Keep in Mind . . .
When my sister Carolyn first visited Chieuti in the 1980s, she was told of an old woman whose surname was “Miniello.” Because my grandfather had been known as “Donato Minelli,” Carolyn assumed that this woman could not be a relative and decided not to meet her. Once I began my genealogy research, I discovered that my grandfather’s surname was actually “Miniello,” and I realized what an opportunity Carolyn had missed. One thing I know for sure: surnames often changed or mutated over the years. In my grandfather’s case, he changed his surname after immigrating to the United States. However, surnames changed even for those who never left Italy.
Let’s say Luigi Orlando visits the Chieuti town hall in 1809 to register the birth of his son, Carlo. Luigi is unable to write, so he cannot spell or sign his name. Therefore, the sindaco (the town official recording the official documents) writes Luigi’s name in a way that makes sense to him. Because each sindaco had his own way of spelling a surname, and because sindacos changed every year or two during the early 1800s, various spellings often occurred for the same surname. Sometimes the differences were very minor: in the early 1800s, “Orlando” often appeared as “Orlanno” while “Saracino” often appeared as “Sarracino.” Other times, however, the differences were quite dramatic: “deLaurentis” was recorded variously as “deLaurentis,” “diLazzaro,” “diLaurenzo” and “diLorenzo.”
Another surname which underwent a dramatic change: the surname of Angiola laTolfa (1770-1817) appears in the Chieuti records as “leTolfa,” “dellaTolla,” “laTolfa” and “Tolfi.” In this case, it is primarily the prefix which shifted; prefix changes were very common, although the actual change was usually very minor. For instance, “diGiorgio” evolved to “deGiorgio”; “diGregorio” shifted to “deGregorio.” The ancestors of a friend of mine, Primo Delcalzo, came from Chieuti and Serracapriola. While his surname appears as “delCalzo” in both the Chieuti and Serracapriola records, I have come across “loCalzo” in the Serracapriola records. I know it is the same family, but why the change? I don’t know. The important thing is: do not assume you are unrelated even if the spelling is inexact, especially the prefix.
Pietro Castriota – whose own surname changed from Castriotto (and whose ancestor was likely Gjergj Kastrioti (Skanderberg)) – became sindaco in the 1860s and he was still recording documents in 1901. His long service naturally imposed a consistency in spelling and for the most part, I have accepted his surname spellings as the standard.