Italian Immigrant Ancestors

Issue #33

The first half of the twentieth century was one of the greatest eras for innovations in science--particularly in the field of physics--and the life and accomplishments of Italian-American scientist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) encompassed all of it. In the 53 brief years Fermi spent on earth he revolutionized our understanding of the invisible world of the atom, became the “architect of the nuclear bomb,” as well as developing, through what would later be called Fermi’s Interaction, one of the four fundamental forces in nature (also known as the “weak force”). A beloved teacher, Fermi not only won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938, but at least eight of his students also went on to win the same prize in later years. “If this sounds like hyperbole,” wrote historian of science C.P. Snow, “anything about Fermi is likely to sound like hyperbole.” Fermi’s discoveries are still influencing the practice of physics today.


Enrico Fermi

Italian immigrants began arriving in the United States in large numbers in the nineteenth century. Initially, most of these immigrants came from northern Italy, where the decades-long Risorgimento, the struggle for the unification of Italy, produced thousands of political refugees. The second wave of Italian immigration began in the 1880s when thousands of Italians from the southern regions of Italy and Sicily voyaged to America seeking better economic opportunities. Enrico Fermi immigrated in 1938 for a different reason: to escape fascism. 

The first twenty years of Fermi’s education were mostly self-directed. As a young boy he came across an outdated 900-page physics book written in Latin and it sparked his interest in the field. He began building his own experiments and soon delved into mathematics. The new world of theoretical physics was just beginning and Fermi would become one of the few who excelled in both theoretical and experimental physics, talents that would later make him uniquely qualified to oversee the Manhattan Project. 

Fermi’s gifts were evident to everyone who knew him. At university in Pisa his professors realized they had little to teach him, so Fermi continued with his self-education. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity had been published in 1905, but it was not until 1923 that the possibility of unleashing the power of the atom was presented--this was Enrico Fermi. “These dreadful amounts of energy,” as he called them, tantalized Fermi, who dreamed of harnessing the atom’s power but was still puzzled as to a way to do it and survive. "It does not seem possible, at least in the near future", he wrote, “because the first effect of an explosion of such a dreadful amount of energy would be to smash into smithereens the physicist who had the misfortune to find a way to do it."

Fermi’s work soon reached the desks of other prominent scientists and soon he was working with most of Europe’s greatest physicists, from Max Born and Albert Einstein to Paul Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli. By the late 1920s Italy was making a name for itself in the field of physics, primarily because of Fermi’s influence. Fermi’s work was celebrated in Italy and in 1926 he was named one of the first thirty members of the Royal Academy of Italy, appointed by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini.

In the 1920s and 1930s much of Europe suffered through a prolonged period of economic depression. Following the First World War, countries struggled to rebuild and reorganize. A new wave of fascist politics began to spread across the continent. By the 1930s the danger of fascism was becoming palpable, especially to Fermi, whose Italian wife, Laura Capon, was Jewish. Antisemitism was one of the defining features of European fascism and in 1938 Mussolini ordered the implementation of anti-Jewish laws throughout Italy, bringing them in line with the politics of Adolf Hitler’s rising German National Socialist (Nazi) Party. At the end of that year Enrico Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Fermi and his wife and two children flew to Oslo for the awards ceremony and never returned to Italy, traveling instead to New York City, where he became a professor at Columbia University. 

Enrico Fermi was just one of the geniuses of twentieth century science whose political misfortune in Europe became the United States’ gain. Once in America, Fermi began work on nuclear fission with the help of Columbia University’s football team, who helped transport several tons of graphite bricks required for his experiments on campus. By early 1939 the potential for nuclear energy and its use in military weapons was clear to Fermi, and he warned the United States military about its dangers. The scientific community knew that the secrets of nuclear fission were being developed by German scientists in the Nazi regime and a race was on to see who would control the atom first. With the support of the National Defense Research Committee, Fermi went on to create in 1942 the world’s first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction--without himself being “smashed into smithereens,” as he had once predicted.

With the world now at war again, Fermi was recruited by Robert Oppenheimer to be a primary scientist on the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1944, the same year he and his family became American citizens. At Los Alamos Fermi worked with Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and others to develop and build the first atomic bomb. His fellow scientists nicknamed Fermi “The Pope” because of his innate leadership qualities and his mastery in the field of atomic research. 

Like many of the people who worked on the atomic bomb, Fermi had conflicted feelings about the weapon. He feared their power and devastation. But he had also witnessed firsthand the terror of fascism and wanted to ensure the politics of the Axis powers would not survive the war. Like Albert Einstein, Fermi opposed the use of nuclear weapons after the war ended.

“Residents of Oak Ridge, TN, fill Jackson Square to celebrate the surrender of Japan. Oak Ridge was one of the three main sites of the Manhattan Project, and was responsible (though those working there did not know it) for refining uranium to be shipped to Los Alamos to be fashioned into atomic bombs,” photo by Ed Westcott, 14 August 1945..

When it did, Fermi returned to civilian life as a Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago (now the site of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or FermiLab). In the last year of his life Fermi began working on the study of nonlinear systems with the help of a computer, an approach few scientists of the time were using. This work would ultimately come to fruition decades later in what is now known as Chaos Theory. Fermi’s legacy also includes significant contributions to the fields of quantum theory and the physics of beta decay, among other problems being explored to this day.

Enrico Fermi died in 1954 of stomach cancer. “The sudden death of Enrico Fermi at the age of 53 has filled physicists all the world over with greatest sadness and consternation,” read the United Kingdom’s Royal Society obituary for Fermi. “One of the most outstanding and in some respects unique scientific personalities, a wonderful teacher and a marvellous representative of his native country, Italy.” Today Fermi is remembered not only by Fermilab, the fermion atomic particle and the element fermium, both of which were named for him, but also for the Enrico Fermi Award, given by United States Department of Energy, “as a memorial to the legacy of this Italian-born naturalized American citizen and 1938 Nobel Laureate in physics, who achieved the first nuclear chain reaction… and is widely regarded as one of the leading scientists of the twentieth century.”


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  5. After World War I, U.S. families were asked if they wanted their dead brought home. Forty thousand said yes.


The Three Time Periods for Italian Vital Records:  Napoleonic registration, Restoration period, and the Italian Civil Registration period

The two main sources for family historians seeking vital details for their Italian antecedents are parish records and civil registrations. 

The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563 as a “counter Reformation,” cemented the doctrine and proceedings of the Catholic Church. Among the dictates were that all priests would record baptisms, marriages and burials for all members of the parish. Most parish registers were kept beginning in the later part of the 16th century, though some have records dating back to the Medieval period. Through volunteer efforts, some parish records have been indexed and made available online. However, these account for a small portion of the extant parish records, which frequently require on-site visits to research and review as they are available only at the local parish church, or a Diocesan archive.

Another source of vital records is civil registration (stato civile), which originally began when Napoleon Bonaparte instituted a policy in 1806 as the French empire annexed parts of Italy, requiring local civil authorities to register births, marriages and deaths. Available records are split into three periods: Napoleonic registration; Restoration period; and the Italian Civil Registration period. 

The Napoleonic registration period lasted from 1806 to 1815. The Restoration period comprises the years 1815-1865, during which time local parish officials and civil authorities kept civil registration records. Not all areas have complete registration records after 1815. When the French Empire was dissolved after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, civil registration ceased in many regions, though some – like Abruzzo and southern Italy regions, such as Napoli – continued. On 15 November 1865, a decree was instituted which marked a new era in record keeping, the Italian Civil Registration period.  This mandate required that, as of 1 January 1866, all regions and communities were required to keep vital records in the local registrar’s office (anagrafe), with a duplicate submitted to the local procura della repubblica, where the record was kept by the Tribunale (a district court) which had jurisdiction over that province, and would use the civil registrations for government initiatives such as military drafts.

In 2011, the Direzione generale per gli archivi (the Directorate General for the Archives under the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities) signed an agreement with FamilySearch to digitize, index and publish the Civil Registries and make the records available on the Antenati (“Ancestors”) Portal. Currently, there are over 100 million images from 1.4 million registries in 65 state archives available through this portal. The site is free and digital copies of records can be downloaded for personal use. For Italian genealogy researchers, this is a valuable resource and substitute for on-site archive visits. The site is available in Italian, Spanish, English and Portuguese. Information collected includes: name, date of birth, location of birth, place of residency, names of parents, witnesses and sometimes notations which include dates of important events (marriages, deaths, birth or legitimization of children). Early registration eras (Napoleonic and Restoration) were handwritten, as printed books were not ubiquitous, but later records used a standard profile. The site is user friendly, divided into an online search of registries and names, as well as a searchable list of available sources for the archives in Italy. There are also search functions to directly access certain resources or to find available names from indexed sources.

Each archive’s holdings are dependent on what was available in a particular community. Some kept meticulous records spanning the Napoleonic, Restoration and Civil Registration periods, while others are a bit more haphazard, so it is important as a researcher to be familiar with the history of the particular region being researched. Records for a particular municipality may be available in one registration period, but not another because it may have been annexed or merged with another region, province or town.

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Helpful Resources

Still trying to determine the specific point of origin for your elusive Italian ancestors?  Try some of the tips found in the articles Italian Migration to the United States Before, During and After World War II and Mapping Your Family Tree.


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Past Issues Worth Reading


Sources….Duh!!

The Nobel Prize (https://www.nobelprize.org/ : accessed 2 June 2021), “Enrico Fermi: Biographical.”

Atomic Heritage Foundation (https://www.atomicheritage.org/ : accessed 2 June 2021), “Manhattan Project Spotlight: Enrico Fermi.”

Research Italy (https://www.researchitaly.it/ : accessed 2 June 2021), “Enrico Fermi 60 Years Later:  A Scientist Confronting Himself With History.”

U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science (https://science.osti.gov/ : accessed 2 June 2021), “The Life of Enrico Fermi.”

U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science (https://science.osti.gov/ : accessed 2 June 2021), “The Enrico Fermi Award.”

On This Day (https://archive.nytimes.com/ : accessed 2 June 2021), “Enrico Fermi Dead at 53; Architect of Atomic Bomb.”

C.P. Snow, The Physicists (Boston:[Little, Brown and Company, 1981), 78.

Steven Strogatz, The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 2 June 2021), “The Real Scientific Hero of 1953.” 

E. Bretcscher and John Douglas Cockcroft, The Royal Society Publishing (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/ : accessed 2 June 2021), “Enrico Fermi, 1901-1954.”

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Enrico Fermi at the blackboard.jpg : 2 June 2021), digital image of original photo,  “File:Enrico Fermi at the blackboard.jpg;” image uploaded by user Jeff G.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:War Ends.jpg : 2 June 2021), digital image of original photo,  “File:War Ends.jpg;” image uploaded by user Soerfm.

Antenati (http://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/ : accessed 18 September 2020), “Parish Books.”

Antenati (http://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/ : accessed 18 September 2020), “Civil Registry.”

Antenati (http://www.antenati.san.beniculturali.it/ : accessed 18 September 2020), “Convenzione Direzione generale per gli archivas.”

FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org), "Italy Civil Registration," rev. 10:51, 14 April 2020.


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