Between 1820 and 1870 fewer than 25,000 Italians immigrated to America, and most were artisans and shopkeepers from northern Italy seeking a new market in which to work their trades. But from then to 1920 more than 4 million Italians came to America, mostly from the south, looking for a better life.
In the late 1800s, the peninsula of Italy had finally been brought under one flag, but decades of internal strife had left a legacy of violence, social chaos, and widespread poverty. The peasants, mostly in the rural south and on the island of Sicily, had little hope of improving their lot. Diseases and natural disasters swept through the new nation and its fledgling government could not bring aid to the people.
They had heard stories of the land called America, of farms to be worked, of coal to be dug, of cities to be built. But the voyage to get there would often be disease-ridden and dangerous. Most sailed “steerage,” which was located near the bottom of the ship. Many described it as a horrible experience. Lice infested their hair, almost everyone got seasick, and many died. When they saw the Statue of Liberty, the first thing most people did was get down on their knees, and in their native languages, they thanked God.
As many as 30 ships at a time, with more than 10,000 immigrants, would anchor in New York Harbor. There was no gold in the streets of America. They took what they found in the way of work and made the best of it.