The treasure of Ellis Island

Published 2:55 pm Friday, August 28, 2009

It was an old photo album, probably 60 to 80 years old, kept by my grandmother.

The photos were of her family, not her modern family, but photos of herself as a young girl, photos with her parents and brothers, aunts and cousins. The oldest we believe went back to 1911, with Esterina Coppo standing with her mother, Carolina, who was born in 1877, her father, Antonio Coppo, and her older brothers, Alcide and Guido.

If those names sound Italian, they are. Both my grandparents on my mother’s side came to America from Italy in the early part of the last century, being processed through Ellis Island, after departing aboard ship from Italy.

Research into origins of my Italian immigrants began a few weeks ago, when my daughter perused the photo album, wanting to know who were those people. My memory was suspect, so at the time, I wasn’t much help. But since then, small things jog my memory, and some of who they are is coming back.

For their age, the photos are in remarkable condition, but unfortunately, few identify the subjects. Some are snapshots of family outings, similar to snapshots we take today of our own family events. Some are studio portraits, very Italian.

The photos sparked her interest as to who were these people, and where had they come from. For the last few weeks, she has been tracking them through on-line records easily available to anyone wishing to research family origins.

On line, you can view actual pages of the Ellis Island entries, documenting people and dates as to who came to America as immigrants. Ship manifests also are available, and they show who was on board, where they came from and of course dates. Children as well as adults are listed. Ellis Island records also indicate their destination in America. Great-grandmother Carolina with young daughter Esterina, was headed for 86 Highland Street in Patterson, N.J. The 1910 census also lists them still living at that address. (Census records also available on-line).

It’s easy to calculate my grandmother’s age. She was born in 1900, was listed on the ship’s manifest and on the Ellis Island records as coming here in July 17, 1906, just a few days before here sixth birthday. Records indicate they came from a norther Italian town called Andorno.

My grandfather, Vincenzo Grande, born in 1893, passed through Ellis Island in 1912 at the age of 19. After coming to America, he added a first name, “James,” and became James V. Grande. Most everybody now called him “Jim.” We believe he came from the town of Cuiello. We also know where I got my first name. (Thank goodness he changed it).

The records also tell us that Esterina’s father, Antonio Coppo, born in 1873, came to America first in 1905, to the Highland Street address in Patterson, N.J., believed to be the home of his brother. We believe his original hometown was Costanzano, Italy.

About the same time my daughter was gathering this research, I had been reading a book by Gay (Gaetano) Talese, titled “Unto The Sons.” Talese was writing about his early childhood, reconstructing his father’s life growing up in Maida, Italy, apprenticing to be a tailor and dyer, and documenting as accurately as possible, life in small town southern Italy about the same time my grandparents were settling into the new world.

Talese’s father as a young man immigrated to America and settled in Ocean City, N.J. He was a tailor, apprenticed in his hometown, then acquired additional schooling in Paris. As the years went by, Joseph Talese with his wife and two children ran a tailor business combined with cleaning and dying plus ladies’ and men’s wear.

The similarities were startling, because when my grandfather came to America he listed his trade as a tailor, and soon had his own business with the sideline of cleaning and dying, and eventually with the help of my grandmother in later years, adding lines of women’s and men’s clothing.

What I am getting from the Talese’s book, is that if you were a tailor in these towns in Italy, you made most of the clothing people were wearing. Otherwise, you worked the farms. These were the days before mass marketing of clothes. Talese himself laments the fact that when he want to school, growing up in Ocean City, all his clothes were tailor-made by his father in the European styling. He didn’t like his clothes, which set him apart from common clothes worn by his American-born classmates.

Talese’s father and my grandfather had something else in common too as did many Americans who immigrated from the European countries. World War II stressed their loyalties. They are now American citizens, but parts of their families remain in Italy, and their native country is aligned with Nazi Germany.

On the West Coast during the war, Japanese Americans were herded into concentration camps. The Italians in America on the east coast had to constantly prove their loyalty as Americans.

Well, my daughter is still tracking her Italian ancestors. There are many holes yet in their stories, mostly what we have to go by is the records we can find. Like everyone’s ancestors, they have long departed this Earth and there is no one to answer family genealogy questions.

If you have ancestors who came to America and went through Ellis Island, start your search at www.ellisisland.org. See what you can find. Before your senior citizens are gone, get them talking. If you have old family photos, be sure they are identified. Somewhere, sometime, 50 or 80 years from now, a great-great-grandperson will want to know who these people are.