199 – My Place of Birth

Josephine Pensa and her family had emigrated from Italy in 1869. Their arrival in New Orleans in 1869 aboard the S.S. Paganini is well-documented.

They sailed from Genoa, probably departing in January 1869.

I’ve done a lot of research on the Pensas, as have other family members. But we had never found the Pensa home village in Italy.

Recently, Kathleen Teply challenged me to find out where the Pensas were from in Italy. Here’s the story of the search…

“I saw my place of birth”

Our trove of family documents didn’t reveal the Pensa home village. We had only one family reference.

Josephine’s older brother John Pensa traveled back to Italy in 1905. He mentioned visiting the place of his birth but doesn’t report where it was. But he did mention places he visited, like Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Capin, Pompeii, or Pisa? Was his birthplace in one of those places? I wish he would have revealed it.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – November 19, 1905

Were Pensas from northern Italy?

From the Passenger List of New Orleans arrivals, we knew that the Pensas and Gardellas sailed from Genoa.

The main ports of departure for emigrants were Genoa in the north, Naples in the center, and Palermo in Sicily.

During the 1800s, most Italian emigrants left through the ports of Le Havre, Marseilles, and Nice in France, and Genova, Napoli, and Palermo in Italy.


We assumed the Pensas were from northern Italy, based on Genoa as their port of departure.

Where are Pensas and Gardellas in Italy today?

Let’s find out where Pensas and Gardellas live today. Recall that Josephine’s parents were Antonio Pensa and Rosa Gardella.

Here are maps that show the location of Pensa and Gardella surnames in Italy today. There are only about 600 families with each surname today.

Wow. That’s compelling. Most Pensas live in the Lombardia region, just above Genova (Genoa). And there are high numbers in Liguria region, which includes Genova.

Most Gardellas live in Liguria, which includes Genova. And there are high numbers in Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna.

Let’s take a closer look at the Genova area of Liguria.

Another compelling map. Half of all Gardellas in Italy live in the area around Genova (Genoa).

Genova city has the most Pensa (9) and Gardella (106) families. No surprise. It’s the largest population center (600,000). The next highest rankings are the small towns of Sori and Santa Margherita Ligure (pop. 10,000) and Neirone (pop. 900).

OK. This area seems like a good place to begin the search for Josephine’s family.

Italian Records Online

Luckily, many Italian records are available online for the time period we’re interested in.

The good news:

  • Records include births, marriages, and deaths at the State Archive of Genova.
  • Records for this collection cover the years 1796-1812, 1838-1859, 1866-1899.

The bad news:

  • These records are written in Italian.
  • Records don’t exist for the years 1813-1837, 1860-1865.
  • Most records aren’t indexed, so you must browse through every record.
  • Records are grouped by commune or village, so you must know which village to look for.

Locating Town of Origin in Italy
In order to research your family in Italy, it is essential that you have identified the place where they came from. You must know the city, town, or parish that they came from.


Let’s start in Genova

Genova city has the most records, and some are indexed so they’re easy to search. There are 210 results searching “Pensa” in Genova city. Here’s an example page.

Most of the records post-date our Pensa family emigration (1869).

But one particular record was very exciting. Maria Pensa, 22, died in Genova in 1886. That’s after our Pensas emigrated, but the record shows Maria was born in Neirone in 1864 to Antonio Pensa and Rosa Gardella.

Our Antonio Pensa and Rosa Gardella were having children during the 1860s. Could this be them?

But why would one of their daughters Maria stay in Italy? When the Pensas emigrated in 1869, Maria would have been five years old. Why would they have left 5-year-old Maria? Hmmmmm.

Could we find out more about Antonio Pensa and Rosa Gardella in Neirone? Recall in the maps above that Neirone had a high incidence of Gardella families today.


The Maria Pensa record was a lucky break. Sometimes you get those. The Antonio Pensa and Rosa Gardella in the citation didn’t turn out to be our Antonio and Rosa, but it led us to Neirone.

I googled Neirone.

Neirone is a municipality in the Metropolitan City of Genova in the Italian region Liguria, located about 30 kilometres (20 miles) east of Genova.


Neirone is located in the Ligurian Apennines, a range of low mountains. The Apennine range runs the entire length of the Italian peninsula.

Neirone is a quiet village located on a mountainside overlooking a valley.

Neirone, Genova, Liguria, Italy

A village and a municipality

Neirone is a village, and it’s also a municipality, or comune. It’s the local government for 16 smaller villages in its valley.

The population of the Comune di Neirone today is about 900. Neirone is the largest village, with a population of about 150.

Villages of the Comune di Neirone

Neirone surnames

Check out the most common surnames today in the Comune di Neirone.

80 Gardellas and 6 Pensas in a population of 900! OK, that’s exciting. But what about neighboring comunes? Maybe Gardellas and Pensas live in every comune.

I checked all the other comunes in Genova and found only 9 Gardellas and no Pensas.

Only Neirone comune has Pensas, only 9 Gardellas in all other communes

Let’s dig deeper

It feels like we’re in the right area to find our Pensa and Gardella ancestors. Let’s focus on the Comune di Neirone and its villages.


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