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Report 704: Climbing the Family Tree In Basilicata's Hilltowns

By Valerie from New Mexico, Spring 2003

Trip Description: Visiting my great-grandparents' hometowns in out-of-the-way Basilicata

Destinations: Countries - Italy; Regions/Cities - Basilicata

Categories: Vacation Rentals; Independent Travel; 3-4 people

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Page 1 of 3: Prelude to a Trip: My Geneaology Search

My quest began a few years ago as I began exploring my family history, wondering where exactly my great-grandparents were from, when they arrived in the US, and how on earth did they end up in small-town Ohio. My grandmother died when I was young; her siblings are all gone, too. My grandfather, unfortunately, didnít have many answers. Calabria, heíd always thought. They came from Calabria. There was a town there bearing the family name, so heíd been told.

I delved into the investigative frustration of online genealogy searches. The names were changed making the searches more fruitless and frustrating. Calabria was a dead-end. Internet databases promised results, but required payments to look at the information before I could even determine if it would be helpful or pertinent to my family.

I turned to Ellis Island's resources for clues. I knew the family surname had been changed at some point. I entered various spellings until I hit upon the correct one. My great-grandfather also changed his first name, from Egidio to Charles, a bit harder for me to figure out, but finally I netted the correct record and found his ship manifest.

Interesting Side Note: Itís a common misconception that name changes were perpetrated at the point of entry. Ignorant bureaucrats who couldnít spell the foreign names jotted down what they thought it sounded like, the story goes. Actually, I learned that most names were correct at the point of entry because the ship manifest was compiled from the passenger tickets. And the tickets were purchased and written out in the homeland, where spellings were fairly well known. In my familyís case, the misspellings occurred after arrival. Due to my great-grandparentsí illiteracy, the surname was spelled as it was sounded by whomever they were dealing with (hospital staff, county clerk, etc) and in searching birth and death records I found four different spellings, none the original Italian name. My great-grandfather also deliberately changed his first name to Charles to sound more American. There is, of course, no actual (i.e., legal) documentation of these name changes, so it took a long time to figure it all out.

Armed with these morsels, I then visited the Mormon Family History Library for assistance. It was amazing to me that I could sit in a little room in Albuquerque, New Mexico and look at microfilm records from the turn of the last century obtained from a tiny hilltown in one of the most remote areas of Italy, Basilicata. I found his birth certificate on microfilm, along with the record of his marriage to my great-grandmother. This listed both their parentsí names. I returned to Ellis Island's website for more documentation, discovering that my great-grandmother arrived a year after her husband, accompanied by her two little sons and her father and her two sisters. A year after that, her mother arrived with my great-grandmotherís brothers. The entire family evacuated Southern Italy within a span of two years.

I discovered through all these eye-fatiguing sessions in the darkened room scrolling through film after film that my family didnít come from Calabria at all, though there is indeed a town there bearing the family name. They came from Basilicata, remote, harsh and poor. The town names, Anzi and Laurenzana, were inscribed in twirling script on the birth records and marriage record. We looked at a map and, determined to visit, searched online for information. No hotels, no hostels, no affitacamere. No tourists. We were more determined to visit than ever. A slice of old Italy as it was!

We settled on Southern Campania for our stay and rented a beautiful villa. It put us in relatively easy reach of Basilicata while giving us other sight-seeing options (such as Paestum and the Cilento National Forest) and plenty of relaxation. My mom and my sister, Cara, would accompany me and my husband, Bryan.

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