If you have ever tried to track down distant cousins, especially in foreign countries, you know how difficult it can be, and that you will have to be resourceful. I’ve used different approaches in different circumstances in Ireland and Italy, and sometimes succeeded. But occasionally sheer serendipity works its magic. This account is particularly touching for me because I met my elderly Italian cousin unexpectedly, thanks to a confluence of fortuitous circumstances, as I neared the end of an unproductive week seeking cousins in southern Italy. But this happy-ending story also holds some tips and lessons that may help you as well.
One pair of my Italian immigrant great-grandparents, Gerardo Smaldone and Rosina Tolve, married in New York City in 1892, but I had no idea where they came from. In February 2002 I circulated a draft chapter on the Smaldone-Tolve branch of the family to a batch of my relatives, asking them to help fill in the blanks. Later that year a distant cousin told me that when she was going through the possessions of one of Gerardo’s deceased unmarried daughters, she found Rosina Tolve’s marriage certificate that listed Gerardo as Maldone; better yet, she also found Rosina’s Italian passport dated 29 March 1891! The latter revealed that Rosina came from Potenza, a small town in Basilicata, southern Italy.
What a breakthrough! Using microfilmed civil registration and church records at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City and at my local Family History Center, I found Rosina’s family. Knowing Italian immigrants’ propensity for living among and marrying within their own communities, I wondered if Gerardo might also have come from Potenza. Sure enough – I soon found him and his family in the Potenza records and traced my Smaldone and Tolve relations back several generations and forward into the twentieth century. Rosina was the first of eight children born to Giuseppe Tolve and Angela Maria Lucia Brienza, and all emigrated to New York and Colorado except the youngest, Rocco. Years earlier I had discovered the same pattern in the case of my immigrant Irish grandmother Annie Grennan: the oldest child of Patrick Grennan and Annie Flatley, she emigrated to New York first and was followed by all her siblings (brothers) except the youngest, Patrick. After tracking down and visiting Patrick’s descendants in Ireland, I eventually mustered up the energy to do the same for my Smaldone and Tolve cousins in Potenza.
Rosina was the first of eight children born to Giuseppe Tolve and Angela Maria Lucia Brienza...
My wife Judy and I planned a combined tourist and research trip to Italy for October 2013, so I took non-credit Italian classes for two years at the local community college, learning enough to “get by.” We signed up for a 10-day bus tour of southern Italy to get acclimated and then planned to take a train from Rome to Potenza for a week in the hope of tracking down my Smaldone and Tolve cousins. In the meantime I immersed myself in research and outreach efforts. The civil registration records listed street addresses, so I compiled lists of all the addresses in Potenza where my Smaldone and Tolve relatives lived into the early twentieth century. I also wrote letters to the local registrar’s office (Anagrafe), asking for a certificato di stato di famiglia storico (certificate of family status, akin to a family group sheet) for the parents of both Gerardo and Rosina. I never received a reply about the Smaldones, but after a few months I did get the certificate for Rosina’s family, showing that her youngest sibling Rocco died in Potenza in 1971 – that, as related below, unexpectedly turned out to be the key to finding my cousins. As for outreach, I posted notices on Italian genealogy websites, and sent Facebook messages to Smaldones and Tolves who lived in and around Potenza, but to no avail.
Having failed to connect with any cousins in advance, and with our trip fast approaching, my only hope was to find them in person while in Potenza. Using the Potenza addresses I compiled, I prepared a notice to post at every address I could find. The notice (in Italian, of course!) provided a personal introduction and genealogical background about my Smaldone and Tolve great-grandparents, named the last relative known to have lived at that address, expressed interest in meeting anyone related to the ancestral families that lived there, and gave my contact information. We spent much of our time in Potenza trekking up and down the streets that criss-crossed this hilltop town, taking photos of addresses where my ancestral relations resided in the early 1900s, and scotch-taping notices on every one! Along the way we looked for businesses with the family names (none), and asked people we met if they knew Smaldones or Tolves. Unfortunately, none of this yielded a single contact!
As the end of our stay in Potenza neared, I began to lose hope of finding any cousins.
As the end of our stay in Potenza neared, I began to lose hope of finding any cousins. I only had one card left to play – going to the town cemetery to look for graves of ancestral relations, especially my great-grandmother’s youngest brother Rocco Tolve. A young man who overheard us talking about how to get to the cemetery offered to show us the way! He led us there, down the hill to the outskirts of the town. I showed office attendant Vito Vaccaro one of my notices about searching for ancestors and cousins in Potenza, and the names of Potenza ancestors for whom I had death dates. He told us that the cemetery opened in the mid-20th century, which ruled out searching for any known Smaldones. It was Rocco Tolve or bust! I told him that Rocco was my great-grandmother’s youngest brother, that I was a relative from the USA, and that I hoped to meet cousins in Potenza. He looked in the ledger and found Rocco’s 1971 burial, then summoned someone to take me to his grave. Rocco was buried in a vault that even had a small photo of him.
I took photos and was about to leave when I noticed the flowers on the vault. Could they lead me to a relative who placed them or paid for flower service? I went back to the office and asked Mr. Vaccaro about it, worried that privacy might preclude getting any information. But he quickly looked in his computer and gave me the name and address of Angela Tolve! That night in the hotel I used online maps to find out where she lived, which was down the hill just outside of the old town.
The next morning I walked to her apartment complex. The building was locked and I didn’t see Angela’s name on mail boxes outside. I hung around awhile, and was about to leave when a man came out of the building. I asked if he knew Angela Tolve and explained why I wanted to meet her; he took me inside and knocked on her door. I stayed a few respectful feet behind him as he greeted the sweet-faced elderly woman who answered and introduced me to her, as I interjected occasionally that my great-grandmother was her father’s sister. At first she seemed befuddled, incredulous, even suspicious, but I told her enough about our families that she eventually believed me. A big smile suddenly appeared on her face, and she invited both of us in, shocked and touched that I came all the way from America to find her. She introduced me to her husband Antonio Manchinelli, and called her daughter Rosetta (Rosa) and niece Antonella Tolve. They rushed over and greeted me excitedly (hugs, of course!). We all chatted, showed old photos, had a snack, and took our own photos of his historic transatlantic family reunion. They invited me and Judy to dinner the next night at Antonella’s home, our last in Potenza.
A big smile suddenly appeared on her face, and she invited both of us in, shocked and touched that I came all the way from America to find her.
Rosa and her husband Francesco Pallante picked us up at our hotel and drove to Antonella’s home, where we were met by a batch of relatives; every so often two or three more people came in, all hugging and welcoming us. We ate well, toasted often, exchanged family information, and looked through two boxes of old family photos that Antonella had. At long last, a happy confluence of concerted effort and good fortune had brought me face-to-face with my Tolve cousins in Potenza, from which my great-grandmother and virtually all her siblings left for America beginning in the early 1890s. We still keep in touch, and a couple of my American cousins have also visited them in Potenza. Angela and her husband Antonio lived into their 90s, and at least Angela was able to meet her American cousin. Maybe I’ll return some day to continue my search for Smaldones!
This long journey offers tips for others trying to find and meet foreign cousins:
• share your research with your extended family, and keep asking for their help;
• it pays to track down distant cousins – as I discovered in 2002, you never know what family stories and records they may have to share, especially if they break down brick walls;
• when searching for cousins in foreign countries that you plan to visit, try to make contact in advance – my efforts failed, but yours might be more fruitful, particularly if you try multiple methods like posting notices in local newspapers, or asking local clergy to put notices in bulletins,
• for Italy, take advantage of the Anagrafe to request, well in advance of a visit, the certificato di stato di famiglia storico for each family of interest;
• make lists of addresses where your Italian ancestral relations lived – use them to find and photograph these sites, and to post notices there – again, this did not work for me, but hopefully you’ll have success;
• when on site, visit the local registrar’s office – they may be able to connect you with descendants of your ancestral families;
• and, of course, visit cemeteries – flowers or other remembrances left at a grave may lead you to your cousins, as they did for me; or, if permitted, leave a note in a plastic bag for the next relative who visits the grave.
About Joe Smaldone
Joe Smaldone and his wife Judy Warwick Smaldone have been researching their family’s history for 20 years. Their research has taken them to many national, state, and local libraries, archives, court houses, churches, cemeteries, historical and genealogical societies, and other research sites across the United States, and abroad to Ireland, Italy, and Sweden. They are members of NEHGS, the New Hampshire Historical Society, and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. Joe is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, where he created and taught a course entitled Your Family in History. He is a Genealogy Research Consultant at the Family History Center, Annapolis, Maryland, and has published several genealogical studies, abstracts, and indexes.View all posts by Joe Smaldone →