On Wings of Gold

By Tony Quinn, United States

Hello, I am Tony Quinn and I am happy to share some of my research with you.  I knew of my Ticinese heritage from childhood just listening to family stories, but I really began serious research 12 years ago, and in 1999 I produced a book, for family use, on the history of my three Swiss families: Salmina of Intragna, Dodini of Lavertezzo and Morisoli (spelled Morosoli in USA) of Monte Carasso.  Here is the opening chapter of my book.  I would be happy to share the full text with anyone who is interested.

I called my book “On Wings of Gold” after the wonderful aria on the longing for an ancient homeland in Verdi’s “Nabucco”.  Unfortunately, it is only in English; my mother who died last year aged 101 was the last in our family who could read and write Italian.  The language of our ancestors is now lost in my family.

From: “On Wings of Gold”:

“Content in its conservative ways, nestled safely at Europe’s center, the Italian part of Switzerland passed the centuries in secure isolation.  Then, about 150 years ago, the tides of history caught up with these sleepy valleys at the foothills of the Alps.  For generations, men of Italian Switzerland had gone south into Italy looking for work.  But Italy in the 1850s was beset by unrest and nationalist revolution, and suddenly the Swiss were forced home to their impoverished valleys and villages.

“Here for generations they had scratched out a living in mountain hamlets their ancestors had settled to escape disease and pillaging armies.  But life was tough and by the middle 1800s, more than 10 percent lived and worked in Italy.  Now they faced a choice, try to survive in their ancient villages, or seek a new life half a world away in a land called California.

“Why California?  Some Swiss actually went to Australia, on rumors of gold.  But California actually had gold, and more.  The rich soil and vast vistas that stretched from mountain to Pacific created an idealized version of their own villages in the lush Alpine foothills.  Like men from Germany, France, England and China, many Swiss came looking for gold, but then repeated their homeland experiences as farmers and dairymen, setting down roots and staying.  Between 1852 and 1856 alone, nearly 1,000 men, and two women, abandoned a single Swiss valley for California. In the years before 1930, some 30,000 Swiss chose California, most single men.  Many did not intend to stay; just to make enough money and return home.  Some found sadness and death in California, but many others realized their dreams and prospered, settling down and remaining.

“The Italian Swiss migration to California is unique in several ways.  For the most part, it predates the large scale Italian migration that gave California much of its early character.  In turn of the century studies of prominent Californians, more often than not those with Italian names are identified as Italian Swiss.  While most Italian immigrants went to the cities, the Swiss went to the countryside, often to work in a dairy.

“They also formed unique communities that even in today’s polyglot California survive in places like western Marin County and along the central coast.  One Italian Swiss could meet another and know instinctively from his last name what village in the old country he came from.   They would speak, not in the standard Italian of Tuscany, but in a northern, Lombard-Italian mountain dialect that incorporated bits of German and French, as might be expected from the tri-lingual country they came from.

“For the Italian Swiss were neither “real” Italians nor “real” Swiss.  They did not come from the kingdom that had united itself into Italy by the 1860s, although they ate the same food and went to the same church; the “o” “i” of their names sounded Italian, their accents were Italian.

“But they weren’t Swiss either, in the sense of alpenhorns, chocolate, or rich bankers.  That was German and French Switzerland, separated from Italian Switzerland by a high mountain range, and by religion, language and culture.

“They were what they called each other, Ticinese, for the river Ticino that flows through the canton of that name, the only of Switzerland’s 20 cantons and six half-cantons where Italian is the first language, where the half-timbered houses of northern Switzerland give way to the red tiled roofs of the Mediterranean world.

“On the third day of September in the year 1898, the paternal Irish visage of the Reverend Father Patrick Blake, pastor of the parish of St. Helena in Napa County, California, gazed down on Kate Salmina and Fulgenzio Morosoli, two children of Ticino, about to take their marriage vows.  As Father Blake knew well, it was the mission of stern Irish priests in America to minister to the pastoral needs of an immigrant church, and he had performed many a marriage for those who answered his questions in heavy Italian accents.

“These two were a bit different.  The 20 year-old Kate spoke perfect English; her Ticinese father was already one of the town’s prominent citizens, a respected hotel owner.  The groom, who had already Americanized his name to Frank, answered in the soft accent of Cugnasco, the town in Ticino’s Magadino Plain he had left as a 15 year-old just six years before.

“Unlike many immigrant marriages, this one would not last long.  Just ten years and four months later, Father Blake would bury Frank, dead from food poisoning, leaving Kate a young widow with three children.  She would live on another 62 years, but in that time the old immigrant ways would disappear.  The last of this family born in Switzerland would die in 1948.  In time, their children and grandchildren would mingle with the kaleidoscope of cultures that is America.

“But what were the forces of history, and of chance, that brought Kate and Frank to St. Helena in Napa’s fertile valley?  How was it they were here at this place and at this time?  And most importantly, who really were they, and where did they come from?”

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