Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Santoras come to America - part 1

My Great-Grandfather was Nicholas (Nicola)Santora. He was born in 1861 in the Campania region of Italy and grew up in a town named Piedimonte d'Alife in the Matise mountains east of Naples (the town has since been renamed Piedimonte Matise). He at least studied to become a Catholic Priest, though family history is unclear as to whether he left the priesthood, or changed his mind before-hand, either way his father was unhappy with his decision, and it caused a rift between Nicholas and his family. What is certain is that he met my Great-Grandmother Grazia (Grace) Cassetta in town named Summonte, in the province of Avillino, also in the Campania region about 120km (75 Miles) south of where he grew up.

Nicola found work as a confectioner, but times were difficult. He and Grace were married around 1899 and had a daughter, Olga (one of my favorite Grand-Aunts) in 1900. Olga is an unusual name for an Italian (which turned out to be a blessing because it made finding my families immigration records easier, though I would love to know why that name was picked). It certainly flew in the face of Italian tradition where first-born girls were named after their paternal grandmother and first-born boys were named after their paternal Grandfather (second born children were named after their mother's parents, and children born after that were named after the father and mother's siblings respectively).

Early in the fall of 1901 financial problems worsened and Nicola and Grace decided that they would start a new life in the United States. One of Nicholas' friends had immigrated to New York and had sent back wonderful stories of life in New York, and had secured work, or the possibility of work for Nicholas at a bakery as a candy-maker. Grace and Olga would move back to the nearby city of Avellino with Grace's parents, and Nicholas would establish a place for them in America. Their parting was bittersweet, a new life in a new country lay ahead of them, and they looked ahead with hope and fear, but a year of separation lay between them. A few days before Nicholas was to depart, Grace conceived their second child. Nicholas traveled with Grace and Olga to Avellino, and the following morning he made the journey north to the bay of Naples.

In Naples Nicola boarded the ocean liner "SS Fürst Bismarck", A huge steamship of the Hamburg America Line, with three large funnels billowing steam. Nicholas was listed in the ship manifest as "Nicola Santoro, Male, 40 yrs old, married, calling or occupation: confectioner, of Summonte, Italy", and his sponsor was listed as Br in law Vin. Silvestri of 82 Mulberry St. Three lines down a passenger named "Vincenzo Silvestri" is listed and it indicates he is an American Citizen. I also note that 82 Mulberry Street is listed for the two people between Nicholas and Vincenzo Silvestri, including someone bound for Philadelphia, and that the passenger immediately preceding Vincenzo lists a "brother Emilio". Perhaps this indicates that these four were traveling together, but the acquaintance might very well have been new, and fairly casual. I can imagine the recorder not understanding my ancestor, and holding up the line, and this Vincent Silvestri saying "I will vouch for him, I'm an American citizen" to speed things along. Further investigation turns up a Vincenzo Silvestri who owned a Fruit Stand that lists the address as 82 Mulberry(PROCEEDINGS Board of Aldermen THE MUNICIPAL ASSEMBLY The City of New York, January 8 to March 26, 1901). Nicholas would have traveled in the lowest of 5 decks, in a large compartment housing single men. On the afternoon of the 5th day, November 19, 1901, the SS Fürst Bismarck pulled into Manhattan Bay, Nicholas and the other passengers stood on deck where they were greeted by the Statue of Liberty, that had finally been assembled just five years earlier. The New York Skyline stretched before them - a much more horizontal skyline than today - with the tallest building being Trinity Church, as ground breaking had only just begun for New York's first skyscraper, the Flat Iron Building. Upon reaching Ellis Island, the ship was unloaded. The process, was a slow one. There was such a large crowd inside that Nicholas had to wait to enter the building. Soon enough, however, a doctor inspected him, and gave him a clean bill of health, his paperwork was inspected and Nicholas was released from Ellis Island and transferred to the lower end of Manhattan Island in a riverboat.

If Nicholas proceeded to the address on his papers, 82 Mulberry Street, or to the Ferrara bakery a few blocks away, he would have arrived in a section of the city that is known as "Little Italy". He would have made his way from the pier to Broadway, and then Canal Street. Of the people he passed many would have been Irish, Chinese, Jewish, and a few black people, and he would have seen more diversity of backgrounds in a day than he was likely to have seen in a year at home, but when he got to Mulberry street he would have felt quite at home surround almost entirely by Italian immigrants, and once he reached Mulberry he would have been surrounded by Neapolitans and Calabrians. There he would have passed an Italian Cigar Store at 34 Mulberry Street, an Italian Café at 36 Mulberry Street, an Italian Barber shop at 40 Mulberry Street, A well kept Wine Store and Italian Café at 42 and 44 Mulberry Street. He probably would have quickly noticed that the houses on his side of the street were numbered with even numbers, and across the street the house numbers were odd. In the street there would have been hand carts with potatoes, and horse drawn carts with boxes of vegetables, and people everywhere, standing in the doorways, walking on the sidewalks, walking in the streets, and even hanging out on the fire escapes above him. The fire escapes would have been mostly covered with wooden slats so that people could put out chairs and the legs wouldn't fall through the grating. Many of the storefronts would have had bright colored canvas awnings. Two blocks further along he would have reached number 87 Mulberry street, if this was indeed his destination, if he even made this trip. Indeed there is no longer any way of knowing where he went, or what he did upon first arriving in the United States. Family tradition says he worked at the Ferrara bakery, so likely he would have settled fairly near to its 195 Grand Street address, about two blocks from the 87 Mulberry Street address on his papers, so perhaps he did end up in front of 87 Mulberry Street that evening, in a new country, with a strange new future awaiting him, thinking to himself "So this is home."

Though in it's intimate particulars it is a story unique to Nicholas and Grace, it is a history shared by most Americans starting with a dream of a new life, making the great voyage to build a future in a new country, and in many of it's details, for thousands upon thousands of immigrants who poured through Ellis island at the turn of the century, it's Italian.

Next week - Part two.

Notes: 82 Mulberry Street, which seems to have been owned by Vincenzo Silvestri in 1901, has a few highlights in its history. It was the address of Patrick Moony one of the rioters from the 1857 Five Points riots recently depicted in the film "The Gangs of New York". On August 17, 1868 JAMES E. DOHERTY, aged 8 years, fell from an awning in front of his residence, No. 82 Mulberry-street, and sustained severe injuries. 82 Mulberry Street was the site of a fatal stabbing on April 24, 1869 when one Patrick McCormack received a stab wound in the abdomen at the hands of William Nicholson. A few years later, on the twelfth of May, 1885, Maria Sullivan was driven by fire to the windows of the third story of no. 82 Mulberry Street, and her plight was so desperate that she got out on one of them and hung by the sill. She was nearly exhausted when New York Fireman Gustav Furhman climbed up the front of the building, by projections, until he ws able to support the woman, who was eventually taken down by a ladder. Sometime after this event the Irish neighborhood became an Italian neighborhood. September 25, 1891, On the evidence of Cammilla Deline, an eleven-year-old girl, who declared that she saw Joseph Preroto and his sister-in-law, Louisa Preroto, stab Antonio Rossa, the woman was taken into custody by the police yesterday. The child asserts that as she was leaving a candy store at 82 Mulberry Street she saw Joseph and Louisa Preroto steal up behind Rossa and stab him with their knives. On July 28, 1901 Francisco Pilotti ran afoul of the law for blowing a bugle to attract customers to his knife-sharpening business. On August 27 of 1903 a nine year old boy, Frank Pellgei, of 82 Mulberry was caught trying to steal from a milk booth.

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