Monday, 15 May 2017

Americanization or Anglicisation

Recently I made the trek to New York to research Italian antecedents. Despite huge swathes of content now traversable via genealogical conglomerates in minutes, some information is still only accessible on the ground. 

Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn, 1903

The American convention of giving names to neighbourhoods within suburbs is something not easily discerned from afar. 

For example Red Hook in Brooklyn, which, amongst other influences, became a small Italian enclave when settled in the late 1890s - early 1900s. The name is still used in various locations.

Included in its special collection, the Brooklyn Public Library has a series of atlases and maps which will eventually be digitised. 

To capitalise on the time available, I attended a lecture at the New York Public Library on how to search the 1940 Federal Census. This is a rich online resource, but interchangeable names make discovery a challenge. It is not uncommon to find an Italian name for the first Census in which the family appeared after migration from Palermo, only to appear as 'someone else' by 1940. For example, Gaetana became Anna or Anita, Gesualda became Jessie, Gaetano became Tomaso then Thomas. 

Vicenzo/Vincenzo became, inexplicably, James not Vincent.* Surnames are also afflicted by this - Bellomonte becoming Belmont, Nangano was heard and written as Mangano. Eventually vowels were dropped too. This process was explained as americanisation**, although the presentation did label it otherwise. 
Courtesy Carmen Nigro,
Milstein Division, NYPL, April 2017

The origin of these names is surely not American, and despite the efforts of the Census enumerators to hide migrants in as many ways as possible, a shared appreciation of the English language allows us all to tap into the breadth of information from 1890 Ellis Island arrivals to the decennial censuses.

The key to searching the census successfully is to be aware that while names may be carried down the generations, little variations were and are also common. 

Thinking laterally, including for extended family, does help. 
Image, courtesy of Find My Past, of the family of Thomas Belmont, all given with surname as Thomas (found only by a search on the name of future son-in-law Roderick Black) 
The genealogical discovery process however, is a candidate for dramatisation and there is no better inspiration than American cinema. This is ably demonstrated by the NYPL's Irma & Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy which entices us all to delve into family secrets and mysterious name changes...

*  Finding Italian Roots - The complete guide for Americans, John Philip Colletta, PhD
** ironically spelt with an 's', or sometimes interchangeably with a 'z', in both anglicisation and americanization.  

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