ITALIANS AND SICILIANS
There are millions of descendants of Sicilians in the United States, with a wealth of materials available for them to trace their ancestry.
Many ask: “Sicilian, Italian – aren’t they the same?” A short history is in order. There has been an iconic, boot-shaped peninsula called ‘Italy’ for millennia. But before the current country, the nation ‘Italy’ existed only briefly as a small northern alpine kingdom in medieval times, and later for a few years under Napoleon. He reigned from 1805 to 1814, well before the modern Republic of Italy united northern and southern states and nations (including Sicily) into one, in the 1860 ‘Risorgimento’ led by Garibaldi.
Sicily, on the other hand, had existed as a country (under numerous crowns) long before its neighbor to the north achieved nationhood. Sadly for the people of Sicily, during much of its history it was ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Normans, Germans, French, Spaniards, and others. This milieu affected much of the southern Italian peninsula: the area south of Naples, including Sicily, which acquired a special name ‘Mezzogiorno’ (noontime), for the blazing hot sun that was its trademark. Sicily developed into a multicultural land, evolving Sicilian, the first ‘Romance Language’, and producing treasures like the Greek temples at Agrigento and the Norman splendor of Monreale. After the World War II at the beginning of the new Italian Republic, Sicily was given a new status of ‘autonomous region of Italy’.
The northern peninsula, more wealthy in resources and more commercially developed, had the grandeur of Rome, Venice and Florence, as well as the beauty and mystery of Tuscany. North and south together are now ‘Italy’, which has made great contributions to the world and provided millions of immigrants to the United States. As with other nations, those who emigrated were generally folks who suffered economic or political hardship and were looking for a better life. Regarding Italy, most of its émigrés were from the ‘Mezzogiorno’, and most of those were from Sicily: often peasant farmers, day laborers, and sulfur miners, some with skills such as stonemasonry, carpentry, or shoemaking.
There were differences in culture between north and south. After millennia of subjugation, Sicilians distrusted ‘outsiders’. Though the Sicilian language preceded the Tuscan used in the north, it is not as refined, and some urbane northerners viewed Sicilian-speakers as somehow inferior. These differences often led to chilly relationships, even between the northern and southern immigrants to America.
Thankfully, those feelings have been largely subsumed in America’s great melting-pot, and those of northern and southern heritage alike celebrate their ‘Italian’ ancestry. The Mormon Church has collected microfilm copies of civil birth, marriage and death records and many church records of all denominations from around the world, including Sicily and Italy. These films are available for rental, and for viewing at local Mormon FamilySearch Centers.
There are microfilms from Sicily, including those for Aliminusa, Burgio, Caccamo, Caltavuturo (Fort of the Vulture), Campobello (Beautiful Plain), Canicatti, Cerda, Licata, Marianopoli, Melilli, Montallegro, Montalbano (White Mountain), Montedoro (Mountain of Gold), Montemaggiore (Greatest Mountain), Mussomeli (Honeymouth), Palermo, Patti, Racalmuto, Resuttano, Ribera, Sciacca, Serradifalco (Mountain of he Hawk), Siculiana, San Mauro Castelverde (Holy Moor of the Green Castle), Solanto, Sommatino, Sutera, Vallelunga (Long Valley), and Valle d’Olmo (Valley of the Elms).
In addition to the towns’ colorful, evocative names, the films are filled with the names of your Sicilian ancestors and their contemporaries, with details of their births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. If your town wasn’t named above, remember I gave only a partial list. There are FamilySearch Centers around the country (and the world). Many have films already rented by other patrons, and free to use by any researchers. There is no membership fee or use charge at the Centers, which are open to anyone. Future columns will describe how to order, view, and interpret these microfilms, and will also identify some of the Sicilian towns for which there are extensive on-line records.