Colavita vs. Colavito 


The documents I had (a copy of my grandmother's birth certificate and two copies of her marriage certificate) yielded four different spellings of her father's surname (Calavitta, Collavetta, Callovita, & Colairta) and two different spellings of her mother's maiden surname (Cioccio & Ciacria), absolutely none of which turned out to be correct.

...More confusing was the fact that when Michele emigrated in 1901 he spelled his last name as Colavito, while his wife and brother (Luigi, who travelled with Maria Ciocci and young Nicola in 1903) used the Colavita spelling.

...For example, my initial inclination was to pursue the Colavito spelling and that led to me to start looking in the town of Grumo Appula (one of the big green dots in central Puglia) in part because I was tracking the a Michele Colavito who emigrated from there. 

A critical part of tracing my paternal lineage was establishing where in Italy my family originated. Italian civil records are quite good and are readily available on microfilm at the family history centers operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but, since the records are organized by city, you really must know precisely which commune to search.

If you have reliable personal knowledge or a passenger manifest, on which the emigrant's city of last residence is noted, then the job is fairly easy. This was the case with my grandfather, where establishing that he came from Cassino, Italy was a cinch. My grandmother's family, however, was more of a challenge. My grandmother Maria Colavita was born in Philadelphia but her parents, Michele Colavita and Maria Ciocci, were both born in Italy. The documents I had (a copy of my grandmother's birth certificate and two copies of her marriage certificate) yielded four different spellings of her father's surname (Calavitta, Collavetta, Callovita, & Colairta) and two different spellings of her mother's maiden surname (Cioccio & Ciacria), absolutely none of which turned out to be correct. This impeded my search for the appropriate emigration records.

When I did eventually find the records, I was a bit confused by what I found. My Michele Colavita and Maria Ciocci emigrated seperately: Michele in 1901 and Maria (with her infant son, Nicola) in 1903. Both listed Casalnuovo as their hometown, but my searches turned up at least two cities called Casalnuovo in Italy: Casalnuovo di Napoli and Casalnuovo Monterotaro .

More confusing was the fact that when Michele emigrated in 1901 he spelled his last name as Colavito, while his wife and brother (Luigi, who travelled with Maria Ciocci and young Nicola in 1903) used the Colavita spelling. Contrary to popular belief, it is actually fairly rare for Ellis Island passenger manifests to contain misspellings. When the indexes were created for the online database, transcription errors are common, but for there to be a mistake in the actual manifest is unusual. Yet, I had a direct conflict between two records.

In the end, the difference does not seem that great (Colavita vs Colavito), but the map below shows just how significant the difference is. I have mapped (using the wonderful iMap 3 software from biovolution) the distribution of Colavita and Colavito households in modern Italy (actually just the regions of Puglia and Molise, where they are most common). The red dots represent towns with Colavita households and the green dots represent towns with Colavito households). The size of the dots represents the number of households in a particular town. The data comes from the Italian white pages at www.Libero.it). The yellow star represents the location of Casalnuovo Monterotaro, my family's hometown. Today, there are no Colavita or Colavito families living there.



As you can see, the Colavita spelling is much more common in Molise and northern Puglia (where Casalnuovo Monterotaro is located) whereas Colavito is much more common in central Puglia. The massive red dot is the town of Sant'Elia a Pianisi , which interestingly is probably most famous for being the home of the Colavita Olive Oil company and the Colavita Pasta company. Spelling makes a huge difference, I think, when you look at this geographic distribution of the surname. Having the right spelling of the surname can save you a lot of grief. For example, my initial inclination was to pursue the Colavito spelling and that led to me to start looking in the town of Grumo Appula (one of the big green dots in central Puglia) in part because I was tracking a Michele Colavito who emigrated from there. Once I found the records for Maria Ciocci, her son Nicola, and her brother-in-law Luigi I put myself back on the right track.

Interestingly, the Dictionary of American Family Names lists distinct etymologies for the two different spellings. Colavito is apparently a compound of the personal names Cola (from Nicola) and Vito, whereas Colavita is allegedly an altered form of Calavitta, itself derived from the Greek kalybites ("dweller in hut"). 

Posted: Sun - June 19, 2005 at 01:15 PM          


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