Italian Immigration to the United States 1850- 1859
BY: Tom Frascella May 2014
The decade of the 1850ís was as unsettled politically in the U.S. as it was in Italy. Many of the great social and political issues connected to building a republic in the U.S. were coming to a heated and violent political climax. The advent of the American Civil War was only a few years away. As has been previously written issues such as States Rights, regional economic development, Manifest Destiny, Slavery and immigration were all hotly contested and little resolved in the political forums of that day. Violent political and social intimidation was experienced in all corners of the country. For the newly arriving the country offered a fresh start, an unsettling boundless energy and opportunity of every sort.
By 1850 New Jersey, by location a Northern State, was very much at the forefront of the growing industrialization process taking place. That industrialization which would grow steadily over the next century would become highly dependent on large masses of cheap labor. The needs of our State and the country for that labor pool would be found in large part in European immigrations of the mid 19th and early 20th centuries. During the time period 1830-1930 the U.S. embraced, if not always enthusiastically, some 20 million immigrants to its shores. It was upon the labor of these immigrants that America built its great industrial base. While the labor of the immigrants was needed and necessary for the progress of the nation, the immigrantsí presence and assimilation into the main stream of the country was not always welcomed, encouraged or accepted.
To try to describe the historic process of industrialization in the U.S. is beyond the scope of this writing, however if we look at Trentonís history and the very small but significant part that it played in the process some light is shed on the subject. So that is where I will briefly begin my article.
As we have seen Trenton, N.J. was briefly the Capitol of the U.S. in the late 18th century and was also the longstanding historic Capitol of New Jersey. Nevertheless Trenton was at the beginning of the 19th century a village of only five thousand people. The townís geographic location between New York City and Philadelphia together with being at the northern end of the navigable Delaware River had always given the region some economic potential for growth. Trentonís historians point out that even in colonial times Trenton had some manufacturing enterprises including a small iron production capacity. Trenton also produced colonial era pottery. However, given the townís small population the industrial activities of the time were modest at best. By the late 1830ís, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Stevens family Trenton became a hub for regional transportation via rail, canal and river. It is the availability of transportation, especially to major shipping ports like New York and Philadelphia that ultimately gave Trenton its boost toward becoming a manufacturing center.
The development of Trenton as a transportation hub in the 1840ís began to bring the transport of raw materials through the area. In particular coal, iron and lumber. From various parts of the Northeast the raw materials would pass through Trentonís many shipping terminals. The accessibility to raw materials and the access to shipment out of the area soon attracted the interest of Peter Cooper a well known American inventor and businessman who owned several iron mines in northwest New Jersey. With an initial investment of about $500,000 Cooper bought several properties in Trenton and developed what became known as the Cooper Hewitt foundry in 1847. It was Cooperís intent to ship iron ore from his mines in Northern New Jersey to his foundry in Trenton via the D&R canal. Cooper was no stranger to this type of enterprise as by the late 1840ís Cooper also owned a number of iron ore mines in Maryland as well as iron producing foundries supplying rails to the Baltimore & Ohio rail line. It was the opportunity to produce iron rails for the developing Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York state railroad companies that brought Cooper to Trenton. Just as significant Cooper convinced a developing iron manufacturing client, John A. Roebling to relocate to Trenton in 1848. Roebling needed Cooperís iron mills to produce the iron wire at various gauges which Roebling needed to manufacture wire rope. Access to these new sources of raw materials also rejuvenated Trentonís pottery industry and helped establish Trenton as a rubber manufacturing center in the 1850ís.
With these major manufacturing enterprises in start up mode by the 1850ís Trenton was ready to develop as a true manufacturing center. Still, Trenton was only a town of 6,000 in 1850. In order for manufacturing to take off labor would have to be found for the factories and its various supporting industries. In addition to labor those industries would need the local resources to grow in place including direct access to water, sanitation and housing for the workers. In 1851 Trenton responded to that need by doubling in its geographic size. It did this by expanding outward toward its suburbs. The Borough of Lamberton was located along the southerly navigable Delaware River and had the Delaware and Raritan canal terminus as well. Lamberton Borough was incorporated into the City of Trenton. To those familiar with Trenton this new section of Trenton would become known as South Trenton. Lamberton Borough which had been the location of estates of wealthy locals suddenly was transformed with its growing factory complexes and expansive factory worker housing as a supporting center of manufacturing.
Two telling statistics that give evidence of the impact of industrialization on Trentonís landscape is a comparison of the Trenton Census of 1850 versus the census of 1860 and the development of the number of Catholic Churches within the borders of the town.
According to the U.S. census data from 1850 Trenton had a population of 6,000 people. By the time of the 1860 census Trentonís population was recorded at 16,000 people. The townís population almost triples in a single decade. This begs the question, who were these new arrivals to the city? Were they local farmers seeking factory jobs or new folk altogether? The answer can in part be deduced by looking at the second statistic. Prior to 1800 New Jerseyís Catholic population was quite small. In fact, New Jersey had no Catholic Churches prior to 1814. Trenton became the home of New Jerseyís first Catholic Church which was built in 1814 interestingly by wealthy families in the Borough of Lamberton. The small wooden structure which would become known as St. Johnís Church had only 28 registered Catholics as parishioners in 1814. In 1848 that Church was sold by the Diocese of Philadelphia, of which Trenton was a part, in order to build a larger structure. This reflects that the number of Catholics in Trenton had increased substantially by the late 1840ís. The new St. Johnís was located at the intersection of Broad St and Lamberton St. on the border but within Trentonís original city limits and central to Trentonís 1850ís expanded new borders. However, it is clear that in early 1850 it was realized that one Catholic Church was not sufficient for the needs of the Trenton area Catholics. As we have already discussed in 1851 the Borough of Lamberton was incorporated within the City of Trenton greatly increasing its geographic size. 1853 is significant because the entire State, especially Northern New Jersey, was experiencing a surge in immigrant, mostly Irish and German Catholics. The Diocese of New Jersey was established in response to the growing numbers of Catholics with the first Bishop being seated in Newark that year. By 1860 the Catholic population in Trenton had grown to such numbers that there were established three Catholic Churches in Trenton, the new St. Johnís, St. Francis, and St. Maryís. Many of the industrial jobs being created were in fact going to immigrant Irish and German labor. The Churches are a reflection of that demographic shift and the arrival of Irish and German Catholic immigrants.
St. Francis Church was established in 1853 and has an interesting place in the immigrant story as it developed in Trenton. The Church came into being at the direction of the new Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley of New Jersey early in his tenure as Bishop. Initially, he authorized the repurchase of the old St. Johnís Church. Its purpose was to provide for the needs of the growing German Catholic community in Trenton. John A. Roebling, himself a German immigrant had started manufacturing wire rope in Pennsylvania using primarily German labor. After relocating to Trenton with its enhanced accessibility he continued to favor labor derived from his own ethnic heritage. Thus, German immigrants seeking jobs came to the Trenton area in substantial numbers in the 1850ís. Again as an indication of this growth the German congregation St. Francis soon out grew the initial Church and a new larger structure was built on Front Street. Bishop Bayley, as we shall see over and over was a quiet, interesting visionary and an astute administrator to his growing flock. His early recognition of the German community need for a German language based parish was very much at the forefront of American Catholic thought at the time. However, attitudes toward later arriving ethnic groups by some other American Bishops would not as farsighted.
As I have previously written I view the decade of the 1850ís as the start of the mass immigration of Italians to the U.S. This was a migration that would see approximately 4.5 million Italians immigrate to the U.S. between 1850 and 1930. However as 1850 dawned Neither scope, nor speed of this unprecedented Italian migration could have been imagined by anyone. In the 1850ís the U.S. essentially considered the number of Italians immigrating insignificant. In terms of immigration the U.S. attention in the 1850ís was primarily focused on the hundreds of thousands of Irish and German immigrants arriving. Both Irish and German groups had substantial numbers of Catholics. However, it is the German immigration that often provided the newly arriving, if few, Italian immigrants of the 1850ís, with a community base and an opportunity to support itself. In fact, it is often overlooked that in the initial phase of immigration it is the German community that offered both southern European and eastern European ethnic groups the most refuge and support. The reason is simple, language. German speaking arrivals having been raised in central Europe had the most common contact with southern and eastern Europeans. It is common that many central European citizens are multilingual which allowed them to communicate. English on the other hand was not a language that continental Europeans had as much contact with. So, Southern and Eastern Europeans often initially gravitated to German speaking communities in the U.S. Having said this, Italian immigrants to the U.S. 1850ís were not simply seeking refuge in German communities. Some Italians were enticed to immigrate to the U.S. specifically to support, encourage and educate in the German immigrant communities and so they played a leading role in some German communities.
The Catholic Church in the U.S. prior to 1850 was very small and ill equipped to serve the needs of the tens of thousands of Irish and German Catholic immigrants arriving. Although, faced with an extreme shortage of clerics to serve the needs of arriving Catholics at least most of the Irish immigrants did speak English. The German immigrants on the other hand did not. Finding ample German speaking clerics became a real problem for the Church. There were a number of attempts by American Bishops to entice German clerics in Europe to immigrate but these attempts proved insufficient. Eventually the Bishop of Buffalo hit upon the idea of asking the Franciscan Order in Northern Italy for assistance. He sought their aid because the Order was a multi-lingual community and was experienced working with the poor. They responded positively sending a number of their clergy to the U.S. to form the first Franciscan Provence in the U.S. Essentially these Italian clerics, who spoke German, came to this country to care for the needs of German Catholics in Upstate New York beginning their arrival in 1856.
As stated above I place the beginning of the ďmassĒ migration of Italians to the U.S. in the 1850ís. I do not mean to ignore that Italians had been coming to the shores of the Americas since Columbus only not in significant numbers. To begin with historic information suggests that only about 10,000 Italians immigrated to Colonial North America between 1492 and 1790. These were mostly highly trained and educated professionals, half of whom stayed only long enough to complete their contracts and then returned to Europe to continue their professional careers. 5,000 Italian immigrant settlers over three hundred years can not be regarded as mass immigration. Statistically the number is insignificant although because of their expertise and training their contributions are often individually substantial. Those that did stay in the Americas tended to be absorbed into whichever colonial settlement they found themselves and therefore they and their descendants are often hard to identify.
A second wave or round of immigration of about 10,000 Italians arrived in the U.S between 1790 and 1850. About half of these individuals were Carbonari, political refugees escaping purges following various failed attempts at Italian unification and or establishing a constitution based Italian government. These individuals were mostly well educated, middle class and primarily from Northern Italy. Again it is estimated that only about half or 5,000 of these stayed and settled into the culture of the U.S. This group is interesting in that those that stayed in the U.S. often travelled and settled in parts of the U.S. beyond the eastern seaboard. By in large they did not cluster or form definable Italian-American communities. Individually those that married, married non-Italian Americans and they too were absorbed quickly into the mainstream.
The decade of the 1850ís marks the first time that 10,000 Italians are recorded arriving in the U.S. in a single decade. Although this number is small it is a dramatic increase over previous arrivals. Once again the vast majority of these Italians are well educated Northern Italian Carbonari political refugees. The profile of many of these Italian immigrants closely mirrors those that arrived in the preceding sixty years. Among these individuals who decided to stay were many who headed west following in the footsteps of the Forty-niners, settling in California. Very few Americans and Italians realize that among these 1850ís refugees is included one of the most famous of Italian political figures Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi came to the U.S. and lived in Staten Island from 1851-1853. In fact, as a result of Garibaldiís well known Carbonari/ republican beliefs and his membership in the Masonic fraternity Garibaldi was encourage to become an American citizen. Apparently, there are documents that confirm he did begin the process toward U.S. citizenship. However he ultimately decided instead to return to Italy and continue his life-long pursuit of Italian Unification without ever completing the U.S. citizenship process.
Toward the later part of the 1850ís a ďnewĒ source of Italian immigrant began. For the first time a small percentage of Southern Italian refugees seeking work and fleeing the 1857 Potenza earthquake started to appear on U.S. shores. These Italian immigrants were different in that they were arriving as survivors of a catastrophic natural event. They were poorer, with fewer personal resources, and little or nothing to look back to. In some cases they were survivors who had no living family left behind, some were orphaned children. These immigrants as a result of lack of resources tended to settle in the poorer quarters of the port cities where they landed and often clustered there. Some of these immigrants had contracted in Italy to work at various forms of labor for periods of years in exchange for cost of passage. This type of arraignment would become known as the ďpadroneĒ system. However, the way the system was initially constructed it is more akin to an indentured servitude. The individuals were not free to leave their jobs and even death did not extinguish the debt owed.
As New Jersey was not a port of entry most of the most destitute of these Italian immigrants didnít manage to filter into the State in the 1850ís. To put the numbers of Italians in New Jersey in some historic context, in the 1850 New Jersey census, the number of Italians in the State is not recorded as it is so minimal. By 1860 we have our first recorded estimate of Italians in the State and that total number is 110. That is it, the whole State of New Jersey 110 people who listed the Italian Peninsula as place of origin. The greatest concentration of Italians in New Jersey in the decade of the 1850ís was in southern rural Burlington/Ocean County where they were employed/recruited for farm labor from New Yorkís Five Points. There they worked growing grapes and other vegetable crops for large land holders.
It is unclear from the materials available how many Italian immigrants had taken up residence in Trenton in the 1850ís. The number is so small that it does not appear on any official record. The best estimate I can make is fewer than six Italian immigrants residing in the town. Again, trying to put the historic numbers in perspective, when Vito Frascella and Carlo Sisti arrived in Trenton in 1862 they were probably among no more than 125 Italians living in New Jersey and no more than eight Italians living in Trenton. Where we have records concerning these individuals we find that they are living in the poorer sections of Trenton, Market St. and South Trenton. They are employed primarily as day workers in activities that supported the factory and construction work. They tend to live in predominantly German speaking areas of the city. Even in New York City we are not looking at Italian American communities in this era as the numbers of Italians were too small to support such a label. In addition, most of the initial Italian immigrants, especially from the south of Italy are single young males. When we look at this time period what we are looking at are the initial moments or the start of Italian American communities. This start is often in the poorest and most dangerous of American local immigrant ghetto communities. When these few initial trail blazers arrived as in Trenton, it was on the edges of immigrant communities such as south Trenton where they could afford and be accepted for lodging. Because they were often employed as day workers they often were migratory in the sense that they travelled to available jobs in and around the city and their income stream was erratic. They could neither afford nor control their seasonal jobs and so permanent residences were beyond their financial reach. The transient life that they lead often masked their presence within the communities and so many lived under the social radar of the day.
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