Having identified the name of a Sicilian immigrant ancestor, you’re prepared to search for records that may give his date of immigration and/or his date and place of birth. These may be contained in family records such as passports, marriage records, naturalization papers or membership documents of the mutual aid societies, or Società di Mutuo Soccorso that were so common in America for Sicilian immigrants.
If these records aren’t available in your family, and if you know the approximate date of the ancestor’s death, check municipal and county libraries for archives of local newspapers that can be searched for obituaries, death notices or articles of the period, which may give information about your ancestor.
If you know where the family settled when first in America, visit the County Clerk’s office in that jurisdiction, and ask to see any naturalization records they may have on file for members of your family. Naturalization papers, especially the Petition for Naturalization, can have a wealth of information, including the immigrant’s name, birth date and place, date and ship of immigration, the address of the applicant and the names and dates of birth of each member of his family.
Still no luck? Then it’s time to turn to US and/or state Census records. The first US Federal Census was in 1790, under Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. There have been 22 since then, taken at ten-year intervals. The last was in 2010. Censuses from 1790 through 1940 are available in hard copy at many sources, including local libraries and genealogical societies, except for the 1890 census, most of which was destroyed by fire. For privacy reasons, federal censuses are not released to the public until 72 years after they are made, making 1940 the most recent census available. You must know the community your family lived in during a given period, then search for the census or censuses that fall into that period.
The census questions varied over the years, from simple identification and place of residence in 1790, to much more detailed information in later versions. Below is a list of questions from a typical US census, that of 1920, near the peak of Sicilian immigration to America:
• Relationship to head of family
• Age at last birthday
• Marital status
• If foreign born, year of immigration to the U.S., if naturalized and year of such
• School attendance
• Birthplace of person and parents [usually the country only]
• If foreign-born, the native tongue
• Ability to speak English
• Occupation, industry, and class of worker
• Was home owned or rented: if owned, was it mortgaged
If you find your ancestor listed in such a census, you’ll find his immigration date and nationality, and be able to estimate his birth year by subtracting his age from the year of the census. Consider all dates approximate. They were not backed by documentation, but simply by the statement of the interviewee. Most libraries with hard copies of censuses cover only the city or county where the library is located.
If your ancestor settled elsewhere, before the advent of the internet, you would have had to go to that place to search the census, or pay a local researcher to do it for you. Luckily, all US Federal Censuses through 1940 are now searchable and viewable on-line.