Italian Influence in Colonial North America 1500-1700
by Thomas Frascella
Italian contributions to the establishment of European colonies in North America have received very little recognition in the histories of the development of the lower forty-eight States of the United States. After recognizing the accomplishment of early Italian sea captains and navigators like Columbus, Cabot, Verranzano and Vespucci the official American historical record is markedly deficient regarding subsequent Italian involvement. There are many reasons contributing to lack of recognition. First Italy as a nation did not exist. Portions of Italy were controlled by other European powers most notably Austria, Spain and France during this period. To the extent that Italians ventured to the “New World” they did so in the service of or only with the permission of the Colonial Powers involved, Spain Portugal, Holland, France and England. In such service their names were often adjusted to reflect the language convention of the Colonial Power whom they served rendering them indistinct in the records of the settlements. Nevertheless, thousands of Italians from all parts of Italy played important leadership roles in exploration, mapping, engineering, building and organizing colonial efforts.
Our own American histories reflect primarily the English colonial experience and tend to describe the Italian contribution as coming from Northern Italy. It is important to remember that in the earliest colonial period most of what would become the United States was claimed and initially settled by Spain and France. In the same time period Spain and France controlled much of central and southern Italy. Southern Italian participants in the colonial adventure often are associated with the Spanish and French territories more than in the English or Dutch settlements.
Any discussion of southern Italian heritage or Italian-American history should address the history of the Italian arrival and participation in the history of colonial America more accurately. It is also important to examine how the perception of Italians went from being recognized in leadership roles in the earliest colonial period to being little more than human cargo in the early 20th century. If we look closely at colonial America we can readily find examples that demonstrate that Italians were there and involved and highly regarded. I think it is worthwhile to give a few examples.
The first recorded example of an Italian settling in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam was Cesare Alberti. Mr. Alberti arrived in 1642 and eventually married a Dutch woman and raised a family. Mr. Alberti is recorded as owning land both in Manhattan and Long Island. The Alberti family is also recognized as being early settlers and land owners in what today are the New Jersey Townships of Lawrenceville, Hopewell and the Amwells.It should also be noted that Verranzano sailing for the French entered into and explored what today is New York Harbor in 1524 over eighty years before Henrik Hudson. It was the explorations of Verranzano that gave rise to France’s territorial claims which at one time about forty per cent of North America.
As we have already seen France’s territorial claims in North America arise from the explorations of an Italian Giovanni Verranzano. What is less appreciated is that France’s strategy of North American colonization was developed by her Prime Minister Cardinal Jules Mazarin who was born Guilio Mazarino in central Italy. France’s ambition as a North American colonial power saw its greatest expansion during the reign of King Louis XIV who was mentored by Mazarin. In fact, during the minority of King Louis the two most powerful religious and political individuals in France were Cardinal Marazin and Cardinal Grimaldi both Italians.
France’s land exploration of the Great Lakes and river passage to the Gulf of Mexico, giving France control of the vast central territory which became known as the Louisiana territory after King Louis XIV was headed by French explorer La Salle. His second in command was Enrico Tonti an Italian. It was Enrico Tonti who designed and oversaw the building of La Salle’s ships to explore the Great Lakes. Enrico’s brother Alfonso Tonti is considered the co-founder of the settlement of Detroit.
It should further be noted that many French Missionaries who accompanied the explorers and often set out on the own to minister to the Native Americans were born in Italy. Among them is fr. Guiseppe Bressani who spent many years in the 1640’s in and around the Great Falls area.
English claims to a stake in the North America’s colonial pie stem from the explorations in 1497 of John Cabot, born Giovanni Caboti. In the earliest period of English colonization the historical record indicated that an individual with the last name of Lupo and his wife purchased 400 acres of land in the Virginia colony in 1619. In addition several men from Venice were invited and arrived to start a glass works in Jamestown in 1622.
In the year 1647 the Maryland General Assembly voted to allow those of Italian descent the right to purchase land and to have the same privileges as those of English descent in the colony.
In 1657 300 Italian immigrants arrived and settled in what today is New York City.
In 1687 Elias Prileau, original spelling Pruili, founded the first Huguenot Church in South Carolina.
We are all aware that starting with Columbus the Spanish relied heavily in the early period on Italian navigators and sea captains to deliver her fleets and colonists to the Americas. We have also discussed that Columbus’ late expeditions were financed by Italian bankers specifically the Dorias. Columbus and subsequently his son were the first colonial “governors” in the Americas. Columbus’ son Diego is created with being the first official to attempt to end slavery in the Americas returning 150 captured Native Americans to what today would be South Carolina. The explorations of what today would be the southern United States by Spanish explorer DeSoto was aided greatly by his expedition engineer who was an Italian.
No story about the colonization of the Americas would be complete without mention of the Spanish missionaries who labored and in some cases died for the faith. Many of those missionaries were born in Italy. Among the missionaries killed in the failed Spanish colonial attempt in Virginia in 1570 was priest of Italian descent. Italian priests De Niza and Onorato are also credited with being the first to explore the region that today is Arizona in 1539. Also the first “Spanish” mission established in what today is southern California was set up by an Italian priest, Fr. Salvaterra, in 1697.
Of interesting note while the Spanish colonial Church was noted to have harshly treated the native population, the Italian priests among them, many from southern Italy, are often associated with reformist positions both in the Americas and in other parts of the expanding European colonial world of the times. In fact the citing of examples of Italians participating in the colonization of North America is a small reflection of the participation of Italians in the worldwide activities of the age.
© San Felese Society of New Jersey
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