A few things I’ve learned through 12 years of reading
these Polizzi Generosa civil records….
Italian civil records, in general, give us an incredible amount of information… far more than most other countries where I’ve done or helped with research. Beginning in 1820, the government required the keeping of detailed civil records that are for the most part very accurate. By reading through these records, family historians can learn important information about their families. I wonder what those ancestors would think if they knew we were reading these records 150 to 200 years after the fact.
The most important thing you need to know is that in Italy & Sicily a woman keeps her maiden name. It was and still is to this day the law. That means that on ALL of these records, when a female is named as a mother, wife, witness etc. the surname given is her maiden name, not her married name. This is also true on the various ships’ manifests for females emigrating to foreign countries. Her children had their father’s surname, but she didn’t. So when you find your great grandfather immigrating through Ellis Island with 3 or 4 children and you see a strange woman included with the group, that’s usually his wife. This practice is great for genealogy researchers because it opens up many new family lines.
1. Unknown Parents : Throughout both the civil and the church records of Polizzi Generosa, you find the phrases Incogniti Genitori, Parenti Ignoti. Parenti Incerti,and sometimes even just D’Ignoti. These were used to indicate that the child / person was born to parents who were not known. On a birth record this was usually a child who was born “out of wedlock” and often abandoned at the “ruota” (wheel at which babies were abandoned). But as I’ve mentioned before, these were sometimes children born to parents who had been married in the church, but not civilly. Church marriages were not acknowledged by the Italian government until after the unification in 1862 when the government required the separation of church & state. Therefore the child was considered illegitimate when he was registered civilly, even if the parents had been married in the church. Genealogists see this beginning in the 1860's when the civil records office eliminated the church record which was usually included on the right side of a record page before that time. They no longer sent a civil record to the parish priest for him to add the church record for the corresponding event. When it comes to marriage records, the names of both the parents of the bride & the groom had to be given. If one of them was a child of “incogniti genitori” and had never been given a surname by the nuns or priests, the surname would be listed that way. The same thing would be done on a death record. One last thought on the subject of “illegitimate children”. As I’m going back through and correcting this work hopefully for the last time, I’m struck by two things. First, for those of you who are in any way shocked to find that one of your ancestors was born to parents who were not married…. Was it scandalous ? Yes, I’m sure it was. But it was also a fact of life. I’ve found that for each year of births there are usually 15% to 20% and often even more of those births involving incogniti genitori. I find that pretty shocking and also very sad. So many of those poor babies didn’t live. Thankfully the nuns were there to do as much as they could for them.
The use of the phrase l’ignorani i genitori (or parenti, madre, padre) is very different and many researchers get confused. This indicates that the name or names of the parents were simply not known. This is often seen on the death records of older people where the registrar was not familiar with parents names that far back. It’s also seen where an older person was not originally from Polizzi and therefore the parent's name weren't known. But it does not mean that the person, whatever age, had been born "out of wedlock". I’m trying to distinguish between the 2 phrases as I make notes in the transcriptions. Several times I’ve found marriage records where both the bride & groom had been born to "Incogniti Genitori". My question is this…... When they had children, what surname were these children given. I’m still looking for that answer. And last but by no means least there children who were left at the "ruoto" simply because the parents were just too poor to raise another child. They were barely able to feed the children that they already had. In some of these cases the mother took work with the church as a wetnurse. That paid a small stipend and in some cases the nuns & priests gave their child to them to nurse, allowing the woman to essentially have her child to care for.
2. Witnesses: All events that were recorded civilly in Polizzi had to have at least 2 witnesses. When a birth took place, someone, usually the father, was required to take the baby to the comune office and have it registered, proving whether it was male or female etc. Sometimes, especially in the 1880's & 1890's when so many fathers had already left Polizzi to establish a new life, usually in the USA, you see the midwife as the person who took the baby to be registered. Although I’ve never seen it in these Polizzi records, I’m told that sometimes a grandmother or even a neighbor presented the child to the registrar. As far as I know, there were no rules for who could act as a witness. Every once in a while you find a birth record where it states that the baby was “to infirmed” to be taken to the comune. I’ve even seen an explanation that it was too far away or too cold. But these are quite rare.
For a marriage, at least 4 witnesses had to attest to the facts given. The parents of the bride and groom had to give their permission for the marriage. If any were deceased at the time of the marriage, another witness had to be provided. If there was a previous spouse involved, a death record for that person had to be provided to prove that the bride or groom was legally available to wed again. These records that had to be presented before a marriage could take place are referred to as "Allegati di Matrimonio". In the early Polizzi allegati records all events before 1820 are taken from church records and that can be a treasure trove of information. Many of the allegati in Polizzi have been filmed by the LDS, but at this time I have no plans to transcribe them.
For death records the witnesses might be family members or a neighbor or friend. But very often at least one of the witnesses was one of the gravediggers (becchino). As with all death records, especially those of the elderly, the information given on the Polizzi death records is the least reliable of any vital records. This is probably due to the fact that the younger generations just didn’t have much knowledge of the older generations. Although I’ve never seen it in writing and I certainly can’t prove it, I truly believe that often when a witness was needed for anything, a family member or the registrar just walked outside and asked anyone nearby to serve as a witness. In these records you see the same names appear as witnesses over and over again. I think for lack of anything better to do, these old men just sat on a bench outside the comune office. Perhaps there was a very small stipend for this service.
As I do these transcriptions, you’ll see that I try to write in the notes if a surname is not a “Polizzi surname”’. In most cases this doesn’t mean the name is never seen there… just that it’s pretty uncommon. Hopefully this will give some of you a heads up that a family may have originally been from someplace else. That can save you a lot of time and frustration.
3. Immigration : As much as we all may assume so, not all immigrants came into the US through Ellis Island. There were many other ports at that time. Probably the most common were Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans, but there were many others. A number of Italians entered the U.S. through Boston and many even came in through Canada. I’ve been told the tickets were cheaper to Canada, but I don’t know if that was true. A surprising number of Italians stayed in Canada, but for those who chose to immigrate into the U.S., Detroit, Michigan and St. Albans, Vermont seem to have been the most frequented places to cross over the border. So when you’re looking through the Ellis Island databases and you don’t find the the ancestor that you think should be included there, either the name was transcribed wrong or they didn’t actually enter there.
4. At the very bottom of every Italian civil records, you’ll see the phrase “Letto il presente atto agli intervenuti si é da me sottoscritte solamente, avende li stesso ditto di non sapere sottoscrivere” or something similar. The important words are “non sapere sottoscrivere”. The registrar, or often the mayor signed his name below. This basically tells us that several, if not all of the people involved in this event were not able to write and therefore unable to sign their name. 6-15-2013
5. Use of fu and di : On all of the civil records that I've transcribed you often will see the word fu or di, usually before, but sometimes after a name. Fu (or fuano} is an indication that the person was deceased at the time the record was written. Di indicates the person was still living. But if neither word was used, you can't assume one way or the other. It was probably up to the registrar as to whether he did it at all. 7-16-2016