Paper delivered to the Chautauqua County Historical Society at Westfield, N.Y. August 6, 1960
The Coming of the Italians
to Chautauqua County
By Samuel C. Alessi
When I agreed to make a study and report to you on the coming of Italians to this county, I knew that my task would not be an easy one. I consented mainly because Miss Helen McMahon asked me, and of course I couldn't say no to her.
I know that this report isn't as complete and as authentic as I would like to have it. I acknowledge its faults and inadequacies. But the time within which to make a proper study of this subject was very limited. Moreover, there is little or no source material whatever to draw from. As far as I know, no one has attempted to compile any information concerning the Italian immigration to this country.
I hope you will forgive me if during the course of this talk I make reference to some of my own personal experiences. You see, I immigrated to America in 1906, just 54 years ago. On the eve of July 4, our ship gracefully steamed into New York harbor. It was a beautiful warm and bright evening. All the buildings on lower Manhattan were lit up as if they had prepared a welcome to the one thousand or so immigrants about to land on American soil. It was a thrilling sight to a boy of twelve years who ever since he could remember longed to go to America. Next day he would begin his new life in this beloved land and soon become an American. A youthful dream was being realized. I believe that that was not only my feeling. It was the feeling of every immigrant who sought this promised land.
On a tiny island at the entrance to New York harbor stands the majestic statue of a woman facing the sea. In her right hand, stretched toward the skies, she holds a lighted torch to light the way and guide the millions seeking refuge to the land of freedom and opportunity. In her left hand she holds a book of laws. That is the Statue of Liberty - - a statue which, once seen, can never be forgotten; a statue which exemplifies liberty under the law- - truly the spirit of America.
On a tablet inside the pedestal upon which it stands the world is invited in these passionate and dramatic words:
That the poor, the tired, and those who yearned to breathe free heeded that call is attested by one of the greatest migrations of peoples the world has ever known. The statue was erected in 1886. From 1886 to 1914, a period of 28 years, 17 million immigrants from every corner of the globe sought and found a haven in this wonderful land. Between 1820 and 1958, 41 million - - equal to the population of France - - came from every nation on earth, from every walk of life, each contributing his bit in his own way to the American life and culture which we now enjoy. Among this vast multitude was the poor, often illiterate, but industrious, hard-working, patient, intelligent and talented Italian immigrant.
In order to understand what is meant by Italian immigrant, it is necessary to be reminded that the political unity of the people of the Italian peninsula and of Sicily was not realized until 1860, and then only in part. For centuries prior to 1860, the southern part of Italy and Sicily were ruled by foreign governments which oppressed and exploited the people. The medieval feudal system of land tenure under those governments was in force until after 1815. Under such a system, no matter how industrious and ambitious the people were, they were unable to rise above the condition of sharecroppers, comparable to the sharecroppers of our own south. Even after 1860 the feudal estates were kept intact. There was no land which the landless peasants could work and produce food badly needed, except on the oppressive terms of the owner or of the lessee of the feudal state.
These conditions were not much improved by the newly formed Italian state. On the contrary, in some instances, they became even worse. In order to establish itself as a stable government, the new Italy needed resources to create and maintain a military and naval force. The taxes imposed were even more onerous than before. Military conscription was adopted, compelling young men to serve thirty months in the Italian Army, thus diverting manpower from producing the necessaries of life to the creation of a military establishment. For generations, because of the feudalistic system of land tenure, oppressive taxes, compulsory military training, poor soil - - exhausted after many years of intensive cultivation without chemical fertilizers - - and the almost lack of opportunity for education, the people of Southern Italy and Sicily lived in abject poverty.
It is easy to understand that the desire to escape from these conditions became compelling. All that the people needed was a place to go and permission to enter. That place and the permission were soon available. America needed men to help build America, and the entrance was wide open.
It must be remembered that the conditions which drove the Italians and Sicilians to immigrate to America were not unique. They prevailed over most of Europe. They were the same or similar to the conditions which drove the Irish, the Germans, the Swedes, and all other nationalities to these shores.
In contrast to the conditions of hopelessness and despair in Europe, America after the Civil War, enjoyed a period of great industrial activity. Railroads, highways, subways, and canals were being built over the whole country. Streets needed paving in all our cities, and the skyscrapers were beginning to be constructed. All of these enterprises required a great amount of unskilled and cheap labor. Agents were sent all over Europe to recruit men able and willing to work, and ships were provided to carry them here. Apparently, these agents did not get to southern Italy and Sicily until about the 1890's, for immigration from southern Italy did not get under way until about 1890. But when it got into full swing, the number of Italian immigrants exceeded the number of every other nation except Germany. 4,700,000 were admitted - 3,600,000 since 1905. In 1906, 127,000 emigrated from Sicily. From 1901 to 1921 the population of Sicily was stationary because of the great emigration. Not all of them came to the United States. Some of them went to Argentina and Brazil, but by far the greatest number emigrated to America. Every city, town, and village was represented in this tremendous exodus.
That is required great courage for families to uproot themselves from their ancestral homes goes without saying. To sever their ties with friends, relatives, and neighbors and travel thousands of miles to a strange country with no knowledge whatsoever of its peoples, its climate, its customs and above all, its language, was a bitter experience. But they had heard and they believed that America was the land of promise and opportunity. That gave them the needed strength and comfort to undertake the voyage into the unknown. Many of them had never seen a body of water larger than a creek, the bed of which was dry in summertime. They feared the ocean, but braved its dangers without hesitation. They did not know that steerage in an immigrant ship meant hundreds of persons packed into the hold of the ship like sardines with the portholes the only means of ventilation. In bad weather when the portholes were closed, the air became so foul that one could hardly breathe. It would have been unbearable except that human beings have a way of adapting themselves to almost any condition of life.
Each immigrant was allotted either a lower of upper bunk, large enough for one to lie down and to store his few possessions. Not accustomed to ocean travel, most of them became frightfully seasick and remained seasick for days. Their distress was almost beyond endurance. The women would wail and weep and loudly express great doubt in the wisdom of their decision to go to America. One of them, I remember, began to curse Christopher Columbus for having discovered America.
As unpleasant and uncomfortable
as the journey was, once they set foot on the soil of America, the unpleasantness
and discomfort were at once forgotten. All that mattered was that they
were in America and anyway they were used to hardships and misery. They
had had it all their lives. And when you discuss their experiences with
them now, they remember with a wave of the hand, " Well, it was a little
difficult, but we lived through it all right." You ask about food served
on board and the answer is that there was plenty of it and as they remember
it was good. You ask them why they came here, and in most cases it was
because of the difficult times back home. As one quaintly expressed it
to me when I asked him why he came here, " My friend", he said, "you've
got to take your stomach where the bread is."