Why Did My Family Leave Italy?

peasants in fieldThis is often the first thing a person thinking about their Italian ancestors usually asks. To answer the question in the simplest and most literal way, they left Italy because they were hungry.

In Italy at that time, most of the people were laborers on farms owned by other people or worked in the silk factories. Even the children worked in the fields and gathered the silkworm cocoons. They worked long hours for very little pay, or even as little as a small loaf of bread. This link is to a page of a book about the Italians coming to Herrin elaborates a little more on the subject. I wish there was more than one page available!

They wirked very hard work, and had no hope of improving their income or status, as they were, for all intents, essentially slaves. In the 1880s, all of Italy was in an a dire economic crisis. At about the same time, there were vast improvements in TransAtlantic transport. North America had a great demand for laborers. The Cuggionesi learned that in America, there were opportunities galore and that a person could actually own their own home! They knew the possibility of this happening in Italy was non-existant. These factors all combined to entice the typical young Italian to decide make the voyage to "The New World".

They saved their meager earnings and bought a ticket on a ship, although many came over as stowaways. They had to do whatever they could to save their families and restore their personal dignity. The ship lines caught wind that there were many Italians leaving the area, and "set up shop" in Cuggiono. Often, the person selling the ticket to a emigrant would determine whether the person went to North America or to South America, in which case it was generally to the port of Buenos Aires.

The greatest majority of the Cuggionesi entered the US through either Castle Garden or Ellis Island and initially traveled in the 1880-1925 time frame, but don't limit your research to these ports or time frame. Often, the men would come first and secure employment, and then send for the wife and children, if he had left them behind. Single men were often part of an arranged marriage that was 'concocted' back in Italy by the families, and his soon to be wife would just show up here! Search ship records at this additional site: LookUpThe.name.

Don't forget that your ancestor's initial voyage could have been to South America, usually Buenos Aires, Argentina. If you cannot find them in the US, try these links:
http://www.apellidositalianos.com.ar/viaje_por_italia.htm (site is in Spanish, try a site translator)
http://www.cemla.com/home.php (also in Spanish)
http://www.genealitalia.com (has English and Spanish versions!)

NOTE: Women usually traveled using their maiden names, in fact women still often use their maiden names in Italy. Ship manifests are hard to read, but are a fascinating snapshot of how these people were beginning a new life. Many came to the US with as little as $5 and a small suitcase of belongings in their possession.