(Back and Forth) Between the Old World to the New
The scale of migration from Southern Italy to the Americas in the late 19th
and early 20th
century was staggering. More than 10 million Italians left Italy for the US, Brazil, Argentina, and other countries between 1870 and 1914
. In order examine this migration from the prespective of a single town, I surveyed 336 individuals from 24 families born in Monte San Giacomo between 1866 and 1910 and known to have survived past infancy. Of these, at least 189 or 56.3% emigrated to the United States, at least temporarily, at least once in their lives
Contrary to what one might think, migration from Italy was often not always simply a story of families fleeing from abject poverty on a once-in-a-lifetime voyage. As I studyed the civil and imigration records from Monte San Giacomo a more nuanced picture emeged. While the majority of emigrants were indeed landless peasants or sharecroppers (contadini
), others came from fairly well to do land-owning families(possidente
), or were skilled tradesmen or shopkeepers. In fact, these middle-class
groups seem to have migrated at a rate that equals or even exceeds that of the contadini
. Of the 336 individuals I surveyed, 78 came from land-owning families or were tradesmen, and at least 48 of these (61.5%) emigrated to the US. Faced with a rapidly growing population and a finite amount of arable land, the scions of many property owners must have realized that their families’ long-term prospects in Italy were limited and decided to try their luck in the New World. In many cases they left Italy to work as a common laborers in New York. That they were willing to give up what may have been fairly comfortable lives in Italy to ensure the future prosperity of their children makes their stories all the more poingent
Far from making the trans-Atlantic voyage only once and never looking back, many emigrants made multiple voyages back and forth between Italy and the US. Often men would live and work in the US for a few years and then return to Italy for a few years. While in Italy they might marry or propagate and then return to the US. After two or three such trips, they might then return again, this time with their wives and children. In a few instances I have come across individuals who lived in the US for decades, only to return to Monte San Giacomo to retire
Interestingly, migrants from particular comuni seem to have developed something akin to “brand loyalty” to particuar shipping lines, and even individual ships. For example, from the late 1890’s until WWI, most emigrants from Monte San Giacomo traveled on ships of the two big German lines, Hamburg-Amerika and Nord-Deutcher Lloyd. Both lines had their piers in Hoboken, NJ, and I wonder if the large San Giacomese community in Hoboken developed because these ships docked there, or if the community was already established and emigrants choose the German ships as a result. Emigrants from Agropoli, by contrast, seem to have prefered the ships of the White Star Line, while my great-great grandfather, Vincenzo Amatrudi, shleped all the way from Atripalda to Liverpool in order to board the Cunarder Lucania, then the largest and fasted ship in the world.
One can sometimes trace a migrant’s aspirations over the years by looking at what accomdations they had and what ships they travelled on. We might find an imigrant making his first trip as a child in steerage on one of the bulk immigrant carriers of the turn of the century. Then we might find him returning from a visit home in second class on one of the trendy new Italian liners of the 1920’s. Finally, he may turn up on the passeger list for a TWA or Pan Am flight in the 1950’s.
One of the characteristics of Italian migration to the US that has been noted and often commented on is that while most of the immigrants were farmers, they generally setteled in and around major cities-New York, Boston, Chicago, etc. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon-the fact that many immigrants did not intend to settle in the US permenantly, the availability of social networks, and a desire to be close to other immigrants with a shared cultural identity
. I would suggest that another factor may also have played a part: While most Italians immigrants were farmers, the towns they lived in were in fact fairly populous, crowded places with many thousands of inhabitants-“agrotowns” one might call them
. Monte San Giacomo, for example, boasted 3,000 residents in the late 19th
century, and it was only an averaged sized town for the area. So the typical Italian immigrant may well have found conditions in larger American cities-crowded, but also urbane- more comforting than the wide open spaces of the American plains.
There is disagreement in the sources as to the total number. One estimate is as high as 26 million.
2 This precentage should be taken as a minimun indicator of total emigration, as it does not take into account individuals for whom I have not been able to find any more documantion other than their birth announcements. While some of these individuals may have died in childhood, many others no doubt “disappear” because they emigrated. Morever, it also does not take into account emigration to South America, which in the 1880’s and 90’s seems to have been nearly as great as that to the US.
3 Other reasons for emigration that may be overlooked are health and environment. Childhood mortality in late 19th century Italy was appalling -about 40% of San Giacomese children, for example, never reached their 15th birthday. By contrast, most San Giacomese children who were born or grew up in the US seem to have made it to adulthood (I will try to quantify this observation more scientifically in the future). Also, childhood mortality seems to have been about as high among wealthier families, suggesting that poverty alone was not the only cause (once again, I will try to quantify this in the future). Cholera and maleria were endemic in Southern Italy in the late 19th century, killing adults and children and rich and poor alike. While the cities of the American northeast were hardly healthy places by today’s standards, they were at least not as badly afflicted by many the sicknesses endemic in Italy at the time.
4 An example is my great-grand uncle, Francesco Cardillo, who lived in the US from roughly 1895-1915, but eventually returned to Monte San Giacomo
6 Italian Agrotowns have been much discussed in the context of Classical and Medieval economic studies-see for example Duncan-Jones, The Economy of the Roman Empire, pgs. 260-261(Cambridge University Press, 1982).