Podcast: Galveston, Texas and Italian Immigration

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Italians have a long history in Texas. The earliest Italians arrived during the years of Spanish exploration. 300 years before ports opened up along the Texas coast. Although they did not settle, these explorers arrived in Texas with Spaniard Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1541.

Italian settlers first arrived in the late 1700s as merchants. Settling in Nacogdoches and modern-day East Texas, working as farmers, miners, brick makers and railroad workers. An Italian arrived in Del Rio and established Texas’s first winery in 1883.

Immigration into the Republic of Texas opened in the 1840s in ports like Galveston and Indianola. Europeans sought land and prosperity in the expansive, fertile territory of Texas. Galveston, second to only Ellis Island by number of immigrants passing through the port.

For context, what we know as Italy today, in the 1800s, was a patchwork of small governments and un-unified regions known as the Italian states in a constant form of instability.

Italians began to arrive at a slow rate in the mid-1800s and found much success with businesses like ice cream parlors, restaurants, tobacco stores, and law offices. After the American Civil War, Italians began to arrive en masse.

In 1876, an Italian Mutual Benevolent Society was formed to provide assistance to fellow immigrants. The society purchased a plot of land in Calvary Catholic Cemetery and built a mausoleum, known as the Italian Vault. The vault served as a resting place for deceased members until burial could take place in the cemetery.

The bulk of Italian arrivals at the Port of Galveston occured between 1896 and 1920. Italians not only arrived by sea, but moved from all over the country to Galveston to improve their lifestyle.

By 1906, half of all grocery stores on the island and a quarter of all confectionaries and shoemakers were owned by people of Italian heritage. Galveston's first Columbus day celebration was held in 1912, which highlights the growing community and expanding culture. The celebration drew a large crowd in which Mayor Fisher spoke about the grit that Italians possess.

Many sources cite Italians as being very involved in civic affairs in their community, which makes a lot of sense considering most had fled Italy due to economic and political corruption.

Imagine buying your seafood from a fish peddler named Luigi Cobolini, who had been born to a prominent family in Northern Italy, due to political unrest, he led an attempted a seizure of Rome in 1867 and was forced to flee his home country. Cobolini became a labor leader in Galveston. He acquired a fleet of ships and became one of the most successful businessmen in the fishing industry in Galveston.

Echoed through Italian communities, to be without family is a state of non-being. The family unit is placed above one's personal ambition. To Italian families, food was the symbol of life, of all that was good and nourishing. Plentiful food in the kitchen was a sign of family well-being. We can thank this sentiment for the wonderful Italian food Galvestonians have been able to find on the island!

Galveston was home to the "Il Messaggiero Italiano", an Italian language newspaper published in Galveston and San Antonio from 1907 to 1913. For Italian-Galvestonians, whether Catholic or Protestant, membership in the Church was a pillar of culture. Italian's pragmatism, individualism, and superstitions made waves with the predominantly Irish religious structure in Galveston. These churches in turn, have been influenced by the Italian heritage with religious practices, feasts, and even services in Italian.

Galveston is no stranger to aspects of Italian-American culture, including the phenomena of Italian-American mafia activity. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Galveston was dubbed the "Free State of Galveston" in which gambling, drinking, and prostitution were all tolerated on the island. Sam and Rosario Maceo owned and operated establishments such as the Balinese Room, The Hollywood Dinner Club, and many other bars, clubs, and casinos which operated with impunity thanks to the payoff of police, politicians, and major organizations.

Eventually, the organization was shut down by the Texas Rangers in 1957.

Regardless of why Italians moved to Texas, they brought with them their strong cultural identity which has been defined by traditions of food, faith and family, and in turn, has shaped Galveston's culture today!

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."