Thu - June 30, 2005

A family of shoemakers 

I am constantly amazed at the things I discover as I go back through records that I have already found.

For instance, after I found the ship manifest for my great grandmother Maria Ciocci I was quite excited to turn the page and see a listing for her brother-in-law Luigi Colavita. This is the brother of my great grandfather Michelarcangelo Colavita, of course. Today, I noticed for the first time (!) that his listed occupation was "shoemaker".

This was exciting to me because my grandfather, Emilio Vizzaccaro, was a shoemaker. In fact, he and several of my uncles ran a shoe repair service in New Jersey for many years. How it escaped my attention that Emilio's wife, Maria Colavita, had an uncle in the same industry I'll never know.

Luigi emigrated to the U.S. in 1903, and got married (probably in Philadelphia) shortly thereafter. By the time of the 1910 census, he and his wife Antonetta had been married for six years. In that time , they had four children only two of whom were still living (a daughter and a son). According to the 1910 Boyd's Directory of Philadelphia "Louis Collavita" was operating as a shoemaker at 1119 Carpenter street, just eight doors down from my great-grandfather Michelarcangelo at 1130 Hall Street (see the map below, and note that what is shown on this 1875 map as Mc Illearny Street was, by 1910, called Hall St). The family was still living in Philadelphia in 1920, by which time there were four children and they were living on South Dorrance Street.

Interestingly, in 1923 a shoemaker named Nicolangelo Paresi landed in Phildadelphia looking for his cousing, Luigi Colavita. This Luigi, though, was living in Newark and I have no evidence that OUR Luigi ever moved to Newark. Add this to the list of leads to follow up.

I thought I'd also add in a picture or two I took of some of my grandfather's shoe repair and shoemaking implements. It's not art, but . . . .


Posted at 12:30 AM     Read More  

Sun - June 19, 2005

Colavita vs. Colavito 

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 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 at 01:15 PM     Read More  

Sun - September 26, 2004

Casalnuovo Monterotaro 

Both of my paternal grandparents were Italian. My grandfather, Emilio Vizzaccaro, was born in Caira, a very small village near the town of Cassino and now in the province of Frosinone, Lazio. My grandmother, Maria Colavita, was born in Philadelphia but her parents (Michelarcangelo Colavita and Maria Giuseppa Cioccio) were born and married in the town of Casalnuovo Monterotaro. In fact, Maria's older brother Nicola was born in Italy before his parents emigrated. Maria and her two younger sisters, Edith and Rose, were all born in the United States.

Casalnuovo Monterotaro is located in the province of Foggia, which is in the region of Puglia. It is a small town with a long history. Unfortunately, there is little information about it on the Internet, especially in English. There is a great page about Casalnuovo Monterotaro at the Associazione Culturale Due Sicilie sezione Milano web site. Although it is in Italian I recommend a quick look because the pictures are quite good. Casalnuovo Monterotaro is most famous recently for its earthquakes including one in 2002 that damaged 80% of the homes there.

For those who do not read Italian, I have pasted below a short history I found on the town's website (linked above). Apologies to the Italian authors.

Casalnuovo Monterotaro was founded between the ninth and tenth century A.D. on the Monterotaro hill, but the precise date of founding is unknown. The first village was named Mons Rotarius and was situated at an altitude of 542 meters above sea level approximately five kilometers from the current location. The original name derives from the roundish shape of the mount, which still dominates the valley below.

A document at the Archives of State of Naples says that around the year 1250 one Riccardo from Malta was in possession of the fiefdom of Mons Rotarus. He lived in a castle at the top of the mount encircled by the houses of the community.

Between the end of the Angiò dynasty and the rise of the Aragonese domination there was no relief from the feudal lifestyle; it seems, however, that at some time a migratory movement towards the valley began, with a hope of improving the poor conditions of the peasants. The greater part of these emigrating, probably around 1500 A.D., stopped near a knoll, later called "Cappella” and they constructed the first houses founding “Casilis Novus." Already constructed at the site before 1500 was the church of Saint Maria della Rocca. Joining the first families that settled in this territory were several groups of Albanians joints from vicinity of Casalvecchio.

Around 1700 A.D. the village passed under the dominion of the princes of Bisignano and was called Casale Nuovo Monterotaro; the princes constructed a ducal palace and in the immediate vicinity dedicated the parochial church to the saints Peter and Nicholas

The territory remained the property of the princes of Bisignano until the Napoleonic age, when the modern village of Casalnuovo Monterotaro was born.

Actually, nothing remains of Monterotaro except a few ruins hiding in the undergrowth. In these you can see the remnants of a square tower which, at one time, was the bell tower of the main church. 

Posted at 04:36 PM     Read More