Finding our ancestral village

When we started researching our Italian roots, we didn’t know much about where our family came from. My mother’s grandfather emigrated to the United States when he was seven years old. He remembered the village he grew up in, and described it clearly to the family. But that wasn’t enough for our citizenship application: we needed hard facts, and Poppop didn’t make our research easy.

On his marriage license, he gave his place of birth as Naples. On his Declaration of Intention, the first stage of the naturalization process, his birthplace was recorded as “Tori Delsonia.” Later, on his Facts for Petition of Naturalization, the place of birth looks like “Cantaluppi (???), province of Campobassi [sic] Italy,” but the handwriting is difficult to make out. By the time he submitted his Petition for Naturalization, he said that he was born in “Canta Suppa.”

I had never done any genealogical research before, so I didn’t realize how common these sorts of discrepancies are. Instead, I thought that Poppop must have been a pathological liar. After all, he’d changed his name when he was about twenty, without getting any official permission, abandoning his glaringly Italian name, Pasquale di Carlo, in favor of the more Americanized but still blatantly Italian monicker Charles De Carlo. Then every time he filled out an official document, he seemed to give a slightly different birthdate, although they never varied from the true date by more than a day or two.

As I began to research his history, though, it occurred to me that Poppop didn’t have anything like the access to information that we do today. He probably never saw a copy of his birth records until much later in his life, and he certainly didn’t have Wikipedia or any other way to readily access information about his place of birth.

He remembered where he’d grown up before coming to the United States, a little village in Molise called Cantalupo nel Sannio, but the village he was actually born in was probably nothing more than a name he’d heard a few times as a child. And that name wouldn’t have seemed important until he made his citizenship application many years later. On most other official documents for most of his life, giving his birthplace as “Italy” sufficed.

I also realized that in many cases, the misspellings of his hometown probably wasn’t by him. Rather, some clerk in a government office in Pittsburgh had probably spelled the name of the tiny Italian village phonetically, because, let’s face it,  how it was spelled didn’t really matter.

The obsession with precise facts and properly filled-in forms reflects the advent of the computer age and, more recently, the rise of the national security state. Now, if we don’t fill in forms consistently, we get turned down for credit cards and home loans and driver’s licenses. But back in Poppop’s day that sort of precision didn’t really matter. Proof is that his American citizenship was granted, even though he’d given so much conflicting information. 

Poppop's Molisean birth certificate.
So where was Poppop born? When we got a copy of Poppop’s birth certificate from my cousin Jeff, who’d already done considerable genealogical research on our family, there were several surprises. For one thing, it was the first time we  realized that Poppop’s birth name had been Pasquale (which has nothing to do with the name Charles--it’s closest English equivalent seems to be Patrick) and that his last name had been di Carlo and not De Carlo.

For another, we’d all assumed his place of birth was Cantalupo, but the certificate showed he was born in another small Molisano town about 20 miles away called Forlì del Sannio. “Del Sannio” refers to the ancient Samnite tribes that inhabited this area and were eventually conquered by the Romans. It was likely added to the name to differentiate the town from the much larger city of Forlì in the Emilia-Romagna region.

It appeared that Forlì, then, was our ancestral village. But research showed that there didn’t seem to be any other di Carlos there; nor did Poppop’s mother’s family, the Capobiancos, seem to have any presence in Forlì.

As it turned out, the di Carlo family didn’t have roots in Forlì del Sannio after all. But we did find roots, and possibly (hopefully) some living relatives, elsewhere in Molise. More about that in our next installment.