Alanna’s Amalfi Roots

Alanna Jamieson stayed with Jack and I for a week or so.  Her journey toward new beginnings for herself had her thinking about her heritage.  Being a heritage junkie, I was delighted to help out and we enlisted Jack as our noble driver during the worst time of the year to drive the Amalfi coast.  We headed from the hills of Pontelandolfo to the the Commune of Amalfi Coastiera. If you didn’t read this – READ IT NOW! Amalfi Coast – Road of HELL!

Here is Alanna’s story:

Searching for Cavaliere

By Alanna Jamieson

I am very close to both sides of my family. However, for me, that family had extended only to my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who all live in the U.S., within New Jersey and Connecticut. I had always proudly identified my heritage as “100% American”, involving a diverse mix of U.K., French, German, Slovakian, and Italian nationalities. On my mother’s side, I am the third generation born in the U.S., and on dad’s side, I am in fact eligible for the Daughters of the (American) Revolution historical society.

The past four months of my life have involved several major transitions, which have found me cutting ties, widening my eyes, and (as cliché as it may sound) exploring Europe with only a carry-on suitcase and a 24-hour plan at any given time. When Midge and Jack invited me to visit them in Pontelandolfo, the decision was a no-brainer. I immediately jumped at the opportunity to spend some time in a beautiful, small Italian town with warm people and wonderful food. I also knew that Midge had spent years and countless hours researching her Italian family’s history, learning their language, and absorbing their culture. Sure enough, when I arrived in Italy, Midge enthusiastically offered to help me see what roots of my own Italian ancestors we could uncover, in nearby Amalfi.

This foreword is what led us to that winding road on the Amalfi Coast – some call it terrifying, some call it exciting, and excited is exactly how I felt! When we arrived in Amalfi, we easily found the Municipio (town hall), and inside we were greeted by a cheerful and bright-eyed woman named Angela Petrillo.

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Cavalieri Found on a Road Sign

We stated our purpose: I was interested in learning more about my Italian family, the Cavalieres. Upon hearing this, Angela smiled; Cavaliere is evidently a very common name in Amalfi, so our task would be to determine which Cavalieres in the Municipio records were my direct relatives. Luckily for me, my Cavaliere grandparents from Connecticut had created a detailed family tree and had even visited the Amalfi Municipio themselves.

After Angela and Midge exchanged a few more words in Italian, I nervously presented Angela with my family tree information, not sure what to expect and feeling grateful that Midge was there to translate and guide me. Angela expertly scanned the details and then whisked away out of the room to retrieve the records we sought. As we waited for her to return, I also felt relieved that Midge had taught me the proper way to say ‘Cavaliere’. My family pronounces it ‘caah-vuh-leer’, whereas in Amalfi it would be pronounced ‘caah-vuh-lee-air-ayy’ (spoken quickly). I might not speak Italian, but at least I could say my own family’s name as it would have been pronounced before its anglification adjustment on Ellis Island!

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Angela Petrillo and Alanna Peered Through Ancient Records

A minute later Angela reappeared with several old records books that dated back to the early 1800s. As she flipped through the book, I noted how yellowed the pages were and how frayed the edges had become, and I realized where I was standing, in both time and place. My family members had stood in this very building, holding these same books, listening to the waves wash against the sand on the beach outside the window. Like me, these people had hopes and dreams and joys and sorrows. They had cherished their past and looked forward to new opportunities, just as I am doing now in my own life. As these thoughts swirled in my mind, Angela stopped turning the book’s pages and pointed to a point halfway down it, showing us the name “Francisco Cavaliere”, my great-grandfather. The record showed the full details of his birth. At the bottom of the page were signatures of names we didn’t recognize. Angela explained that this was because Francisco’s father couldn’t write, not even to sign his own name on his son’s birth record.


We spent the next 20 minutes looking through the records, uncovering additional names, dates, and details. One member of my family, we discovered, was a midwife. Many of them were farm laborers who worked on others’ properties in exchange for perhaps currency, housing, or goods. The whole process was fascinating, sometimes even more so when we hit a dead end with a particular individual; for example, we discovered that Francisco’s mother was not born in Amalfi. Angela told us that her maiden name suggested that she hailed from one of two neighboring towns, so we would have to visit those villages in order to continue researching her history.

As the conversation with Angela drew to a close, we thanked her profusely for her time, and I looked once more at Francisco’s birth record. Thirteen years after that document was signed, in 1911,”Frank” (as he came to be called) would travel to America with his family. As I realized this, I felt a sense of comfort and encouragement. If the Cavalieres and many others were brave enough to face 3,000 miles of ocean and a strange new country where they didn’t know the language, surely I can face the unknowns that lay before me.

As we left the Municipio to start our journey home, I looked up at the Amalfi cliffs that meet the Mediterranean Sea. Today, the hillside is filled with homes, and the coastal road was packed with vendors, cars and tourists. As I stood there, it was easy to imagine the view 100 years prior, with 75% of the clutter gone, as it looked when my farmer ancestors lived there. They had adapted to the terrain, and then to a new life in America. With a vow to myself to keep their sense of perseverance and adventure close at heart, we started the long drive home, tired but happy.

Thank you Alanna Jamieson for sharing your search.

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Categories: Finding My Family | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Alanna’s Amalfi Roots

  1. Geo. Hansel

    Sweet story. My cousin is tracing our family and found the first person in America who’s records went back to pre-Revolutionary War NJ as an oysterer. No clue where he came from prior to that though. I think he’s hit a bit of a dead end.
    It’s nice that Alanna even knew where to go to did for her roots.

  2. Warning: researching your relatives can become addicting. Glad you had a successful first search.

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