Approximately half of the US population can trace its ancestry to the great waves of immigrants who arrived here after the end of the Civil War, the vast majority of them arriving between 1870 and 1920. Most of these people passed through two immigrations stations in New York: Ellis Island, opened in 1892 is the better known; but Castle Garden (located at the tip of Manhattan Island) served until that time. Not all immigrants came via New York: many Asians came through San Francisco and not a few Europeans arrived at Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Savannah, or other east coast ports; some came here via Canada, crossing the border at a time in our history when it was literally possible to walk from one country to another without papers and without hindrance.
I've never been much interested in genealogy: my ancestors came here, after all, to escape from a society in which it mattered who your father was and who his father was, all the way back to Charlemagne (or farther, if possible) and where such things determined the course of your life. But the ease of access to immigration records that has been made possible by the Internet, and most especially access to the fabulous Ellis Island Database triggered my latent curiosity about such things.
I knew a great deal more about my father's family than my mother's. My father was born here in 1914, and I knew both his parents during my childhood and adolescence. I grew up on the family stories. One was how Dad's father, after leaving active Italian Army service in 1911, bribed his way out of being recalled from Reserve status for service in the 1912 Tripolitan War, catching the first boat to America he could get.
My father's family came from the ancient city of Enna (at the time called "Castrogiovanni") a fortress perched on a hill in the exact center of the island of Sicily. My grandfather, Paolo, arrived here in March of 1912 with nothing but a letter of introduction to someone who would teach him to be a barber. He had no skills, having been a manual laborer before his Army service. At the age of 8 he was a "cart boy," pushing a laden cart in a sulfur mine: in other words, he was a beast of burden. A very smart and savvy man, he never did learn to speak English, and was functionally illiterate all his life, carrying the scars (literal and figurative) of his childhood to the grave.
He left behind in Castogiovanni his fiancee, Letizia. Another family story recounts how Grandpa Paolo lived in the back room of the barber shop, living on hot dogs (at three for a nickel the cheapest thing he could find) to save money to buy her ticket. She arrived on September 15, 1913, about the liner San Giovanni (left) along with 1494 other passengers. Her immigration record recorded that she was here to meet her "promised" fiance: and naturally she refused to set foot in the New World with a man to whom she wasn't properly married—which meant in front of a priest. Conveniently, there were priests available at Ellis Island for just such situations, and the two were joined in matrimony before taking the ferry to the mainland. They debarked from the ferry as newlyweds, and didn't waste any time. My my father was born in a grubby apartment building on Crotona Avenue in the Bronx's Little Italy section on December 31, 1914.
A few years back I was in Sicily on business and naturally felt compelled to seek out some of my "roots." My father, then in his 90's, had visited his father's family as a 14-year-old boy in 1929. Amazingly, after 70 years, he actually remembered the name of the street on which his grandfather lived: Viccolo Maltisotto. A "viccolo" is a dead-end alley, a place of as minor street-ness as it's possible for a street to be. By sheer dumb luck, I actually found this minuscule corner of an obscure city in an unimportant province of a bush-league nation...and on the corner of the Viccolo Maltisotto and Via Roma (there is a Via Roma in every Italian city and town) I found a man with exactly the same name as my father! Walking around I saw a lot of people I know I'm related to, as well.
On my return I showed my father the picture at left, and asked which door had been his father's home. He said "The one at the bottom of the stairs," so the red door is the Wellspring of my family, and it still seems to be seeping. Incidentally, what is shown here is the entire length and breadth of Viccolo Maltisotto. The Outdoorsman comes from humble origins, to be sure.
My mother's family story is a little more complicated, but it too is a classic immigrant tale. Her mother's side came from a town called Sant'Agata di Millitello, east of Palermo. This is actually in Messina Province, a pleasant seaside community that today is a resort city.
My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Perdicaro. On December 23rd, 1903, her father, Giovanni Perdicaro (age 43, married) and her grandfather, Carlo Perdicaro (age 65, widowed) landed at Ellis Island. Giovanni—my great-grandfather—had $110 in his pocket, a considerable sum of money in those days: he was a reputable and prosperous merchant, a goldsmith, in fact. His father Carlo—my great-great-grandfather—arrived with $30, so that neither of them had to hang their head as they stepped off the boat. Both were sponsored by Giovanni's brother, Giuseppe Perdicaro, of New York City. Giuseppe lived on East 51st Street in Manhattan, where I believe he had his goldsmith's shop.
Giovanni prospered as a goldsmith in New York. At the time he arrived he had a wife, Rosaria, and a daughter, my grandmother Carolina Perdicaro. Grandma Caroline was about 12 years old when she arrived. She came here during the Presidency of William McKinley! I haven't found her entry records (or her mother's records) yet, but she was born in Messina Province in August of 1891.
My great-grandmother Salvatrice Buonocore (nee Salvo) lived a remarkably long life: she was born (in the "Kingdom of the Two Sicilies," as it was then called) sometime between 1859 and 1861 (well before the creation of the Italian Republic, and just before or during the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln) and died, an American citizen, in 1964 as Lyndon Johnson was beginning the escalation of the war in Vietnam.
At some point Giovanni took into his business a young assistant/apprentice, one Realino Buonocore, who was born in 1885. This was my mother's father. I never knew him: he died at age 35 on February 19, 1920, of a kidney infection. I'm not sure when he arrived, but he'd most likely have come sometime after 1900, too. Grandpa Buonocore assured his success in the goldsmithing business not only by his skill (I have seen things he made) but by the time-honored method of marrying the boss's daughter (who was a month shy of being 17, which in Italian families at that time meant she was approaching "Old Maid" status and had better close the deal). That was in 1907. Among my late mother's papers I found the document at left, a note of the marriage. My niece Caroline, who is named for her great grandmother, has her original marriage license. My Grandma Buonocore had nine children of whom seven survived childhood, including my mother, born in 1918.
I've referred to the ease with which records of long-dead events can now be found, and will complete this tale with another illustration of the sort of astonishing power of the Internet to bring the past back. This is the incident that occurred during the voyage my Perdicaro ancestors made in 1903.
Not only is there information on the men but on the ship in which they sailed: she was Napolitan Prince, built in 1889 as an order for the Portuguese Government. Constructed at Scott's Shipyard in Greenock, Scotland, she was originally named Rei de Portugal. She was acquired in 1902 by the Prince Line, one of the less well known companies that made a fortune carrying immigrants to America before the Golden Door was slammed shut by quotas in 1920. Prince Line re-named her Napolitan Prince, and ran her for 9 years on the Mediterranean-New York run. Worn out by service in the Atlantic, she was re-sold in 1911 and renamed Manouf, plying the calmer waters between Marseilles and North African ports until 1929, when she was scrapped. She's shown here in the photo. She grossed 2900 tons, which means she wasn't much of a ship; that's about a third the gross tonnage of a modern "DDG," the Navy's term for a missile-armed destroyer. Napolitan Prince was 363 feet long and 42 feet of beam, and could steam at 12 knots (about 15 miles per hour). Note the two masts, one funnel, and a bowsprit! These were the days of "suspenders-and-belt" sailors, and this ship could presumably use sails on nice days—in the North Atlantic in December there aren't many of those. But in the 1880's that's the way marine architects thought, and since immigrants paid fares and coal didn't, they skimped on coal when they could.
Imagine how long it took to cross the North Atlantic in December in such a ship; and imagine, if you can, what discomfort it entailed. She carried 1175 passengers of which 1150 traveled "Third class," i.e., they were crammed into this little vessel like cattle. They spent anywhere from three weeks to a month—maybe more, depending on winds, and weather—stacked up on multi-tiered bunks, dealing with seasick babies (and adults) and eating whatever slop the steamship line could get away with serving them. With 1125 people crammed into steerage, I doubt they had to heat the "living" quarters much, even in December. Nowadays in Messina harbor you will see huge commercial cruise ships at the docks: easily three times as long, and with about 15 times the tonnage. Napolitan Prince embarked immigrant passengers at Palermo, Genoa, and Naples. The ones who boarded first, in Palermo, would have had an additional week of misery before setting out across the Pond for a new life.
There is one more piece of the story: halfway across the Atlantic, Napolitan Prince rescued 17 men from the dismasted vessel Bayard in a raging December storm. This was no mean feat of seamanship on the Captain's part. Jockeying a 2900-ton vessel in a furious North Atlantic gale takes skill and daring, and apparently the rescue effort saved the lives of the entire Bayard crew. It was indeed a heroic feat, which was duly reported in the NY Times on the day my ancestors landed: I imagine great and great-great grandfathers told the story of that rescue for the rest of their lives as well they should have.
It's probably beyond the ability of present-day Americans who are descended from people who lived through these events to really comprehend what their world was like, and what levels of desperation they had reached to be willing to take such chances to improve the lives of their children and grandchildren. Many immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were, like my mother's family, middle-class people; but most, like my father's were the "wretched refuse" of whom Emma Lazarus' immortal poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty speaks.
We argue endlessly today about immigration, discussing the porous border with Mexico (how come no one ever complains about the even-more-porous border with Canada, I wonder?) and the potential threat to our society such a situation presents. It is worth noting that when my ancestors came here, all the vitriol and discrimination that today are directed at immigrants from Central America and Asia were aimed squarely at them. A little perusal of newspaper stories and magazines of the period before 1920 will reveal this clearly: if you substitute "Italians" and "Jews" and "Poles" for "Mexicans" and "Koreans" the pieces could have come off the pages of yesterday's newspapers. Instead of "Wetbacks," "Greasers" and "Slopeheads" the direct ancestors of half of America's current "native" population were Kikes, Polacks, Dagos, Guineas, Wops, Bohunks, and so forth. They were going to "destroy the American way of life" and they were a "source of crime" and "refusing to become a part of America."
Of course, none of that happened, and it isn't going to happen today. Just as my illiterate peasant grandfather sent his three sons through professional school, conferring on his adopted land a series of physicians, dentists, and professors who have long since made great return on his (and the country's) "investment" in him, so will today's fruit pickers and gardeners and tienda owners bear children who will be "100% Americans" who will, in their turn, probably hate the next wave of immigrants from somewhere else.
Immigration has always been good for this country: all of us, more or less, are descendants of immigrants, even "Native" Americans, whose ancestors immigrated from Asia by land in Pleistocene times. After my somewhat aggravating trip to Sicily (a rather chaotic land of lotus-eaters by American standards, but they seem to enjoy life) I remarked to my father that I thought maybe all the ones with energy and drive had, like his father left. He agreed, and thanked God and his father for having done so. He then told me a story from his 1929 trip: my grandfather Paolo had made several killings in the 20's in the stock market (illiterate he may have been—my father read the daily stock market quotations to him—but stupid he wasn't) and was an enormously wealthy man by his lights. His parents and relatives in Enna begged him to stay, to buy a home and retire on his money to live like a king. "No," he replied, "America is my country now."