Regional History Part 3 1700 to 1880 A.D.
By Tom Frascella December 2011
As previously stated the story of all immigration can be defined as a combination of “Push” and “Pull”. The San Felese story is certainly that way. By 1800 we have already begun to see that environmental c limate shifts coupled with political instability and poverty are dramatically reducing living conditions in southern Italy. This then is the beginning of the “push” that would send worldwide, approximately 15 million Italians most from the south out of Italy over the next 130 years. As our immigration story unfolds I intend to examine the intensification of the factors that comprise the “push”. However this is only half of the story, we must also look at the “pull” factor. Why did 4.5 million Italians immigrate to the U.S. and specifically what brought so many from San Fele to New York, Trenton and Buffalo starting in the 1850’s.
Our New Jersey San Felese group is most centered in the Trenton, central Jersey area. Therefore a brief comparison of Trenton and San Fele as they existed in 1800 might prove useful. As we know San Fele history starts around the year 966 A.D. The location overlooks a southern mountain passage which connects to the ancient Appian Way about thirty miles to the northeast. Since Norman times the Appian Way was used to connect the two major southern ports of Naples on the west coast and Bari on the east. The distance is about 150 miles of mostly difficult mountain terrain. By 1800 San Fele had a cultural and economic history that was about 850 years old. Its prosperity through the centuries, like that of the region rose and fell on the amount of Mediterranean trade taking place. As trade dropped off after the Crusades the area saw steady decline in industry and commerce. At the beginning of the 19th century commercial activity in the region centered primarily on agriculture especially herding. The population of the San Fele community was between 7,000 and 8,000 people.
Trenton was founded in 1679, so by 1800 it was about 125 years old. Mahlon Stacy founded the village because of its geography. The location was at the Falls of the Delaware River, the last navigable point on the river about forty mile above Philadelphia. Water energy was a major resource in the world of the 17th thru 19th century and Stacy recognized the area as having an abundance of water features both river and stream which he considered critical to the location’s future success. In fact one of the first things he did was build a grist Mill. By 1800 Trenton’s water energy had allowed it to develop in addition to grinding Mills, raw textile weaving, one of only five colonial era blade and plating iron foundries and some pottery manufacture. The population of Trenton in 1800 was between 3,000 and 5,000 people.
So by comparison in 1800 San Fele was a community of greatly older culture and history. It had almost twice as many people. It however lacked the natural resources and infrastructure to develop a meaningful commercial base. Over the course of the next century Trenton would see explosive commercial and population growth. San Fele would experience devastating population decline. The “pull” to Trenton came in the form of jobs created by the American Industrial Revolution and attracted immigrants not just from Italy but throughout Europe .
Trenton’s Industrial Revolution and in many ways the United States Industrial Revolution starts in 1787. In that year, Trenton resident and American Patriot John Fitch, with the support of George Washington requested delegates from the Continental Congress to attend a demonstration of a device he had built. By trade Fitch was a clockmaker, silver smith and tinkerer. Fitch had taken the design of the developing British “steam engine” and installed it in a boat . He used the engine to power a bank of oars as a means of propulsion. The demonstration conducted on the Delaware at Trenton was a huge success with the boat achieving speeds of up to five miles an hour.
The Continental Congress was made up of many bright and successful men, many business leaders and lawyers. Among those who witnessed the demonstration was John Stevens, a lawyer, the son of a very successful shipbuilding family who himself was a tinkerer. The ability to transport on water without regard to wind, tide or current was not lost on Stevens. Stevens used his influence to help the first U.S. Congress held in 1789 to pass and develop the first U.S. patent Laws in 1790. Fitch applied for a patent for his steam powered boat however the Patent office in 1791 granted three limited patents relating to the design one to Fitch, one to James Rumsey and one to John Stevens. As Fitch had failed to obtain an exclusive patent, his financial backing to develop a commercial steamboat evaporated. This ruined Fitch and he faded from active inventive history. A ruined man John Fitch killed himself in 1798 a very sad ending for a true genius and American Patriot. In the interim steam boat design and development became a passion for John Stevens. Stevens spent the next ten years designing and refining engine and propulsion design. In 1800 he formed a partnership with his politically connected brother-in law Robert Livingston who had been appointed envoy to France. Livingston was able to obtain from New York State an exclusive steamboat franchise on the Hudson River with a ten year developmental period to produce a steamboat that could achieve a speed of five miles an hour. 1800 therefore represents the first State franchise for power driven shipping in the United States.
At about the same time in an entirely unrelated event in 1800 a young Italian by the name of Giovanni Battista Sartori was appointed economic ambassador to the U.S. from the Papal States by Pope Pius VII. Both recognition by a foreign government and overtures for commercial trade were highly welcome international events in the infancy of the U.S. Satori discussed with many advisors where the best location to set up his embassy in the U.S. should be. Despite the fact that Trenton was little more than a village he chose to locate his embassy there. The factors that brought him to Trenton were much the same as had attracted Stacy to the location 125 years before and had made Trenton New Jersey’s capital in 1790. As far as local history, Satori and his small entourage are believed to be the first Italians to take up residence in Trenton. As such they represent the start of the Italian American community within the city.
From 1800 thru 1816 far too much occurs that will influence the course of the U.S. and Immigration in general to do justice to the history here. It is probably best to create a timeline with some of the highlights of the period. From my perspective these highlights form the foundation of the Italian American experience and represent connections to all that follows.
1801 Thomas Jefferson becomes President. Thomas Jefferson had an affinity to the culture of Italy and is the first U.S. President to be fluent in Italian. From art to architecture to food Jefferson’s appreciation of Italy’s culture is reflected in much that that Jefferson attached to his Presidency.
1803 John Stevens builds a small steam powered boat at his estate in Hoboken and begins trial runs. The boat is innovative in many ways and employs two screws or propellers for thrust. However, the boilers are too large and heavy for the small craft and the boat fails to achieve the five miles an hour speed necessary.
1803 Robert Livingston learns of the disappointing trial run news while in France. There he happens upon an American artist and inventor, Robert Fulton who has built a steamboat using oars for propulsion and capable of achieving the five miles an required by New York. Livingston convinces Fulton to return to the U.S. and construct a steam boat in New York. Fulton arrives and starts to build his craft. Stevens refuses to join the effort and begins independent work on a hundred foot version of his propeller driven test craft.
1804 The U.S. successfully negotiates the Louisiana Purchase, effectively doubling the territorial size of the U.S. However access to the interior undeveloped continent is difficult as little or no infrastructure exists. Navigable rivers and Indian trails and deer paths are he only ways to penetrate the largely unexplored interior.
1804 Jefferson sends a U.S. fleet to the Mediterranean to deal with the so called Barbary pirates. The fleet is undersized and is sent with poor military intelligence on the target. Southern Italy’s King Ferdinand is the only European leader to lend assistance. He provides eight warships as back up to the U.S. Fleet and opens ports in Sicily and Naples to supply and repair American vessels.
1804 The U.S. Frigate U.S.S. Philadelphia enters Tripoli harbor. Unfamiliar with the harbor the ship promptly runs aground forcing the ship and crew to surrender. The Barbary pirates take control of the vessel and place 120 men on the vessel and begin to refloat it.
1804 Embarrassed by the loss of one of the major ships of the fleet. Lt Stephen Decatur suggests a plan to take a captured Arab merchant vessel into the port, broad th Philadelphia and destroy the grounded vessel before it can be used against the Fleet. Salvatore Catalano an Italian Navy Officer and navigator who speaks English volunteers to pilot the merchant craft into Tripoli harbor. As they approach the Philadelphia they are challenged by the pirates. Catalano turns out to be fluent in Arabic convincing the pirates that his vessel’s anchor is disabled. This ruse allows the disquised American vessel to approach the Philadelphia. Decatur and Catalano are the first to board the Philadelphia followed by sixty U.S Marines. After a brief skirmish in which twenty pirates a re killed and the rest of the Pirates jump overboard the Marines rig the vessel to explode. Once the grounded vessel is destroyed Catalano successfully pilots the small merchant vessel out of Tripoli harbor while it is fired upon by the harbor fortress. The American vessel escapes and remarkably suffers no loss of any U.S. personnel. Decatur and Catalano are hailed as heroes in the U.S. press.
1804 Italian Ambassador Sartori marries noblewoman Henrietta De Woofin, a seventeen year old French refugee living in Trenton, and purchases the mansion “Rosy Hill” on the Delaware in Trenton as their home. Trenton is a part of the Diocese of Philadelphia at this time with very few Catholics living in the State. Sartori opens his home to visiting priests to celebrate Mass. Sartori starts a wool dying company in Trenton and the first pasta factory in the United States. Jefferson’s personal papers confirm that while President he purchased macaroni to be served at the State Dinners from Sartori’s Trenton factory. Jefferson enjoyed Mac and Cheese.
1805 President Jefferson creates the U.S. Marine Corps Band. The Band is composed of Gaetano Carusi its first Director and fourteen Italian Americans. An interesting research project would be to determine whether these Italians arrived in America originally as Savoyards under the northern Italian padrone system of the early 1800’s.
1807 Work begins on the Erie Canal. Labor for the Canal will be supplied by mostly German and Irish immigrants. Ultimately when completed the Canal system will open commerce from the Great lakes to the Hudson River and down to New York City. Buffalo is poised to be a commercial hub.
1807 Robert Fulton demonstrates his steamboat on the Hudson. The oar driven steamboat achieves the five mile an hour required speed to meet the specification for the Hudson River exclusive steam boat franchise. Several years later New York determines that Fulton had access to Fitch’s designs when building his craft. The investigative panel finds that Fulton’s “Clermont” is almost an exact copy of John Fitch’s 1787 design which he demonstrated to the delegates of the Continental Congress twenty years before. However, Livingston and Fulton are awarded the exclusive franchise for steamboat operation on the Hudson.
1808 John Stevens completes his 100 foot steamboat the “Phoenix”. The vessel is of a two screw design and exceeds the speed of Fulton’s vessel. However, Stevens is barred from operating on the Hudson as Livingston has the monopoly on the Hudson River.
1808 Unable to operate on the Hudson, Stevens decides to operate a ferry system on the Delaware River. Stevens boldly steams his vessel out of Hudson Bay into the Atlantic following the New Jersey coastline south toward the Delaware Bay. By doing so Stevens’ vessel the Phoenix becomes the first steam driven naval vessel to operate in the Atlantic Ocean. Encountering bad weather Stevens briefly takes refuge at Barnegat inlet before successfully completing his journey up the Delaware. Stevens ‘ Phoenix begins freight and passenger service between Philadelphia and Bordentown.
1809 Salvatore Catalano immigrates to the U.S. when his enlistment in the Italian Navy is up. He is received in Washington as a Hero. Congress grants him immediate American citizenship for his acts of bravery in the Tripoli engagement. He is also given a commission in the U.S. Navy with the rank of sailing master. Catalano is assigned to the Baltimore Shipyard.
1812 War of 1812 with Great Britain, U.S. Capital burned. U.S. and Britain eventually negotiate peace after several indecisive engagements. Decatur again proves himself an able and courageous leader, but near the end of the war is captured an is briefly held as a prisoner of War by the British. The U.S. takes pride in that it was able to defend its territory and independence.
1812 Jesuit priest Giovanni Grossi founds Georgetown College in Washington and becomes its first President. Georgetown University will go on to become one of the premier institutions of higher learning in the U.S.
1814 Italian Ambassador Giovanni Battiste Sartori and his close friend Captain John Hargous buy a small parcel of land in Trenton and privately fund and build a Catholic Church. They name the Church St. John the Baptist. St. John the Baptist Church is the first Catholic Church built in the State of New Jersey.
1814 Delaware and Raritan Canal begins to be built. The Canal when completed will connect the Raritan River at New Brunswick to the Delaware River at Trenton.
1815 Stevens and his sons propose and are granted by New Jersey a franchise to build a rail road along the course of the proposed Raritan and Delaware Canal. First such franchise in the U.S. from which all other later railroad franchises are modeled. Due to lack of funding interest the rail line is never built under the franchise. At this time in history there are only a few rail roads operating in the world. Generally they are short distance tracks made of wooden rails fastened on stone supports. These are drawn by mule or horse. Because the wooden rails fracture some locations are capping the wood with cast iron caps. This represents a technological step forward.
1816 With the War of 1812 over and the American naval fleet enlarged the U.S. turns its attention back to the Barbary Pirates who continue to interfere with U.S. Mediterranean trade. The Navy selects Comm. Steven Decatur based upon his daring leadership and his 1804 experience to lead the fleet. This time the results are an overwhelming naval victory for the Americans. U.S. had in this engagement the advantage of more powerful ships, an experienced commander familiar with the waters and the maps, charts and harbor piloting knowledge of Sailing Master Salvatore Catalano.
1816 Philip Mazzei dies in Italy. Jefferson personally gives the eulogy at Mazzei’s American memorial service. Jefferson’s eulogy acknowledges Mazzei as the inspiration for the phase “All Men Are Created Equal” and refers to Mazzei as one of the Founding Fathers of our Republic. Jeffrerson and Adamxs correspond with Mazzei’s widow encouraging her and Mazzei’s daughter to immigrate to the U. S. They immigrate settling in New England. Mazzei’s daughter marries the nephew of John Adams.
Probably in terms of Trenton’s economic development the beginning construction of the D&R Canal plus ferry service to Philadelphia are about to place Trenton dead on the commerce trail between New York and Philadelphia. In addition the link of the Hudson River to the Erie Canal opens the vast natural resources of the interior to water transport along this corridor. This will have important consequences as things progress.
© San Felese Society of New Jersey