Italian Immigration To America

Italian immigration to America was part of a worldwide movement that is often called the Italian Diaspora. But Italians have a unique link with America, one that reaches back to the earliest days of its history...

Italian Immigration to America: Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus

The 'Discovery' of America

Despite the earlier landings of Viking sailors in what is now North America, it was the 1492 voyage of Italian seaman Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) that brought the reality of a vast new western continent to the notice of post-Renaissance Europe. While there is much controversy regarding the long-term repercussions of Columbus's 'discovery' of the Americas, it remains a world-altering event. Although he never reached the mainland, Columbus was in fact the first Italian to set foot in the new world. Little did he know how many of his countrymen would eventually follow his example.

Italian Immigration to America: Amerigo VespucciIn one of those convoluted and politically motivated sets of circumstances, Columbus did not lend his name to the new continent. Instead, that honor was given to another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.

Between 1499 and 1502, Vespucci made at least two voyages to South America at the invitation of the king of Portugal, and upon returning home, published two accounts of his travels. His writings were widely circulated in Europe, and in 1507, the German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, assigned Amerigo's name to the newly discovered land mass. Subsequent cartographers followed suit, and the continent became known as North and South America.

Early Italian Visitors

Italian Immigration to America: Giovanni da VerrazzanoThe first Italian to actually pass through New York Harbor was another explorer named Giovanni da Verrazzano, whose exploration of the east coast of America in 1524 was financed by the King of France. Although his recordings of the contours of the coastline were far from accurate, he did provide mapmakers with some basic information for the earliest maps of the region.

Verrazzano's contributions to the exploration of North and South America have been underrated by history, and it's only in recent years that his achievements have been acknowledged. His name, with a slightly altered spelling, adorns the Verrazano bridge.

Another Italian, Dr Filippo Mazzei, arrived in Virginia in 1773 with a group of his countrymen to begin cultivating Mediterranean fruits, including olives and grapes. Eventually he opened a commercial vineyard with his neighbor, Thomas Jefferson. Some historians credit Mazzei with contributing ideas and phrases to the Declaration of Independence.

Opening the Floodgates

Although there was a trickling of Italian immigration to America throughout the 1800s, it wasn't until 1880 that they began arriving in large numbers. While many came from the rural south, a significant number were from the northern regions. They were escaping the poor economic conditions that followed Italian unification in 1861. Many were forced to find employment in manual labor and live in slum-like tenements. “Little Italy” communities sustained them during these harsh early years, when anti-immigrant sentiment ran high among the more established Americans.

Approximately two million Italians immigrated to America from 1900 to 1914. World War I put a temporary stop to this influx, but the flow began again after peace was declared. By 1978, the total number of Italians immigrating to the United States reached 5.3 million. About 25% of these eventually returned home, but the majority stayed on to contribute immensely to American life and culture. In that process, they evolved into a unique cultural entity that goes by the label “Italian-Americans”.

Defining Italian-Americans

An Italian-American can be defined as a person who was born in Italy, or had one or more ancestors who were born in Italy. In the 2004 US census, the number of Italian-Americans was recorded as 17,829,184.

The highest concentrations of Italian-Americans were in the north-eastern states, which was the preferred destination of many Italians at the height of Italian immigration to America. The most popular cities were Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Rhode Island. Italians also ventured further afield to San Francisco, San Diego and Miami.

The most visible evidence of Italian immigration to America is the enduring Little Italy neighborhoods, where you'll find a wealth of Italian restaurants and bakeries, and where festivals from the 'old country' are still celebrated today.

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