approachingthehill

Focusing on Italian Genealogy and uncovering the testa duras in my family tree

Archive for the month “January, 2015”

Salvatore Cuba, Sicily – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Salvatore Cuba is the relative that has a birth date closest to mine. Salvatore was born on September 24, 1878 in the seaside town of Gela, Sicily. He is the oldest son of Luigi Cuba and Rosaria DiMenza. Sometime between 1878 and 1884, the family moved 60 km inland to Caltanissetta, Sicily where three more sons were born. The younger sons, Michele, Giovanni and Giuseppe all eventually moved to America, but Salvatore never did. He died in Caltanisetta on March 10, 1960.

My father has talked about his uncles Mike and Joe, but I have never heard any stories about Salvatore. Did he ever visit his brothers in America? Did anyone ever travel back to Italy to visit Salvatore? I can find no evidence of either.

I have mentioned before the Italian tradition of naming children after grandparents. First born sons are named after their father’s father. Second born sons are named after their mother’s father. First born daughters are named after their father’s mother. Second born daughters are named after their mother’s mother. Remaining children are usually named after the parent’s brothers and sisters. Brothers Michele, Giovanni and Giuseppe all named their oldest sons Luigi Cuba!

Since Salvatore was Luigi’s oldest son, I can assume that Luigi’s father’s name was Salvatore, but I haven’t been able to verify this. I do know that Rosaria’s father’s name was Salvatore, so perhaps Salvatore Cuba was a second born son and I don’t have any information about the first born. Or perhaps both grandfathers were named Salvatore.

To research my Italian ancestors, I have had to order microfilm from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City and spend hours in front of a microfilm reader. Fortunately, more and more Italian Civil Records are being loaded online at FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com which makes research easier.

Corso And Monument Umberto I. Caltanissetta, Sicily 1934; Photo by: TCI/EyeOn/UIG via Getty Images

Corso And Monument Umberto I. Caltanissetta 1934

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Maria Francesca Muglia Pepe – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Maria Francesca Muglia Pepe 1932

When I was young, my brothers, sisters and I were often relegated to the basement, mostly to keep out of my mom’s way while she was cleaning and cooking. But we didn’t mind. The basement was cool in the summers before we had central air conditioning. It was full of old books, old records and old photo albums. I loved looking at the old pictures, carefully arranged on the black sheets. At first, I was only interested in seeing pictures of me and my siblings growing up, but later I started prowling among the older photo albums, amazed at seeing my mother as a child and teenager. One photo in particular stood out. It was a large picture. There were about thirty people arranged outside a house. The mothers held babies in their laps and the fathers wore white shirts and ties. In the middle of the photo sat a stout, old woman, her white hair pulled back into a bun. She wore a black dress and although many in the photo were smiling, she was not. To me, she looked like Queen Victoria of England. I carefully carried the album upstairs and asked my mother who the woman was. “That’s my Grandma,” my mom told me. She laughed, looking at the photo “My brothers and I used to joke that she was as wide as she was tall.”

Maria Francesca Muglia was born on November 22, 1866 in a tiny town in southern Italy called Guardia Piemontese. The town is located in the mountainous region of western Calabria, on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The people speak a peculiar dialect called Occitan, which originated in Southern France and was brought to Guardia Piemontese with refugees from Northern Italy who were escaping persecution from the Catholic Church.

Maria Francesca stood only 4 foot 8 inches tall. She married Francesco Pepe on August 5th, 1886, when she was 20 years old and he was 27. Francesco was also born and raised in Guardia Piemontese and the two families were most likely piesans, or close friends. On the marriage certificate, Francesco’s occupation was listed as contadino, or peasant. He was most likely a worker on a farm. Maria Francesca’s occupation was listed as filatrice, or spinner. Her father was deceased by the time she married, so perhaps she had a job to help support her family.

A year later, the couple had a son, whom they named Luigi after the paternal grandfather, as was the custom. Luigi was followed two years later by Maria, then Giuseppe, born in 1892 and named after the maternal grandfather. Tragically, Maria Francesca lost her daughter when little Maria died when she was only four years old. Maria Francesca was pregnant with son Domenico at the time. Tragedy struck again as Domenico died at the age of fifteen months. Her heart must have broken in two when baby Carmela, born in 1898 died after only eight months.

Around this time, the couple decided to leave Italy behind and start a new life in America. Francesco saved up enough money for him and oldest son Luigi to travel to New York. In March of 1901, they arrived in New York and went to stay with relatives in Bellington, West Virginia. Remaining in Italy, Maria Francesca was five months pregnant and had a young son to care for. Did she stay with relatives or go back to being a spinner to support her family?  How did she send word to the United States that a son named Domenic was born in July?  How long would a letter take to cross the ocean?

Maria Francesca and Francesco spent two years apart as he struggled to establish a new life and earn enough money to send for his family. By 1903, Francesco and Luigi had moved to Philadelphia, New York, where Frank Pepe, as he was now known, worked for the railroad. Maria Francesca traveled 300 km to Naples and left on the S.S. Umbria on May 27, 1903 and arrived in New York on June 10. She traveled with her sons Giuseppe and Domenic, aged 11 and 2. It is interesting to note that she traveled under her maiden name, and is listed on the ship’s manifest as Maria Francesca Muglia. The boys are mistakenly listed with the last name of Muglia instead of Pepe. However, once in the United States, she became Mary Frances Pepe. Luigi’s and Giuseppe’s names also were Americanized to Louie and Joe.

The next years must have been happy ones as the family was reunited. The family grew with the births of Grace, Gus and Rose over the next four years. But the happiness was not to last. Frank contracted pneumonia and died on October 15, 1907, leaving Mary Frances widowed with six children to care for. The baby, Rose, was just seven months old. Mary Frances wanted to return to Italy, but her older sons convinced her to stay, reminding her how hard life had been in Guardia Piemontese. Louie married in 1910, and moved with his new wife to a house down the street. Mary Frances continued to live with the remaining five children in Philadelphia. Around 1923, Mary Frances and her children moved seventeen miles south to Watertown, New York, probably to live with one of the older sons. Louie, Joseph, Domenic and Gus all moved to Watertown and all worked as buffers in a brass plant. In 1932, when the picture I had dug from the basement was taken, Mary Frances lived with her son Gus and his family.

She died ten years after the picture was taken, survived by her six children and 34 grandchildren. Mary Frances was a feisty, resilient woman, who, even when faced with extreme difficulties, taught her children the importance of family.

Pepe family reunion 1932(Picture of Mary Francis Pepe surrounded by her children, their spouses and grandchildren. My mom is being held by her father – third man from the right in the last row)

Rosaria Cuba (or Sarah Cubba) – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Week 2’s theme is King.  January 8 is Elvis’ birthday. January 15 is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Do you have a connection to royalty?

With my Italian ancestry completely filled with peasants, I can’t claim any connection to royalty. However, I have an aunt that shares a birthday with Elvis.

sarah cubba

Rosaria Cuba, was born on January 8, 1914 in DuQuoin, Perry, IL. She was the second child of Giovanni and Rosa Cuba and the first born in America. Rosaria, or Sarah as she was called, was listed in the 1920 census as Rosie Jr! Sarah married Piotr (Peter) Kuzdal on July 25, 1936 in Detroit, MI. Peter was 31 at the time and Sarah was 22. Peter Kuzdal worked on the Detroit to Cleveland boat and lived in Dunkirk, NY. Family legend says his boat caught fire in the Detroit River and he swam to shore and there after he lived in Detroit. Peter met Sarah when she worked in a restaurant at the foot of Woodward Ave called Eagle Cafe. Tragically, Sarah died on July 29, 1950 at the age of 36 during surgery leaving behind her husband of 14 years and 4 children. Sarah is buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit, Wayne, MI.

Just as I mentioned in my previous blog, sometime between the 1920 census and the 1930 census, the entire Cuba family changed their last name to Cubba! The confusing thing is that Sarah’s father, John registered for the World War I draft in 1917 as John CUBBA, but is listed on the 1920 census as John CUBA. Giovanni (John), Giuseppe (Joe) and Michele (Mike) all appear in the 1930 census and everything there after as Cubba. The brothers were all illiterate and signed their draft cards with an X. I haven’t been able to find out why the second B was added. I think perhaps because of prejudice and discrimination against Italians at this time. Or maybe because of trouble with the country of Cuba? Years ago, I asked my Uncle Angelo and he said he was told that it was changed at Ellis Island, which documents show, is not true. If I meet anyone with the last name of Cubba, I know I’m related to them. But like the Fiandacas, I have lost my Cuba paisans.

Picture from 1916.

Pietro Fiandaca – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

I’ve decided to accept the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge!

Week 1’s theme is Fresh start. What ancestor had a fresh start?

This was an easy theme for me because 100% of my ancestors came to America from Italy for a fresh start. The hard part was choosing an ancestor to highlight.

I decided to start with great uncle Pietro Fiandaca because he was the first ancestor on my Dad’s side to come to America. Pietro was the oldest son of Angelo Fiandaca and Maria Didio. (Although his death certificate lists his mother as Mary Marsilia). He was born on November 1 , 1876 in Villarosa, Sicily. Pietro married Calogera Abbate, who was the sister of his father’s second wife. (Kind of weird in this day and age, but maybe not unusual for your step mother to also be your sister-in-law). Like most of my Sicilian ancestors, Pietro worked as a sulfur miner.

Pietro left Sicily in 1904 from Naples aboard the Lombardia and arrived at Ellis Island October 7th, 1904. He indicated that he was going to stay with his cousin, who is also named Pietro Fiandaca, in New York. In 1906, when his brother Ignasio came to America, Pietro was still living in New York. Brother Guiseppe also immigrated to America. By 1912, when my grandparents arrived from Italy, Pietro was living in DuQuoin, Perry, IL and working as a coal miner.

Sometime between the 1920 census and the 1930 census, the entire Fiandaca family changed their last name to Fiantaco! This is basically a made up name. You will not find any Fiantaco’s living in Italy. Pietro (Pete), Ignasio (Sam) and Guiseppe (Joe) all appear in the 1930 census and everything there after as Fiantaco. I haven’t been able to find out why. I think perhaps because of prejudice against Italians at this time. Their name did not get changed at Ellis Island, like most people think. If I meet anyone with the last name of Fiantaco, I know I’m related to them. But I have lost my Fiandaca paisans.

Pete Fiantaco died on December 24, 1933 in DuQuoin, Perry, IL at the age of 57. He is buried in Sacred Heart cemetery in DuQuoin, IL.

1918 WWI Pietro Fiandaca 1

Italian Genealogy Research for Beginners

John and Rose Cubba

When I started working on my family’s genealogy 17 years ago, I was told it was hopeless because Italians just don’t care about genealogy. Being a “testa dura” that didn’t stop me from diving in head first! Here are some books that helped me get started and I still refer to them today in this age of digital records.

  • The absolute best book is A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Italian Ancestors by Lynn Nelson. Published in 1997, it explains the Italian vital records and how to find your ancestor’s home town or comune. Nelson explains how to order micro film from the Mormon church, but more and more of these records are being digitized. Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org are great resources.
  • Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical & Other Records in Family History Research by Trafford R Cole.
  • Finding Your Italian Roots. The Complete Guide for Americans by John Philip Colletta.
  • Italian-American Family History: A Guide to Researching and Writing about Your Heritage by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. This is a great resource for putting all your research together.
  • A newer book, Italian Genealogy Records Guide by Jennifer Holik, may also be worth checking out since it was published last year and covers searching digital records.

A new trend I am seeing, is people self publishing their family’s genealogy. Some of these are available on Amazon. For example:

  • Coberly Connections: Pilgrims, Patriots & Presidents by Daniel L. Coberly
  • FALCONARA: A Family Odyssey by Hal Higdon & Rose Musacchio Higdon
  • Ancestors of Salvator Bloise and Rose Pippo by Nick Bloise

So don’t be afraid to start exploring your Italian roots! Yes it is hard work, but “Non v’è rosa senza spina” – There is no rose without thorns.

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