Finding the 19th century mystery man

With his camera, Roberto Donetta captured life in rural Ticino in the late 19th century Roberto Donetta

Michele Tonelli was one of millions of immigrants to arrive in New York in the late 19th century.

This content was published on October 10, 2011 minutes
Dale Bechtel in Bellinzona,

His descendants know little about him beyond the name and a belief that he was from the Swiss canton of Ticino. But even if he was from the Italian-speaking region, do they have the right name?

The American authorities during the crucial period of immigration at the end of the 19th century were very diligent in recording the identity, nationality, age and occupation of every person arriving in New York.

When Michele Tonelli was processed on July 31, 1893, he said he was a 21-year-old farmer from Italy.

It would be a few years before immigration officials asked for “last place of residence”. This may be why a contributor to the blog created for people with Swiss-Italian ancestry thinks Michele Tonelli may really have been Swiss:

“We believe he was born in a [Ticino] village called Conit Telnig, but can’t seem to find any information on the town,” Maureen from Massachusetts said in her post, adding that her great-grandfather wrote “Conit Telnig” on several documents, insisting it was a place in Ticino.

Maureen is joined by many Americans, but also Australians and Britons who want to know more about their ancestors who they presume came from Ticino:

“I cannot find any birth info for him in any Ticino (Giornico) archives, I’ve hit the proverbial brick wall… The ancestor I'm interested in is Luigi Issepone (or Isopone)… His name appears in many different spellings in Australian records, but it appears he is one of two men called Giuseppe BARLOGGIO… .

Brick and mortar

Despite the plethora of genealogy websites and information available online such as the ship passenger records from Ellis Island,  New York’s former immigrant processing centre, many of the key documents that hold the decisive clues for people with Swiss ancestry are stored at public archives across the country. They are brick and mortar structures that must be visited – an undertaking too costly and time-consuming for many people overseas.

Torelli, Tonini but no Tonelli says Gianmarco Talamona, flipping through a register of Ticino family names. Talamona is an archivist at Ticino’s cantonal archives in Bellinzona.

Without any Tonellis, or a place that even remotely sounds like Conit Telnig, Talamona – assisted by Ronald Willemse of Ticino’s genealogical society – chooses to follow a hunch that the person in question could be a Torelli from the village of Cerentino.

“We’re now looking at Cerentino but perhaps it’s not that place – it’s just a question mark we’ve interpreted,” Willemse says, as the two experts trawl through old registries from Cerentino listing all of the families in the village and details such as marriages, births and deaths.


There are no “Michele” Torellis in Cerentino’s books, but even though the short exercise fails to turn up any clues, the aim is to highlight what kind of records are available at the archives, and what the state-run institute does to make them accessible to the public.

The large registries of all Ticino communes are of the greatest interest for people with Swiss-Italian ancestry. They are kept under lock and key a few levels below ground in rooms where the temperature and humidity are closely controlled.

There are millions of documents in the Ticino archive; placed side by side, they would stretch for 20 kilometres, Talamona says, explaining that the archive is striving to catalogue them in order to aid researchers.

“We receive a lot of requests from abroad from descendants. Clearly we can’t do the research for them because it would be very costly and time consuming, but we can tell them who they can turn to regarding genealogical research or indicate  which documents may contain the most relevant information,” the archivist explains.


There are some electronic copies of the inventories available on the archive’s Italian language website. “It’s not possible to digitise all documents therefore we are concentrating on certain types like photographs,” Talamona adds.

Willemse says that anyone hoping to shed light on their European ancestors should at the very least have an approximate date of birth and the original source of the information they are using. “That gives you more opportunities to refine the search to see where you have to start.”

At a recent talk on genealogy, Willemse presented a list of Swiss, American and Australian websites (see right column for a few of the sites) that can provide invaluable information for researchers who cannot travel to Ticino. However he also offered a warning about online sources:

“The internet provides a flood of information that has not been verified or cannot be verified... There are errors in transcriptions and interpretations.”

For those that have been fortunate enough to travel to Switzerland and visit the archives in Bellinzona, the chance to leaf through old records is in itself an enriching exercise. Mark Lesina from California wrote in a blog about his visit there this summer:

“A tall black media cart [arrives] stacked with volumes of bound history… Pen and ink were a powerful and permanent record in time…

"The person who was recording the names in the registry probably knew or spoke with the person you are looking for, or their family!  You are about to enter your history, who you are, where you came from, what makes you, you!”

Facts and figures

According to the 2009 United States census, about 180 million Americans claim to have European ancestry, with more than one million saying  their forefathers came from Switzerland.

Around 2,000 thousand people from Ticino – mostly young men – migrated to Australia in the 1850s during the gold rush. But California became the main destination for Ticino immigrants.

About 27,000 people from the Swiss canton migrated to the American state in the latter decades of the 19th century and early years of the 20th. That amounted to approximately one in five inhabitants of Ticino.

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