(The Beginning of San Felese/Lucanian Mass Immigration to the U.S. 1860-1866)


By: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                                  July 2015



 This introduction represents the beginning of the final section of our website history. I anticipate that this section will be completed over the course of fourteen months, by June 2016. The history begins with Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily in May 1860 and concludes in 1866 when in a single year roughly 40% of the adult male population of San Fele were compelled to leave the town and seek political as well as economic refuge in the U.S. In between those two dates the events of history form the backdrop of our ancestors’ initial journey to America.

 I chose the title of this section of the website history based upon my experiences growing up an American of Italian descent. As such I was taught a history of Italian immigration to the U.S. which I could not fully relate to factually, culturally or logically from my own paternal family’s experience. In addition the constant bombardment of negative stereotypes eagerly offered by the media on Italian immigrants and Italian Americans also did not match the reality of family or community history that nurtured my youth. When I was asked by the members of the San Felese Society to write this history I welcomed the chance to address the issue of southern Italian immigration as our community’s ancestors understood it, not as it has usually been presented. This writing constitutes as far as I am aware the first  San Felese/Lucanian community based publication.

 The first objection I would make to the way Italian immigration is generally discussed is statistical. Usually it is said that Italian immigration to the U.S. is primarily a 20th century event in which 4.5 million Italians, 80% from southern Italy immigrated. In all, the largest immigration of people from a single European source to the U.S., other than England, in our country’s pre-World War II history. By way of comparison it is often cited that 18th -20th immigration from Ireland is second at between 2 and 2.5 million and Germany is 3rd at around 900,000. While the above is technically true citing the statistic above generates the impression of Italian immigration was not significant before 1900.

 I feel from the San Felese/Lucanian perspective that it is more accurate to state that there were two distinct massive Italian immigrations to the U.S.  While the 20th century Italian immigration is the larger and the largest immigration experienced by the U.S. pre-World War Two it consisted of 3.6 million Italians, not 4.5 million. Of those 90% came from southern Italy not the 80% as is often cited. So it is not so surprising that there is a perception of Italian immigration fixed in the early 1900’s.

 There was however a substantial precedent immigration which occurred between 1850 -1900. That immigration should in my opinion stand separately and numbers some 900,000 people, 50% southern Italian. As a separate immigration event 19th century Italian immigration by itself represents the third largest immigration to the U.S.  Italian immigration prior to 1900 was second in size only to the Irish immigration of that same century. But somehow this fact of a very significant 19th century immigration and Italian presence in the U.S. is largely ignored in the historical literature. Large numbers of Italians, including southern Italians arrived in the U.S. and began an assimilation process from the middle of the 19th century onward. These include significant numbers of people originating in Lucania, including San Fele. Their reasons for leaving Italy, their experiences upon arriving in the U.S. and the conditions/opportunities available to them in 19th century America were far different than available in the 20th century.

 Anyone including this writer discussing San Felese/Lucanian immigration and assimilation history cannot ignore and must use of the actual early start of our immigration timeline. Our primary San Felese- U.S. communities and family histories all reflect an early U.S. origin starting in the 1850’s. To ignore the real timelines has great negative impact on understanding the causes, and the development of Italian-American history/culture and indeed the history of modern Italy. Our ancestors were a part of their time and understanding them is dependent on understanding what that time was.

 Further by not starting a discussion of Italian immigration within the right time frame certain inaccurate assumptions, prejudices and stereotypes of Italians and Italian immigrants have been left to perpetuate in media outlets unchecked. I hope that this section of our website, by focusing on the events and reactions to those conditions of the 1860-1866 time frame will help refocus the early immigration story on the correct issues and elements that were at play. Accurate context is critically important for establishing a better profile of our ancestors and the conditions in which they lived.

 Going forward in this part of the history I was fortunate to be able to draw upon family and community history to help me focus. As I have previously written my great great-grandfather Vito Frascella is recognized and documented to have been the first member of the San Felese community to arrive and establish residence in the city of Trenton New Jersey. His arrival has been cited in a number of early local historical publications as occurring in the spring of 1862. It was a time when there were fewer than half a dozen Italian immigrants living in the city and a time when U.S. immigration records place the number of Italians immigrating to the U.S. between 1850 and 1862 at a 12,000 total for those twelve years.

 The published references and family stories relating to Vito were about him an individual. So, initially as a young person reading or listening to family members I thought that his decision to immigrate to the U.S. was made for personal/individual reasons. It was only after I gained a better appreciation of the times in which he lived and the history of those times that I began to suspect that more was involved. As I became more involved in our San Felese community’s history I realized that Vito’s story was part of a communal story which had hundreds if not thousands of participants.

  The fact that there were so few Italians in the U.S. in 1862 and that he arrived in the U.S. so close to the close of what Italian history calls “The Second War of Italian Unification” began to suggest that there could be a political connection to his immigration. This sense of political connection to the events of unification were bolstered by family stories which conveyed his concerns, often political or for civil rights.  They often also spoke that Vito held hopes and aspirations for his children and future grandchildren on his arrival in the U.S. for the freedoms that they would enjoy. In truth it was something of a fortunate accident that his stories were preserved at all. Vito lived a long and active life until his death at almost eighty years of age. This allowed for his grandchildren, my grandparents generation, to know him as adults and to pass on cherished and detailed remembrances. Often I have seen that between poor health, lack of quality medical care and other issues few 19th century immigrants lived long enough to pass on their stories to a third, more “Americanized” generation and as a result those family memories are lost to future generations.

 Using Vito’s and other early arrivals from sanfele as a guide in my own research I found that southern Italy, in particular, middle-class southern Italy had been engaged in a struggle for expanded civil rights for the better part of a century prior to 1860. That struggle had led to a number of failed middle-class revolts thru the years, suppressions, incarcerations and executions followed. It also led to the creation of the Carbonari movement which swept across Europe and influenced our own U.S. founding fathers’ political philosophies on government and civil rights. Prior to the mid 1850’s the Carbonari movement which in Italy yielded to the “young Italia” movement by the 1830’s largely opposed the more authoritarian forms of government in favor of democratic Republics. Vito I learned upon his immigration to America advocated republican values and became a “Lincoln” Republican. Further he insisted and guided his children and grandchildren in that same political direction. I also learned that Vito came from a rural middle-class family background.

 Vito would have experienced in Italy the history wherein several previous attempts at Carbonari inspired revolt had failed, often because of foreign governments’ involvement. By the 1850’s many in the Carbonari/Young Italia movement began to seek a new direction to achieve their goals. In northern Italy they aligned themselves with the young Prince of Piedmont-Sardinia in a cause of unification under a proposed framework of a constitutional monarchy. The Prince, Victor Emmanuel II successfully garnered international support from England and France in a cause of Italian unity. Of course that support had costs, territorial and trade, but the price would come due only after success.

 This alliance of international powers and political factions then initiated what became a two part conflict which lasted from 1858-1861.  That conflict came to be known as “The Second War of Italian Unification”. The first part of the conflict was the successful war between Piedmont-Sardinia and Austria which brought a significant portion of northern Italy into a unified territory under the Piedmont-Sardinia regime. It also resulted in territorial concessions to France for its support of the Piedmont regime. The second part of the conflict was the campaign against the Bourbon controlled Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in southern Italy.

 This section of the history that I am now starting picks up the war as it begins in southern Italy, with Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily, May 11, 1860. It is the part of the story which directly effects the region of Lucania/Basilicata which is in the center of the southern Italian mainland.

 In the context of this time in Italy, Garibaldi was viewed as a hero of the Italian nationalist cause. The Bourbon regime in the south ruled by virtue and control of the most powerful autocratic monarchy in Italy. The Bourbon regime had denied and oppressed civil rights in the south for decades and there was a great deal of anti-regime sentiment within the Kingdom.

 Although the second phase of the war of unification starts in Sicily, anti-Bourbon sentiment was probably most visceral and hated in Lucania/Basilicata, a State in the heartland of the Kingdom. Traditionally, the mountainous interior was among the poorest regions in Italy. But in addition to chronic poverty the region had suffered a catastrophic earthquake in late 1857 in which tens of thousands died and thousands of homes/businesses were utterly devastated. The Bourbon regime’s response to the suffering was pathetic creating even greater widespread resentment of the government’s policies. The inevitable popular riots and acts of civil contempt were met with increased Bourbon military intervention and suppression. By the time Garibaldi had embarked on his campaign in Sicily over 2,500 Lucanians were already active insurgents in their home State. Civil war, against the regime in its most basic form was by May of 1860 two years old in Basilicata. Unlike the call for Italian unity or of fundamental civil rights which were powerful motivators throughout the Italian peninsula the already two year war in Basilicata was one of a desperate people who had lost almost everything to natural catastrophe. They did not engage from any sense that they could prevail against the massive forces of the Bourbon regime but rather from a sense anger, frustration and survival.

 I believe that the Lucanian insurgent forces in the field in 1860 were although small in number the most dangerous rebel forces in Italy because of the desperate circumstances of the region. 

 With that as backdrop we pick up the story with Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily.



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