Ancient Indigenous People

Apache, Cherokee, Sioux, Iroquois, Blackfoot.  As Americans we have been exposed to the names of the indigenous peoples of the United States.  We may not know all the names, since there were hundreds of tribes, but we certainly acknowledge they were in America first.   I wonder how many Italian-Americans have ever heard of the Native Italic tribes.

The Etruscans may come to mind, and if they took a tour of Rome they may have been exposed to the Sabines through a famous statue called “The Rape of the Sabines.”  However there were many, many more, such as the Oscans , Ligure (15 tribes), the  Apuli (3 tribes), the  Secani, Ancient Greek tribes, Samnitics (7 tribes)  and even the Celts (7 tribes ). These are just some of the ancient peoples of Italy.

Italy has been inhabited by modern day humans for 43,000 years and gene studies show multiple layers of migration from Syria, Central Asia,  Northern Europe, Macedonia and Greece. Many were blond and blue-eyed.  They were hunter-gatherers until agriculture was developed 8,000 years ago. These dwellers were dispersed over North-Central Italy.   Around 1500 B. C. other groups from the Arabian Peninsula and Illyria (Albania) brought a wide range of skins shades and physical types, hair color, and Indo-European languages into central and southern Italy.  Of course they mixed with the natives.   The diverse physical appearance of the Italian reflects these ancient tribes as well as all the barbaric hoards that came after the fall of Rome, such as the Goths, the Huns, the Franks, the Lombards (to name a few).

I am an example myself of this melting pot which is Italy. My DNA analysis only tells me about my most recent past.   I’m Jewish, Finnish, Spanish, Greco-Roman (largest segment) and Middle Eastern (second largest segment.)  I wasn’t surprised about the last two.  The Turks invaded the Bari area so regularly that if you wanted to insult someone, you would call him a Turk.   I was surprised there were no traces of Celtic or Germanic genes.  Having all my genetic information was interesting but I was curious however about my heritage that dates back to the Italic tribes.

When you start exploring the Italic tribes, there is one constant—no consensus on just about everything.  There is so little remaining of these tribes that it is difficult for archeologists pin point information with total accuracy.

I’ll begin with the land of my ancestors, Puglia.  The Apuli came across the Adriatic Sea from Illyria (Albania) around 800 B.C.   They were farmers and herdsmen and brought their animals with them.   There were three tribes.  The Messapic lived in the Brindisi area.   It is believed that that the tiny conical houses found in Alberobello were built by the Messapic.    Next were the Dauni  who lived around Foggia and lastly were the Peucezi.  Knowing that my family comes from the province of Bari, I now believe I have some Peucezi blood in me, even if minute.

These three groups lived independently but were attacked regularly by the Samnites, another primeval group of people living in the south-central part of Italy called the Samnium around 600 BC. The origin of the Samnite is not clear.  It is believed they are derived from both the Oscans and Sabine peoples of Campania and Latium.

They lived in the mountains, spoke an Indo-European language called Oscan, and were sheep herders, warriors.  The Samnites and Romans fought on the same side in the Second Punic War against Carthage.   They were great military strategists but once their usefulness to the Romans ceased to exist, the Samnites and the Romans began to battle each other for supremacy.  This group of people was comprised of seven tribes and Rome had great difficulty subjugating.  Pontius Pilate is believed to have been of Samnite heritage.

A religious group with many Gods, the Sabines go back a very long way.  They lived in the central Apennine Mountains around the Rieti area.  In 750 BC the Latins (Romans) and the Sabines fought for control of the Lazio area.  The abduction of the Sabine women by the Romans (a ploy to vanquish the Sabines) is immortalized in sculpture and in art.  A battle in which Sabine women entered the center of the conflict to make peace hangs in the Louvre and is entitled“ The Intervention of the Sabine Women.”  Pablo Picasso also had his own rendition of the Sabines.

Two indigenous peoples that date back over a thousand years are the Etruscans who lived between the Arno and Tiber rivers and west along the Apennines, and the Sicani of Sicily.  These people spoke their own languages that were not derived from the Indo-European languages such as: Greek, Celtic, Romance, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Armenian, Indo-Iranian.  DNA samples from Etruscan tombs suggest that these people did not transfer to Italy from another place, whereas the Sicani are believed to have migrated from Spain’s Catalonia region.  The Secani were extinguished by the Carthaginians at around 1000 BC.

According to the Greeks, the Etruscans came from Lydia in the Aegean Sea.  There is much debate over the origin of the Etruscans. What is known is that it was a highly advanced civilization, contributing to Italy drainage and irrigation systems, architecture (use of the arch and vault), metal working, art, ceramics and were an expert seafaring society.   They traded actively with the Greeks, had their own alphabet and used family names for purpose of identification.

Two very fierce groups in ancient Italy were the Ligures in northwest Italy near the mouth of the Arno River, and the Venetics.  The Venetics were ancient Celtic peoples who spoke Veniti, traded in amber, bred horses and were believed to have been rough, strong and bold people.    The lived in the Venice, Padua and Verona area and intermarried with the common Celts on the western border.

The Celts populated the area around Milan.  The Celts of Italy are described as having very strong bones and were brawny people who were impervious to heat and cold.  Some were very tall, red-headed and fair skinned while others were had a ruddy complexion.  They were very fond of arguing and had deep resounding voices.  The women were as large and sinewy as the men and fought as bravely as their male counterparts when in battle.

In conclusion, when Italian Americans observe see themselves in the mirror and see red, black, brown hair there is an infinite amount of possibilities where this hair came from.  If they are lanky and broad they could have had Celtic or Germanic descendants.  If they are green-eyed, gray or blue eyed, the Lombards, Normans, Germans could have been responsible.  If they are fair, stocky and average height, maybe there was a Samnite in his family tree.  The tiny, small boned southerners could have been Apulians.  Lastly, the if you are swarthy with black curly hair the prospects lean toward people from the Arabian peninsula.  Get a DNA analysis, you will be surprised what you learn about your family tree.


Outside the Strongbox

Going through my mother’s things after she died was an often painful process.  Evidence of my immediate family’s history such as photographs, baptismal certificates, passports, honor roll records, college awards could be so nostalgic that the tears would start rolling down my cheeks before I had gotten past the first line.

At the bottom of the metal box where these treasures were stored was an envelope discolored with age that I had never seen before.   I knew it had to predate my birth, perhaps even my mother’s birth.   I tried to gingerly pull the sheets out but my fingers managed to crumble the corner into bits.  Not wishing to do more damage, I sacrificed the envelope and cut it opened with a pair of scissors.

Just like all Americans, my family came from another country.  They came from Italy.  Most people associate the port of entry for Italian immigrants to be Manhattan’s Ellis Island.  Few people realize that New Orleans was another hub for immigrants of all nationalities, especially the Italians.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, immigration was driven by war, poverty, social and economic oppression.   America was not only the land of opportunity; people from the Old World were attracted to the democratic system of government with its freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

One reason for Italian immigration that is often not acknowledged is disease.   The poor of Northern Italy, especially Lombardy and the Veneto, were plagued by pellagra, which is a deficiency in niacin. This problem was caused by a diet consisting mainly of polenta (corn meal).  Inhabitants of this region with scare resources to buy a variety of food needed for good nutrition (meat, fruits, vegetables and grains) developed pellagra which caused blindness, severe dermatitis, neurological impairments and even lunacy.

The bane of existence in Southern Italy was malaria, a mosquito born disease which led to high swinging fevers, complications to the brain and liver, coma and death.  Both diseases are curable if caught early enough.  However, medicine in the 19th century was not the medicine of today.  So many poor Italians were forced to leave the country they loved for a new land in an effort to find employment.  There, hard work would translate into a higher standard of living and provide a healthy life for themselves and their children.

As I mentioned, when we think of the immigration of Italians and others, we automatically think of Ellis Island. However the facility was not built until 1892.  Prior waves of Italian immigrants and others landed on the Battery where a New York State Immigration station was located from 1855 to 1892.

Everyone knows someone who came through the port of New York and most people have heard that when the immigrants arrived, Italians included, they were examined for physical and mental illness, as well as communicable diseases.  If the ailment was easily curable they were sent to the hospital in the complex. Otherwise they were deported.

Besides providing their name, country and town of origin, parents’ names, list of any children and occupation, the Immigration and Naturalization officers had to know the marital status of the individual.

Unaccompanied women could not disembark unless there was a father or husband with proof in hand to claim them.  If they were unmarried, but had a fiancé ready and willing to marry them on the spot, they could disembark.  Brides could be married in a religious ceremony or have a civil ceremony.

The waiting fiancé would make arrangements in advance with The St. Raphael Society for Italian Immigrants and a priest would be waiting with the groom to claim the bride.  Witnesses also had to be produced.  My great-grandparents marriage licenses were in that strong box as were two others from my grandfather’s first wives.  These documents came from New Orleans.  So it appears that the menfolk of my family originally came through the south of the United States.

Below is an example of a marriage certificate completed by the St. Raphael Society for Italian Immigrant when grandpa married for the second time.   Paolo Ferretti of Brebbia (Lombard town near Milan) and his bride Rosa Porrini also originally from Brebbia were both married on November 1, 1914.  This certificate enabled the happy couple to go on their way.  See below.

Nicola Eschino and Francheschina Mastropaolo from the province of Molise, were married on Ellis Island on March 8, 1903. My grandmother was an Eschino.)  On this document you will see that the great-grandfather Eschino resided in Rotterdam, NY, and the bride’s residence was listed as Ellis Island.  Grandpa Eschino married his first wife in New Orleans at the tender age of fifteen.

In the 19th century before Ellis Island, the Port of New Orleans was the major port of entry for immigrants, particularly Italian immigrants. This hub was created because of the opportunity for employment.  Massive amounts of Caribbean goods as well as American goods (citrus, rice, sugar, cotton) were exported to Europe.

Italians from Sicily were the first to come to the Port of New Orleans.  In 1751 Jesuit missionaries brought sugar to Louisana.  Of all the people in Europe, it was the Sicilians who had the most experience growing cane and citrus.  They had been working the sugar cane fields of Sicily for 350 years.  The rich land that existed centuries ago was now infertile.  Consequently, these farm workers knew how to get the land to produce.   Using their Italian techniques on the rich American soil produced sugar cane and citrus harvests that could only be dreamed of in Italy.  The Sicilian worker was a priced employee.  As the decades passed  L’Italo-Americano Labor Bureau was opened on Poydras Street in New Orleans.

This is a flyer from the 1860-70s that has survived.   It extolls the virtues of the Italian in general, not just the farm worker.

Another reason Italians, not just Sicilians, came to America through the port of New Orleans was the cost.  It was the least expensive way to come to America.

With the advent of Clipper ships, these swift and enormous ships were filled with agricultural products bound for Europe.  In England, Naples and other ports rather than sending the boats back to New Orleans empty, they sold space for a nominal fee.  There were no beds, no food, no plumbing.  If the passenger survived the trip, he could come to America for next to nothing.

Throughout the years, my mother never mentioned her immigration experience with us.  The only thing I knew was she arrived in one of the worst snow storms to hit New York of the early twentieth century and that her father had been living in America since he was a boy.   In order to piece together the family’s history I would have to look outside the strong box.

I decided to take a trip to New Orleans, taking with me copies the certificates of the grandfathers’ first marriages, which were executed in Louisiana.

The first place I started was the Central Grocery Store on Decatur Street.  This market was mentioned to me so often.  “You have to eat a Muffleta sandwich,” they said.  “The store has been there forever.”  So to the Central Grocery I went and yes, I ate  one of their Muffaleta sandwiches.  If you were raised in the New York tri-state area, especially where there is a large concentration to Italian-Americans, this market held no suprises.

Perhaps for Americans from the southern and western parts of the United States visiting this establishment would find the products in the store exotic but, believe me, there was nothing there that I had not seen or eaten my entire life.  The Muffaleta was like our “Blimpie” sandwiches with lots of Italian cold cuts between the bread.

I did get to talk to the proprietor and showed him the marriage certificates, but none of the names were recognizable.  Nor did the phonebook carry those names.  The Italian-American Museum also had no leads for  the surnames Sciancalepore and De Judicibus.

I decided that a more in depth exploration would have to be undertaken, perhaps when I retire and have more time this will be my priority.  Until then, the documents all went back into the strong box.

The First Nationwide Radio Broadcast


Have been boasting of Hoboken’s Firsts lately.  In 1921 Hoboken’s Erie Lackawanna Terminal was the location of the first nationwide radio broadcast.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The stunningly beautiful terminal opened in 1907 and was designed by architect Kenneth M. Murchison.  It has a Tiffany glass ceiling that is 50 feet high and walls of limestone, iron and bronze.  The main level is decorated with Greek Revival designs.  Last but not least is the spectacular double staircase with ornate cast iron balustrades.  The exterior has a copper roof and a high clock tower.

It is the clock tower that figures in the story of the first broadcast.  The heavy weight match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier was advertised as the boxing match of the century.  The problem was how to get the fight transmitted across the county.

A hastily assembled outdoor arena was built on a farm in Jersey City, New Jersey, not far from New York City.  More than 80,000 fans came to see the fight in person on July 2, 1921, producing boxing’s first million-dollar gate.    But the big news for many was the radio broadcast of the fight.

Originally an aerial tower was proposed on a site in Jersey City but was squashed because of it’s cost.  The Hoboken town fathers and the Erie Lackawanna Railroad men came to the rescue.  Aerial wires were strung between from the railroad station’s towers and Ma Bell used the telephone system to hook  up to microphone at  ringside..

And the rest is history.  The Dempsey-Carpentier match was heard from coast to coast thanks to Hoboken.  Dempsey knocked Carpentier out in the second round.

There is so much know about Hoboken.

Heaven, Hell and Hoboken – a great summer read is a must!  Get it on Amazon before your next trip.  You will not be disappointed.

Who knew?

Who knew that so many firsts came out of Hoboken, NJ, a town directly across the Hudson River from New York City?  You might remember it was the setting for the film “On the Waterfront.”  What you probably do not know is that the very first Kindergarten in the U.S. was started in Hoboken.

Hoboken was a very German town in the mid-ninteenth century and although a public school system existed, many Germans sent their children to the Hoboken Academy on Fifth and Willow Avenue.  On February 11, 1861, the board of education decided to include a kindergarten in the school’s curriculum.  This kindergarten was based on  a system of education that existed in Germany.  Seventy-seven children between the ages of 4 and 6 were enrolled.  They learned math, reading, science using toys, music,  play, and singing.

Dr. Adolf Douai, a social reformer and professor of music,  was the school’s first principal.

It was such a success, the public schools included a grade called Kindergarten.

Who knew?

Get Heaven, Hell and Hoboken through Amazon or B&N and learn what happened to “Kindergarten” when anti-German sentiment reared its ugly head with the outbreak of WWI.

First Detective Series by Poe

Hoboken is known for many things and there are approximately 100 firsts that can be credited to Hoboken.  Some are engineering feats, others are sports feats.  First baseball game was played Hoboken.  However did you know that in the literary world, the first Dectective Series in the US came out of Hoboken and was written by Edgar Allen Poe?

It seems that in the 8140s Poe wrote 3 murder and mayhew short stories using the dectective C August Dupin.  One story, the Mystery of Marie Roget was actually a murder that took place in Hoboken.

Working in John Anderson’s Tabacco Shop  the beautiful victim, a 21 year-old cigar girl, was known for her beauty.  She went missing on July 25th 1841.  Her dead body was found a few days later.

Poe was so intrigued by the news account he wrote the Mystery of Marie Roget.  He changed the setting to Paris, changed the victim’s name, had her body found in the Seine and used the detective Dupin to solve the mystery.  Who would have thunk it?

Hoboken – it’s more than the gentrified town across the Hudson from Manhattan

HEAVEN, HELL AND HOBOKEN, – through Amazon, B&N and Idea Press.

“Hoboken, “On the Waterfront” and the Jesuits

Ever wonder why a priest (Karl Malden) was hanging around the Hoboken docks and prodding  the pigeon-racing protagonist, Marlon Brando, into confronting the union mucky-mucks? Well I really didn’t understand it.

With my new work, HEAVEN, HELL AND HOBOKEN, I learned that the congregation of Catholic men called the Jesuits, short for the Society of Jesus, have long been fighting for social justice.  If you go to their web page it says “Jesuits believe that Christian faith demands a commitment to justice. This means confronting the structures of our world that perpetuate poverty and injustice.
HHH poster iphoneNo where was it more blatant then the dockyards of the New York harbor.  I see now why the Jesuit priest, Father Barry, was trying to get Terry Malloy to fight the corrupt employment practices on the docks of Hoboken in a peaceful way.  The Jesuits believed in peaceful resistance.

HEAVEN, HELL AND  HOBOKEN gives the reader a glimpse of how and when the unfair practices began on the docks around New York harbor.  This story line is woven through a tapestry of tragedy, romance, war, and ethnic conflicts.

Available through Amazon, B&N and Idea Press, it’s worth your time and is a great summer read.