Friday, October 16, 2009

Celebrating Italian Heritage Month: Italian Immigration to the US

It is estimated that in 1850, there were only about 4,000 Italians in the US. A mere thirty years later, the estimation is around 44,000 and by 1900 close to 500,000- something I find staggering. Since my family is from southern Italy that is obviously the region I'm interested in specifically and will be the focus of this post. Poverty in that area beginning around the 1890s is the reason why a lot of Italian men came to the US to earn money to send home. "Chain migration" was popular among Italians and consisted of groups of people from the same town coming and settling in the same area in the US. This seems to have also been the case for my family because I've noticed a large number of people from Foggia have settled in the Warren and nearby Ravenna, Ohio area.  

Southern Italy is much more agricultural than the northern portion and tomatoes, grapes and olives are especially suited to the southern climate. Since Foggia is in the south, agriculture is and has always been an important part of the economy there. Since most of my relatives are from Vieste, a coastal town on the Adriatic, fishing was as an important an occupation as farming. Because of how closely tied to the economy agricultural was in southern Italy, a bad farming year could be disastrous. Earthquakes are also a problem in southern Italy, with two large and damaging ones in 1894 and 1908 (the 1908 one caused a tidal wave which did additional damage to parts of southern Italy). Phylloxera devastated grapevines in 1890 and caused the wine industry in southern Italy to almost collapse. All these events and more led many southern Italians to the US and of all Italian immigrants, those from the south were the predominant group throughout the mass waves of Italian immigration (roughly 1890 to the early 1920s). But when many Italians came to the US the acres of cheap farm land that became available in the mid-1800s had been snapped up so they were forced to urbanize and work dangerous, grueling jobs that no one else wanted (a lot of eastern European immigrants were also in the same boat). My family was lucky in that Giuseppe already came to the US with a useful trade, he was a tailor. They also did not stay in New York but came to the Midwest which was less congested and competitive when it came to jobs so conditions were much better for them a lot of other immigrant families.

My family also seems to have gotten lucky in that they arrived in the US only a few months before the Emergency Quota Act was passed in 1921 which was meant to restrict immigration from southern and eastern European countries. Before the Immigration Act in 1924, an average of 200,000 Italians were coming into the US each year (starting around 1910, in the period between 1890 and 1900 it was closer to 600,000 thousand a year), after the act passed, only 4,000 were allowed each year.

A lot of Italians came to the US as "Birds of Passage" meaning they came to earn money to send home but had no intention of settling here. I've wondered if my family started out that way (Nicola came to the US first and it was quite awhile later when he seems to have put down roots and married, started a family, and welcomed, maybe even inviting, his brother Giuseppe and his family to the US). A lot of Italians once settled here, established "Little Italy" communities and while I've never been to Warren, Ohio, where my family settled I'm sure they had a flourishing community there.  In Sacramento, some of the best markets can be found in the "Little Italy" section of town (which is in East Sac, around Folsom), especially the historic Corti Bros.

I'm going to be honest and say that I really never looked into Italian immigration before and doing research for this post really enlightened me.  My main source for the information here is this site

1 comment:

  1. Excellent site - thank you for providing such a great resource. I will definitely link to your site from my home page.


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