SAN FELE IMMIGRANT RECORD KEEPING
BY TOM FRASCELLA DECEMBER 2012
One of the most interesting facets of the San Fele immigration story is the wealth of information and detailed records kept by San Fele municipal officials from as early as 1862 . This detailed record keeping is by no means common in the annals of 19th century immigration from Italy. As I have written previously this attention to the details of the towns’ immigration statistics allowed Italian sociologists in the early 20th century to use San Fele as a basis for immigration impact studies.
The social implications of losing such a high percentage of the population in a relatively short period of time continues to be of interest generations later. Professor Stia’s 2010 study is the most recent work to focus on the 19th century emigration and the lasting impact it had on the cultural, social and economic conditions of the community.
With the advantage of 150 years or so it might appear to us to be no big deal that town officials kept detailed records of the coming and going of its population. After all how difficult is it to keep tabs on 10,000 villagers or so. Of course we should remember that the southern Italian Lucanian region was in political and economic chaos between 1850 and 1890 and so there was a lot to contend with. We should acknowledge that their efforts were extraordinary for the times and based on some real or perceived important need.
In my own American research it has also impressed me that early San Felese immigrants apparently were able to easily locate family once they arrived. It is clear that once the immigration to the U.S. began that somehow a very serious formal effort was maintained by U.S. San Felese to keep updated tabs on arrivals, where new arrivals were going within the country and to arrange for later arrivals to connect with family already here. Again this might seem simple but I don’t think it was. For one thing the early work that our immigrant forefathers got was often as day labor on construction projects especially those connected to extensions of the railroad system. By the nature of the work the men moved to the job and were often working well outside existing population centers. Yet, they seem to have been able to find each other despite remote wilderness locations and a language barrier.
As an example my great, great grandfather Vito arrived in Trenton in the Spring of 1862 expecting to work on railroad bridge projects in New Jersey. He was joined there by Carlo Sisti also from San Fele who already had been employed in masonry construction in Morristown in northern Jersey. However because of the onset of the American Civil War they instead found their next construction project in Baltimore and Washington D.C. helping to build Union fortifications.
What I find interesting is that despite the abrupt change in work location and plan, Gaetano Frascella who was Vito’s younger brother had no trouble finding him in Washington when he arrived in the U.S six months later. I believe they were communicating their whereabouts and changes in job location through third parties probably established in New York City. The fact that early San Felese immigrants could find each other in the U.S. in the 19th century is repeated in many San Felese family oral traditions in each of the communities that had a strong San Felese presence. This could not have been easy in the 1850’s thru 1890’s. Many immigrant families from across Europe became separated by time, work opportunity or other barriers and never reestablished contact.
Among the job opportunities available to newly arrived immigrants was railroad construction. Railroad construction in the 19th century was notorious for lost souls. First, it was hard work being done in difficult wilderness settings for low pay in camp like moving locations. If you died or were injured you were pretty much left where you were. If the truth be known the railroad tracks laid down during this period have thousands of anonymous graves either along side of or under the tracks. In many instances relatives of these migrant workers never even heard what these workers fates were and they simply became “missing” to their loved ones. Since many of these individuals were undocumented and invisible to the broader society they were also more vulnerable to the abuses of bosses and hostile local communities. Many workers at the end of their project did not have enough money to return to their original point of origin or needed to move on to the next employment.
An interesting and tragic story along these lines has come to light this past year. In 1832 commercial railroad construction was in its infancy and was just spreading out from northeast population centers. One such construction project was the construction of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. In that year a passenger ship arrived from Ireland. A number of those passengers largely immigrants from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry counties were recruited by a Philip Duffy to clear and level a railroad access through a portion of what is now Chester County for the Phildelphia Columbia line. These recruits became part of a fifty seven man and women crew that set up an encampment at a place that has become known as “Duffy’s Cut”.
Sometime during the summer of 1832 the camp experienced an outbreak of Cholera. This disease was deadly and greatly feared and had a mortality rate of 40% to 60%. The conditions that gave rise to it or the manner in which it spread was not understood by the medical establishment of the day. What is known is that shortly after the outbreak the entire fifty-seven person crew was dead and the encampment burned. The bodies of the crew were rumored to have been buried in a mass unmarked grave by the tracks near the town of Malvern Pennsylvania. The identity of all of the individuals buried at the site was lost to history and no record of any attempt to notify next of kin has ever been located. These people became lost to history and a whispered part of railroad folklore.
Enter the Watson brothers who heard the story from a grandparent who years later worked for the railroad. Thanks to the work of these twin brothers who hold doctorates in history and have searched for the grave site for a decade the story of what happened to these individuals has begun to come to light. Since 2009 they were able to locate the remains of seven individuals from the campsite six men and one woman. From examination of the remains it appears that while the individuals may have had Cholera they did not die of Cholera. The skulls all show signs of trauma some with bullet holes some axe cuts, all demonstrating blunt force trauma to the skulls. The only conclusion being that these individuals had been murdered.
From the evidenced gathered it is believed by the researchers that once Cholera was detected local vigilantes out of some combination of fear of the disease, anti Irish sentiment and the liberty that the invisible social status of the workers afforded murdered the entire crew and burned the campsite to cover up the deed and to eliminate the contagion. The greater society of the period was obviously content with leaving this horrible event unrecognized. The expression “life was cheap” hardly even does this event justice in describing the utter lack of humanity in the treatment of these poor souls.
I have to wonder that as our own immigrant ancestors came to the U.S. twenty years later found similar work and encountered anti-Italian sentiment that they recognized that this level of social invisibility was dangerous and a threat to their survival. Is this the reason that they kept the records of their arrivals and departures as they did? As a counter to this danger did they cluster and insure others knew where they where, for whom they worked and recorded their names to preserve their identities within their insular communities? I think they fully appreciated their predicament and the attitudes of the society around them and acted to protect themselves as best they could.
© San Felese Society of New Jersey
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