A family history surprise in great-grandma’s will

Josephine Arcuri will pg 1My mother found a copy recently of a will made by my great-grandmother, Josephine (Gualtieri) Arcuri in August of 1927. At that time my grandmother, Mary Nancy (Arcuri) Sanders was twenty years old, already married with a six-month-old daughter. Josephine’s three eldest were also out on their own, and her youngest children, boys of 19, 17, and 12, all still lived at home.

Each of her children is named in the will, with each of the three daughters to receive vacant lots on Waverly Avenue in Patchogue, New York, located adjacent to their family home. All other property was to be divided “share and share alike” by her four sons.

Here’s the surprise: My grandmother is named as “Maria Rosa” in this document, and not Maria (or Mary) NANCY as she was known to us all our lives. My mother was as surprised to see this other name as I was.

Josephine with her husband Francesco Arcuri, about 1910.

Josephine with her husband Francesco Arcuri, about 1910.

From my mother’s descriptions of Josephine, I know that although she lived in the United States from 1900 to her death in 1947, she spoke little English, and she signed the document by her mark, suggesting she didn’t read or write. I wonder if her daughter’s name was an error made by whoever drew up the documents, and Josephine was unable to read for herself, or proofread, what she was signing.

So is this a mistake in the will, or a willful change of name on her daughter’s part? If the latter, it wouldn’t be the first time. Another daughter of Josephine and Francesco Arcuri, three years older than Maria, was named Elvira. Elvira hated her name–possibly because it had been the name of an older sister who died in infancy, or perhaps she just didn’t like the sound of it. When Elvira went to school at five or six years old, she told the teachers her name was Mary. I don’t know if her parents knew about it, but the name stuck. Three years later, when my grandma started school and told them her name was Mary, they didn’t believe her because they knew they already had a Mary from that family attending the school.

Later in life, in the 1970’s or ’80’s,  my grandma wanted to travel to Europe, and Mom helped her get a passport. This requires a birth certificate, which she didn’t have. None could be found in New York, or anywhere they tried. Finally Grandma’s brother prepared an affidavit of some kind, stating that she was his sister and attesting to her date of birth. It didn’t seem to matter that he was her younger brother–she was able to get a passport. I have still never seen any official birth record for her, nothing that would clarify whether her name at birth was Maria Nancy or Maria Rosa. To me and my generation of cousins, she was just Gram, and to my kids and the next generation who knew her, she was called “Great.” She fit the name, too–she was a great Gram, whatever her name was!


Where Francesco’s life began: Palinudo

Bianchi-Palinudo (960x1280)In family history, every answer, every discovery, prompts a new question or search.

My great-grandfather, Francesco Aruri, was born in Serra di Piro, and “frazione” or hamlet near Bianchi, Calabria, in 1846. Here is a summary of the recorded information about his birth:  The birth of Francesco Arcuri was filed on 1 August 1846 in Bianchi by his father, Pasquale Arcuri, age 47, a peasant farmer residing in Bianchi. His infant son was born at home in the Serra di Piro District, on this day to his wife, Maria Innocenza Perri, age 35, and was given the name Francesco. Francesco Arcuri was baptized on 1 August by the parish priest of the Church of San Giacomo, in Bianchi.

The Serra di Piro district near Bianchi.

The Serra di Piro district near Bianchi.

I found the Serra di Piro area on Google maps. It is just north of Bianchi a mile or two, and very close to Palinudo, where Pasquale Arcuri was born. The records say: The marriage of Pasquale Arcuri and Maria Innocenza Perri was filed on 31 August 1830, in Bianchi. The groom was 26 years old, a peasant farmer born and residing in Palinudo. He was the son of Giacomo Arcuri, a peasant farmer residing in Palinudo, and Saveria Mancuso, residing here. The bride was 28 years old, born and residing in Bianchi in the Serra di Piro District. She was the daughter of the late Francesco Perri, a peasant farmer, and the living Concetta Cosco. The couple was wed on 3 October in the parish of San Giacomo, in Bianchi.

San Giacomo church, where Francesco Arcuri was baptized, and where his parents were married.

San Giacomo church, where Francesco Arcuri was baptized, and where his parents were married.

So Francesco’s father, and both his grandfathers, were peasant farmers in little hamlets in the foothills of the Sila. What does “peasant farmer” suggest? I headed to Palinudo with that question in mind–would we find a group of huts along a dirt track? Scattered houses among hillside vegetable terraces? Both of Francesco’s grandmothers were cotton spinners. What kind of textile industry supported their work? Who paid them? How far away were the weavers who used their cotton, and what did they make from it? Was the cotton also grown nearby?

A simple home in Palinudo.

A simple home in Palinudo.

Of course, more than 150 years has passed since those descriptions were written in Bianchi’s town records. And whatever Palinudo was in the 1840’s, it is now a small but thriving ‘suburb’ of the town of Bianchi. In the half-hour or so we spent there, I saw a Mercedes, a BMW, even a Jag. The roads were paved (not fancy, but paved). There is a small, but rather desolate, church in the hamlet. I wonder if it was desolate even in 1846–is that why Francesco was baptized in Bianchi? What were the options and factors that went into the decision about where to baptize a child?

One of Palinudo's nicer homes.

One of Palinudo’s nicer homes.

All too soon after Francesco’s birth, this death was recorded: The death of Pasquale Arcuri was filed on 2 October 1846, in Bianchi by Emiliano Arcuri, brother of the deceased, age 22, a peasant farmer, and Carmine Mancuso, brother-in-law of the deceased, age 28, a peasant farmer, resident of the Serra di Piro District of Bianchi. Pasquale Arcuri, a peasant farmer, died at home in the Fiume Corace District on 1 October, at the age of 40. He was born in the Palinudo District, the son of Giacomo Arcuri, a peasant farmer, and Saveria Mancuso, both deceased, and was a resident of Serra di Piro. Pasquale was married to Maria Innocenza Perri.

At two months old, Francesco was left fatherless, and all his grandparents were already deceased. What did an widowed mother of an infant do to support herself? Various other family members are named. Maria Innocenza Perri had a brother who was living when their mother died in 1831. Was he still alive? Did her late husband’s family help her? Did she remarry?

The Sila foothills around Bianchi.

The Sila foothills around Bianchi.

Some of these questions can be answered with more research, but I’m sure many of my questions will never be answered. I recently read an article by Ian Mortimer, an academic historian who also writes historical fiction under the name of James Forrester. In describing some of the different challenges between writing history, and writing fiction, he observed: “You suddenly find that your evidence-orientated knowledge of the period is just not enough; it does not equip you to describe in detail how a man or woman passes one whole day, let alone a number of different men and women across the period of several weeks.”

Even the most detailed historical study won’t likely help me fully understand the lives of these ancestors. I may have to resort to fiction to make their stories come alive.

Digging at the roots in Calabria

Vern (with hat), Glenn, and I exploring Calabria.

Vern (with hat), Glenn, and I exploring Calabria.

After a week in Venice in August, we headed to Calabria for the week of Ferragosto and a visit to my ancestral village, Scigliano. For the first time, my brother, Glenn, traveled to Calabria, and we shared a rented house about a thirty minute drive from Scigliano, along with my niece Sasha and her college friend Anna.

In a way, our Ferragosto week was like that of many Italian families, getting together with family members we don’t often see, and spending some family and recreational time together catching up. Funny that Glenn and I traveled to Italy for that experience, when we live only a couple of hours from one another in the U.S.

And one of our goals for family time was to explore the Italian root-ball of our past. It often seems like a big messy root-ball doing the research, but it is lots of fun to be there in person.

Our Italian cousins: Anna Maria, Francesco, and their father Ottavio.

Our Italian cousins: Anna Maria, Francesco, and their father Ottavio.

Our Italian cousin, Anna Maria, never explained to us how our family trees connect in the past. On this visit I met her father for the first time, and he set out some of his family tree for me, finally showing me where the Gualtieri line intersects. Ottavio is 94, and still lives in the house his mother bought in the frazione of Lupia. She built an oven and ran a bakery from that house, and the oven is still there today.

The old bread oven built by Ottavio's mother many years ago.

The old bread oven built by Ottavio’s mother many years ago.

Now Anna Maria owns the house. Ottavio is a retired policeman, and he understands a bit of English, but doesn’t speak it much, though his children are fluent. Anna Maria’s brother Francesco was in town for Ferragosto too, and we had some great talks with him, ranging from archeology (his post-retirement career) to health care in America and Europe.

A section of the cemetery in Scigliano--typical with its many above-ground vaults.

A section of the cemetery in Scigliano–typical with its many above-ground vaults.

We explored the Scigliano cemetery, and took lots of photos to compare with family records. So many Gualtieris!! And since I recently discovered several other surnames in the family, I took photos of those, too. Genealogy is a hobby that is never “finished” because there are always additional lines to follow. I’ll share more of our fun week in Scigliano in future posts.

One of the Gualtieri family vaults in the Scigliano cemetery--but whether it's 'our' Gualtieri people, I don't know!

One of the Gualtieri family vaults in the Scigliano cemetery–but whether it’s ‘our’ Gualtieri people, I don’t know!

Nugenzie: A genealogical mystery solved!

Symbol of the town of Bianchi, my great-grandfather's birthplace.

Symbol of the town of Bianchi, my great-grandfather’s birthplace.

When my sister and I began looking into our roots years ago, we were given information by various family members. Someone–perhaps it was our grandmother or one of her brothers–gave us the name of our great great grandparents: Pasquale Arcuri and his wife, “Nugenzie”.

I had not yet studied the Italian language or visited Italy, but Nugenzie seemed a strange and unlikely name for an Italian great-great-grandmother. However nothing more came to light on that branch of the family, and we turned our attention to other roots and branches.

Recently, because I’ll be in Calabria this year, I hired Roots in the Boot to research my Italian ancestors. In the course of that research, the names of these same great-great grandparents were found: Pasquale Arcuri and Maria Innocenza Perri.


You know how pronunciation and spelling become scrambled between languages? I’m betting that ‘Innocenza’ morphed as the double “N” caused the “I” to be all but dropped, and that “C”–pronounced like “Ch” because it is followed by an ‘e’–also sounded to someone’s ear like a soft “G”, so that’s what was written down. However when my sister and I read it, we thought it was a hard “G” and couldn’t make any sense of Nugenzie. Innocenza.

I wish I had a photograph of her. Her son was born in 1846, and she died before he married in 1900.

Now I have hired Roots in the Boot to follow up with more research on the Arcuri family line, and perhaps I’ll discover distant cousins still in Italy who can tell me more about Maria Innocenza Perri. There are several Perri names listed in the current Italian White Pages in Bianchi, where her son was born.

Stay tuned!

Readers, have you found mixed up Italian names in your family research?

Thinking of hiring some Italian family research?

Here’s a video from ItalyMondo, showing some of what is involved with a family history search in Italy. I’m hoping for some similar experiences in Calabria this summer–If only my Italian were as good as the man in this video!!

What family research adventures have YOU enjoyed in Italy? What about research on Italian roots, conducted outside of Italy?

Italian shoes: Legacy of my ancestors

Designer shoes from Taormina.

Designer shoes from Taormina.

I hired Roots in the Boot to research my family roots in Scigliano (Calabria), and learned that I come from a long line of shoemakers!! Every Gualtieri ancestor of my great-grandmother, Josephine, was a shoemaker–back as far as Pasquale Gualtieri, born about 1725.

Could my great-great grandfather's shoe shop have looked like this one, from Wikimedia Commons?

Could my great-great grandfather’s shoe shop have looked like this Sicilian one? Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I would love to see a pair of their shoes, and I wonder what their shoemaking shop looked like. As I roam around Scigliano later this summer, I will be looking for shoe shops, and hope my Italian cousins there can tell me more about our shoe-making ancestors.

Several of the women in the family were cotton or silk spinners. I imagine this as “cottage” employment rather than work outside the home, but honestly, I don’t know. The villages that make up Scigliano are fairly small, but I don’t know much in detail about their history. Could there have been a weaving business there, turning their silk into luxurious velvets and brocades?

Could it be that at some point they combined their efforts, and made shoes like these?

Woman's silk brocade shoes, 1770s, probably Italian. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Woman’s silk brocade shoes, 1770s, probably Italian. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Do you know the occupation of your Italian ancestors?

The Baroness will see you now: Family history

Just looking at this Italian birth record should convince you to hire a professional for Italian genealogy! Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Just looking at this Italian birth record should convince you to hire a professional for Italian genealogy! Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I’m getting revved up for my trip to Italy in a few months, and one of my preparations this time will be to have some genealogical research done for me before I get there. My Italian language skills aren’t adequate to do it myself, and my knowledge of the systems of records in Italy is even worse. Some relatives are pooling resources with me to hire the help, and I’ll share the results when I get home.

I was preparing for an earlier trip to Italy when Anna Maria responded to a post I made online, seeking my Italian relatives. She is one!

The last time I saw cousin Anna Maria (right) was 2009. I'm looking forward to seeing her again this summer!

The last time I saw cousin Anna Maria (right) was 2009. I’m looking forward to seeing her again this summer!

We met in person in Italy, and she came to my home a few years later, but I have not been able to document our family relationship. For now, we are just “cugini”, cousins. One of my goals is to discover the family lines that connect us. This year, I’m looking forward to spending Ferragosto, that ancient Italian holiday, with Anna Maria and other family members in our ancestral village.

We have learned a few things about our Italian roots as my sister and I have researched over the years. Some are in the category of family legends.

1.  Josephine Gualtieri was an old maid at 21 when she determined she would marry any man who asked her. The man who asked was Francesco Arcuri,

Josephine and Francesco, about 1910 in New York

Josephine and Francesco, about 1910 in New York

a man already 50 years old, and three years older than Josephine’s father. We learned that Josephine’s mother had died and her father remarried. Did she not get along with her stepmother? What other factors shaped her life?

2.  There is a Palazzo Gualtieri in Josephine’s home town, which (we were told) was gambled away by an ancestor. While “Palace” is somewhat of an overstatement in describing the derelict building, I’d be interested to learn more of that story!

My mom, Win Perman, at the door to the Palazzo Gualtieri in Scigliano.

My mom, Win Perman, at the door to the Palazzo Gualtieri in Scigliano.

3.  Raffaele of the B&B Calabria in Scigliano gave me a book about the history of Scigliano–in Italian, of course! However, I have been able to determine that at one time there was a “Baron Gualtieri” in Scigliano. I’d really love to know who he was and how he might be connected to my family line. And can I now start calling myself a Baroness? Please??

Looking for Italian roots?

I discovered an Italian genealogy research outfit today, and thought I’d share a link. Initially I emailed Cherrye at My Bella Vita about some research interests because I know she does Heritage Tours in southern Italy. She referred me to Roots in the Boot, and I was very excited to find their website and the services they offer.

You can find suggestions for research compiled on websites like Italiamia.com’s page about genealogy, and there’s a lot to learn at ItalianGenealogy.com.

Have you found useful websites for Italian family history? Please do share in the comments!

Guest Blogger: Pro tips for Italian Genealogy

Jenny Tonks

I’m delighted to welcome Jenny Tonks as my guest blogger this week. Jenny is an Accredited Genealogist for Italian research. She works as an adjunct professor of Family History at BYU-Idaho and teaches high school biographical writing classes. She is also a memoir reviewer for a literary agent in New York. I ran across Jenny’s genealogy website when I was doing some of my own research, and found helpful ideas there for my family research. If your travel plans include searching for Italian roots, you’ll want to see what she has to share!

Today Jenny shares some of her early lessons in Italian genealogy:

One of my most memorable trips to Italy involves not the food, the scenery, the fashion, or the people. It involved stacks and stacks of paper!

I’m talking about my first visit to a diocesan archive.

I was a college student and former resident of Italy at the time, finishing up my degree in Italian Family History at BYU. What I learned in that archive changed my career. It also helped me solve many Italian family mysteries over the years!

Why the Diocese?

When looking for Italian ancestors, there are two basic sources that I consult most often: Italian government records and Catholic church records. Most of these records are available in the United States as microfilms that can be rented through FamilySearch.org.

The government records are great, but they only go as far back as the early 1800’s for most towns in Italy. Church records, however, can go back as far as the 1500’s in Italy.

Getting at government records is easy—government offices are expected to make their data available to the public.

Jenny Tonks with ledger of 1800’s baptisms at the Diocesan Archive of Novara, Italy

But getting my hands on parish records? Not so easy!

I’ve been turned away by more than a few priests who either refused to grant me access to their church records, or who never responded to written, faxed, emailed, or telephoned requests for ancestral information.

But I don’t hold it against them—churches aren’t expected to turn over information the way government offices are. And why should they? Why should busy parish priests have to stop whatever they’re doing every time an American researcher or tourist comes to town, wanting something for the old scrapbook?

In many cases, I’ve found sparsely staffed parishes simply to busy/apathetic to admit me into their archives or respond to my written requests for ancestral information. They’re too busy tending to their flocks, and I understand that.

No problem—I can always go to the diocesan archive!

Generally speaking, I have found most of the clergy who work in these archives to be passionate historians that enjoy looking up ancestors and sharing historical information. They are also more tech-savvy than your typical small town priest, so more willing to photocopy, scan, or email me information.

About the Archives

Typically located at the curia vescovile (seat of a diocese), diocesan archives store:

  • § Copies of their parishes’ birth, death, and marriage records
  • § Diocese-level records not available in parishes—

Stato delle anime (church census records)

Visite pastorali (records of pastoral visits to families in the diocese)

–Ordinations (files on those who became priests or nuns)

–Land records (Italians often donated land to the Church at death)

–And much, much more!

So when I can’t get information about an Italian American client’s ancestor from a parish in Italy, I contact the curia vescovile or the archivio diocesano (diocesan archive).

How to Research a Diocesan Archive

FamilySearch.org has films of diocesan archives for the cities of Parma, Rome, Trento, and Catania that are available to researchers in the United States. They are updating their holdings daily, so to find out if diocesan records are available in the US for your ancestral town, ask the experts at the FamilySearch Italy Genealogy department, via their Facebook page or their research Wiki.

Researchers handling stacks of marriage files in the diocesan archive at Novara, Italy

The day I first visited a diocesan archive, I discovered a key to identifying one’s Italian ancestors that has helped unlock the secrets to many Italian pasts. If ever I can be of help to you, you can tweet me, friend me on Facebook, or send your questions to my Ask a Genealogist site, where I give free research advice.

In bocca al lupo! 

Italian Roots: Some ideas for finding them

Josephine and Francesco Arcuri, my great-grandparents from Calabria

Tracing Italian ancestry can be a challenge, and records online for genealogy in the Italian South are sparce. The subscription research website Ancestry.com recently added new records for Italian genealogy in America: records from the Sons of Italy (Order of the Sons of Italy in America, or OSIA). These new records are added to others already on Ancestry, which include civil registrations (birth, marriage, death) from several cities in Sicily, and a few southern cities on the mainland.

An internet search turns up thousands of references to Italian genealogy, and connecting online is a great way to pool research efforts with distant family members. I’ve recently been corresponding with a distant cousin across the country who is digging into our Italian roots. I’ve been able to share results of my past research, even though I am not actively researching at this time.

Who would have imagined a few years ago that today we would have a television series dedicated to genealogy? A couple of episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are?” may set your own genealogical wheels in motion to learn more of your heritage–whether it is Italian or not. And this week PBS launches a new series by Henry Louis Gates called Finding Your Roots. His previous shows, African-American Lives and Faces of America are available for viewing online at PBS, and might stoke the fires of your own search for your roots.