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Italian-American History

Italian-American History

For the purpose of this brief historical survey, the primary focus will be on the history of Italians and those of Italian ancestry in the United States. Many of the topics are sparsely known by the 21st-century public, including community engaged Italian-Americans who may be surprised to learn of their recent ancestral history in America.  

Some fundamental questions in the interest of Italian Heritage Day are: what were the root causes of mass emigration from Italy? How were they viewed and treated as immigrants by the U.S. government and citizens alike? How did the mass lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans lead to the celebration of Columbus Day? What profound impact and contributions have Italians left in the ever-developing progress of the United States?

Many carefully selected sources, from both the U.S. and Italy, were utilized for this historical survey.
They are cited below.
Italian family arrives in the U.S., 1905, colorized
photo: Lewis Hine / Granger Collection

Early Immigrants

All Men Are Created Equal

1776-1870: 12,000 Italians immigrate to the United States


During the almost one hundred year period between the signing of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the end of the Risorgimento (the Italian unification, 1870), just 12,000 Italians immigrated to the United States; an average of about 126 persons per year. By comparison, in the 40 years between 1820 and 1860 alone, 2 million Irish and 1.5 million Germans arrived. Between 1820 and 1870, 7.5 million total immigrants arrived, with the greatest number coming from Britain. With so few numbers of Italians, cultural enclaves remained limited. However, the impact of the very first, very few Italians in America was considerable.


Architects, artists and writers were among some of the early Italians brought to the colonies and states, with leaders, inspired by Italian Renaissance works and Roman government and architecture, desiring input on development. One such example was that of Filippo Mazzei, political philosopher and wine merchant from Florence. Persuaded to travel to Virginia by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in 1773, with revolution on the brink, Mazzei began pushing for the colonies to secede from Great Britain. In 1774, he wrote a series of political articles to be published in the Virginia Gazzette, which would ink some of the most recognizable lines in written history.


Thomas Jefferson, who had learned to read and write Italian through his studies of Renaissance literature, translated Mazzei’s articles to English. A segment from one such article read, “All men are by nature equally free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government. All men must be equal to each other in natural law.” Mazzei’s exact words were used in Virginia's Declaration of Rights in May of 1776. One month later, when Jefferson began drafting the Declaration of Independence in June, he altered Mazzei’s phrases, most critically removing some objectivity by changing the concept of equality from being “by nature” to being “endowed by our Creator.”

Early Immigrants
image: Marchesi Mazzei

Before traveling from Europe to Virginia, Mazzei was promised land on which to conduct agricultural experiments upon his arrival. Jefferson gave him a plot of land on the south side of his Monticello home and plantation. Mazzei used it to plant various crops from Italy, and eventually produced wine with vineyard worker immigrants from Tuscany. Holding truer to his famous phrase of equality than most all of the Founding Fathers, Mazzei did not use slave labor. He continuously pressured Jefferson, as well as the likes of James Madison and John Adams, to abolish slavery well before the thought became a considered one among American politicians. Though he was not known to have had any personal encounters with Native Americans, he in his memoirs criticised the British Lord Dunmore for “making an unjust war against the Indians.”


Mazzei was not part of the 2nd Continental Congress, which adopted the Declaration of Independence, and he was not credited in any way for its writing. In 1964, almost two centuries later, Mazzei’s contribution was finally credited in mainstream U.S. politics by way of President John F. Kennedy’s posthumously published book, A Nation of Immigrants. Decades later, a Joint Resolution of Congress in 1994 would officially recognize Filippo Mazzei (as ‘Philip’) for the phrase, “All men are created equal.” 


Of the estimated 100,000-375,000 men that served in the Continental Army during the Revolution, some 50 Italians, 2 of them officers, officially served. The additional two regiments of Italian volunteers, recruited directly from Italy, are not included in that number, as they are not named in the Continental Army’s regimental lists.

Washington, D.C.'s Italian influence | examples

Civil War & Risorgimento

Civil War & Risorgimento

Lincoln's Italian General; Garibaldi

Following the  American Revolution, few Italians arrived in the country. Of the 12,000 who came to America before the end of Italy’s unification in 1870, the largest proportion began arriving in the 1840s. Many of these arrivals made their way here not by choice, but by force. They came as political refugees, banished from the Italian peninsula after early failed rebellious attempts to overthrow monarchies, mostly in the northern regions. Some of them formed a military training unit in New York, called the Italian Guard, while closely following the political situation in Italy and planning to return to fight for unification.


One of these refugees was Giuseppe Garibaldi, celebrated general and hero of Italian unification. Exiled from Italy for his part in the failed unification efforts (he would later return and find success), Garibaldi settled on Staten Island, New York. He and friend Antonio Meucci opened a sausage factory, later turned into a candle factory, with the purpose of hiring fellow Italian refugees who were turned away from work elsewhere. By this time, 1850, Garibaldi was already an internationally recognized symbol of liberty, even by Americans, for his unending conviction in fighting to liberate citizens from the rule of kings and abusive leaders. The New York Herald wrote of him, “Few men have achieved so much for the cause of freedom.” Years later, President Abraham Lincoln would call on Garibaldi to lead the Union forces in the Civil War, but to no avail.

Garibaldi was sentenced to death in absentia (he was not present at the trial, as he had escaped) in 1834 after participating in a revolt against the House of Savoy, a monarchy in Piemonte, Italy. He fled north, going through the Alps to France. From there he made his way to Tunisia, and eventually to the Empire of Brazil - modern day Brazil and Uruguay.


Garibaldi’s arrival coincided with the beginning of a rebellion in Brazil. He quickly took up arms for the cause of the Riograndese Republic, rebels fighting against the imperial government with the primary objective of forming their own sovereign state, one free of slavery. Garibaldi and a band of fellow Italians joined together for naval warfare as part of the small Riograndese Navy. Garibaldi led his Italian crew in disrupting Brazilian shipping and attacking Brazilian Imperial vessels. During victorious skirmishes, Garibaldi freed all slaves from Brazilian ships.


In 1841, Garibaldi brought his rebellious confidence to Montevideo, Uruguay, where he took part in the Uruguayan Civil War. He formed and led an Italian Legion that was instrumental in the defense of Montevideo from an astonishing 8 years of siege by the armed forces of removed former Uruguayan president, Manuel Oribe.


With a keen eye always on the situation in Italy, and despite an awaiting death penalty, Garibaldi made his return amidst the widespread Revolutions of 1848. The unjust rule of the kingdoms throughout Italy, especially in the south, had reached its boiling point. Insurrections grew, testing the might of the peninsula’s French, Austrian, Spanish and Papal control. Garibaldi most significantly commanded the rebel army of the newly declared Roman Republic. They fought to near victory against the numerically far superior French forces, sent by Napoleon III to take back Rome. French reinforcements eventually arrived, forcing Garibaldi and his troops to withdraw from the city. They subsequently attempted to go north, where the people of Venice were still resisting Austrian siege, but spent the entirety of the journey being chased down by Austrian, Spanish and French troops. Upon capture, Garibaldi was again banished from the peninsula, at that point finding his way to Staten Island.


He made his next return to Italy in 1854, during a period of agitated calm. In April of 1860, Garibaldi’s moment finally arrived when he received word of uprisings in Sicily, at the time part of the Regno delle Due Sicilie - Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Consisting of the southern regions of Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata, Puglia, Campania, Abruzzo and Molise, the Kingdom was controlled by the House of Bourbon, a royal family of French origin. Garibaldi rallied together 1,089 volunteers for what became known as the Spedizione dei Mille - Expedition of the Thousand. With Garibaldi at the helm, "The Thousand" was able to defeat 2,000 Bourbon Neapolitan troops upon landing at Catalfami, Sicily. They then proceeded to the island’s capital, Palermo. The Thousand laid siege to the city, which was defended by some 16,000 Bourbon Neapolitan soldiers. With public morale boosted at the news of the arrival of Garibaldi, the city’s common people and hundreds of escaped political prisoners rose up against the Bourbons from the inside. After just one day of siege, Garibaldi was in control of much of the city. An armistice was signed, and the Bourbon Neapolitan troops surrendered Palermo; a stunning victory for Garibaldi that would reverberate throughout southern Italy.


The Thousand would go on to cross the strait to Calabria, where the Bourbons had some 20,000 troops. Little resistance was offered on their part, however, as the triumphant scenes from Sicily led some Bourbon troops to join Garibaldi, while many other units disbanded completely. The Bourbon king, Francis II, retreated to a fortress, while Garibaldi headed up the coast and took control of Naples. He was greeted with not only an absence of armed opposition, but with a presence of an overjoyed public, hailing him as a liberator from centuries of Bourbon tyrannical rule.

Giuseppe Garibaldi statue in
Washington Square Park, NYC
Garibaldi enters Napoli
by Franz Wenzel Schwarz, Museo civico di Castel Nuovo

At the onset of the American Civil War one year later, Garibaldi, who was then nicknamed “The Hero of Two Worlds” for his fight in South America and Europe, was on the radar of every leader in the world. With particular interest in him was President Abraham Lincoln.


The Lincoln administration’s recruitment of Garibaldi began with a simple inquiry in 1861 over whether he would want to join the war effort. Upon receiving word that Garibaldi would indeed be willing to join, the U.S. Secretary of State instructed a government representative in Europe, Henry Sanford, to initiate official contact with Garibaldi. Sanford eventually traveled to Garibaldi’s home in Caprera, Italy. Garibaldi made his conditions clear; that he would “be very happy to serve a country” for which he had “so much affection,” so long as he was under full command of Union forces, and was to be given the immediate power to abolish slavery.


As a man vehemently opposed to slavery, who had dedicated his life to fighting for freedom around the world, Garibaldi was not satisfied with the irresolute idea of gradual emancipation that Lincoln favored. With the Emancipation Proclamation still a year away, Lincoln had no plans of immediate, nor nationwide emancipation at that time. Additionally, Sanford had only the authorization to offer Garibaldi the rank of major general. Garibaldi would later say that if he would have drawn his sword for the United States, “it would have been for the abolition of slavery, full, unconditional.”


Shortly after news of the Civil War’s start reached Italy, hundreds of officers and soldiers of the Italian army began volunteering for the Union at the American legation in Torino. The Union could not afford to cover the volunteers' costs of travel, and low-ranking Italian soldiers could neither afford to cover it themselves. Thus, the majority of Italians who went to fight in the Civil War were officers, some of whom had distinguished themselves in battle under Garibaldi’s command. The exact number of Italian-Americans who fought in the Civil War is unknown, though there are well-documented cases of distinction, such as that of the 39th New York Volunteer Regiment, which took the nickname, the “Garibaldi Guard.” Approximately 100 Italian-Americans served as officers for the Union.

March of the Garibaldi Guard
before President Lincoln
by Frank Vizetelly

Origins of Mass Emigration

Life in Italy  |  Hope in Ameica

1876-1885: 84,000 Italians immigrate to the United States


Despite some of the early achievements of Italians in the U.S., and despite their slow, almost inconsequential trickle in before the 1880s, resentment still awaited most arrivals. Every disembarkation of a new ship from Italy was regarded as a problem by Americans. They viewed it as an invasion; an ever-growing population of a people neither Anglo-Saxon nor Protestant, who would be a threat to their social and economic welfare. This idea was mainly propagated by the earlier immigrant groups from Germany and Ireland. These feelings would foreshadow what was to later come when the number of Italian immigrants rapidly increased.

Origins of Mass Emigration
Mineral water seller in Napoli, 1900
photo: Fratelli Alinari, from Alinari Archives
North & Central
South & Islands
Italy: social development indicators, including life expectancy & HDI (quality of life & access to education), from 1860-2000 data: E. Felice / by Midlander

If efforts for unification were successful, completed in 1870 with the annexation of the Papal States in central Italy, why did a mass exodus to the United States commence in the 1880s? Fundamentally, it must be understood that around 85% of Italian arrivals in the United States were from southern Italy. What, then, caused thousands of southern Italians to leave their ancestral homelands?

Booker T. Washington, a man born into slavery in 1856, who later became one of the most influential black leaders of his time and an advocate for disenfranchised former slaves in the American south, wrote of his time in southern Italy, “I have described at some length the condition of the farm labourers in Italy because it seems to me that it is important that those who are inclined to be discouraged about the Negro in the South should know that his case is by no means as hopeless as that of some others. The Negro is not the man farthest down. The condition of the coloured farmer in the most backward parts of the Southern States of America, even where he has the least education and the least encouragement, is incomparably better than the condition and opportunities of the agricultural population in Sicily.”


Following the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the already substantial gap between the living conditions of the common people in the north and those of the common people in the south was exacerbated; a gap that, in modern terms, many in the southern regions still feel today. Before unification, of the 8 separate states in Italy, just one, the Kingdom of Sardinia, was not under the rule of foreign governments or papal control. Thus, the Kingdom of Sardinia, which was made up of Piemonte (at the far north of the peninsula), parts of modern-day France, and the island of Sardegna, was to take control of the newly unified Kingdom. The first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, was from Piemonte, along with a parliament made up almost entirely of Piemontesi and northerners.


This new government began implementing laws that, in practice, and often in intention, left the southern regions behind. The decade’s old constitution of the Kingdom of Sardinia was hastily forced upon all regions of the new Kingdom of Italy, with no regard for the different institutions, needs, and wishes of the now unified people. In addition, the south now paid more in taxes to the Kingdom’s institutions in the north, as a percentage of its economy, than did the north itself. In return, the south was not rewarded with a greater share of investment in economic and infrastructural development from the government, but instead with hostile militaristic control. Small-scale revolts ensued, which were met with force no less antagonistic than was seen during Bourbon rule.

A family in Sicilia, 1895
photo: Giorgio Sommer, from Alinari Archives
Italy: GDP per capita
data: Istat / by G273Y

Life in southern Italy devolved into a situation worse for the population than before unification, while the immediate beneficiaries were those in the north. By 1880, a decade after full unification, the peasantry of southern Italy was struggling to survive. So widespread and drastic was the poverty that a common practice became that of scraping plaster off of walls and adding it to dough, in order to prolong bread supplies. Local brigand groups formed and began sacking farms and villages. Furthering the turmoil, the Kingdom’s response was the arbitrary arrest and execution of citizens. An aged, downhearted Garibaldi, already dismissed from any governmental position years earlier, stated that, “the outrages suffered by the people of Southern Italy cannot be quantified” and that “it is a different Italy than I had dreamed of all my life, not this miserable, poverty-stricken, humiliated Italy we see now, governed by the dregs of the nation.”


The development of, and quality of life in, southern Italy was stunted such that it remained this way well into the 20th-century. In 1935, famed writer Carlo Levi, from Torino, was banished to the southern region of Lucania [Basilicata] for his outspoken opposition to the fascist government. Internal exile to the south was now seen as punishment, and a substitute for the foregin exiling that had been previously used. As Maria Laurino put it in her book, The Italian-Americans, “The government’s decision to exile its opponents to the south is a stark reminder for Italian Americans that the bleak, impoverished life of their ancestors was barely a step above imprisonment in the minds of northern Italians.” 

Children playing Morra on the streets of Napoli, 1897
           photo: Fratelli Alinari, from Alinari Archives

Levi wrote a memoir of his time in the south as an exiled enemy of the state. In it, Levi details the decrepit conditions suffered by the people of Basilicata. The title of the book, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli), derived from the belief of the peasants that Christ himself could not have made his way any farther south than the town of Eboli, south of Naples, and that humanity itself had abandoned them.


“I saw ... children with the wizened faces of old men, their bodies reduced by starvation almost to skeletons, their heads crawling with lice and covered with scabs. Most of them had enormous, dilated stomachs and faces yellow and worn with malaria.”

- Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli


The unification of the Kingdom of Italy coincided with another nation-changing event elsewhere, across the Atlantic. The end of the American Civil War in 1865 began a period of reconstruction in the American south. With millions of formerly enslaved people now free, laborers were highly sought after in the southern states, while in the American north, rapidly increasing industrialization also brought with it a growing need for workers. America’s plantation and factory owners were in search of the cheapest labor the world had to offer, and they set their sights on southern Italy.

In the countryside of Randazzo, 1900
from Alinari Archives

The two primary ports for European immigrants at the time were that of New York City and that of New Orleans, Louisiana. The Louisiana state government ardently worked to convince southern Italians to immigrate to the United States. They formed a Bureau of Immigration, which in 1866 began sending and distributing pamphlets of propaganda throughout southern Italy (even to small mountaintop towns), especially in Sicily, to paint a picture of prosperity and opportunity at Louisiana plantations. Taking advantage of the basic desires of southern Italian peasants for survival, food and money, the selling of a dreamlike world gained hold in the imagination of the public. This means of propaganda spread until it was eventually pushed by factory owners, landowners, construction contractors and managers of railroads and mines. It extended even to agents of the shipping companies that pocketed overpriced ticket sales for the transatlantic journey to America, often costing the southern Italian all the money they had, or taking loaned tickets with 100% interest. In reality, the dream being sold was that of a situation so anguished that the first attempts of plantation owners to attract the white American population went fruitless, as they would under no circumstances submit to the work demanded for the money on offer.


1895 public advertisement of daily wages in New York, for work on the Croton Reservoir:

Common laborer, white:     $1.30-1.50

Common laborer, colored: $1.25-1.40

Common laborer, Italian:   $1.15-1.25


Emigration from Italy began increasing, and as it did, southern Italy began to lose a large portion of its able-bodied workers to foreign countries. With homes and farms abandoned, and shrinking youth populations in villages throughout the south, the economy further crumbled, leading to an ever-accelerating cycle of departures. By the 1880s, mass emigration from Italy was underway, with the United States among the most common destinations.

note: continuing sections soon to be added

History 3

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History 2

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"THE NEW-ORLEANS AFFAIR" The New York Times [New York, NY], Newspaper, 16 Mar. 1891, p. 4.

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edited by Luca Molinari and Andrea Canepari, vol. 21, 2009, pp. 108–110.

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