How and Where to Begin Your Search

For those that wish to research on their own, the most frequently asked question is “How and where do I start?!”. Genealogy can be intimidating because there’s so much information! Where do you start? How do you organize everything? What resources do you need along the way?

Don’t worry! Sicilian Family Tree is here to help with guidance and tips to help you on your journey. Follow the steps below at your own pace and you will soon find that your tree is expanding and you are encountering family stories, ancestors and maybe even living relatives you never even knew about!

Step 1: Get Prepared To Record Your Family History

The first thing a budding genealogist must do is determine how they want to save and record all the information they are about to start collecting. The old-fashioned way is to use handwritten family tree charts and forms (and a BIG filing cabinet!). However, while forms and charts are still available and easy to use, they are not the easiest to store, share and pass down to later generations. Thankfully, technology has come to the rescue!

There are several great genealogy software programs available as well as websites that allow you to build your family tree. Each has advantages and disadvantages that are important to consider before you decide which to use. We will touch on several of the options below and you can learn more by reading these reviews and/or these reviews.

Genealogy Software

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    Legacy Family Tree

    Legacy has a free standard version as well as an affordable deluxe version. We love their charts and source templates and you can search and sync with Family Search too. This is the software used by Sicilian Family Tree.

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    Family Tree Maker

    FTM was one of the first ever genealogy programs. They’ve had some growing pains but recently released a new (2019) version. FTM allows you to sync your FTM tree with and makes very nice charts.

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    RootsMagic is easy to use and provides excellent research hints from online databases for people you enter into the database. They are FamilySearch certified but don’t have the best selection of charts.

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    Family Historian

    Family Historian consistently gets high marks from users and reviewers. We are not familiar with this program, but from what we have read, their interactive charts and diagrams are pretty great.

Websites Where You Can Build A Tree

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    There are over 100 million trees on Ancestry and for good reason. It is easy to use and to add information, especially when you find a record that matches someone in your tree. You can make your tree public or private and you can share it with relatives. They also have excellent hints that help you find new information. You do not need a subscription to create, edit, or share a tree, but you do need one to view most records and to view other public family trees. It is not easy to print the family trees, unless you want to have it done professionally, and it’s not as easy to add info you found on other sites.

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    FamilySearch FamilyTree

    The idea behind FamilySearch FamilyTree is to have one giant world tree. Instead of making your own individual tree, you are adding to the shared world tree, along with millions of other people. It notifies you of duplicates, gives you hints and you can save information and sources directly from FamilySearch databases. The Relatives Around Me feature on the FamliyTree App is a lot of fun. One major disadvantage to the shared world tree is that anyone can change the information you have entered. You can message people who have made changes when necessary. FamilySearch FamilyTree is free!

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    MyHeritage has 106 million users that have created over 50 million trees. Like FamilySearch and Ancestry, MyHeritage has databases that you can search and then easily add matching information to your tree. Their Smart Matching feature matches people in different family trees to reveal new info and with Instant Discoveries you can add entire branches in one click. You can create trees with up to 250 people for free with a Basic subscription, but you will need to upgrade to Premium, Premium Plus or Complete to add more people, access their extensive databases and use some of the extra features.

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    The Next Generation

    For the more tech-savvy researchers, the Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding is an excellent program that allows you to display your family tree on your own website. You can import a GEDCOM file from another program into TNG or you can hand enter your data directly into TNG. It supports unliminted names, you can add sources, pictures, stories, and it can be customized. This is the program used for the Jennifer’s Family Tree portion of Sicilian Family Tree.

Step 2: Gather and Record Information You Already Know

Now that you have a place to store the information, you are ready to start recording what you personally already know. Starting with yourself, record your full name, birth and marriage dates and places (be specific with city, county, state, country, in that order). Add your spouse and all of your descendants and then add information for your siblings, their spouses and descendants. Move up a generation and add the birth, marriage and/or death information for your parents and their siblings, your cousins and their descendants. Do the same for each set of grandparents. Continue in this manner, adding information that you personally know about each generation going back as far as you can. Remember to be as thorough as you can with dates and places.

Now, consider this: do you have any documents that confirm the information you just recorded? For example, your birth and/or marriage certificate, vital records for any other family members, funeral cards or obituaries for deceased family members, old passports, pictures, or anything of that nature? If the answer is yes, record those documents, pictures and records as sources in your family tree file. Every genealogy program and family tree website will have a spot to do this and it is vitally important that you save the sources for the information you enter. Remember, at some point far in the future, someone else might be looking over your family tree and will not have first-hand knowledge of the people and events to know whether or not the information is true.  If the source is listed, they will know where to look to verify the information.

Step 3: Gather and Record Information From Your Family Members

Ask family members, especially and particularly those in the oldest generation, about anything and everything they can remember about themselves and the generations past. This is important to do right away, because sadly people do not live forever, memories fade and old photos and documents are sometimes thrown away or given away to someone else that you may not see or know.

Make sure you get names, places, dates, and be very specific! Don’t leave out items such as burial places or funeral homes if they are remembered. Compare what they told you to what you remembered and check for discrepancies. Ask if they have documents and/or pictures they are willing to share with you. And be sure to ask other things that are not so obviously genealogical, such as things like schooling, occupations, places of work. These personal details and family stories are meaningful to your family but they may also hold clues to the pieces of your family history puzzle. Now, one note about this information you have collected: be prepared that some if it will not be accurate! Not all of those old family tales are entirely true so keep an open mind as you research.

Step 4: Review Information and Decide on a Goal

You probably have a fairly decent sized family tree by this point. Congratulations! Now it’s time to review what you have recorded in your tree and look for areas that need to be filled in. For example, are there blank spaces in your tree such as missing birth, marriage or death dates or places? If so, this may be a good place to start your actual research. Alternatively, here are some questions to ask yourself that might help you decide what to work on next:

  • Are you interested in one branch of your family more than the others?
  • Is there an ancestor you are particularly interested in, like the black sheep of the family or the crazy Aunt?
  • Is there a particular mystery you want to solve, such as an adoption or a disappearing relative or an unidentified family member?
  • Are there particular documents you want or need, maybe for a Dual Citizenship application?
  • Do you want to learn more about your immigrant ancestor such as when they arrived, what ship they were on, and where they came from?
  • Have you done a DNA test and you want to unravel your list of shared matches to see how they are related?

Step 5: Start Searching!

Now that you have recorded and reviewed everything that you already know and you’ve decided on a goal, it’s time to start searching for new information. Let your research goal guide you. For example, if your first goal is to find the place of origin in Italy for your family, seek out records that can provide you with that information, such as ship manifests, naturalization records, and World War draft registrations. If you want to fill in blank spots in your more recent family tree, use the websites that focus on US records to help you do that. And if you are already know the town of origin for your family and you want to dive right into the Italian records, skip ahead to Step 6.

Below are some of our favorite major genealogy websites that you can use to fill in blanks in your family tree and expand what you already know using US records as well as records from around the world. A little further below, you can also connect to the Research Links pages of Sicilian Family Tree, where we have curated lists of websites that can help you find more information in specific categories.

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    This popular subscription site has thousands of databases for the United States, the UK, Canada and a growing section for Italy. For immigrant ancestors, very helpful databases include the US Census, Immigration & Naturalization, and World War 1 & 2 Draft Registrations. Free access to Ancestry is available at Family History Centers and some libraries.

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    Find My Past

    FindMyPast is especially helpful if you have British or Irish family history. HOWEVER, they also have a massive Catholic Church Heritage Archive collection that includes records from the Archdiocese of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, with Cincinnati, Chicago, Wilmington and Toledo also in the works. Subscription based, but they offer free trials and it’s available free at Family History Centers.

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    Fold 3

    Formerly called Footnote and now part of the Ancestry family, this site has an awesome military records collection, which includes records starting with the Revolutionary War. They also have some non-military records including Naturalizations, Passport Applications and City Directories.  It is a subscription site, but is available free at your local Family History Center.

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    One-Step Search Engines by Stephen P. Morse

    Our #1 favorite site for searching for Ellis Island ship manifests. Plus, Steve has also created search engines for other ports, census records, and much more! The man is a genius!

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    Italian Genealogical Group

    The Italian Genealogical Group has indexed databases of information primarily for New York City. They have searchable databases of births, marriages, and deaths as well as naturalizations, church records and more. Be sure to read the Overview on the Databases page for effective search techniques.

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    FamilySearch has databases for countries all around the world, including millions of vital records for almost every town in Italy and Sicily. They are working on indexing all of their collections too, so they will be searchable by name. Be sure to check the FamilyTree section and use the catalog to search collections that are not yet indexed.

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    MyHeritage has become another large player in the genealogy world. Their biggest asset (in my opinion) is the huge number of user-submitted family trees they have on their site but they are regularly expanding their vital records databases too. They are a subscription site, but can be accessed for free at Family History Centers and at some libraries.

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    US GenWeb

    The USGenWeb Project is a free website that offers genealogy links and resources for every county and state of the United States. They also sponsor Special Projects that gather useful genealogy data, such as cemetery or obituary transcriptions, and the county and state sites often have links to very small databases or resources that you may not learn about otherwise.

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    Find A Grave

    This incredible website has millions of grave records from all over the world, including towns in Italy. Some entries include obituaries, pictures of tombstones and crypts and families may be linked together. You can search by name, town or even by cemetery. The best part is, it’s all free!

Ships & Naturalization

Link to pages with ship manifests for various US, South American and Australian ports. Also links to help you find naturalization records and learn more about obtaining Italian Dual Citizenship.

United States Research

Link to vital records databases that are kept by cities, counties and/or states, many of which can’t be found anywhere else. Also links to cemetery records and newspaper archives.

Italian Culture & Genealogy

Links to Italian American foundations, Italian nobility records and websites that help you find any Catholic Church parish in the world.

Italian History, Facts & Maps

Learn about Italian and Sicilian history and every town in Italy and Sicily, the government offices and archives, maps, postal codes and the Italian white pages.

Step 6: I'm Ready to Use Italian Records

Now that you have filled in all of the more recent information for your family tree and you know where your ancestors came from in Italy, it’s time to start using the excellent Italian vital records. To better understand the Italian record system and what is available, it’s necessary to have a very brief Italian history lesson.


Prior to 1809, all vital record information in Italy was maintained by the Catholic Church. From about 1809-1815, when Napoleon Bonaparte controlled large parts of Northern Italy, towns began creating civil records, now called Napoleonic records, of birth, marriage and death. When Napoleon was defeated and Northern Italy went back to being an assortment of Kingdoms and Duchys, most towns stopped making civil records and reverted to having the Catholic Church maintain vital information about citizens. Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, which extended from roughly Naples south through Sicily, civil records were begun in 1820 and continued until 1865, when Italian Unification was in full swing and the entire country was beginning to be united under one flag. At that point, all towns from the north and the south began making civil vital records in very similar formats. From 1866-1874, they are entirely handwritten, but after 1875, pre-printed forms were used and they continue to this day.

So, in brief, northern towns may only have civil records for 1809-1815 and then from 1866 to the present. Southern towns, including those in Sicily, have civil records from 1820 to the present. Catholic church records for all of Italy generally extend from around the mid-1500s (after the Council of Trent) to present. Now, how do you know what’s available online and how do you access them?

FamilySearch and the Italian State Archives have partnered together to make a large portion of civil records available to the public, entirely for free. Catholic Church records are also available for some towns.

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    Sign into your free FamilySearch account (or set one up) then use their Library Catalog to find out what resources they have for your town. Search by place name and click results that say Civil Registration and/or Church Records. Follow the links to information about the item and scroll down to look for Film Notes with the icons down the right side of the screen. Those icons, under the column “Format”, tell you how you can access the records. A camera icon means you can view that item from home (click and try it out!); a camera with a key means it is restricted to viewing only at a Family History Center; a magnifying glass means that item has been indexed and is searchable by name; a film reel means that item is only available on microfilm. Civil records will be in Italian and occasionally French while church records are in Latin.

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    Italian State Archives

    The Italian State Archives has basically the same documents that FamilySearch has EXCEPT the items that are restricted on FamilySearch are usually available at the Italian State Archives. The Italian State Archives website can be a bit tedious to use, but at least the information is available and it’s free. From their main page, click Browse the Registries to see what information they have to offer. First select a Province, then the collection you want (Napoleonico = 1809-1815; restaurazione = 1820-1865; italiano = 1866-present), then the town name, and then a type of record (birth, marriage or death, etc). You will then be able to access the actual records. Some of their records are also searchable by name using the Find the Names button on the main page.

Resources Needed to Use Italian Records

Obviously, all of the Italian records on the State Archives website and FamilySearch are going to be in Italian or Latin (and occasionally French!). If you don’t have a good understanding of these languages, it’s important to have some resources to help you find the correct documents and understand what the documents are telling you about your family. Below are links to websites with genealogical word lists and translation help plus sites that help you decipher the old handwriting you are going to encounter. Also below are four books that are highly recommended, particularly for beginners. The first three provide in depth information on how to use the Italian records, including translations of the types of documents you are going to encounter. The last recommendation is a dictionary, which will definitely come in handy.

Finally, if all of this still seems too overwhelming, we invite you to consider using Sicilian Family Tree’s Research Services. For over 20 years, we have been helping people learn more about their families at an affordable cost. Follow the link below to learn more about the Research Services we offer.

Sicilian Family Tree participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. The links above are affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, Sicilian Family Tree will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Step 7: Go Straight to the Source!

At a certain point in your research, you may find that you need to go straight the source. That is, you need to contact a church archive or vital records office in Italy or Sicily to get what you need. This usually happens when you need a document that is not available online or maybe you need a certified document to be used in a legal proceeding, like a Dual Citizenship application. You can write directly to the town and request what you need. It’s easier than you might think and doesn’t cost too much money.

Most towns are pretty good about responding, especially if you provide accurate information about what you are requesting. And sometimes they will even write back via email with the document attached. We’ve also had towns pass our letters along to relatives of the people we were asking about, which has been exciting and fun too. However, there are times when towns don’t respond in a timely manner or don’t respond at all, especially if you are asking them to search without an accurate name or date. We’ve had the best success by sending our request simultaneously in two formats: by email and by fax and then following up in about 6-8 weeks if we have not gotten a response. If there is still no response after that, you might want to request the assistance of a researcher in Italy/Sicily to help you.

Below are some resources to help you write your own request letters. To find addresses and fax numbers for the vital records office of your town, select the Comuni Italiani link below, follow the links to your town and look for where it says “City Hall”. We are also including contact information for a great researcher in Sicily, Giovanni Montanti. We’ve worked with Giovanni for over 20 years and have found him to be reliable and trustworthy. He speaks, reads and writes English and usually responds very promptly. We use his services all the time for church records and other records not available online.

Still Overwhelmed?

Let Sicilian Family Tree do the work for you! 

If all of the above still leaves you feeling overwhelmed, let Sicilian Family Tree do the work for you! Since 2001, Sicilian Family Tree has been helping clients learn more about their ancestry. Whatever your research needs are, we are ready to be of service! Follow the link below to learn about our research method, our affordable research options and how you can get started today!

Client Testimonials

Great with Details!

For the past seven or eight years, Jennifer has been my genealogy sidekick.  Without her, my book would never have come to be.  She was able to find relatives I knew I had hidden somewhere and she unearthed them.  Jennifer is great with details.  She listens to what you want and, if at all possible, will find…

Mystery Solved!

I’ve worked with Jennifer since September 2017 to untangle my Sicilian history which was fairly challenging largely due to the misdirection of previous generations. Jennifer is a very knowledgeable professional genealogist and is able to provide English translations of Sicilian records which is well worth the modest fees charged. She was able to solve the…

I Couldn’t Have Done It Without Her!

Jennifer helped me with my family tree, not just in obtaining the records but in translating them as well. She managed to go back as far as the 1600’s in some cases. She’s the best, I couldn’t have done it without her. – J. Bruno

Great Experience!

Jennifer was great to work with.  She is excellent with communication and attention to detail.  If you are looking to fill in the branches of your Sicilian family tree send Jennifer an email to learn more about what she does, you’ll be so glad you did! – Kim H.

She Loves What She Does

Jennifer solved a mystery that had been haunting my family for decades.  We would have never gotten the answers for which we were so desperately searching without her dogged determination and unending patience.  Jennifer treated the situation like it was personal to her, not just a job for someone else.  It is clear she loves…

She Gets an A+

I have been working with Jennifer since 2012, she has never disappointed me. She’s always available for any and all questions that I might come across. I find her rates to be fair and I’m thankful that we have been able to work together for so many years. She gets an A+ from me. –…

Thorough, Comprehensive, Phenomenal!

It has been wonderful to have had Jennifer as a researcher for over ten years.  She is thorough and comprehensive in her reports.  She is detailed in transcribing records and goes much beyond in adding an objective centered on the focus of a client’s wishes and direction.  She is absolutely phenomenal in her craft as…

Your Testimonial Could Be Here!

Sicilian Family Tree would love to add you to our list of satisfied customers! Visit our Research Services page to learn more about all we have to offer!

Worth Every Penny!

I first started working with Jennifer in the fall of 2016 when I decided to begin the process of having my Italian citizenship recognized. She was an invaluable resource. Truly, I don’t know how I would have navigated the process without her. From getting birth records from Italy, to knowing what forms to fill out…
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She Never Ceases to Amaze!

We’ve been working with Jennifer for a long time and she never ceases to amaze us with the information she finds about our family. She is dogged and diligent, and obviously loves what she does. -Bruce B.
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HIGHLY Recommend!

Jennifer has been fantastic. I had always known that my mother’s parents were from Cerda in Sicily and I did some investigation using FamilySearch and Ancestry but was never able to locate original documents about them and their relatives. Given the basic information I was able to find, Jennifer was quickly able to trace back…