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Keweenaw Ethnic Groups
~The Italians~

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Italy suffered one of the largest population explosions in Europe in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, pushing many of its citizens to seek new opportunities in North America. Although the larger number of immigrants to the United States were from southern Italy, most of those who transplanted to Michigan’s Copper Country were from two counties in northern Italy. Although they suffered some of the worst discrimination and bigotry of any ethnic immigrant group, Italians developed significant communities in Calumet and South Range. Often given more menial jobs and substandard housing, Italians managed to develop a clearly discernable ethnic culture, complete with Italian-language newspapers, active benevolent societies, cooperative stores and other cultural traditions.


Italian Immigrant
Image #: Nara 42-121

Between 1880 and 1920, nearly four million Italians immigrated to the United States (Ital 1). As was the case with most European emigrants during this period, land pressure was the central “push factor” in their emigration. A rising Italian population increased pressure on the land. Between 1861 and 1901 Italy’s population doubled from 6 to 12 million and then increased to 18 million by 1916 (Ital 2). In southern Italy the land problem was most acute, as nearly all the land was owned by small elite who ruthlessly exploited the landless peasants working the land. It is therefore not surprising that the overwhelming majority of Italians who immigrated to the United States came from southern Italy. Indeed, in the decades between 1890 and 1910, about 85% of Italians who immigrated to the United States were from southern Italy (Ital 3).

Contrary to this larger geographic pattern of Italian immigration to the United States, the Italian community in Michigan’s Copper Country was principally drawn (over 90%) from northern Italy (Ital 4). Advancements in agriculture in northern Italy, that is, crop rotation and mechanization, improved the life of peasants but simultaneously increased population and reduced the need for agricultural labor (Ital 5). Northern Italy did experience moderate industrialization but the labor demands of that industrialization did not equal the labor surplus produced by improvements in agriculture. As such, many northern Italians were forced to emigrate, though clearly not at the rate of southern Italians.

Our understanding of the Italian community in the Copper Country has greatly benefited from the scholarship of Russell Magnaghi (Ital 6) and more recently Cristina Menghini’s master thesis: “Examining Patterns of Italian Immigration to Michigan’s Houghton County, 1860-1930 (Ital 7).” Menghini’s study, the most detailed migration study of any immigrant group in the Copper Country, uncovered specific chain migration links between ‘sending communities’ in northern Italy and ‘receiving communities’ in Houghton County. Half of the Italians in Houghton County had emigrated from the province of Torino, in the Piedmont region, and another quarter had emigrated from the province of Lucca, in the Tuscany region (Ital 8). Thus three-quarters of Italians in Houghton County had emigrated from just two of Italy’s 110 provinces.

One of the more interesting discoveries in Menghini’s study regarded settlement patterns in Houghton Country and chain migration. Calumet and South Range (Ital 9) emerged as the two main destinations for Italian immigrants, with half living in Calumet and a quarter living in South Range. In Calumet, Italians from Torino numerically dominated while in South Range, Italians from Lucca numerically dominated (Ital 10). Not surprisingly, Menghini found that nearly three-quarters of Italians in Houghton Country in 1910 worked either in the mines or mine related occupations (Ital 11).

St. Mary's Church - Calumet
Image #: MTU Neg 00368

Italians had immigrated to the Copper County as early as the 1860s but did not appear in large numbers until the 1890s. By the turn of the century, the Italian Immigrant community accounted for seven percent of the foreign born population in Houghton County and was the largest Italian Immigrant community in Michigan (Ital 12). Indeed, in 1900 a quarter of the entire foreign-born Italian population in Michigan resided in Houghton County (Ital 13). By 1920, Italian immigrants accounted for 10% of the foreign born population in Houghton County, making them the third largest immigrant group behind the Finns and the Cornish (Ital 14).

Numerical census data, however, does not clarify whether the Italians enumerated in 1910 were the same Italians enumerated in 1920. Many probably were not, as there appears to have been a high degree of fluidity with the Italian immigrant community. Scholars have estimated that nearly half (48%) of the northern Italians who immigrated into the United States returned back to Italy (Ital 15). A 1910 Report to the Senate Immigration Commission, which surveyed over 500 Italians in the Copper Country, found that nearly a quarter (24%) had returned home at least once since their initial immigration to the United States (Ital 16). The attachment to the “old country” for many Italian immigrants on the Keweenaw transcended ethnic bonds as 44% of the Italians survived in the Immigration Commission Report had their wives living back in Italy (Ital 17).

Similar to all large immigrant communities in the copper country, Italians formed numerous religious, cultural, fraternal, beneficial, political and social organizations to help maintain community identity while simultaneously assisting with their transition into the larger American society. First among these Italian American organizations were mutual benefit societies that collected dues and served as an insurance pool to be extended to members in times of financial stress, such as an illness, an injury or death. Established in 1875, the Italian Mutual Beneficial Society was the first such Italian organization in the Copper Country. It built a series of Italian Halls, which were rented as a meeting place for various ethnic and social organizations in Calumet. Like many mutual benefit societies, the Italian Mutual Beneficial Society transformed itself in a social organization. It was through such organizations that Italian immigrants and their children located housing, found work, organized into political blocks and met their prospective mates. Italians in Calumet also created the Italian Cooperative Store in 1912 while Italians in South Range united with Croatians to establish South Range Cooperative Store in 1907 (Ital 18).

Italians in the Copper Country also produced a number of newspapers and periodicals in their native language. Il Minatore Italiano, (The Italian Miner) was daily newspaper that ran from 1896 until the 1930s (Ital 19). Although published in Laurium, Il Minatore Italiano served the larger Italian reading community in the Copper Country. Italian socialists published La Sentinella (The Sentinel) from 1896 to 1903 and the L’Indipendente (The Independent) was launched in Hancock in 1917 (Ital 20). In Calumet, the Legion of the Knights of Romulus published Pro Norbis (For Us), a monthly review, which sought to promote Italian culture and to combat the view that Italians were ignorant (Ital 21). This struggle was common among Italian Americans who, as an ethnic group, encountered the greatest bigotry and discrimination of any European ethnic group. In general, the American press portrayed Italians dangerous, cruel, bloodthirsty and lazy (Ital 22). The Report of the Immigration Commission noted the view of mine owners towards their Italian workers: “North Italians have been found available and efficient for the lower positions requiring little degree of skill. In this connection it should be noted the North Italian in the section [Michigan’s’ Copper Country] is held in much greater respect than is the South Italian. There is little or no prejudice against the North Italian (Ital 23).”


The brief memoirs of Vincensa Galetti Feather take us beyond the numbers of immigration, the push and pull factors, and ethnic institutions and offer a glimpse in to the lives of the Italian immigrants in the Copper Country. Her father emigrated in 1898 from the small village of San Giorgio, Canavese in Piedmont to join his brother who lived in Calumet. The following year, her mother followed and her parents were wed at St. Mary’s church, a predominantly Italian Catholic parish church in Calumet. They later moved to South Range where her father worked in the Baltic Mine. Vincensa recalled that the Italians in her neighborhood created beautiful vegetable gardens and that her family had a cow for milk and cheese, a pig for sausage and pork and chickens for eggs and meat. In the fall, her family would join their neighbors to make wine. On every Saturday night, her family would go to Santori’s Hall, above Santori’s Saloon, which, see added, “was a very clean and proper place.” At the Hall, her family would join with other Italian families and dance and sing Italian songs. She also remembered going to Calumet to attend mass at St. Mary’s and was there in 1913 to watch the long funeral procession for the victims of the Italian Hall disaster, her cousin Kate being among the victims.

In closing, she remarked: “I wish to pay homage to those pioneers of the Copper Country, our parents who toiled, rejoiced and sorrowed there…. It was in that melting pot that we first learned the meaning of brotherhood, understanding, love of neighbor and most of all, that glorious lesson of endurance.” She also wanted to pay homage to those who taught the children of the foreign born as they blended the cultures of the old world with the new and showed their students the golden door of opportunity. Vincensa, of course, was among those children and she took advantage of those opportunities. She graduated from Painsedale High School and went on to train as teacher at the normal school at Marquette (Northern Michigan University). After graduation, she returned to the Copper County to teach for a year at the Painsedale Junior High School. But like many of her generation, she left the Copper Country, in her case, for a teaching job in Detroit (Ital 24).

Further Readings:

See the naturalization papers for Italian immigrant Domenico Balagna.

Cannistraro, Philip V. and Gerald Meyer, Eds. The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism: Politics, Labor, and Culture. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.

Magnaghi, Russell. Miners, Merchants and Midwives: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Italians, Marquette, Michigan: Bell Fontaine Press, 1987

--------. Italians in Michigan, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001
Menghini, Cristina. “Examining Patterns of Italian Immigration to Michigan’s Houghton County, 1860-1930.” MS Thesis, Department of Social Sciences, Michigan Technological University, 2004.

Nelli, Humbert S. From Immigrants to Ethnics: the Italian Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Tomasi, Lydio F, ed. Italian Americans: New Perspectives in Italian Immigration and Ethnicity. Staten Island, NY: Center for Migration Studies, 1985


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