that is a separate task. We broke that one out because again, the data is formatted differently. If you want to go in and help us, those have to be done as well to be able to publish the dataset. We invite you to come in and see what states still have the header review available, and you can help us finish out that as well. It’s not as exciting because it doesn’t include the names of the people. But it still has to be done to be able to publish the reviewed index.
Lisa: I hadn’t thought about the header, but that’s pretty important. If that’s not right, then we get way off track pretty quickly. It includes our enumeration district number, the county, etc. That makes a lot of sense.
Well, Jim, it sounds like you guys have really been innovating over at FamilySearch. We’re grateful. We’re grateful that you’re giving everybody watching an opportunity to also give back a little bit and we can all pull together and get this done by Flag Day.
In this video on Italian genealogy and family history research Lisa Louise Cooke and her guest professional genealogist Sarah Gutmann of Legacy Tree Genealogists will discuss:
How to get started in Italian Genealogy
The best websites for Italian Genealogy
Italian genealogical records
Language tips and resources
Sarah Gutmann began her obsession with family history when she was 13-years-old. She now has almost three decades of experience helping others climb their family tree. She is a professional genealogist with Legacy Tree Genealogists where she specializes in United States and Italian research. As a veteran classroom teacher, Sarah enjoys teaching various genealogy programs to libraries, historical societies, and lineage organizations across America.
Exclusive Offer: Save $100 on full-service genealogy research projects with code GGP100 at Legacy Tree Genealogists. Or schedule a Genealogist-on-Demand™ 45-minute genealogy consultation HERE. (By using our affiliate links we will be compensated. Thank you for supporting our free genealogy content.)
Video Player (Live) – Watch video premiere at the appointed time in the video player above.
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It’s all about Italian ancestry here at Genealogy Gems today, and I’ve got the perfect person to talk to us about it and help you find a lot more out about your Italian roots. Sarah Guttman is a professional genealogist with Legacy Tree Genealogists. She specializes in US research, but also Italian research. She’s going to help us find out how to find our Italian roots. Welcome to the show, Sarah!
Sarah: Thanks so much, Lisa. I’m a big fan of the show. And it’s so nice to be able to get to meet you in person and to be able to talk to your listeners and hopefully share some information to help them find their Italian ancestry.
Americans with Italian Ancestry
(01:04) Lisa: Do you have some idea of how many people in the U.S. have Italian roots?
Sarah: Well, thanks to the magic of Google, it looks like about 5% of all Americans can trace their ancestors back to some Italian roots. But I like to think that it’s a lot higher, especially in New York you can’t go down the street without seeing a few pizza places. And I’m sure other parts of America have a heavier population than others. But for me, it seems like everybody has some Italian in them.
Lisa: I was we were thinking about this. You just need one ancestor who comes from a particular country and all of a sudden your genealogy research and breaks into a whole other area. And that’s the fun of genealogy, isn’t it? It’s different depending on which ancestor your work on.
Sarah: It’s really fun! About four years ago, the Italian archives really took off online, and we’ll talk about that today. The Italian archives is a free website, and it is based in Italy. I remember, I was on vacation in New Jersey with my family on a beach vacation and I got a call from my friend at around midnight. And she said, “Sarah, you have to get on this website! I think your brick walls are just going to come right down. The Italian town that your family is from is on there.”
So, I spent the rest of this beach vacation, locked in a room. And I had the best time looking at my family. I was getting records from people who lived in the late 1790s. It is just amazing the stuff you can find if you can kind of crack the code, and I’ll hopefully show people how to do that. You can really expand upon your Italian ancestry and have a lot of fun with that. And really, once you just get one ancestor, all of a sudden, you’re just going back several generations, and you just feel so great about yourself and just makes these wonderful connections. It’s just a great experience.
Lisa: I totally agree. I think I probably have done that on a vacation or two! And I’m excited because I have some new friends here in our neighborhood and the husband is half Italian. He’s like, “I don’t know anything about it!” So even if you’re not Italian, we’re going to be able to help our friends who are. So, let’s jump into it!
How to Find the Italian Village of Origin
(03:51) Sarah: The first thing we have to do is identify where the family is from over in Italy. Once you figure out what village your family is coming from, you can then jump into the Italian records.
One thing I think that we take for granted in America is that if we know that one of our ancestors was born in New York, there’s a pretty good chance that we’re going to be able to find that person. But a lot of times when we’re dealing with European countries, especially with Italy, unless you know the exact village that your family is from you’re going to have a really tough time.
Now, if you’ve ever gone on FamilySearch you probably know that if you put in an Italian last name you’re probably going to get some matches. That’s really exciting, and that’s great. But the problem is a lot of the records right now on FamilySearch are available in the catalog but they haven’t been indexed. So, you might not be getting your actual family member who’s in your family tree.
I want to share a way of really going into the actual Italian records from the State Archives for Italy and going into the village records and taking a peek and looking through them.
The first question that we always want to figure out when we’re dealing with Italy, and really anywhere, we want to find out what village our ancestors are coming from. That’s going to be really important. And that’s going to be the reason we’re either going to have a hard time or we’re really going to be successful on this.
A couple of things that we want to do before we hop over the pond is we want to check out and exhaust American records to see what is possibly available. So of course, we want to be looking at:
birth, marriage and death records,
family Bibles (and I’m always so jealous if anybody has a family Bible because they are just a treasure trove of information),
old letters and envelopes (maybe your ancestors might have saved some old letters from their family over in Italy and you might be able to gain some of that from the address on the envelope, or maybe from the letter itself),
old photos, (flip them over. It might say where the family was coming from in Italy, or maybe your Italian ancestors had some visitors that were going to go back to Italy. They may have written that on the back of their photo),
probate records (maybe somebody’s leaving something to a family member over in Italy),
Also check out the records for spouses and siblings. Check out your family’s “FAN Club” (Friends, Associates and Neighbors) and see if you can spot where that village is for your family
So, don’t give up. For one of my ancestors, I was having a really hard time finding what village they were from. But I noticed everywhere that my family went, there was this guy, Vincent Fiola who moved with them. Vincent never had any children. He was never married. But I was able to find his draft record. And on Vincent’s draft record he mentioned the town in Italy that he was from. So, I went and I looked at the records from that town. Sure enough, with Vincent Fiola in that same year was my great, great grandfather! So that’s how I found out my great, great grandfather’s town of origin by using one of his neighbors who just kept moving with him. So, it is possible to find the town. Just exhaust everything you can possibly find. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find that village so you can start looking for your ancestors.
Overcoming the Language Barrier with Italian Records
(07:41) One of the big things that I think people get really scared of with Italian research is that the records are in Italian. I’m a little bit guilty of this myself with some other languages of my ancestors. I see these languages that I am completely unfamiliar with and I think this is something I’ll just get to on another day. But I want to tell you that if you want to, you can totally do it. You can do it.
There are different ways to be successful at this. And there are some key topics that you can google for yourself to kind of figure out what some of the words mean. So, I just want to share some different phrases that are going to help you because you’re going to see the same things over and over again in your Italian records.
One of the first things that you want to be familiar with is the numbers. That’s going to be really important to you because a lot of our documents that we’re looking at in Italy, they are spelling out the numbers. They spell the entire year, the day street addresses, so we want to be able to identify those.
I will be honest, I am learning Italian myself. I am certainly not fluent in it. But I look at these records all day long. Sometimes I feel like I’m fluent in Italian because you’re looking at the same phrases over and over again. So, what I like to do when I’m doing my research is have a chart next to me with some of these helpful phrases on it. One of them is the Italian numbers.
Another thing is to know your months that you’re looking for in Italian. Keep in mind too, that these months are not capitalized because I think sometimes in our brain when we’re looking at these Italian records we might be trying to identify a month and looking for a capital letter. But that’s not what they’re doing in Italy. They are lowercase and we have to be aware of that when we’re looking for things.
Another thing is common words that we want to be able to pick out when we’re looking at the Italian records. So, for child we’re looking for bambino, bambina, and infante. Father, mother, Padre, Madre. The names for parents, genitori. The different types of records that we’re going to be looking at nata, matrimono. These are all going to really help you. It’s surprising that once you get just a hang of several of these phrases and words, you’re going to really be able to dive into those records and get the most out of them.
Common Italian Occupations
(10:26) Another thing that is often listed in the Italian records is our ancestors occupation. This is a really fun thing to find out, I think. With the birth, marriage and death records that we come across they’re going to usually tell not only that individual’s occupation, but also the names of their parents, and their spouses, even in death records, things like that.
These are some of the very common occupations that you will see over and over again in these Italian records. Bracciole is a day laborer, and a Contadino is a farmer. That’s something that you will likely see I’ve come to find in about 80% of the records. Sometimes they have fun ones that you can find on there such as rich person. That’s something that my occupation would never say, but they have it listed as somebody is a landowner. So, when you see something like that you might also be clued into maybe this person was a person of prominence in the village that people came to or people worked for.
The Italian Archives
(11:40) Now let’s jump into how to use the Italian archive website now that we have a little bit of backing with it. The first thing you’re going to go to is the Antenati website. You can even Google Antenati and it should come up.
The first thing you’re going to want to do is change the language into English. Let’s make it a little bit easier for ourselves! When you go to the website you’ll notice that there is an Italian flag. Click on the Italian flag and you’ll see a drop-down menu. Click on the English flag. Then magically, everything turns into English!
If you have been on this website in the past, be aware that they have changed the entire look of this website in the last few months. Unfortunately, they have also changed the website links. I was really disappointed because of course you always want to source everything, and on my Ancestry tree I had the actual links that were going to be connected to it. I wrote down where my family was from. And then all of a sudden, they totally changed this website, and those links that I had saved, don’t work anymore. So, I had to go back in and switch everything again, and actually put the images in just to make sure I had all the right information. So, keep that in mind when you’re looking at this website. Don’t save the links because it might not be there the next time you go on.
Lisa: Gosh, Sara, that’s a great reminder. I always encourage people to download the documents, and that’s a perfect reason why, because the links could change tomorrow.
Sarah: Absolutely, and there was no warning with this website. So that was very upsetting to a lot of people. So save, save, save!
When you go to the archive’s homepage it will ask you what location you are looking for? This is very temperamental, because sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I like to bypass this screen because sometimes I’ll put in a town that I know is there and then it comes back and says “no, this town is not listed right now.” That’s really frustrating, especially if you’re using it for the first time. I like to go right up to the Browse the Archive button and click that. It’s going to show you a map. From the map you could scroll in and you can see what state archives you’re looking at. Click the State Archive where your family is from. If you don’t know, run a simple Google search. You’ll typically find a Wikipedia article on it. It will tell you what Providence, the state, and the region in Italy. So, it’s not too hard to do.
Click the State Archive. For my family I use Salerno because that’s where a lot of my family comes from. It’s brings me to the State Archive of Salerno. You’re going to see a flag on the archive page. This flag is going to be either green, yellow, or red. If it’s green, or yellow, green is the best means everything’s on the website, it’s complete. If it’s yellow, it means it’s still in the works. You can check back later and they might have some new stuff. Red means it’s not ready yet, and that’s indefinite.
So, if you see a yellow or green flag, go up to where it says Search the Registries and click on that. Then I want you to pay attention to the left-hand margin. You can either click Series or Location. I find that you could click either one of these and it’s going to bring you to the same spot where you’re going to go to click on the village that your family is from. And then it’s going to give you a whole big list of all the villages that are in the State Archive.
For me, I’m going to click on the village of Postiglione. And that brings me into the village or the communes territory of the website, and then I click on the year. I can also click on what type of record I want to look at. Do I want to look at marriage, birth, or death? Marriage, birth and death are the ones that most of these state archives are currently showing.
You can also look at military records at the State Archives website. All males of a certain age were conscripted into the military, and they have really good military records.
Italian Famiglia Folios
(17:46) I also found out that some of these towns have a famiglia folio. This is where it was required of certain families to keep a family group sheet, if you will. One of our onsite researchers recently found one of these and showed it to me and it was 20 pages of wonderful genealogy sources going back and tracing the siblings, where people went in America or other parts of Italy, birth, marriage and death information, and a lot of great things. So, these are some things that hopefully should be coming down the pike for these state archives that you could be hopefully looking for in the near future.
But for right now, most of the State Archives are going to have your birth marriage and death records.
Italian Marriage Banns
(18:44) Again, once you click on the type of record, you click the year, and it’s going to show you what is available for that year. Sometimes you can find marriage banns. And those are really fun group of records because that is kind of like our marriage licenses nowadays.
Marriage Banns are several pages long. They would have be posted on the church door about the upcoming union. People could object to the wedding if there was a blood relationship between the husband and wife, if they just did not agree with the marriage, or if somebody was under age. You can find these marriage bands online.
Italian Birth Records Online
(19:27) When you click on a birth record at the State Archives you’re going to probably get a lot of images. That can be very intimidating because you’re thinking to yourself, well, I don’t want to have to go through this entire book of records of a language that I don’t know. But there is help and there is hope.
You will see a button, what looks like an open book icon with an underline on it. Click on that and will give you the Gallery view. On the next page, sometimes the thumbnail images don’t load properly. If it does show you an icon of the page, you can’t actually tell what’s written on it, so you kind of have to guess. But don’t worry. With these Italian records, and this is very important, most of the time, they’re going to have an index. That index is going to be at the back of the book. Click on either the last page or the next to the last page and hopefully you’re going to find an index.
The index is by last name, first name, and the numbers coordinate with the entry number. You can then go into the book and find that entry number. Ideally, our ancestors information will be staring us right back in the face.
I don’t want you to get intimidated, and there is a method to this madness. Each type of Italian record, just like with our American records, follows a particular format. So with birth records you’re going to see, and it’s usually in this order, the name, date and entry number in the margin. Again, that date is going to be spelled out. So it’s going to be helpful to be familiar with your numbers.
It’s also going to tell you the officiating agent and locality. I think a lot of times people can get thrown off by this. But if you look at these record collections, you’re going to keep seeing the same name over and over again. It is not one person having a child over and over again. It’s the clerk. The clerk is the first person usually who is mentioned.
It’s going to tell you the gender of the child. And then it’s going to tell you the occupation and parentage of the civil agent. So again, we’re getting some more information about that person recording the record. So, it’s going to tell you who the recordkeepers parents are. So again, not who you’re looking for. Then it’s going to tell you the name of the child’s father. And a good indication that you’re dealing with the child’s father is that they’re going to have the same last name. So that is one of your keywords that you’re looking for – that same surname – the child’s father. It’s going to tell you the age, their occupation, hopefully the father’s name, and the place of birth. They’re then going to say the legitimacy of birth, which is usually my wife. Or they might say that they’re not married. And then they’re going to tell you the child’s mother. The name, the occupation, or father’s name, and her place of birth, and maybe her parents place of birth. They’re then going to tell you the child’s birth date, and place.
What’s really fun is you can sometimes, and especially in later records, see the actual house that the child was born in, and that house would be your family’s house. In most cases, they’re going to give you an actual house and street address. And Lisa I know you love to do this, you can then plug that in to Google Earth. And you could take a trip right to your family’s house.
Sarah: It’s really cool! That just gets me away from my laundry all the time! I just go right down a rabbit hole.
And of course, we’re going to see the child’s name. Sometimes you get some really crazy long names. One of my ancestors has six. My guess is that one was the first name and five were middle names. So you see the whole line up there.
Then you get the witnesses, which were often the midwife and anybody else, and their occupation which is also really cool. You’ll get to see the signature of the father. So that might be a nice connection. You get to see that and you’ll see a lot of these block letters. Just seeing that and having that connection!
Now that I told you this, I’m going to show you a copy of a birth record here. This is for my great great grandfather Lorenzo Fragetta who later changed his name to Fragetti. He was born September 8, in 1869.
Birth record of Lorenzo Fragetta
Now, this does look rather intimidating, especially because with these earlier records, there’s no typeface on here. It’s all handwritten. But in the world of Italian records, this is actually really good writing. I’m very glad because I have a grandmother, she just passed in December, she was 90 years old, and she would write me these greeting cards and send me beautiful letters. And this was like her handwriting. So, for me, this is second nature to just pick this up.
On the margin you’re going to get the entry number, and that entry number is spelled out, and it’s the same entry that’s going to be in that index.
You also get the individuals name. In a closer look at the record some key things are going to jump out at us. Here we have the town he was born in, and we have his father’s name, Vincenzo Fragetta, and it says figli, that he is the son of Antonio. So right there, we get another generation. So we have Lorenzo we have his father and we have his grandfather on here. We then have his father’s age and profession. They also have the names of his spouse on one of the other pages. And when we get the age of our individual, we can use that information to go back into some of the other records and try to find them.
Lisa: It’s really interesting to see that they split those names. So this would be something when we’re first working with a foreign language like this to be aware that they split the name Antonio between two lines. There’s no hyphen. So that is not two different words. That’s a really good thing to know.
Sarah: Right, and that is a great point that you brought up. I was dealing with a client’s record recently and they do not split it up by syllables, and there’s no indication that they’re splitting it up. And I’m looking at this person’s last name and thinking, oh my gosh, like this is so different, they really Americanized this! And then I kind of put two and two together, and I was like, oh, wait a minute, this is being split up here. So yes, absolutely. Be aware of that if something’s not making sense. I’m so glad you brought that up.
Italian Naming Patterns in Records
(27:47) On this record we’re also seeing the name of the mother’s father. The mother’s father is Lorenzo and Lorenzo is the name of the son. By knowing this, the name of the Son in relationship to where they are is the parents, you can also maybe figure out that this child is the second born male based on the Italian naming pattern because you could see that he’s named after his maternal grandfather. So that’s also a fun thing to play around with, the Italian naming pattern.
This record also includes Vincenzo Fragetta’s signature. You think, okay, this person actually touched this document, and was a witness. I just get chills!
I type up an extraction of the information from the record like this:
Lorenzo Fragetta born 11 September 1869 on Via S. Maria, Postiglione
Father: Vincenzo Fragetta, son of Antonio. Vincenzo is a 25-year-old landowner who lives in Postiglione.
Mother: Carmella Paolino, daughter of Carmine. Wife of Vincenzo Fragetta
Italian Women’s Maiden and Married Names
(29:11) The one thing to remember when you’re dealing with Italian records is that women never change their last name. And that is something to remember, especially when you’re looking at passenger lists for your family.
When I first started, I used to look at some of these records and think oh my gosh, these kids are coming over to America all by themselves. These nine year-olds and 10 year-olds are being unattended on this ship. But the mother never changed the name. When a woman marries, she keeps her father’s surname. So, she may still be in the record collection right there with them but with a different last name. So be on the lookout for that. Look for this with death records with marriage records too.
Lisa: What a great introduction to Italian genealogy research There are many things to be aware of that are unique to Italy. It reminds me that when I research in any other country there are important things to look for such as patterns and the names and just knowing something as simple as they may not be capitalizing the month. Don’t overlook a date just because you’re looking for a capitalized letter that’s not there. It’s very simple, but could really snag you up.
Sarah: Sure! And sometimes with these records, one of the really fun finds is on the margin. The civil recorder will go in and he’ll write when the person was married, who they married and when they died. So sometimes you can almost get like three records in one in these.
Using the FAN Principle in Italian Genealogy
(30:51) Lisa: I wanted to touch on one of the things that you mentioned early on as you were talking that I think is important, and something that new genealogists may not be familiar with, and that’s the FAN principle. Please tell folks what that means and the role it plays in all this.
Sarah: Sure. The FAN club is your Friends, Associates, and Neighbors of the person you are researching. We don’t want to just be sticking to an actual ancestor and kind of closing off our vision. We want to look at who else is around them in their community, check out who’s signing off on their marriage licenses, or naturalization records, etc. Those people are probably important to that person. And in lots of cases, these individuals who are in their FAN club possibly came over with them to America. If you can’t find information on your ancestors, take some time and do some research on these other individuals whose names are appearing over and over again, and see if you can identify where that person is coming from because that just might lead you right to your village of origin.
How to Get Help with Italian Research from a Professional Genealogist
(32:06) Lisa: What if somebody needs some help? I know that you are a professional genealogist. Tell folks, how they can reach you and what kinds of ways that you can help them if they do get stuck.
Sarah: If you get stuck, I work for Legacy Tree Genealogists and we have people well-versed in genealogy all over the world. I specialize in Italian records. We do lots of things. We can help you get records from communes over in Italy that are otherwise unresponsive, because it is very hard to get some responses. Sometimes when you’re dealing with local records or parish priests, we have people who are actually on site in Italy and will physically go to a church and sit with the priest and get these records that are just not available online.
Here’s another really cool thing that we offer. The records that are on the Antenati archive site only go back to 1806. That’s when they start. But some of these church records have been around for hundreds of years before that. So, we can have researchers on the ground that can go into these churches and even go further back for your family and see if there’s any baptismal records, any of those sacramental records, and really get that connection. We take that information and we write a little story about it. So it really makes it everything come to life and you have a piece of your ancestor. We’ll give you all the documents so that you can see that handwriting and will translate and give you a little translation for it so that you actually know what it says. So there’s lots of ways that we can help you in different areas not just Italian, but with anything, any ancestry that you have.
Lisa: Absolutely, I’ve had Kate at Legacy help me with some Irish research that we did in a video. That was amazing.