Italian and Swiss Immigrants: Nineteenth-Century

The 1860 federal census reveals thirteen Italians and three Swiss Italians in the part of Utah Territory that would become Nevada. All of these immigrants were men and ten were miners. It was an inauspicious beginning for an ethnic group that would eventually play a dominant role in the state.

Italian-speaking immigrants present the historian with some difficulties. Italy was becoming a nation in the 1860s, and what eventually formed did not include the Italian speaking region of Switzerland. Recognizing Swiss Italians in the historical record is problematic because last names point towards ethnicity but are not completely reliable. At the same time, great differences separated immigrants from the northern Alpine region of Italy and those from Sicily, far to the south. The lengthy Italian peninsula was not conducive to homogeneity.

The 1870 federal census recorded 186 people of Italian nativity living in Nevada. An additional five came from Corsica, Rome, Lombardy, and Sicily. Two hundred and forty-seven Swiss immigrants eclipsed their Italian counterparts, although neither group was sizeable for the time. Roughly half of the Swiss names indicate Italian ethnicity, swelling the ranks of Italian speakers in 1870 to over three hundred, but they were still fewer than the Irish, Chinese, Germans, Canadians, and English. Even the French, not known for their presence in Nevada, outnumbered the Italians in 1870. The Italians included only ten women and of the twenty-eight women from Switzerland, less than ten had Italian last names. Hinting at future trends, most of the Italians in Nevada settled somewhere other than the Comstock.

The inconsequential number of Italian immigrants reversed itself by 1880. That year, the federal census recorded 1,557 Italians living in Nevada. Italian women continued to be rare, numbering only eighty-three. With a mere eighty-two Italians living in Storey County, the real story of their immigration continued to be elsewhere. Throughout the 1870s, Italians arrived in Nevada by the hundreds. As the Eureka Mining District prospered, hundreds of these immigrants settled in that area. Many served as charcoal burners, providing the source of energy needed to maintain Eureka's mills. The relationship between worker and mill owner eventually deteriorated into a labor conflict known as the Charcoal Burners War.

The 1890 federal census reported 1,129 Italians in Nevada, making them the sixth largest immigrant group in the state, following the Chinese, Irish, British, Canadians, and Germans. By 1900, Italians numbered 1,301, representing three percent of the state. These immigrants were only 0.2 percent of the nation, giving Nevada's Italians a higher per capita presence than any other state in the nation and twice that of any other western state.

According to tradition within the community of immigrants and their descendants, the majority of Nevada's Italians came from the northern half of the peninsula. It is not easy to verify this sort of anecdotal observation, although the large number of Italian-speaking Swiss may have been part of this picture. Similarly, descendants also tell of longevity among the Italian immigrants as they planted roots by purchasing real estate. The declaration begs for statistical analysis in comparison with other immigrant groups to determine if Italians were remarkable in this regard.

Article Locations

Related Articles

None at this time.

Further Reading

None at this time.