Italian Migration Story 1903-1915

By Janet O'Conor Camarata
Between 1900 and 1915, 3 million Italians immigrated to America becoming the largest nationality of “new immigrants” during the late 19th and early 20th century. They were mostly artisans and peasants. Many were unable to read, write or speak English and were listed as “laborers” on passenger lists. The migration included representatives of all the regions of Italy, primarily from the Mezzogiorno region of Italy-- southern Italy including the “boot” of Italy and the Islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Alfonso and Antonina (Pastorello) Aronica with their children and grandchild are one such family.

Santa Caterina Villarmosa, Caltinasetta Province, Sicily, Italy, 1920
The Aronicas are an example of “chain migration,” a simple concept where early immigrants are known to be more likely to move to a new country or community if people they know already live there. And in turn with each new immigrant, they also are more likely to move where people they now live.  Over a span of many years, the Aronica family pulled three generations from their home village of Santa Caterina Villarmosa in Caltinasetta Province, Sicily to Kittitas County, Washington alone.

The first to come to America was the eldest son of Alfonso and Antonina (Pastorello) Aronica. Salvatore “Sam” Aronica, age 19 and traveling alone arrived on the S. S. Japhetie at Ellis Island from Naples on April 8, 1903. He stayed with Pastorello relatives, already in New York.

In 1905, middle son, Antonio “Tony” Aronica arrived in America at the age of 15 with more Pastorello cousins and several other young men between the ages of 19 and 25 from the same village. Antonio arrived at Ellis Island, New York to join his brother, Sam, who was already here.

Sam and Tony worked on the railroad and eventually ended up joining more Aronica and Pastorello family members in Chicago, Illinois. By the 1910 U. S. census Sam and Tony were living with another Italian, in Glendive, Montana, still unable to read, write or speak English.

Then eight years later, in 1913, their brother-in-law, Angelo Cammarata, who was married to their elder sister, Grazia, followed the Aronica brothers to America. Family legend has it that Angelo, Grazia and their daughter were living in the home village when Angelo received a boat ticket and instructions to report to the Italian Army in Rome. This called for a family meeting. As a result, a decision was made that Angelo would exchange the ticket to Rome and purchased a new ticket to America, leaving his parents, two siblings, wife and child behind to join his two brothers-in-law, Tony and Sam Aronica.  He arrived at Ellis Island on March 19, 1913 on the S.S. Mendoza from Palermo. After visiting his maternal relatives (the same Pastorellos that welcomed Sam and Tony Aronica several years earlier) he rode the railroad to Chicago to meet even more Pastorello family members.

Angelo stayed and worked a while for the Chicago Tunnel Company building a 2-foot wide narrow-gauge railway freight tunnel network under downtown Chicago. By 1914 about 60 miles of tunnel was completed and were operating 132 locomotives that hauled, mostly coal, ash and excavation debris.
Aronica Family and friends on
 the "Dante Alighieri” 1915

About this time Angelo went to work for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad in Chicago.  Sam and Tony arrived in Kittitas County earlier in the decade. Sam was working on the Milwaukee Railroad near Cle Elum and Tony was running sheep from Roslyn near the foothills of the Cascades to the Columbia River over what is now the Yakima Firing Range. He traveled the length of Kittitas County with his sheep. Between the three of them, they saved enough money to bring the rest of the Aronica family to America.
On February 26, 1915, the Aronica family, including Alfonso and Antonina (Pastorello) Aronica and their youngest daughter, Antonia/Antonina, affectionately called “Nina” by the family and their youngest son, Carmelo “Carl” arrived at Ellis Island, New York on the S. S. Dante Alighieri out of Palermo, Italy.  Traveling with them was Angelo Cammarata’s wife, Grazia (Aronica) Cammarata, with their daughter, Maria Rosa.
After arriving in the U.S. and while processing their entry through Ellis Island, a problem occurred. Carmelo Aronica was diagnosed with an eye infection. This was grounds for denying entry to the U.S. This called for another family meeting. If a person is denied entry, they are then returned to their originating country.  Do they all decide to return to Palermo? If they did, where would he stay when they arrived? How long might it take until Carmelo’s eye infection improved? Would they have enough money to pay for passage to return to Palermo and then back again to New York? It was decided that only Grazia, baby Maria, and Carmelo would return to Palermo and stay with Carmelo’s Pastorello grandparents in Italy until his eye infection healed.

Grazia, Maria and Carmelo returned to America on the S. S. Patria, June 18, 1915 and traveled by train to join Alfonso, Antonina and Antonia in Chicago who were naturally staying with their Pastorello relatives. Now that the family was again united, they continue their trip and joined Sam, Tony and Angelo in Kittitas County, Washington. Angelo, Alfonso and Sam found work on the railroad near a small unincorporated community of Levering on the Columbia River and Tony continued pasturing sheep across Kittitas County. They were now home and all together.
Levering, Kittitas County, Washington
In the Mezzogiorno region of Italy by the beginning of the 20th century the landowning elite provoked the “peasants,” saying “Chi ha prato tutto” meaning “whoever has the land has everything.” But the Aronicas left their home without regret, reflecting the Italian proverb, “Chi sta bene non si muove” meaning “He who is well off does not move.”  The Pastorellos still live in New York and Chicago and the Aronicas and Camaratas still live in Kittitas County.     


  1. Thank you Janet! When we hear so much anti-immigrant propaganda now, it's refreshing to read the real story of how immigrants a century ago enriched our country with their courage, grit and hard work.


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