On Wings of Gold
The Journey to America of the Salmina, Morosoli and Dodini Families of Switzerland
By T. Anthony Quinn
On Wings of Gold
Fly, our thoughts, on wings of gold,
Fly to our native valleys and hills.
Fly to the sweet soil of our homeland.
Oh, memories so precious yet filled with despair.
Oh, golden harp of our prophets,
Why do you hang silently on the willow tree?
Sing out once again.
And remind our hearts of days long past.
Va Pensiero, from the opera Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi
When I set out to write a history of my Swiss ancestors, I faced two difficulties: inability to read, write or speak Italian, their native language; and no idea where to start looking for them.
The problem was solved in 1997, when my good friend Luree Stetson asked me to accompany her and her father, aunt and uncle, and cousins to search out their ancestry in the Martinelli family of Valle Maggia in Switzerland’s Canton Ticino. I learned that church records are available, handwritten in Latin, for every village in Ticino, some dating as far back as the 1500s. I also learned that civil records exist from the middle 1800s to current times.
Upon returning to California, I discovered that microfilmed copies of many of these records are available at Mormon Church Family History Centers for genealogical research, making it very easy to do research on Switzerland here in America.
A great many people helped me in my journey through these records as I reconstructed the lives of the Salmina, Morosoli and Dodini families. Rae Codoni of Modesto was my first mentor in my efforts to read and interpret the old church records, and provided me with much helpful information on our common heritage in the Valle Verzasca. Jay Grossi of Sacramento, professor of Italian, provided important insight into the culture and traditions of our common homeland. Jay read and critiqued this text, helping assure that I accurately described Swiss history and culture, and correctly spelled the Italian names. Jay also acted as interpreter for me during my 1998 trip back to Switzerland
In Switzerland, I am grateful for the help and support of many people. Dr. Giorgio Cheda of Locarno, the country’s foremost expert on the emigration of Italian Swiss to California, gave me insight into the reasons for that emigration, and the historical significance of Ticino Switzerland.
In Intragna and Corcapolo, I am indebted to my many Salmina cousins, especially Laura Maggetti who supplied me early data on our common Salmina ancestors, and Eva Giubbini, who acted as interpreter for me on both trips, and also provided me helpful materials on the architectural history of the canton.
In Monte Carasso, home village of my Morosoli ancestors, I am especially indebted to Antonio Guidotti, my cousin and the town’s genealogist, who spent hours reconstructing my family there and showed how the Morosoli and Morisoli families are actually one. My cousin. Marco Rapetti, was also very helpful in giving me insight into the geography of the area. Antonio and Marco spent a full day showing me the tiny hillside hamlet where our common ancestors had lived for more than 800 years.
Antonio Guidotti made it possible for me to restore contact with our family’s Morisoli relatives after more than a century. Anita Rizzi provided vivid recollections passed down for three generations of the life of my great grandfather, Fulgenzio Antonio Morosoli.
I also appreciated greatly the opportunity to meet the last of my grandfather’s 37 first cousins, the late Ugo Guidotti of Monte Carasso.
Much of my knowledge of the Morosoli and Dodini families comes from my Cugnasco cousins, Antoinetta Agustoni, Maria Rivera, and her son Dr. Brenno Rivera. Their recollections of our great grandmother, Antonia Dodini Morosoli, were especially helpful.
In California, Myra Manfrina of Lompoc shared with me her work on 10 generations of Monte Carasso families and their California descendants. Ann Enderlin of Calistoga helped me with the history of the Tucker family who were joined by marriage to the Salmina family. My Dodini cousins in America, Fred Dodini of Salt Lake City and Bill Adams of San Jose, provided important background on the Dodini family’s migration to California. Kathy Kernberger in St. Helena and Shirley Penland in Oakville helped me find early information on the Salminas, and on the Gaggetta family of Lavertezzo, home village of the Dodini family. Don and Alice Martinelli in St. Helena helped me unravel the various Monte Carasso families who settled there. Pete and Peggy Molinari of Greenbrae provided materials on other Intragna settlers in the Napa Valley. Jim and Georgie Monighetti of Alamo educated me on the “little monks” of Monte Carasso. Bill Betts of Roseville introduced me to the Dedini line of Lavertezzo families. I greatly appreciate all their help.
This book is testament to the tremendous contribution to recorded human history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members have copied genealogical records throughout the world. Nearly two decades ago, church missionaries, working with the Roman Catholic diocese of Lugano, microfilmed all existing Catholic baptismal, marriage and death records in Ticino. This effort preserves these records for all time, especially important since many are hundreds of years old and written on faded and decaying parchment. A copy of the microfilm is available in Lugano, and researchers in America may obtain copies through Mormon Family History Centers here. To protect privacy, only records prior to 1899 are available for public circulation.
My introduction to the Family History documents came through my cousin, the late Michael Kenny, Bishop of Juneau, Alaska, who obtained early Salmina records on a trip to Salt Lake City. He and I discussed a joint genealogy project before his untimely death in 1995.
This collaboration between the Mormon and Catholic Churches has preserved the history of thousands of families that might well have been lost through neglect or damage. Unfortunately, the civil authorities in Canton Ticino have not been so enlightened, and do not allow reproduction of 19th Century civil records that would be most helpful in reconstructing emigrant families.
Throughout my research, no people were more helpful to me than the staff and volunteers of the Mormon Family History Centers in Modesto and Sacramento, where I did much of my work. I especially appreciate the friendly helpfulness of the Sacramento staff in assisting me in copying literally hundreds of pages of microfilmed church records.
I want to pay special tribute to my great aunt, Severina Salmina, who was born in 1879 and died in 1965. In the 1950s, she carefully recorded the reminisces of her mother, Sabina Salmina, as a young peasant girl in Corcapolo. These recollections of life a century and half ago painted a vivid picture of that world I found extremely helpful.
I am also very thankful that no one in my family throws away old pictures. Many of the photographs in this book come from Aunt Sever’s tattered, hundred year-old photo album, for which I thank her nieces, Katherine Vanoncini and Jeanne Edson.
My mother, Sabina Morosoli Quinn, shared her recollections of growing up in a Swiss immigrant household and gave context to the lives of many of these first generation Californians.
Finally, this work is dedicated to all those of my family who crossed the great ocean, forsaking the familiar and secure Old World for a life of uncertainty and challenge in the New World. This is their story.
Trapped by its mountains, Switzerland has long defeated a hostile geography and turned to its own advantage an unenviable position in an often unstable Europe. Sunshine sparkles on the lakes, and as Nature surely intended, the grim terrain becomes a single vast hotel, with full banking facilities, the easiest country in the world to dawdle in.
Excursions in the Real World, 1993
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, 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?
TICINO IN THE MIST OF HISTORY
“We’ve been Swiss for not quite 200 years, but we’ve been Italian for a thousand.”
“All of Switzerland is very beautiful, but without the Italians, it would be a garden without flowers.”
Letter from Ticino, The New Yorker, 1987
In the 1840s, the Italian patriot and composer Giuseppe Verdi wrote an opera called The Lombards at the First Crusade, as his poem to Italian national character. In it, the brave Lombards of northern Italy rescue Christianity and save the Holy Land from infidels. Lombardy was a good choice. For generations, its industrious peasants had made this the most developed and prosperous part of the Italian peninsula. It was from the Lombard experience that Ticino Switzerland evolved.
Switzerland enters history as Helvetia, inhabited by Celtic tribes from central Europe who swept into northern Italy 400 years before Christ. These Celts, described as having round heads, hazel gray eyes, and chestnut hair, eventually were absorbed into the Roman Empire, which, for good reason paid much attention to what went on in northern Italy. Rome’s security depended on control of the Alpine passes that led into central Europe, populated by barbarians who constantly threatened the empire.
Romans gave these Celtic tribes the name Helveti, and Switzerland pays homage to this past in its official name, the “Confoederatio Helvetica”, today embossed on Swiss coins, and on the logogram CH affixed to Swiss cars. The Helvetians became an important part of the Empire, protecting Rome from northern invasion.
That is, until the 5th century after Christ when the barbarian invasions began. Barbarians were a name the Greeks, and later the Romans, gave to the wild, warlike people of northern Europe who eventually overran Rome. One such tribe were the Lombards, who came from the Elbe valley in modern Germany, and in the 6th Century occupied former Roman provinces in northern Italy, where they built a powerful kingdom.
Things did not always go well. In 572, the Lombard king Albion was murdered by his wife, Rosamund, because Albion had killed her father and made his skull into a drinking cup. Family quarrels or not, the Lombards had chosen a good place. The rolling hills and valleys of northern Italy were fed year around by Alpine snowmelt, creating fertile farmland. Peasants could graze their animals in the high mountains in summer and protect them from the elements in valleys in winter. Eventually, the Lombards settled into a nomadic agrarian life, adopting Christianity, and the Italian language and culture of the time.
Following the Ticino River northward, peasant families made their way to the banks of Italy’s northern lakes and into the valleys of today’s Swiss Ticino, bringing Italian culture and life as far north as the Saint Gotthard pass. By the 700s, they had founded villages with distinct names that survive today. North of the Saint Gotthard, the Alpine Swiss had formed independent cantons, or city states, hoping their mountain isolation would keep them clear of Europe’s endless dynastic wars. These Swiss spoke mostly German or a German dialect, their neighbors to the south spoke an Italian dialect.
After the year 1000, the Lombards began intensive settlement of the Ticino area, homesteading the area with stone houses in the security of the high Alpine valleys above the Ticino River. Flowing from the Alps, the Ticino meanders southeastward first through the Valle Leventina, and then turns westward into the Valle Magadino before flowing into Lago Maggiore, the large lake shared between today’s Switzerland and Italy. Other rivers come down from the Valle Verzasca, Valle Maggia and Centovalli, all to converge at the lake.
While the rivers provided a lifeblood of water, they also proved a problem. Malaria developed in the stagnant flatland during hot summers. Marshes made for poor forage, and bandits often roamed the valleys. Ever present was the threat that a passing army that would impress young men into service, or the local duke’s tax collectors would seize the peasants’ cows and goats. The easy solution was permanent settlement in protective hillsides, so tiny hamlets sprouted high above the Ticino’s watershed. People who spoke the Lombard-Italian dialect populated these high valley hillsides and plateaus.
Most often, they just wanted to be left alone, away from wars, plagues and politics. Across the Valle Verzasca, little more than a rocky gorge, the peasants built a wall with a locked gate to keep the outside world at bay. Favored settlements were up boxed valleys with no outlet.
But staying clear of politics was not always possible. In 1230, the Saint Gotthard Pass was opened, thus providing a short route between Germany and Italy. It ran right through the Ticino. Germany was then part of the Holy Roman Empire, really a collection of squabbling dukedoms that, as one observer put it, was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire. Italy was a series of city-states, of which the Papal States, ruled by the pope in Rome, was the most powerful. The independent-minded Swiss didn’t want to be governed by either the empire or the pope.
In 1239, a village called Bellinzona that could trace its existence back to 721 was conquered by forces loyal to the duke of Milan, who saw advantage in controlling the area south of the Saint Gotthard Pass. The Ticino area became part of the duchy of Milan with ecclesiastical authority exercised by the Catholic bishop of Como. For a time, all of Lombardy was united under the Milan duchy, which flourished under dukes of the Visconti and Sforza families.
Given the influence of Milan and Como, slowly a culturally northern Italian civilization developed. Villages took Italian names; as much as anything was written down, it was written in Latin or Italian. At Monte Carasso, high above Bellinzona, villagers began building a stone church in the late 1100s that they named for San Bernardo. In the 1400s, Lombard muralists influenced by Renaissance art decorated church walls with detailed frescos of the life of Christ that look as fresh today as they did 500 years ago. In 1480, on a high rock above Lago Maggiore, one Brother Bartolomeo began a cult to the Virgin Mary that in the 1500s became the church of the Madonna del Sasso, Our Lady of the Rock, today an imposing structure overlooking the city of Locarno and the lake.
Life of the medieval peasant in Ticino revolved around church, family, village and cattle. The basic staples were cheese, cooked chestnuts, broad beans, and rye or barley breads. Peasants foraged their cows and goats through the verdant hillsides, avoiding, if possible, much contact with the outside world. But in the late 1400s, things began to change, and the outside world again found its way in.
In 1475, inhabitants of the Valle Leventina renounced their allegiance to Milan. In 1503, three German Swiss cantons, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, known as the forest cantons, gained control of the area south of the Saint Gotthard pass. Twelve years later, in 1515 at the battle of Marignano, a French army conquered the duchy of Milan.
In the confusing diplomacy that followed, the German Swiss cantons obtained full control over all the Ticino. It’s unlikely many of the peasants noticed that they had switched from Milanese (Italian) rule to Swiss (German) rule. The German Swiss sent overseers, called “landfogti,” to govern Ticino from Bellinzona, building there a large fortress and castle, but they did little to affect the everyday life of the Ticino peasant. Ticino was now a colony of the German Swiss cantons, functioning largely as an outpost guarding Switzerland against invasion through the Saint Gotthard Pass.
Writing in the New Yorker magazine in 1987, William Murray, described the landfogti system:
The Swiss landfogti, as these governors were known, were appointed for two-year terms, and their main concern was raising money. The post was auctioned off to the highest bidder, and during the first year of his administration, a governor spent much of his time trying to recoup his investment. The second year was devoted to milking enough from the local population to put together a little nest egg to go home. The Ticinese found themselves in the position of having, in essence, to pay protection money to their own government in order to be allowed to live in peace.
Under the landfogti system, economic and political development was specifically discouraged. The same year it began, 1515, the bridge over the Ticino River at Bellinzona washed out in a flood. It would not be replaced for three hundred years. This meant that the main roads from the German Swiss cantons through the Saint Gotthard Pass down into Lombardy went along the eastern shore of the River. That left the towns of the western shore, Locarno and the valleys of Maggia, Centovalli and Verzasca, largely cut off from the flow of commerce, and in effect from the rest of the world.
Perhaps it was not such a bad thing. Religious wars beset Europe throughout the 1500 and 1600s, but Ticino was only marginally involved, remaining entirely Roman Catholic. Switzerland elevated its renowned neutrality in these years which meant Ticino was not torn apart by European wars of conquest. Although Ticino was a sub-canton governed by the forest cantons of the north, it was allowed general autonomy. Ticino would not become fully self-governing until 1798, when the country was invaded in the midst of the Napoleanic Wars.
Such isolation protected Ticino but it was not without a price. Five times from 1556 to 1628, the region was decimated by plagues that resulted from malaria and pestilence in the stagnant valleys of the Ticino River. More families moved to the hills for protection, often clustering in small hamlets high on rock outcroppings with tiny gardens and vineyards terraced down the sides of hills.
Houses were made of stone, the one material in great supply, with slate and stone slabs for roofs. Rarely was any mortar used. Novelist Plinio Martini has written of these peasant homes:
They built with neither ruler nor plan, but in the wake of an ancient and assured tradition. Their art was an immediate response to the problems posed by daily toil, land conformation, periodical changes of pasture and the need to save themselves as much walking and effort as possible. Decoration was rare and then always modest, simple and unerring. Only religious sentiment made room for a painting. One cannot find even a corner that does not have its usefulness. Building in this way was a product of an ancient civilization, of an age-old experience that was based in deeply rooted moral values.
As Martini put it, the Ticino Swiss built “an architecture that binds man directly to nature.” Behind that architecture was a moral value that bound man to church. It may be hard for Americans with our notion of separate church and state to appreciate that, in this part of the world, church was government well into the 19th Century. Parish lines were the village lines, and it was the church that kept the records of human interaction. Often, the parish priest was the only one who could read and write.
Like governments anywhere, the church proved a mixture of good and bad. In 1555, some 173 people belonging to 55 prominent Locarno families were sent into exile as disloyal heretics. In 1591, it was revealed that a certain Father Giovanni in the Valle Verzasca had ten children by a mistress Maddalena, and ten more by a mistress Lucrezia. When the bishop asked to see his ordination papers, Father Giovanni explained they were lost in a fire. He was expelled from the church along with his surviving mistress, Lucrezia.
This was not an unusual situation in the Roman Catholic Church of the late Middle Ages. Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, raised an army and ransacked much of Italy in the late 1400s. For his efforts he was made a cardinal.
In 1517, one of the most important events in western history occurred when Martin Luther nailed 95 thesis on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, and ignited the Protestant Reformation. The intent was to reform the Christian church, and in the end that’s exactly what it did. The Reformation brought about the Protestant religions, but in the long run it also reformed the Catholic Church, and this affected every corner of Europe, even Ticino.
In 1563, Catholic Church fathers met in the Council of Trent to launch what became known as the Counter-Reformation. It culminated in a rebirth and a reformation of the Catholic faith. This involved redefining the relationship between the church and its faithful, and it set down guidelines for the behavior of priests and bishops. One decision was that every family must have a surname (known in Italian as a “cognome”) which would be passed down from generation to generation. The Council also decreed that records of the vital statistics in each parish must be recorded and preserved.
While Ticino remained distinctly Roman Catholic, as did all of Italy, the Counter-Reformation directly impacted village life. Areas now had defined parishes; a series of hamlets might be combined to form one parish, and that ultimately became the village. Every parish church now had an assigned priest, and for the first time written records were maintained for the village.
Most importantly, the peasants now were given a family identity with fixed last names. Some Ticinese had last names dating from the 1100 and 1200s, but in other cases, people were simply identified as son or daughter of whomever was the father, using first names only. Often the last name derived from the first male in a family.
Now, however, priests were required to record births, marriages, and deaths in their parish according to a strict formula. Each baptismal record, written usually in Latin, showed not only the baptized name of the baby, but also the names of the father and mother and each parent’s father.
Marriages were legitimized by bands of marriage being pronounced three times in the village church, and the priest certifying that there were no impediments to the couple joining in matrimony. At the time of death, last rites were recorded and the place of burial noted.
Trafford R. Cole, in his work, “Italian Genealogical Records,” notes that approximately one million Italian surnames exist, but that “the actual roots from which all surnames derive number only a few thousand.” These names generally group into four major categories: names that derive from a personal name, names from nicknames or characteristics of a particular person, names from a place, and names from a profession or vocation.
The isolation of Ticino made the development of “cognome” last names a slower process than elsewhere in the Italian-speaking world. Last names were not really permanent until the middle 1600s, and then often mired in confusion. On December 30, 1584, a certain Simone was born to Domenico and Margherita in the hamlet of Caneto, a part of the parish of Medeglia. In 1625, he had a son, baptized as Carlo of Simone of Caneto. By the time he had a son in 1658, Andrea, the last name was “Simone di Caneto.”
But that proved a mouthful, and when Andrea married in 1680 to Marta, the daughter of Giovanni di Borla, Andrea solved the problem by taking his wife’s last name, Borla, as his. Like Caneto, Borla was another hamlet of Medeglia, so it was easy for Andrea to take the place as his last name. And two hundred years later, his descendants using that name came to California. Others of the Caneto hamlet made Simoni the last name, others Canetti, and they too brought those names to the New World.
Often the last name was simply the oldest family in the village. In the tiny hamlet of Selmina in the Centovalli, spelled Salmina after 1800, the senior family took Selmina as its last name. The fact this name ends in the feminine “a” rather than the masculine “o” or “i” suggests this name began as a place rather than a male head of family.
Sometimes the name was a physical characteristic. In the early 1600s, in Lodrino, one family called itself “Dello Bello” (of the beautiful.) Unfortunately, the name didn’t stick. Another went by the name “Del Ros” (of the red, maybe a redheaded person). That in time became Rosso, and then Rossi, a common Italian and Italian Swiss name.
In the village of Corippo, a lame fellow got the last name, Gambetta, or short leg in Italian. His descendants migrated to Intragna, then throughout Europe, until one Gambetta became premier of France.
The church itself supplied some names. In the village of Ravecchia, the local church was named for Saint Blaise, Sanctus Blasius in Latin. In 1788, one Antonio de Blasius was baptized. But he saw no reason to go by a Latin name, so he became Antonio Del Biaggio (of Blaise). His name was later shortened to Biaggio, but when descendants of the various Del Biaggio families came to America, some went by the full name, some by Biaggio, and some by Biaggi.
The most interesting church-related name may be that of the Monighetti of Monte Carasso. In 1497, three cousins, Betto, Domenico and Giovanni were given temporary rights to a plot of land near the hillside church of San Bernardo in exchange for maintaining upkeep of the church. They carried out their duties like a monk does in a monastery, and were given the name “monighetti” which means “little monks.” They apparently did their jobs very well, and in 1561, their descendants received the land permanently. By the mid-1600s, with the coming of family names, Monighetti became the last name for all descendants of the original “little monks.” Today it is a family name both in Ticino and in America.
Perhaps the richest source of Ticinese last names comes from the simple John, Giovanni in Italian. From this we have Gianini, Gianoni, Giovannoni, Giovanora, Gianocca, Giovanetti, Giovanettini, Giovanettina, and so on. “G” was sometimes confused with “Z”, and so the names Zanoni, Zanetti, Zanotti.
Many Swiss Italian names are “derivatives,” that is names derived from words in the Lombard dialect used to describe personal characteristics. This name combination does not exist in English, but is common in Italian. Name endings like ”ini” “etta” and “elli” all denote smallness; “oni” denotes largeness. So Giannini is “small John,” Giannoni” is “large John.” Professor Joseph Gentilli, author of a book on Ticinese immigration to Australia, has categorized common name endings. He points out that endings like “olo” and “oli” denote a likeable, endearing person; “asci” and “ascia” denote a large and maybe a tough person; “acci” and “azzi” are disparaging characteristics.
These derived names using value endings allow a richness in Italian names not found in other languages. “Son of John” in English is Johnson, but Johnson has perhaps fifty different Italian forms, especially when the different endings are employed.
Mor, from the Italian word “moro” or dark for the complexion of north African Moors, was in the village of Monte Carasso combined with the derivative “oli” to form Morisoli. The “s” may have been added to make it easier to pronounce. Morisoli first appears as a last name around 1670. However, the priests generally spelled this name as they heard it, sometimes as Moresoli, or Morisolli, and outside of Monte Carasso, as Morosoli – a name which actually ties to families in villages near Lugano, but a name which nevertheless probably developed in the same way.
These derived names often combined a first name with some characteristic to describe a person. Tonascia, a name found in several different Ticino villages, probably comes from the first name Antonio, shortened to Ton, and “ascia” which means getting larger or possibly tough. Thus Tonascia could be roughly translated into English as Tough Tony – although interestingly, it uses a feminine “a” ending. This last name would not exist in English, but is easily formed in Italian using a shortened first name and a derived ending.
Priests often had a problem with the church rules that required that the baptism be in Latin while the names were pronounced in Italian. In the baptismal records, Giovanni became Joannis; Giacomo became Jacobus, Giuseppe, oddly enough, was Joseph; and last names beginning with G in Italian were spelled with a J in Latin. That confusion carried over to ending of names. Names ending in “o” in Italian, such as Martino were often first names; names ending in “i”, such as Martini, were family names,. Italian “o” words become plural with an “i”, and family names were the same. The priest, however, couldn’t end the name in “i” because Latin plurals with an “s”. So he did the next best thing – he combined both.
Thus a great many early last names in Ticino ended in “is.” Often a single person would be referred to using “o” as the name ending, but “is” as the family. Sometimes the word “De” was added before the last name, to show that the person was “of the” family, and in some cases that “De” has carried into the formal last name, as in DePrati, a name still found today.
In 1771, according to the baptismal record of Monte Carasso, Dominica, wife of Joannis (Giovanni) Morisolo of the family “de Morisolis” gave birth to a baby named Bernardi Antony. At the time of his marriage in 1798, he is Bernardo Morisolli, and at the time of his death in 1847, he is Bernardus Moresoli. Throughout his life he is known as Bernardo Morisoli, the proper Italian for this name. Today he has descendants using both Morisoli and Morosoli as last name spellings.
However, he actually has another name, “Barbetta,” meaning “a man with a small beard.” The peasants of Ticino were not into the linguistic finery of Italian and Latin, and usually called themselves names taken from their own dialect, nicknames known as “soprannomi.” The reason was not only linguistic, it was practical. Last names were unique to a village, and people married within the village, reusing the last names over and over. The last names came to define a clan of distantly related people, and the soprannomi denoted the actual family. Soprannomi, or dialect nicknames, were not written down because until very recently no way had been found to write the dialect language. Yet these names gave peasants a way to separate and trace branches of a family.
Barbetta is the soprannomi by which one branch of the Morisoli family of Monte Carasso is identified even today.
In Medeglia, after a while there were so many Borlas they identified themselves with three soprannomi names, Raspe, Pacot, and Rebusct. In the village of Sant’Antonino, the Stornetta family, a name originating in that village, had eight different soprannomi, including the nearly impossible to pronounce name “Sciuscioo.”
Soprannomi sometimes denoted an occupation or a characteristic. In Lavertezzo high in the Valle Verzasca, a family name Zendrini divided over time into Dodini, Dedini and Doda. Each of these then developed a series of soprannomi; one Dodini branch becoming Cordign, almost certainly after the Italian word “cordaio,” meaning a maker of rope.
On occasion, the soprannomi became the last name, thus providing a name that was not necessarily of Italian origin. In Lodrino, one Antonio Sacco de Bognuda was born in the 1640s. As he grew up, Sacco, the Italian last name, was dropped for Bognuda. A century and a half later, a Giulio Bognuda from Lodrino moved to Sant’Antonino, starting a family known there simply as Bognuda. In time, four dialect names evolved, Ludri, Burlina, Sbuga, and Cerin, by which branches of the Bognuda family became known.
This rich variety of Italian names combined with descriptive endings and modified by dialect words provided a means not only for the Ticinese to identify themselves within villages and clans in Ticino, but also was uniquely Italian Swiss in California. Names like Barloggio, Brughelli, Braghetta, Gaggetta, Pometta would not only identify someone as a native of Ticino, but of the village of Lavertezzo, the place where these names were first used.
So in 1898, when Fulgenzio Morosoli married Kate Salmina, a perceptive Swiss might have noted that if Fulgenzio was born, as he was, of a Monte Carasso family, his name was really Morisoli, and that Kate, born Salmina, was originally Selmina; and that he was related to everyone in world with the last name Morisoli and she to everyone in the world with the last name Salmina. But, in fact, because their families were from different valleys in Ticino, they were not related to each other.
And their last names gave away that most important fact, they were both Ticinese, not Italians, and natives of the only spot on the face of the earth where these names existed.
THE SALMINA FAMILY OF INTRAGNA
Behind Intragna, a old bridle path leads up the valley to the “Hundred Valleys,” Centovalli. It is sultry, sometimes, barren, sometimes clothed with luxuriant vegetation, dotted with chapels and abounding in picturesque scenery,
but quiet and lonesome to a degree.
Locarno and Its Valleys, 1890
The steel doors clang shut and the Centovalli train departs Locarno’s underground station exactly on time, as it always does. Swiss efficiency. Inside, a group of American hikers settles comfortably into soft leather seats for the final leg of their long journey from the states. The train makes its way into the hills above Locarno, and at Cavignano, the hikers stir with anticipation. Their journey is about over; in moments they will reach their destination, a rustic village from which they will hike ancient trails carved into the countryside by generations of hardy mountain folk.
The train quietly climbs the gorge of the Melezza river, then with a shrill sound of its whistle, turns sharply to its left to cross a century-old steel bridge, and there it is, what Americans would call an “unspoiled” relic of Europe’s past, the village of Intragna.
Set high on rock outcroppings where two rivers converge, Intragna’s every structure points towards its dominating campanile, a 100-foot tall tower rising from the town’s central piazza, which village folks proudly boast is Ticino’s highest.
Before settling in at Intragna’s Hotel Antico to recover from jet lag, the hikers set out on a quick tour. A hazy afternoon sun throws a rosy hue onto the ancient stone houses as the hikers make their way along twisting cobblestone pathways leading down from the town center, barely wide enough for a horse, if anyone had a horse when these cobblestones were laid. They follow a beaten pathway up the Centovalli to the hamlet of Corcapolo. Presently, they find themselves standing on a 16th Century stone bridge, its graceful arch reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct. Immediately the hikers recognize the bridge with its small shrine atop the arch; it is featured in Ticino’s Internet web page under the heading “ancient architecture.”
Standing midway on the arch, they stare at the quiet pool of azure blue water below, wondering who would have built such a bridge. What sort of people lived here? What were their lives like?
Let us return back three and a third centuries, to the year 1666, the 30th day of July to be exact. Early that morning, before the day’s hot sun traps the humid air in Centovalli’s deep gorges, two men approach the same stone bridge, now just a century old. One stops atop the arch to await his brother-in-law, just behind him but carefully negotiating the rocky path from their summer’s lodging high on the opposite hillside.
The second man clutches closely his most prized possession, his first son born just hours before. In a wooden lean-to high in the mountain where the family has gone for summer forage, local women tend to his exhausted wife after her night of labor. They know she may not live out the day; child birth being the primary cause of death among these young women. They also know this baby must be taken to the church before anything else. In any given year, 40 percent of the babies will die in infancy, many within hours of birth. This baby’s chances of living to old age are less than one in ten; he must be rushed to church as quickly as possible least his soul depart his body before Christian baptism.
The two men pause only briefly atop the stone bridge, then they are off to Intragna, following the same twisted cobblestone pathways to the church of San Gottardo, where Father Giovanni Antonio Modini awaits them at the baptismal font. A runner went forward as the baby was being born to alert Father Modini, and now he stands ready to baptize this hours-old child.
“What name shall I impose upon him?” asks the priest. “Remigio,” answers the father, “After his grandfather, Remigio Selmina.” With that Pietro Selmina hands the baby to its uncle, Pietro Maestretti, to act as godfather, and with a few words in the ancient Latin tongue and a splash of water the deed is done and another soul is brought into holy church.
Then Father Modini does something the two Pietros have never seen. He takes a large book of parchment paper and draws a dark liquid into a long quill pen and begins to write. The two men stand transfixed; neither has seen writing before, and the odd shapes make little sense until Father Modini begins reading aloud in Latin. “Die tregesima mensis Julii anno -- On the thirtieth of July of this year, I the pastor of the church of San Gottardo in Intragna did baptize the infant born the prior night to Pietro, son of Remigio Selmina, and to Benvenuta, daughter of Pietro Maestretti, legitimately married members of this parish, and on whom I impose the name Remigio.”
And so on this warm July morning in1666, with a fresh entry into the new baptismal book of San Gottardo parish, the Salmina family of Intragna enters recorded human history.
This is the first of more than a dozen generations of this family to be entered into the San Gottardo church record book. The family has already lived for some generations, with its last name spelled Selmina, on a small rocky plot of land terraced into the side of a steep mountain gorge. No one knows how long.
Selmina is both the family name, and the place name. Following the Melezza river upstream from Intragna for a couple of miles, one comes upon the village of Corcapolo, hugging the side of a mountain that drops down into a deep river gorge. Several hundred yards down the gorge, accessible only by a switchback trail, the mountain’s deep angle softens into a small plateau only wide enough for a half a dozen or so houses and a few gardens, and even the gardens angle downward toward the river.
Here the Selmina family chose to settle. Other families built their own houses nearby, but the Selmina family dominated this place. No doubt it had been there longer than anyone else, safe and secure on this remote mountain side.
In the 1600s, as the edicts of the Council of Trent finally reached Ticino’s most distant outposts and parish lines were established for Intragna, Corcapolo was included in this village. Selmina along with other tiny hamlets became part of the San Gottardo parish, and part of the Intragna village. Intragna incorporated quite a lot of mountain terrain, even in the 1700s it had a population of around 1,000 people, with 200 or so living at Corcapolo, and other survivors of this harsh life in the hamlets near by.
Remigio Selmina was one who survived. He did not die young, as so many infants did in these mountains. His mother, Benvenuta, survived his birth to have several other children, living to the ripe old age of 65 before she died in 1709. And Remigio lived until March 5, 1745, when he died at the age of 79, a nearly unheard of life span in most of the world at that time.
And he wasn’t the only one. Life may have been hard, subsistence on a diet of polenta, cheese and chestnuts picked from the ground, but people lived long times. These mountain folks sacrificed comfort for security. No plague, no marauding army would threaten them in their distant stone huts, but neither would civilization, nor progress, nor the cancers and heart ailments of modern life. Daily existence was a struggle but long life was the rule.
The oldest man recorded in Corcapolo in the 1600s was Remigio Simpa, born in 1615 and living until October 1695, and who left behind literally scores of descendants, many of them also living long lives. A certain Giovanna who married Giovanni Simpa lived from 1640 to 1730. When Giovanna Piazzoni died in 1720, it was noted that she too was 90 years old.
The long lives of Intragna women marked a departure from the Ticinese norm. Men might live to their 70s or 80s, but women had the duty of child bearing, and that took its toll. In other villages, it was common for the men to have two or three wives, outliving each one while fathering children over a 25-year period. But not in Intragna, at least among the various families that married with the Selminas. Men might father children over a quarter century, as was common in these peasant societies, but it was almost always with the same woman, who also had the task of providing for the household and preparing whatever meager meal might be available. They gave meaning to the phrase, a tough peasant.
In 1734, San Gottardo church conducted its first church census, and as far as anyone knows, the first census of those who lived in Intragna and its surrounding area. The priest divided his parish into four parts, called “agmens.” In all he found 202 families, with an average of five or so people per family. Many families were three generation, with at least one grandparent and some grandchildren living in the house.
Four families lived in Selmina, 30 people, all with the last name Selmina. Had records gone back to the 1400 or 1500s, it is probable all came from a single family that homesteaded this place. Oldest of the Selminas was Remigio, then 68 year old, and head of a family of nine. Nearby was the family of Giovanni Battista Selmina, 63 years old, with his children and grandchildren. Pietro Antonio Selmina, aged 65 and his 50 year-old wife, Anna Maria, lived in a third house with their one son, Giovanni Pietro. Not too far away was Giovanni Giacomo, his wife Maria, and their five children.
While it is probable that all these Selminas descended from a single family, within the next 150 years descendants of all four families found in 1734 would intermarry, thus assuring that anyone with the Salmina last name, as it is now known, or anyone with Salmina ancestry, is related and is a descendant of at least one, and probably more, or these first four families.
Throughout the 1700s, the Selmina family married either members of the extended Selmina family, or others from nearby Corcapolo. At least half a dozen times the Simpa and Selmina families were joined, as with regular frequency were the Baccala, Turri, Brunoni, Piazzoni, Cavalli, Maddietti and Gambetta families. Many of these family names have now disappeared, or their descendants have come to America. Yet for the first 200 years of recorded marriages in Intragna, until well into the 1800s, never did one Selmina or Salmina family member marry a person outside this village.
Remigio’s union was with Giovanna Maria Baccala, a much younger woman who nevertheless preceded him in death by almost a quarter century. Their last child was Giovanni Battista, born February 9, 1720. The name Giovanni Battista, John the Baptist, was among the most popular names for males in Intragna. The first Giovanni Battista in the Selmina line was probably born about 1620; the first Giovanni Battista in Corcapolo for which there are baptismal records was Giovanni Battista Cavalli, born in 1668.
Around 1750, Giovanni Battista Cavalli’s granddaughter, Anna Maria, married Giovanni Battista Selmina, Remigio’s son. The Cavalli family had settled in Corcapolo probably in the early 1600s, and possibly came from another village, since the name means “horses”, suggesting someone in this family had a modern for those days means of transportation. The famous California painter, Gottardo Piazzoni, descends from this family.
By the time of the church census of 1760, some five Selmina families lived in Selmina, numbering 48 people. In Remigio’s house alone, there were 11 Selminas covering three generations. Things were growing crowded, and so some members of the family began wandering off elsewhere, to settle in Corcapolo proper or even in Intragna. The fourth of the six children of Giovanni Battista and Anna Maria Cavalli, was Vincenzo, born June 26, 1755. He stayed in the family home, and by the 1780s was head of this branch of the Selmina family.
In the 1770s, Vincenzo and his aunts and uncles, crowded into their ancestral stone house, decided they needed a bigger and better place, and constructed what survives today as the largest house in Salmina, a rambling, three story affair to which Vincenzo brought his wife and raised their family. A stone marker in the house notes it was constructed in 1774.
The house followed Ticinese traditions, in that the ground floor was reserved for the cattle, and was used as a stall to protect them in winter. By this time, the Selminas were prosperous enough to have cows that were regularly grazed high on the mountain opposite Selmina in summer, and bedded down in the house in winter.
A century and a half later, Vincenzo’s great granddaughter, Sabina Salmina, recalled life in that house. “The basement was for the cows. The first floor consisted of a large kitchen and living area with a large open grate where meals were cooked. There were benches on either side of the grate where people kept warm and ate their meals. The second story, containing the bedrooms which opened onto a narrow outside porch, was approached by an outside stairway.”
The house was made of large stone blocks with some mortar and with cement floors. The family was nearly self-sufficient. Milk produced by the cows was made into cheese, and sold or bartered for staples. Polenta flour, made from corn grown in the Magadino Plain, formed the basic staple, consumed along with cheese. Chestnuts, abundant throughout the area, became part of a uniquely Ticinese diet. They could be served boiled, roasted, or peeled and cooked into a sort of soup. Bread was made from rye grown locally and ground into flour on village mills. It was baked in a communal oven, and although coarse, would retain its freshness for weeks. For whatever ailed you, “pancotto” was the favorite remedy, the coarse bread boiled in water and eaten as a paste.
Clothing was mostly family produced. The terrain could support sheep, so the family had wool that was sent to the milliner in Intragna and made into cloth. The women then made clothing, and when the garments became too old, they were cut up and made into shoes used in the summer. In winter, the people wore shoes made out of wood.
It was a life of survival. The sole recreation consisted of church feast days, when “women put on their best dresses and kerchiefs and attended Mass which was followed by a processional celebration for the saint whose feast day they were honoring. At church, the men sat in the front pews, the women sat behind them, and the whole congregation sang the hymns from memory.”
Vincenzo Selmina was 36 years old in 1791 when he married Giovanna Maria Turri. The Turri family, descended from the Simpa, Maddietti, Baccala, Gambetta and of course a branch of the Selmina families, was another of the intermarried old families of Corcapolo. With this marriage, and the marriage of both Vincenzo and Giovanna’s sons to Turri sisters, these two families would now be intertwined for several generations.
To this marriage were born six children, all males, but only two who lived long enough to have families of their own, Giovanni Battista Felice, born the day after Christmas 1795, and Giovanni Carlo Abbondio, born April 3, 1802. From these brothers, Felice and Carlo, would descend the Salmina families of northern California. Felice and Carlo were the last to go by the name Selmina. By the time they married in the early 1800s, the name was Salmina.
On September 22, 1819, Felice married Maria Caterina Turri. Although she had the same last name as his mother, she came from a completely different branch of the Turri family. Five children born of this union survived to adulthood, Giovanna, born in 1823; Vincenzo, born in1825; Rosa born in1829; Giacomo born in 1831; and Battista, born in1834. The family shared the Salmina house with younger brother Carlo and his wife, Maria Barbara Turri, and their six children. Eventually Carlo and Barbara built their own house next door.
The life of Felice Salmina covers most of the 19th Century. Born in 1795, he lived until 1883, and gained the distinction of being the first of the Salmina family to have this picture taken, in March of 1880.
As was so often the case, the quiet lives of these peasants were shaped by cataclysmic events elsewhere. In 1797, Napoleon’s troops invaded Switzerland, the first time since 1444 that the country had been invaded, and in fact the last time it would ever be invaded by a foreign power. Napoleon set up a “Helvetic Republic” to replace the Swiss Confederation, and in all this confusion, leading citizens of Ticino decided this is a good time to declare their independence from the German cantons, which they did in 1798. Ticino became its own independent canton in 1803.
The Helvetic Republic was a useful tool for Napoleon. He ordered a census of all the men in the country, which was carried out in 1808, and with which he built a Swiss army of about 16,000 men, which he then took on the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812.
By the fall of Napoleon in 1815, the Swiss had had it with international armies. The Congress of Vienna agreed to the neutrality and inviolability of Switzerland and Swiss neutrality became a principle of European law. Having achieved independence from foreign conquest, Switzerland began down the path that in time has made it into one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
These events finally opened Ticino to the outside world. This meant roads, and schools, and a realization there was more to life than cheese and chestnuts. Slowly in the early 1800s, a road crawled up the canyon of the Centovalli, hugging the mountainside at it passed first through Corcapolo and then through other isolated villages until it reached Camedo at the Italian border. And then down into Italy went the road, opening a whole new vista for the peasants of Intragna.
For many years, young men of Ticino, exhausted with scratching out a living in their mountain villages, had traveled south into the Piedmont and into Lombardy, looking for work. Boys were particularly useful in the one profession where Ticino men seemed to excel, sweeping out chimneys. Intragna men were especially proficient “spazzacamini,” or chimney sweeps, even going so far as to develop their own language by which chimney sweeps communicated with one another. Other men gathered chestnuts as they went and then roasted and sold them in town squares. It wasn’t long before Ticino seemed to be supplying Europe with all its chimney sweeps and roasted chestnuts.
Sometime in the 1600s, one of the Gambettas of Corippo found his way to Intragna. In the 1700s, a Gambetta left Switzerland, eventually making his way to Genoa. In the 1800s, a descendant emigrated to Cahors, France, where in 1838, one Giuseppe Gambetta, described as a Genovese-Jewish grocer, gave birth to a son, Leon. This Leon Gambetta, with his Jewish first name and Ticinese last name, became a founder of the French Republic after Napoleon III, and eventually was made premier of France.
So proud were the people of Intragna of their native son’s success that the mayor’s office maintained special papers showing the premier’s lineage and old folks in Intragna would claim to have known his great grandfather, and have been related to him (which probably was true!)
Thus it was no surprise that the youngest of Felice’s sons, Battista, went south into Italy looking for work. While he found chimneys to clean, he also found a country beset by civil strife, the sort that would bring fundamental change not only to the Salmina family, but also to all of Ticino.
Blame it, if you will, on the Congress of Vienna. At Vienna in 1815, all the great powers met to devise a system of European stability out of the wreckage wrought by Napoleon. One of their decisions was to give Lombardy to the Austrian Empire. It was not a helpful decision. Austria’s Habsburg monarchy was among Europe’s most decadent; the empire consisted of quarrelsome minorities that in time would plunge Europe into the First World War. Worst of all, the Lombards wanted no part of the Austrians.
Not since the fall of Rome had Italy been united as a sovereign country. For much of its history, southern Italy belonged the Spaniards; middle Italy, the Papal States, was under the rule of the pope in Rome; and since 1815, the hated Austrians occupied the north. The Italians wanted none of them. By the middle 1800s, virtually all Italian factions agreed it was time for foreign powers to go, and among those most supportive of Italian independence were their cultural cousins in Ticino, who had just obtained their own independence from their German Swiss overlords.
The Austria ruler of Lombardy, the aging Marshall Josef Radetsky, faced the nearly impossible task of keeping the rebellious Lombards under control. As luck would have it, in 1848 Europe became engaged in a series of nationalist revolutions, and Italian patriots saw this as their chance to act, setting off a chain reaction rebellion against foreign overlords. The Austrian emperor ordered Radetsky, then in his 80s, to put a lid on Italian uprisings in Lombardy. Radetsky suspected, with good reason, that money and troublemakers were passing between the border of Ticino and Lombardy. In 1853, anti-Austrian riots broke out in Milan, and on February 16 of that year, the fed up Radetsky imposed a strict blockade on the Ticino-Lombardy border, and ordered immediate expulsion of all Swiss from northern Italy, some 6,500 men. Battista Salmina was among them.
Within weeks the Swiss were back in their home villages. There were no chimneys to sweep in Corcapolo, no way the Ticino villages could support the thousands of men forced north out of Lombardy. Thus began, in the middle 1850s, the exodus of Swiss men from Ticino, first to Australia, and then to California.
Of the five children of Felice Salmina, only one went to America. In the spring of 1857, just past his 22nd birthday, Battista left Corcapolo for the longest trip ever taken by any Salmina. He traveled north by rail to the French coast, and then departed Europe by sailing ship for the long north Atlantic crossing. With various stops, the trip took six months, until in sweltering mid-summer he landed at the Isthmus of Panama. He crossed the Isthmus by stagecoach where a half-century later engineers would build the Panama Canal. Then he boarded another sailing vessel for the trip up the Pacific Coast to San Francisco, where he landed in the fall of 1857. He promptly set himself up in a vegetable garden where the city hall of San Francisco now stands.
The census of 1860 finds him living near Novato in Marin County, already being settled by Swiss immigrants. But Battista does not stay in Marin. Perhaps it was due to evolving hostility toward the hard working Swiss, already showing up in Marin County newspapers. A columnist in the January 1870 Marin County Journal quotes an unemployed worker: “This county has reached a pretty pitch when a white man can’t get a day’s work – what white men ought to be getting 40 dollars a month for, greasy Swiss and Portugees do for fifteen in summer and grub in winter.” Another complained about “them damned Chinese and other coolies, the Portugees and the Swiss.”
Waxing eloquently on the Swiss and Portuguese question, a dairyman complained later the same year that “Swiss, Portuguese and Italians are ruining the dairy business by renting cows per head which white men, who have to expend something for Christian food, cannot afford to pay.”
Happily, this great battle over who was white and Christian ended in 1883 when the Marin County Journal was forced to run an editorial noting:
Judging by their achievements in this country, the Swiss people are the most successful of all American citizens, whether native or adopted. Several of the very finest ranches in this county are owned by Swiss gentlemen. Some of them having been bought at figures as high as $50,000 to $75,000. And we can almost venture to say that not one of the owners of these splendid ranches brought any money to speak of to this county with him. They came here penniless boys. But they had good health, industrious habits and the frugality that is born in the Old World where labor has poorer remuneration than here. These lads arriving here commence work in the humblest capacity on dairy ranches, usually being employed by their own countrymen, for they do not understand English, and one of their first efforts is to acquire the language of the country. Ten or twelve years pass, during which they grow to manhood, master our language, work steadily, and save their wages. They have no extravagant habits, no wild associates, no fast proclivities. They learn their business thoroughly, and before you know it they are capable of managing a large dairy themselves, and have money enough to lease of buy a ranch. We hold these Swiss citizens up before the young men of America as examples for them to follow.
For a while, Battista worked near Green Valley in Solano County, and then in 1864, he joined his first cousins, Frank and Albert Salmina, in a farming partnership near the town of Napa that included vineyards and a good sized herd of cattle. Although Frank, born Francesco Salmina in Corcapolo, had come to California in 1858, the year after Battista, he was already a prosperous landowner. His farm covered 718 acres, running from the Napa River up the eastern slope of the mountain range forming the Napa Valley. Some 30 acres were planted in grapes, using European varieties on native stock. The property included a 40 by 60-foot wine cellar excavated out of the hillside, with a capacity of storing up to 25,000 gallons of wine. For a dozen years or so Battista helped Frank and Albert run this farm and winery, and then in 1875, for reasons never quite explained, Battista decided to return to Switzerland.
It is not uncommon, many Swiss made good money in America and then returned home to marry, buy themselves a plot of land, and live off their good fortune in the new world. Perhaps Battista had this mind. All we do know is that eventually he made it to Corcapolo, to the house in Salmina, where, we can surmise, his welcome was not exactly a warm one.
In the crowded house in Salmina lived the now elderly Felice and his wife, Caterina, with their son Vincenzo, his wife Maria and their five children. Also in the home were their other son Giacomo, his wife Caterina, and another five children, some 16 people still mired in their peasant past. Battista’s arrival meant one more mouth to feed, and one more person to bed down.
But Battista was different. With a hairline already receding in his early 40s, he had about him the air of a man who had literally seen the world. He could describe travels across vast oceans, life in post-gold rush America, and of course, the vast valleys and bustling world of California. It wasn’t something his brothers necessarily wanted to hear about.
The second youngest of the five siblings, Giacomo, had married Caterina Tonascia in 1856, just before Battista’s departure. The Tonascia family had been in Corcapolo probably as long as the Salminas, and in fact, Caterina Tonascia’s grandmother was a Salmina, descended from another branch of the early families. Her father, Benedetto Tonascia, had married Angiola Simpa, from another of the ancient families, and she had five brothers and sisters, and some 20 first cousins. This marriage was very acceptable in Corcapolo, joining together two huge extended families.
But Giacomo and Caterina were not happy people; their wedding picture shows a scowling couple uncomfortable in their formal clothes. Neither smiles. For Giacomo, the 20 years since his marriage have meant helping to build the new roads that wind along the mountain ridges from Locarno and Intragna southward into Italy, while supporting a growing family. That family began on April 20, 1857, with the birth of a daughter christened Maria Caterina Sabina, but who goes by Sabina, the last of her names. She was followed two years later in 1859 by Maria Angelina. On January 28, 1861, their first son is born and named after his uncle Carlo and his grandfather Felice. In 1863 a second son, Pietro Celestino is born, but he dies in infancy, as does a third son, Matteo, born in 1867. However, the family is rounded out by two daughters; Paolina, born in 1863, and Caterina, born in 1869.
The struggle of life for a peasant in Ticino at midcentury is both harsh and tantalizing, for there is always the possibility of escape to America. For Giacomo, that is a possibility whose door has closed. With a wife and five children, he can hardly pack up and leave, nor could he ever afford passage to take all of them away. So Battista’s description of this fascinating new land so far away falls on deaf ears. For Giacomo being the older brother has meant the responsibility of family and care of aging parents; for Battista, being the younger has meant the chance to leave, and now after 20 years, to come home with tall tales of how wonderful life is in America. It is not a story Giacomo or Caterina want to hear.
Their children, however, do listen, two of them in particular. Bright and inquisitive, young Carlo Felice, then in his teenage years, listens intently as the older man describes a land so flat grapevines are grown in manicured rows. In Corcapolo, what vines grow are closely terraced on hillsides. In California, grapes mature through rainless months of beating sun. In Ticino, grapes sometimes rot in the humidity. For a lad whose life experience is the Centovalli, the very notion of 30 acres of land just in grapes, and a single room capable of storing 25,000 gallons of wine, is almost beyond comprehension. But his uncle’s description of this new world conjures up images Carlo Felice will not soon forget, a world he determines someday to see.
For his older sister, the attraction is different. Sabina is not only the eldest grandchild of Felice Salmina, but eldest great grandchild of Vincenzo living at Salmina. From her mother, Caterina, she has inherited the toughness of the peasant life, from her father Giacomo the responsibility vested in being the eldest child. In February 1876, not yet 19 years old, she is honored by being chosen godmother for her infant cousin, Cristoforo Salmina, and she proudly holds this baby at the same baptismal font in San Gottardo church in Intragna where she and 200 years of Salminas have been baptized.
So it comes as a great surprise when the following year, Sabina and her uncle Battista present the Salmina family with the greatest crisis in its history. On a spring day in 1877, while sitting on the benches facing the cooking grate in the house at Salmina, as the day’s polenta slowly hardens above the fire, Battista and Sabina, begin a family discussion. Battista will be shortly returning to America, the family is told; and Sabina, his niece, will be going with him as his wife. It is a decision they have made together, and one from which they will not be dissuaded.
In the hundreds of years the Salmina family has lived on this land nothing like this has ever happened before. While the necessity of choosing a mate in Corcapolo and Intragna meant a limited selection, never had so much as a first cousin married a first cousin – although that was common in peasant societies. Now an uncle wants to make his niece his bride; and she is telling her parents, her brother and sisters, and her grandparents that she is prepared to leave all she has known to sail across the ocean with this man 23 years her senior to a land and a place about which she knows nothing.
The family’s disapproval could not be stronger, and reprobation falls hardest on Battista. While Giacomo and Caterina struggled to raise their children by the moral compass that has always guided their society, their brother ran off to America, got rich off the land, wandered home in his boredom, and now plan to violate their trust and their family honor. How could he have come back and done such a thing? Is this the moral conduct he learned in America? Is this the corruption of a place so rich and decadent you just take what you want?
If Giacomo and Caterina’s reaction was one of justified resentment and anger, that of Sabina’s 82 year-old grandfather, Felice, was one of bewilderment and confusion. It is beyond comprehension that his oldest granddaughter would become the wife of his youngest son. If these are the habits of America, it is a place he wants nothing to do with.
The trauma of this event is made ever harder for Felice by the sickness of his own wife. On September 27 of that same year, 1877, at the age of 79 years, and 58 years and five days the wife of Felice Salmina, Caterina Turri Salmina dies. For Felice, the passing of his beloved wife is the end of his world. He will live on for five more years, but the world he has known has now been shattered.
The planned marriage is immediately beset by problems. Father Giuseppe Chicherio of San Gottardo parish weighs in on the matter. There will be no marriage of an uncle and niece in his church. Sabina and Battista will be forced to go down into Italy, away from the authority of the bishop of Ticino, to be married. This union will not be permitted in their native land. They will be the first Salminas since Pietro Selmina married Benvenuta Maestretti in 1665 not to have their marriage recorded in the Intragna parish registry.
And so in May of 1877, they depart their common childhood home to be married. In their wedding picture, made at a studio in Locarno, they have the look of a couple about to be banished. It is unlikely they will see their homeland or their family ever again.
On a hot June day, Battista and Sabina step off the train at Oak Knoll station near Napa, and the end of a long, exhausting trip to California. They are now man and wife, soon they will await their first child. But Battista has assured her of a happy home with cousin Frank at the ranch. It is not to be. Frank Salmina is appalled that Battista has taken his niece as his wife, and if Frank is a problem, Frank’s Irish-born wife, Isabella Letford, is even worse. Isabella, herself only a few years older than Sabina, nevertheless takes an immediately disliking to the young girl. Criticism varies from condemnation of Battista for violating this young woman, to disdain for Sabina for entrapping the older man. Years later Sabina will write that she cried herself to sleep every night for her first six months in America.
Battista quickly senses that his former life as partner with his cousins was now at an end. Angry and hurt, he sells his share of the dairy ranch and vineyards, and takes Sabina to Napa to live, while looking for other work. Never again would Battista or Sabina have anything to do with Frank Salmina, and never again would this first Salmina to settle in Napa County be acknowledged as even part of their family.
As 1878 dawns, Sabina faces the reality that she is trapped here in this foreign land with no friends, no ability to speak English, and soon a baby to care for. Were she home in Corcapolo, her mother, aunts and cousins, would have helped her with the difficult first birth. The baby would have entered the world as part of a loving and helpful extended family. Sabina would have stood with it in the baptismal font at San Gottardo church as the parish priest intoned the mystical words in Latin that for generations brought Salmina babies into God’s holy church. Now she would achieve motherhood in this strange and unfriendly place, where not even the priests could speak Italian.
But fate works in strange ways. Although the Napa County of 1878 included but a tiny handful of people of Italian heritage, and even fewer Ticinese, at the very time when the desperate Sabina Salmina needed a friend, exactly the right one came along. Her name was Giovannina Dodini.
Giovannina -- Giovanna as she was baptized in the village of Cugnasco on March 8, 1854 and Jennie as she was styled in America -- was that rare sort, a free, strong willed and determined woman. Her parents were Giuseppe Natale Dodini, a relatively prosperous farmer who owned a large house overlooking the town of Cugnasco in the Magadino Plain not far from Bellinzona, and Annunziata Bognuda, from a well-known family of near-by Sant’Antonino. Jennie was the third of five children, and had come unattached to California in 1874 at the age of 20, living for a while in San Francisco. At almost exactly the same time in 1877 that Sabina had married Battista in Italy, Jennie had also married a fellow Ticinese, Vincenzo Varozza, in Napa. Like Jennie, Vincenzo Americanized his name to James.
As frightened as Sabina was of her new land, Jennie was just the opposite. She had three years under her belt as a single woman in San Francisco and now in Napa. The strange language and odd customs didn’t frighten her. Three years older than Sabina and about to start her own family, Jennie took Sabina under her wing, and gave her confidence that she could triumph in this new land. The two women decided they would proceed jointly with the task at hand, having this new baby, and whatever Jennie and Sabina needed to know, they would learn together.
On March 11, 1878 in Napa, Sabina was delivered of a healthy baby girl. Three weeks later, the two families traveled to St. John’s Catholic Church where a certain Father Fitzsimmons on behalf of pastor Rev. M.D. Slattery, performed the baptism of the baby who was named Giovanna for Jennie Dodini, and christened Joanna Salminam. Father Fitzsimmons’ Latin left something to be desired, and his Italian was even worse. Joanna was listed as the daughter of Sabia Salmina and the godmother was recorded as Joanno Dottino, an Irish priest’s stab at the Latin translation of the Italian name Giovanna Dodini.
The Giovanna name didn’t stick, and within a few weeks the baby came to be known by the name she would carry throughout the 92 years of her long life, Katie Jennie.
Just a year later, in 1879, Battista bought himself a hotel in St. Helena, up the valley from Napa, that he christened the William Tell. Here two more daughters were born, Severina in 1879, and Mary in 1881. A son Battista was born in 1884 but died in 1886.
The William Tell Hotel became a magnet for Swiss coming to the upper Napa Valley. James and Jennie Varozza came in 1879, and he immediately went to work in the fledgling wine business. Several families from Monte Carasso made their way to St. Helena in the 1880s, including Carlo and Fulgenzio Rossini, Alessandro and Mary Angelina Merga, her brother, Albino Pestoni, and Giovanni Poncetta and his brothers and sisters. Throughout the decade they were joined by the Madonna family from Centovalli, Giuseppe Gaggetta from Lavertezzo and Cherubino Martinelli from Maggia.
The first Swiss in St. Helena was probably David Molinari, who hailed from Gerra Verzasca high up in the Verzasca valley. He arrived in St. Helena in 1872, five years after his arrival in America, and worked in the local vineyards until 1880. After several years in Oregon, he returned to St. Helena and in 1892 married a widow with three children, Giuseppina Cavalli, who came from Corcapolo.
Most of the Swiss quickly Americanized their names: Albino to Albert, Giuseppe to Joe, and Cherubino to Charles, Giuseppina to Josephine. Most returned to their Swiss heritage by marrying other Swiss, often from their own village. It’s not surprising; few of these immigrants spoke English on a daily basis; so their social circle was pretty much limited to speakers of Swiss or the Lombard dialect.
Most went into some aspect of the vineyard business, several ending up owning their own wineries in the following decades. Others became prominent citizens. Charles Tamagni, who hailed from the Valle Morobbia not far from Bellinzona, represented the upper valley as a Napa County Supervisor for more than 30 years.
In 1880, Battista and Sabina re-established contact with Corcapolo, and invited Sabina’s brother and Battista’s nephew, Carlo Felice, to join them in America. The young man leapt at the chance, and was soon in Saint Helena studying English at night school while working in winery construction during the day. Within a year he was fluent in English and working as a bartender and partner in the hotel. He also had a new American name, Felix, and as Felix Salmina, the young boy born in a stone house on a Swiss hillside would in the next century become one of the pioneer founders of the California wine industry.
The lives of Battista and Sabina’s three daughters, and of Felix Salmina and his family, mark the transition from the ancient but stable tradition of the Old World to the uncertain but challenging one of the New World. In 1891, Battista and Felix formed a partnership and went into the wine business, then in its infancy in California. Their winery was incorporated as Larkmead Winery in 1902 with Felix as senior partner. The place they chose for their venture was half way between St. Helena and Calistoga, in an area named Larkmead for its numerous meadow larks by San Francisco socialite Lillie Hitchcock Coit.
Thirty five years later, the family business having survived Prohibition and Depression under Felix’s enlightened guidance, Larkmead was invited to join Beringer Brothers, Inglenook Vineyards and Wente Brothers to represent California at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937, where the Californians won a Diplome d’Honneur “in competition with wines from the whole world.”
Perhaps it was the American dream come true, but in a single lifetime, Carlo Felice Salmina went from a lad gathering chestnuts in the tiny hamlet of his ancestors to become a leading figure in what is today a great American industry.
The transformation was no less profound for the three daughters. Katie Salmina spent 72 of her 92 years as Mrs. Morosoli, surviving until she was the last person living in the family home that Sabina and Felix built at Larkmead following Battista’s death. Younger sister Severina followed a different pathway, becoming in 1904 one of the first women, and certainly one of the first Ticinese, to graduate from the University of California.
But perhaps youngest child Mary made the most interesting transition. In 1908, she married Robert Leslie Eachus, a descendant of one of America’s true pioneering families. His great grandfather, Reason Penelope Tucker, had made the great trek westward that helped fulfill America’s Manifest Destiny, the notion that it was the destiny of the American people to “overspread the continent allotted it by Providence.”
Reason Tucker was born in 1806 in Culpepper, Virginia, of a recently arrived Scottish family. With his first wife, Delila Compton, he headed westward to Ohio in the 1830s. By the 1840s, following Delila’s death, the family had settled in Illinois. In 1846, Tucker and his three oldest sons, George Washington, John Wesley, and Stephen F. joined a wagon train headed for Oregon.
They left St. Joseph, Missouri, in May of 1846, and in early July, the party reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Here most of the group, then 20 to 25 wagons, decided to head for California, using the known trails. A portion, however, split off, joining George Donner on a “shortcut” to California across the Sierra Nevadas. Years later, Reason’s eldest son, George Washington Tucker, would recall that his father’s party completed the Sierra crossing just as a huge rain storm hit the area. “We could look back and see snow on the mountains behind us.”
Trapped and starving in that snow was the Donner party, their “shortcut” route having become a disaster. Their ordeal is now part of California lore. In February 1847, it fell to Reason Tucker to try to find them, and Tucker’s leadership of the first rescue party is credited with saving at least 19 members of the Donner party from sure starvation and death.
The Tuckers eventually settled in Napa Valley half way between St. Helena and Calistoga. In 1858, George Tucker married Angeline Kellogg, described as the “belle of the upper Napa Valley,” and built a handsome colonial style home overlooking the valley. Nearby, three decades later, the Salmina family built its winery, and Mary Salmina, and George’s grandson were married, joining together two families whose journeys to this corner of California could not have been more different.
Before settling into an American life, the Salminas had one last task, reconciliation. In 1891, Battista and Sabina purchased a large camelback trunk, filled it with clothes for an extended trip, and bundled the trunk and themselves on a train for New York. From there they took a steamer to France, landing at Le Harve, and then taking another series of trains to Locarno. From there they took a wagon along the newly completed road to Centovalli, where a much different greeting awaited them than they experienced upon their departure 14 years earlier.
Giacomo Salmina, now over 60, had the bearing of something of a country squire. His hair and neatly trimmed beard had whitened, and his anger at the world had softened. Both he and Caterina, also now 60, took special delight in seeing for the first time their American grandchildren, who spoke to them in good Swiss dialect, but conversed among themselves in the strange language of English.
During the visit, Giacomo and Caterina agreed to have their pictures made so Battista and Sabina might have copies made in America to frame and mount in the William Tell Hotel. The pictures, taken at a nearby photography studio in the town of Cavigliano, show a serious but benign Giacomo dressed in the formal wear of the time. Ever the tough old peasant, Caterina sits arm on a table with her best pressed black peasant dress, black shawl and round earrings, her gnarled hands betraying a lifetime of hard work.
To these three grandchildren, Giacomo and Caterina would add later in the 1890s, the three children of Felix and Theresa Borla, whom he married in 1893: Felix William, born in 1895; Elmer James, born in 1896; and Regina, born in 1899. Theresa had come to America from the village of Medeglia as a 16 year-old in 1886 with her uncle, Angelo Borla, who was also a partner at one time with Battista in the William Tell Hotel.
In these years, the Salmina fortunes in Corcapolo also took a turn for the better. Third child, Angelina, married Gottardo Salmina, of another branch of the Salmina family. He built a handsome house on the main road up the mountain from Salmina, and the family moved there around 1900, opening an osteria, a small bar and restaurant for travelers along the Centovalli road. The marriage to Gottardo added another twist to the Salminas’ American adventure, since Gottardo’s older brother, James, had migrated to Napa in the 1880s and made his way to Cobb mountain in Lake County where he operated the Salmina Resort.
Battista preceded his older brother in death, dying in St. Helena in June 1907. Caterina died in 1906 at the age of 76, and Giacomo in 1911 at the age of 80. Proving the toughness of the Corcapolo genes were not compromised by life in America, Sabina made it into her 91st year, dying at the family home at Larkmead in April 1948. Felix Salmina’s own long life in the California wine industry brought him to his 79th year at the time of his death in 1940.
So it was no surprise that Kate Salmina lived to great age as had her parents and grandparents, but what of the other half of the 1898 marriage, her husband of only a decade, Fulgenzio Morosoli. He was not so lucky. For that story, we must travel back eight centuries to a tiny stone church high on a mountain above the land of Bellinzona that is known as Monte Carasso.
THE MOROSOLI FAMILY OF MONTE CARASSO
Morisoli Fulgenzio, son of Bernardo, is to receive a portion of a large room above the old church with a portico opening out to the mountain, and the sum of 60 francs.
Division of property of the Augustinian monastery
seized by the commune of Monte Carasso, 1857
Eight hundred years ago, high on a rugged and densely wooded mountainside above the regional capital of Bellinzona, local Ticino peasants began building a church. Nothing fancy; it followed the style of Romanesque churches in Italy: short, squat and tough like the people who built it. Square rocks served as pews; thick walls kept the church warm in winter and cool in summer. The peasants named it for the local patron saint, San Bernardo.
Over the next three centuries the church slowly expanded and the area around it began to draw population from the flatlands. It’s no wonder given the times. Accessible areas were overrun by bandits, and often beset by warring armies. The highlands provided protection. Isolation meant security.
Here in 1427, Lombardian artisans working under the local duke’s patronage began decorated the church walls with religious frescos. A minor event, certainly, but those frescos still exist today, carefully restored by modern artists in the 1970s. They represented, for the peasants of the time, a vision of the humanity of God as well as the spirituality of man, as important in their lives as the great artworks of Renaissance Italy.
And they stand as a silent reminder of the final years when the Ticino area was still a part of Italy. Within a century of these frescos, Ticino ceased to be Italian and became what it is today, a part of Switzerland. Yet these final decades of Italian-Lombardian presence represent something of a golden age, for this faraway place shared, in its own special way, in the art of the Italian High Renaissance, before Ticino, and Italy itself, slipped into centuries of decay and neglect.
The San Bernardo church was a symbol not only of the Lombardian culture but also the people’s own devotion to the Catholic faith at the center of their lives. So it is not surprising that the local mountain folks began putting down their roots along the twisting pathways that led up the mountain to their church. They built plain but solid stone houses within easy walking distance of the church. In their dialect, they called the place “mons carassij”; now it’s called Monte Carasso.
You can see Monte Carasso today, briefly, as you speed along the autostrada from Lugano and Zurich (keeping a close eye in the rear view mirror for that ever-present symbol of Swiss wealth, the speeding Mercedes). Or you can drive more leisurely along the cantonal road from Bellinzona to Locarno, and pass through a modern suburban town with a handsome new city center designed by a famous Swiss architect.
Looking at today’s modern town, it is hard to imagine the primitive and isolated world that was Monte Carasso four centuries ago, when appeared a family called Morisoli, one branch of which in America uses the name Morosoli.
The Morisoli family was one of the fifteen or so “patrizi” families, the first settlers of the area. “Patrizi” is a term that defines the patrician families of a village. Along with other families in the vicinity of San Bernardo church, they lived in “squadre”, or hamlets that together formed the original mountainside village of Monte Carasso. Monte Carasso consisted of four main squadre, two of which were Poncetta and Corte di Sotto. The Morisoli family settled in both these squadre.
A visit there today reveals the stark lives lived by the peasants high on this mountain. Comfort was always sacrificed for security. The first stone huts in Corte di Sotto probably appeared around 1400, just as the Lombardian artists were beginning their church art. Houses were built stone upon stone, so solidly they have survived half a millenium of Alpine winters. They served as homes for the Morisoli and other families for ten generations, before being abandoned in the 1800s. Their unadorned simplicity beckons to an earlier time when God and man came together in the princely frescos of the local church, the sole diversion from a life of harsh, bare survival high up this mountain. The church provided culture and comfort, the stone houses, simplicity and safety.
In 1561, all the leading families of the squadre of Monte Carasso gathered at San Bernardo church for a solemn ceremony, recorded in a lengthy document all in Latin, whereby three original families of Monte Carasso were consecrated “monighetti”, or sacristans of the church. In Italian, “monighetti” means “little monks.” The monighetti were assigned specific duties in maintaining the church as the cultural and religious center of the people’s lives, and in exchange were forever granted certain lands for themselves and their heirs. For the land and honor of being monighetti of the church, they were expected annually to provide the village treasury some 15 lire of Milan currency.
None of the people gathered at the monighetti ceremony in 1561 had a last name; some were merely identified as the son of so-and-so; others with the squadre where they lived. None carried the name Morisoli, which seems to have developed sometime later. The title monighetti itself became a last name in the following century, and one of earliest recorded marriages in Monte Carasso united Giovanni Maria Morisoli with Domenica Monighetti in the early 1700s.
The first recorded Morisoli seems to have been a Pietro, and perhaps it was he who first used this surname, which means a likeable, dark-complected person. By the 1680s, there were two basic families, one headed Giovanni Pietro Morisoli who with his wife Giovanna Grossi had eight children; and one headed by Giovanni Battista Morisoli with his wife, Maria Santini, and their six children.
The Morisolis and other hillside families had a specialty, lots of children. The descendants of Giovanni Pietro and Giovanni Battista probably today number in the thousands. They were also a bit more adventuresome than Ticinese in other isolated villages. In 1767, a grandson of Giovanni Battista Morisoli, one Giovanni Morisoli, found himself in the village of Medeglia, two mountain ranges away, where he married a woman named Domenica Giannoni.
Medeglia, another tiny village high up a narrow valley, could trace itself to 1214. Domenica’s own ancestry, which included the original line of the Borla family later of St. Helena, also encompassed the longevity champion of 18th Century Ticino, one Bartolomeo Beltrami who was born in 1635 and lived until 1733. When Bartolomeo was born, last names had not yet come to his part of the village, and Beltrami was actually a nickname for his own first name. It stuck as a last name, and with that last name, his descendants later came to America.
Giovanni brought Domenica back to Corte di Sotto, where his branch of the Morisoli family lived. Monte Carasso did not lend itself to pasture land; most of the mountain was heavily forested, and in the flatland below, the Ticino River widened and connected with tributaries running off the mountain. This rendered much of the area permanent marshland, leaving the locals little choice but mountainside subsistence farming.
J. Hardmeyer, a 19th Century traveler along the Magadino Plain that connects Monte Carasso with Locarno, about ten miles away, wrote of the area:
At the season of melting snow, and after heavy showers of rain, this extensive area is converted into a turbid lake, extending far up the valley, and not only covering the uncultivated places, but even overflowing meadows and corn fields, which upon the subsistence of the waters are left covered with stones and silt, often to such an extent as to be utterly ruined.
The flatland of the Plain he dismissed as a “barren stretch of marshland.”
To make matters worse, what was useable farming area often was the property of the church. In 1450, Augustinian monks built a monastery and cloister on the flatland edge of Monte Carasso, with an imposing church next door, appropriately named San Bernardino. San Bernardino became the parish church of Monte Carasso, and in typical Ticinese manner, its parish lines became the village. According to the custom of the time, the church had a right to a “decima,” or one tenth of all the property, with the result that the church became a major landowner, and leased church property to local farmers. In 1759, Giovanni Morisoli and his brother, Bernardo, signed a land contract (probably with an “x” because it is doubtful they could read or write) for a long term lease of church land.
In 1795, the local priest called in the contract, noting in the church records: “The inheritors of the late Giovanni and Bernardo, brothers Morisoli of Monte Carasso, owe to the reverend parochial church of San Bernardo and San Bernardino, for rent on church land, pursuant to a land contract signed June 5, 1759, the sum of 120 lire of Milan currency, as provided for by the contract terms.” On another contract, they are showed owing 79 lire.
It’s not recorded where the Morisoli family, then headed by Giovanni’s son, Bernardo Antonio, came up with 120 and 79 Milan lire.
Bernardo Antonio Morisoli was born in 1771 and lived 77 years. The early 1800s were perhaps the harshest years in Monte Carasso, and in all of Ticino. Excavations of gravesites from that era show smaller than normal bodies, probably from malnutrition. Young men wandered from the hillside villages looking for work to support growing families, and Monte Carasso had a special problem: exceedingly high birthrates. Bernardo Antonio was one of Giovanni’s 11 children by two wives.
In 1814, the municipality made a headcount of all the families living in the four ancient “squadre.” The 35 families in Poncetta included 14 Grossi families, eight Morisoli families and four Rossini families. In Pozzerano, the 17 families included six Gioli, five Marcionetti and four Pestoni. In Montiglione, 11 of the 12 families were named Locarnini. In Corte di Sotto, where Bernardo Antonio, his wife, born Giuseppa DePrati in 1776, and their then four children lived; there was another Morisoli family, and 11 Guidotti families, seven DePrati families, six Monighetti families, and six Rambosio families. Corte di Sotto today consists of about 30 stone houses, several just a single room, and few with more than three or four rooms. By the 1800s, the population had simply outgrown the sturdy stone houses of their ancestors.
Families in the squadras extensively intermarried, and in many cases produced very large families. As an example, Domenico Rambosio was born in 1717 in Corte di Sotto. He had eight children. His son, Bernardo, had nine children. Three of Bernardo’s daughters together produced 26 children. The upshot is that most people with old family ties living in Monte Carasso today are probably descendants of Domenico Rambosio. The mayor and city manager are; and several hundred descendants at a minimum live in California. Oddly enough, for all these children, the name Rambosio has disappeared from Monte Carasso.
The fifth of the seven children of Bernardo Antonio Morisoli and Giuseppa DePrati, herself a Rambosio descendant, was born on April 10, 1818, and named Giovanni Fulgenzio. It is probable that around the time of his birth, the family abandoned Corte di Sotto and moved to the flatland. Descendants of Giovanni Fulgenzio’s oldest brother, Natale (born appropriately on Christmas Day 1800) live in a large stucco and rock house in the main part of today’s town. This is probably where Bernardo Antonio brought his family.
In fact, in 1829, Bernardo was a member of the Monte Carasso town council when a serious flood on the Ticino River devastated several flatland homes, including those of his Morisoli cousins. During Bernardo’s lifetime, his branch of the family permanently settled in the flatland and evolved into leading citizens of the village.
His son, Giovanni Fulgenzio, inherited a bit of the adventurous nature of his forebears, but while other young men in the middle 1800s left for better opportunities in Italy, or even crossed oceans to America, Giovanni Fulgenzio merely crossed the Magadino Plain to a town called Pedevilla.
Today a suburb of the cantonal capital Bellinzona, Pedevilla 150 years ago was another village that expanded down off the mountainside. Here Giovanni Fulgenzio became pals with a young man his same age named Giuseppe Biaggio. Giuseppe had a kid sister named Carolina who was born on April 23, 1831. In 1853, the 35 year-old Giovanni Fulgenzio married the 22 year-old Carolina Biaggio, and brought her to a brand new home on the main canton road in Monte Carasso.
The Biaggio family had lived for generations in Pedevilla, and its neighboring villages Giubiasco and Ravecchia. It’s likely the name, originally Del Biaggio in Italian and Del Blasis in Latin, developed out of some relationship with the ancient church of San Biagio, St. Blaze in English, in Ravecchia. Here again the character of a village is determined by its church. This church is a perfect example of 13th Century northern Italian architecture. It is decorated with frescos of the school of Giotto, the first great Renaissance master whose allegorical compositions in the church of St. Francis in Assisi are among the great treasures of the Italian Renaissance. This refined church with its important artwork underscores the importance of the village it served.
It is not surprising that Ravecchia should have such a major church, or that the Biaggio family could trace its name to that church, for when Giovanni Fulgenzio crossed the Magadino Plain he also crossed the Ticino River to that part of the canton that had been on the main St. Gotthard Pass road running from Germany into Italy. Here also was the canton’s capital, Bellinzona, where for three hundred years German Swiss overseers had governed the canton. As government administrators, the German Swiss overseers were a cut above the ordinary peasants, and often their children intermarried with the upper crust of Ticinese society.
The Biaggios seem to have been part of that upper crust, for in 1812, Carolina’s father, Antonio, had married Giovanna Gianocca. Giovanna’s mother was named Marianna Gehrig, and she was the daughter of Josef Gehrig of the Unterwalden, one of the forest cantons that provided Ticino with its governing class. Gehrig is an ancient Catholic-German name, and several Gehrig families are found the German-speaking Swiss cantons today.
Antonio and Giovanna had three children: the oldest Giuseppe, Giovanni Fulgenzio’s best friend; a middle girl, Giulia; and the youngest Carolina. Because Giovanni Fulgenzio was a good deal older than Carolina, he had had the time to put away a nest egg, and was able to build himself a handsome three story house to which to bring his new bridge. The home had a stall for animals and a kitchen on the first floor, and bedrooms and sitting rooms on the second and third floors.
Here the new family settled in 1853 and here in this house, their first son was born on February 11, 1855, and christened Fulgenzio Antonio Emanuele Morisoli. We will call him Fulgenzio Antonio.
Life was good. The family that only a generation before had lived in a stone hut high on the mountainside now lived in a substantial home on the main road. Giovanni Fulgenzio was obviously one of the leading citizens in town; he had married into a distinguished old family that could trace its ancestors to the governing class of the canton. Given that his late brother Natale had ten children and his brother Bernardo was on his way to fathering 12 children, Giovanni Fulgenzio could look forward to a long life and many children to fill his large new house.
And then tragedy struck. On April 10, 1856, with their baby barely a year old, just 13 days before her 25th birthday, Carolina Biaggio Morisoli suddenly died. To make matters especially sad, her death occurred on Giovanni Fulgenzio’s 38th birthday. Perhaps it was in childbirth; or possibly she succumbed to any of a number of diseases that took young lives in those times. But it was certainly not her time to die; Carolina’s mother, Giovanna, outlived her by 15 years, and her husband lived on for almost another half century.
Early the following year, Giovanni Fulgenzio remarried, to Giuseppa Locarnini, a descendant of one of Monte Carasso’s ancient hillside families. At this wedding, in an equivalent role of best man, was Giuseppe Biaggio, brother of the first wife and Giovanni Fulgenzio’s constant and dearest friend. The first baby of this second marriage was named Maria Carolina, perhaps in memory of Carolina Biaggio, and for the daughter she and Giovanni Fulgenzio never had.
Of this second marriage seven children were produced, of which four lived until the middle of the 20th Century. Giovanni Fulgenzio himself lived until 1902, the only of his Morisoli siblings to live into the 20th Century, and the last of his grandchildren lived until 1998. Descendants of his fourth son, Giuseppe Federico, who was born in 1863, live in the large Morisoli house on the main road today.
Giovanni Fulgenzio spent his final years farming in Monte Carasso. In these years, he and his family were affected of two events that altered everyone’s lives in Monte Carasso.
The ancient church of San Bernardo, with its primitive frescos representing the medieval world of God and man, was extremely important to the early families in Monte Carasso. But the middle 19th Century, an angry anti-clerical fervor had overrun Italy, and much of Europe. As Italian patriots raised armies to reunify Italy in the 1850s, they ran up against the fact the Catholic Church owned a large part of the country, the Papal States around Rome. The Italians seized the Papal States and the pope declared himself a virtual prisoner in the Vatican, a status not changed until the 1920s. So bitter was the conflict between the new Kingdom of Italy and the Vatican that anyone taking a seat in the Italian Parliament was immediately excommunicated from the church.
Italian struggles again found their way into Ticino when the same anti-church feelings spilled over in Monte Carasso. The objective here was the 15th century Augustinian monastery, now located right in the middle of town. The church had owned the best farming property, and as the people moved out of the hillside onto the flatlands, they surrounded the ancient monastery with their homes and farms.
In 1857, city fathers decided to seize the monastery, dispersing “a few old nuns” who still lived there. Much as their Italian brethren were seizing church lands in the Papal States, as Henry VIII has seized the monasteries of England 300 years before, citizens of Monte Carasso took over this choice bit of church property in the midst of their town.
So what to do with their new possession? In the democratic manner that has been typical of modern Switzerland, the Swiss of 1857 decided to divide the property between the “patrizi” families in Monte Carasso. The Morisolis certainly qualified, and Giovanni Fulgenzio became one of 110 Monte Carasso family heads who ended up owning part of the monastery.
His portion was listed in the records as a large room above the old church portion of the monastery, under a portico opening up to the mountain. So, had he desired, Giovanni Fulgenzio could have sat in his room and looked out at the mountain where his family had lived for ten generations. Unfortunately, however, he would not have been alone; as many of the rooms were divided between families, since there were more patrician families to take care of than there were rooms in the monastery.
It is unclear what Giovanni Fulgenzio did with his portion of the monastery, but his heirs, especially those in America, do not have return rights to “a room with a view” of Alpine Switzerland. The old monastery is today a modern school, the architectural keystone of the newly restored town center that integrates the modern section of Monte Carasso with its ancient religious buildings.
The decision to seize this monastery and to divide the property among the townspeople represented the end of God and man on an equal plain. At least in this one village, man had won out.
The second major event of this era was the decision of the government to begin channeling the meandering Ticino River, and thus reclaiming much of the marshland around Monte Carasso for farming, and bringing an end to the malaria that festered in the dank swamps. As the river was controlled, it provided more opportunities for agriculture, and young men began moving into the new areas to work the reclaimed land. A number of men from Monte Carasso wandered down the Magadino Plain to a village called Gudo where better land was available.
Gudo was a couple of miles from Monte Carasso. It was a town of only about 30 original families, and many of these had come over the mountains from the valley of the Verzasca River, initially to stay in the warmer lowlands during cold winters, and finally to settle there.
Two of those who came from elsewhere to Gudo were Marianna Dodini and her younger brother, Filippo. Their family originally came from Lavertezzo in the Verzasca Valley, but had lived in Cugnasco, the next village from Gudo, for several generations. Marianna married Isidoro Minetti, who was from a local Gudo family. Filippo married Teresa Braghetta in their native village of Lavertezzo and brought her to Gudo, so by the early 1870s, Marianna and Filippo were both well settled in Gudo and busy raising families – eventually each would have 13 children. They had a younger sister, Antonia, who came to live with them in Gudo.
Around this same time, Fulgenzio Antonio Morisoli, then in his teenage years, also made his way to Gudo, perhaps with other young men from Monte Carasso, taking advantage of the new farming possibilities in the reclaimed land. Fulgenzio Antonio was raised with his father, stepmother and half brothers and half sisters in the large family house where he was born in Monte Carasso, and by 1874, he was a tall, good looking lad of 19 years, with the adventuresome streak that ran in the Morisoli family. He came to Gudo to make his own way in the world. There he lived up to the dialect meaning of his Morisoli name, a likeable fellow.
Antonia Dodini was strikingly tall and thin, just 16 years old, when they first crossed paths sometime in 1874. We have already met another sister, Giovanna Dodini, who this same year took herself, unattached, across the ocean to San Francisco. The Dodini sisters were not ones to be deterred; they took chances, and they did pretty much what they wanted and, more importantly, they got pretty much what they wanted. In Giovanna’s case, that meant showing up a single young female in the untamed world of San Francisco in 1874.
Antonia had a different goal. She wanted the tall, good looking guy with the happy-go-lucky attitude who had just showed up in Gudo, and by the time Antonia turned 17 in December 1874, she was very much pregnant with Fulgenzio Antonio’s child.
We should not impose our sense of today’s morality into the world of the 1870s, but there is no doubt that this unexpected pregnancy caused problems. We know little about how Giuseppe Natale Dodini, Antonia’s father, felt about his youngest daughter, quite unmarried, now about to have a child. He was on his way to having more than 30 grandchildren, several of whom he would outlive, so perhaps it was not quite such a concern. Back in Monte Carasso, however, Giovanni Fulgenzio seems to have been a good deal less pleased about the unexpected arrival of his first grandchild.
For Antonia and Fulgenzio Antonio there was but one solution to this situation: marriage, and quick. By April 1875, Antonia was very much advertising her condition to the world. The Ticinese custom was to marry in the village church of the bride. By the laws of Ticino, Antonia was a citizen of the village of Lavertezzo, far up the Verzasca Valley, where the Dodini family originated. The only problem was that the Dodini family had left there nearly a century before and had only the slightest ties of technical village-citizenship with Lavertezzo.
But Lavertezzo had a real advantage; it was far away; nobody knew them there; the priest wouldn’t ask a lot of questions. So with a fast trip to Lavertezzo they could get what they needed, a marriage certificate before the baby arrived.
On the sunny fourth day of May in 1875, with two locals as witnesses, Antonia Dodini became Mrs. Morosoli, wife of Fulgenzio Morosoli of Monte Carasso – at least that is what the marriage record said. Who would have noticed that the name was not right. Morosoli was a well-known Swiss name; the Morosoli family came from villages near Lugano. And outside of Monte Carasso, the name Morisoli was often confused with the better known Morosoli name. Just a mistake? Perhaps. Or did Fulgenzio and Antonia decide they were going to break with his family – that perhaps did not approve of this sudden marriage -- and what better way than to adopt a different last name?
Just one week later, on May 11, 1875, back in Gudo, the expected event occurred, and Antonia was delivered of a healthy baby girl, who was promptly named Carolina in honor of Fulgenzio’s deceased mother, the Carolina in his life he never knew. Here the priest, of course, knew the family, and the baby was christened Carolina Morisoli. The very important entry “legitimus coniugibus” – legitimately married in Latin – appeared next to the parents’ name. A year and a half later, on December 31, 1876, along came a second child, named Fulgenzio for his father, and christened Fulgenzio Morisoli in the same church of San Lorenzo in Gudo.
But four years later, when Fulgenzio Antonio was godfather to Filippo Dodini’s son, named Fulgenzio after him, the same priest in San Lorenzo parish spelled the name Morosoli, and that is how it stuck. From then on, Fulgenzio Antonio Morisoli was Fulgenzio Antonio Morosoli.
It is notable that the godparents for both of these children were Dodini siblings of Antonia. Was the name change the result of an estranged family, a marriage disapproved of, a daughter-in-law alienated from her husband’s family? All the evidence suggests this was the case, although the exact motives for the name change died with those who changed the name.
After the birth of his son, Fulgenzio Antonio joined the army, rising quickly to the rank of sergeant in the Swiss cavalry. In those days, every male was drafted into the army, but only for two or three months. They then returned to their homes but spent two or three weeks each year on active duty. The sole surviving photograph of Fulgenzio Antonio shows a jaunty young man, posing next to a pillar on which rests his helmet of the Swiss cavalry. He leans on a long ornamental sword, legs casually crossed, dressed in a slightly ill tailored tunic with the Swiss white cross embroidered on his arm band. His hair is neatly parted in the 19th Century style and he sports a Kaiser Wilhelm mustache turned up at the ends. Tall, good looking, confident, Fulgenzio Antonio looks for all the world like he could lead Switzerland into battle that very day, but of course the Swiss have not gone into battle since Napoleon, and are not about to. But Fulgenzio Antonio plays the part well, the 19th century citizen soldier.
Fulgenzio Antonio returned to civilian life around 1880. His home was now Cugnasco. In the late 1870s, Fulgenzio Antonio and Antonia moved the family back to the village of Cugnasco where she was born and where her parents lived in a large yellow house on a rolling hillside overlooking the Magadino Plain. Although they held village-citizenship in Lavertezzo, both Antonia’s father and grandfather were born in Cugnasco, so the village was home in more ways than one. It also had an advantage from Antonia’s perspective – it was in the opposite direction from Monte Carasso, and so her family was even farther away from her in-laws that she clearly had problems with.
In Cugnasco, two more children were born, Giuseppe in 1881 and Attilio in 1884. Sadly, Giuseppe died as an infant, leaving Antonia and Fulgenzio Antonio with a permanent family of three children.
Now Fulgenzio Antonio did something else no one in his family had ever done before – he became a businessman. Before his army days, he had worked as a deliveryman for the “palazzo salina” in Locarno, literally the salt works. In the days before refrigeration, salt was used as the preservative for food. Salt for Ticino was brought up from Milan and stored in a warehouse, the palazzo salina, for distribution to local families.
Fulgenzio Antonio had worked at bringing salt up from Milan for distribution to families in Locarno. Now he saw an opportunity to make some money, so be bought himself a horse and wagon, and began delivering the salt himself. The out doors work exhilarated him; big and strong he enjoyed lifting and placing the heavy salt blocks.
Everything seemed just fine: Fulgenzio Antonio had a good job, the family was well settled in Cugnasco with Antonia’s parents near by, and then, once again, tragedy visited this family.
Late in 1886, Fulgenzio Antonio contacted encephalitis, a little known and less understood infectious disease that attacks the nervous system. Perhaps he suffered a mosquito bite while delivering salt. But suddenly he was overtaken by fever and nausea, and in serious need of medical care. It was not forthcoming.
In the third week of December 1886, the seriously ill Fulgenzio Antonio did something very strange. He mounted his horse, and road from Cugnasco back through the village of Gudo to his father’s house in Monte Carasso.
Here a surprised and shocked Giovanni Fulgenzio greeted his prodigal son, and immediately took him to one of the bedrooms and called for a doctor. Fever ridden, Fulgenzio Antonio lapsed into a coma while his father and the Morisoli family ministered to him. Within a few hours of his return to Monte Carasso, Fulgenzio Antonio died in the same house where he had entered the world 32 years before.
On December 24, 1886, in the parish cemetery of the church of San Bernardino in Monte Carasso, Fulgenzio Antonio was laid to rest in the presence of his grieving father, who was burying his only tie to his own child bride now herself thirty years dead. For Giovanni Fulgenzio, an old man now, the death of this first son rekindled the searing memory of the death, so long ago, of the first love of his life.
It is not recorded whether Antonia made it Monte Carasso for her husband’s funeral. In the custom of the day, burial took place within 24 hours of death. It is clear, however, that the man buried in San Bernardino cemetery did not have the name Fulgenzio Antonio Morosoli. In the Latin church record, the burial was that of “Fulgentius Morisoli”; in the village records of Monte Carasso, the death that occurred in the house of the senior Fulgenzio Morisoli was that of the junior Fulgenzio Morisoli.
So in death Fulgenzio Antonio returned to the ancient heritage of Monte Carasso, that for whatever reason he had rejected in life. Was it a social climbing Antonia for whom the Morisoli name was not good enough? Was it just a simple spelling error that changed his name? Was it just chance that all his children were baptized in other towns with godparents from the Dodini line? And was it just an accident that when the third of his family to carry the name Fulgenzio, his young son bearing the name Fulgenzio Morosoli, came to America, neither he nor anyone else knew where his family came from, or what his real name was.
After Fulgenzio Antonio’s death, Antonia cut whatever remaining ties she had with Monte Carasso. In 1892, her daughter, Carolina, became the wife of Antonio Peini, who hailed from an old and prominent Cugnasco family. The Peinis owned a large house on the main cantonal road where Carolina, and eventually Antonia, settled. With her marriage into the Peini family, Carolina took Cugnasco citizenship. When her brothers, Fulgenzio and Attilio, came to America, they too claimed Cugnasco as the home village. Filippo Dodini moved his family there from Gudo, and so the Dodinis and Morosolis became permanent Cugnasco families. Filippo brought his wife and eight surviving children to America just before the turn of the century, and they claimed Cugnasco as the home village in the old country.
In California, the young Fulgenzio Morosoli grew up surrounded by at least six families from Monte Carasso, but no one ever made the connection. The Morosoli name was not a Monte Carasso name. He was just another Swiss from somewhere along the Ticino River.
With Carolina married, and Fulgenzio and Attilio in America, in 1898 Antonia Morosoli married for a second time, to Heinrich Diedricksen, a German-born engineer who had come to Ticino to build bridges. Diedricksen was a successful engineer, a wealthy man who provided a life of relative luxury for Antonia. Over time, her ties with her American children frayed, and the is no evidence anyone in American even noted the fact when she died in 1919, other than discussions over the inheritance rights of the American descendants to the Dodini house.
His children scattered, his wife remarried, memory of Fulgenzio Antonio simply faded away. In Monte Carasso, surviving son Giuseppe Federico took over responsibility for the Morisoli family. In 1902, at the age of 84, Giovanni Fulgenzio died of old age, almost certainly unaware that in far off California he already had two great grandchildren, Eugene and Antoinette Morosoli, the infant children of the grandson he hardly knew.
But Fulgenzio Antonio, the self confident, good looking fellow with such promise whose life was cut so tragically short, was not entirely forgotten in the village of his ancestors. In 1912, Maria Carolina Morisoli, oldest daughter from Giovanni Fulgenzio’s second marriage, died. Her brother and surviving sisters decided to place a memorial to her and to their father on the wall in the Monte Carasso cemetery. In the memorial they also included the name of their long dead half-brother “Fulgenzio Morisoli – 1855-1886.” Naturally the last name is spelled as they spelled it.
And so Fulgenzio Antonio is remembered in his home village, a place that for whatever reason he had abandoned. The only thing his son carried to America was the Swiss army photograph, a picture that forever recalls a young man with a lifetime ahead of him, a lifetime he never had a chance to live.
THE DODINI FAMILY OF LAVERTEZZO
A horrible valley and a savage wilderness.
Pastor Hans Rudolf Schinz, 1770
Tomorrow I will visit all of the Verzasca,
going where no foreigner has ever gone before.
Bonstetten, Controller of Locarno, 1797
It was a long, hot summer for the King of England. His colonists in America gathered in Philadelphia that July and adopted a Declaration of Independence thus setting off the Revolutionary War and ultimately creating the United States of America. July of 1776 was a memorable month in the history of the world.
But in far off Ticino, in the Valley of the Verzasca River, Father Marco Antonio Galli had a far more mundane task that hot and humid July of 1776. It was time once again for a Status Animarum of the church of St. Mary of the Angels of which Fr. Galli was pastor. A Status Animarum is literally a counting of souls, a census of the church parish required so the local bishop would know how many parishioners lived in the parish, and whether they had all been baptized, received first communion and had been confirmed according to the laws of the Catholic Church. July, 1776, was the month given for the Status Animarum in Lavertezzo.
So Fr. Galli trod the dusty and rocky pathways of his village from stone house to stone house recording the names of each family member. He began each entry with the “caput familias”; in Latin, male head of the family; or if it was headed by a woman, the “mater familias”. He then listed all persons living in the house and showed their relation to the head of the family.
With each family, Fr. Galli carefully recorded the relevant information in the impeccable Latin of the scholar that he was. How, he must have wondered as he went from house to house, did I end up in such a place? Fellow Italian priests served the spiritual needs in the homes of the great, along Lake Como or perhaps as far away as Milan, but he was stuck in this godforsaken valley filled with suspicious and stubborn peasants. Of all Ticino, hardly any place was as remote as the rocky gorge of the Verzasca River. The hillside villages seemed to pour off the mountains toward the rushing waters of the river as it tore its way down to the Magadino Plain, a thousand feet below.
Yet Fr. Galli did his duty as assigned that summer, counting each of the 147 families forming the parish of St. Mary of the Angels and the village of Lavertezzo.
He carefully noted the existence of 743 people who made up these 147 families: 387 men, 356 women, and more than 440 adults.
At the home of Filippo Gaggetta, then 50 years old, Fr. Galli recorded the presence of Filippo, his wife, Maria Giovanna, and several children, the youngest being Giacomo Filippo, then just three years old. At the home of 40 year-old Giovanni Martini, he recorded Giovanni’s mother, Rosa, then 70 years old, his 35 year-old wife, Maria, and seven children, second youngest of which was Maria Teresa, four years old.
Fr. Galli also noted three orphans of Giacomo Maria Dodini and his wife, Maria Ciossa, with the family remnant now headed by the 16 year-old Maria Domenica.
And finally, he reached the home of Caterina Brughelli Dodini, widow of Giacomo Dodini, living there with her four children. Eventually, the Gaggetta, Martini and other Dodini families would be united in marriage with this family. Had Fr. Galli consulted church records in the village, he would have known this was one of the oldest families in Lavertezzo. Caterina Brughelli was descended from a family named Barloggio, which could trace its ancestry in the Verzasca Valley back to 1200.
Her late husband, Giacomo, was the fourth Giacomo Dodini in a line that went back to the early 1600s. Originally, the family name had been Zendrini, but as last names developed, Zendrini divided into two names, Dodini and Dedini, and both families had extensively intermarried. To keep the lines straight, Giacomo’s family was also known as “Dodini detto Cordini”, or “Dodini of the family known as the makers of rope.”
In Caterina’s house, Fr. Galli carefully noted the names and ages of her four children: Giovanni Antonio, the oldest son and now “caput familias”, his two younger brothers, Giacomo and Gasparo, and sister, Teresa.
But where was Giuseppe?
Giuseppe Dodini was part of this family, all right, a middle son of Giacomo and Caterina Dodini. But Giuseppe had a special attribute – he was always missing. He was missing the day Fr. Galli came to count the souls in Lavertezzo. He was missing in 1808 when Napoleon’s soldiers came to count the Ticino males for the war in Russia. Giuseppe seems never to have gotten himself recorded anywhere, except as the father of several children born in the 1790s when he was married to his first cousin, Maria Domenica Dodini.
Well, it’s summertime, Giuseppe is 16, and perhaps the young man’s fancy has turned to – goats. The staple of life for the Verzasca peasant was a large, black ornery goat known, appropriately enough, as the Verzasca goat. In the summer, the young men of the village tethered their goats high in the lush meadows on the hillsides above the river. If you didn’t keep the goats happy, it could be a long hungry winter without milk or cheese in this forbidding land.
So we might assume that young Giuseppe is dreaming the day away while grazing the family goats high above the village. In the silence broken only by a rustle of leaves in a warm summer breeze, he cannot hear the cannon fire unfolding a continent and an ocean away as the American Republic undergoes its birthing pains this crucial summer of 1776. But the forging of this new land will greatly impact Giuseppe’s descendants. One day, there will be no Dodinis left in Lavertezzo, or even Ticino, but hundreds of descendants dotting the American plains and valleys.
Giuseppe is very much a Dodini; this is a family that never stays put; that wanders first throughout the Canton of Ticino, then throughout northern Italy, then to America, with some members even going as far away as Australia. It is a family of equally resourceful and adventuresome women as well as men. And it is a family hardened by generations of life in this harsh watershed of the Verzasca River.
The Verzasca Valley is about 15 miles long, thin and narrow with little useful land for farming. Its highest peak, Mount Barone, measures 9,300 feet; the valley itself rises several thousand feet from Gordola at the confluence of the Verzasca and Ticino Rivers to Sonogno, the highest of its ten villages. The valley seems to have been formed by a huge landslide eons ago that blocked its river. Over the centuries, the river cut its way through the landslide, depositing boulders as it went and leaving little land that is not rocky and jagged. “A horrible valley and a savage wilderness,” one visitor called it in the 1770s.
But such a place has its advantages. People living here cannot be found. Early travelers noticed that Verzascans were lighter skinned and more blue-eyed than most Ticinese, suggesting a people of the original Celtic and Lombarian stock. Not so many foreign armies wandered through here.
And that’s how the locals wanted it. Just above Gordola, where the valley first narrows, a large, thick iron gate was built to be tightly secured in the case of plague, civil strife or unwanted visitors. Most of the time, the local governments in Locarno, to which the Verzasca Valley technically belonged, were content to leave the place alone, not even trying to collect taxes there.
Giovanni Bianconi, whose history “Valle Verzasca” provides much of the flavor of peasant life, tells the amusing story of the arrival of the French commander, General Schauenberg, in 1798 after Napoleon captured the Swiss Federation.
The general grandly announced immediate liberty and the right of self-government for Canton Ticino, providing that the general, in all his splendor, was allowed to conscript for compulsory military service, all unmarried Ticinese men between 20 and 45 years old. In the month of March in 1799, in all of Valle Verzasca there was not found even one man of 20 to 45 years without an adoring wife. And not one man from Verzasca arrived in Locarno that month without a faithful wife at his side. Not one man from Verzasca appeared at French headquarters in Bellinzona in obedience to the conscription edict. The French were in a fuss to condemn the slackers, and assessed a fine of 300 to 400 lire on each village of non-compliance.
Representatives of the French rulers stationed in Locarno promptly collected the fine out of local treasuries.
But the Verzascans had no intention of paying this fine, and on May 3, 1799 the situation came to a head “with the hammering of church bells in every village, a signal that brought to arms about 400 Verzascans armed with battle axes, guns, swords, spears and sickles.” Out of the valley they poured, frightening to death the peasant women at the market places in the villages they passed through, but also picking up allies as they went. Into the middle of Locarno marched the ragtag army only to find that the local judge and the magistrate had mysteriously absented themselves. Finally, some government lackeys were rounded up and refunded most of the conscription fine, and Verzascans retreated back into their valley.
The parish priest of Locarno, a certain Don Leopoldo Cerri, noted, “Peace had been achieved but the town of Locarno was not to ever experience so much pure terror as it did on the 3rd of May 1799.”
It was unlikely the French would follow the rebels up into their valley, since it had no roads. Although the river that formed the valley made its way to the larger Magadino Plain, no road wide enough for a cart was built until the 1840s. Bianconi quotes a visitor riding his horse up the valley and meeting Verzascans on their way to market, “carrying their valuable wares – the women carrying the cheese, butter and handmade cloth; the men following behind as shepherds with their little herd of goats, or sometimes a heifer – the more well-to-do often came with a little donkey carrying their belongings.
“This valley is not accessible to visitors who are not good climbers, or like the Verzaschese, can hold fast to the donkey.”
No place is more typical of the valley than the village of Corippo, hanging off a sheer cliff and even today only accessible on a narrow one lane road. So steep is this area a joke goes around that the chickens have to wear aprons to keep their eggs from rolling down hill. In 1993, William Trevor included the Valle Verzasca in his “Excursions in the Real World”:
In the world of today, there is no reason for this village, for its steeply sloped meadows cut with scythe and hook, its rough narrow pathways instead of streets, its rank nettlebeds and manure heaps, its odor of hay in June. Like medieval cells, its cramped houses jostle for breathing space; cobbled passages lead nowhere; doors open into hovel kitchens. All day long the tourists gaze in wonder at the past, cameras recording an ancient barn or red hen pecking. Two old men, slippered and silent, make their slow way down to the roadside graveyard, sticks poking out a safe path on the stony surface. The graveyard’s nearly full, but there’s room for a couple more. The old men want to be them; they want to be among their friends again.
Up the road, at Lavertezzo, where the river widens and slows to form quiet pools, cars in the dusty parking lot bear license plates from Germany and the German-speaking cantons. Near the saddleback Ponte di Salti, a stone footbridge built no one knows when, tourists catch the warm sunrays on shiny granite slabs rubbed smooth by centuries of rushing water. Under the bridge, in a deep pool made azure-green by the sun’s reflection, in the pure snowmelt water, tourists sunbathe in the European style, men and women bare chested. In a kaleidoscope of languages they challenge one another to leap from the high rocks into the clear water. In a remote house above them, an old man of the Gaggetta family eats his lunch, disturbed only when two pesky American visitors rap on his door to bring greetings from a cousin in California.
The heat of a humid summer’s day traps the air in this valley, as it does in so many in Ticino, and the Americans take refuge in the cool interior of Lavertezzo’s towering church of Saint Mary of the Angels. Once their ancestors of the Dedini line of the Zendrini family had the right to choose the pastor for this church. The baptismal font notes that here was baptized a baby, Aurelio Bacciarini, of an ancient Lavertezzo family, who grew up to become bishop of all Ticino. But now all is silent. Except to enrich the makers of camera film, do Corippo or Lavertezzo still have a place in this world?
The permanent population of Lavertezzo today is perhaps a tenth what it was when Fr. Galli made his census two and a quarter centuries ago. The curio shop owner seems extra pleased when the two Americans walk to buy momentos with the village’s name inscribed on them. These items don’t sell well to Europeans. But these two are an easy sell, even with the marked-up price in Swiss francs, and the owner knows why. If you want to see the world as it once was, you can see it here.
By the early 1800s, many Verzascans had seen as much as they wanted of their valley. Slowly over the years, a habit evolved of building a residence down on the plain for relief from the Verzasca’s harsh winters. In the fall, locals would gather their goats and their families and hike the long mountain trails that eventually led them to the Magadino Plain. There, they built small stone houses for a long winter’s rest, returning to the Verzasca Valley when spring arrived.
After a while, they simply stopped returning, and became permanent residents of the plain, although under cantonal law, they retained citizenship of the Verzasca villages they came from. More than 200 years ago, the elusive Giuseppe Dodini followed this route out of Lavertezzo and over the mountain to the village of Cugnasco on the Magadino plan. Here in 1791, his son, also named Giuseppe, was born, and in 1817 this son married Giovanna Maria Gaggetta, daughter of the Gaggetta and Martini children in Fr. Galli’s church census. Their first son, born on Christmas Day in 1819, was named Giuseppe Natale, and this one also inherited the family’s wanderlust.
But not too far. In the 1840s he found himself in the village of Sant’Antonino, just across the Magadino Plain from Cugnasco. Here on June 23, 1844, he married Maria Annunziata Bognuda, whose family had also been on the move.
Annunziata’s father was Giulio Bognuda, born of an old family in the village of Lodrino in the valley of the Leventina, then quite distant from Magadino. The odd name Bognuda may have evolved from a place, and the first person to go under that name was one Antonio Sacco de Bognuda, who was born around 1637 in Lodrino.
Annunziata’s mother was Arcangiola Stornetta, of an old family with Sant’Antonino roots. Of all the Swiss names in contemporary northern California, Stornetta may be the most familiar, as it appears on every carton of Clover-Stornetta milk in the San Francisco Bay Area and to the north. Sant’Antonino is today an industrial suburb of Bellinzona, but like many Swiss villages 200 years ago, it was heavy with dairy cows. In the 19th Century, several Stornettas from this village came to coastal Northern California to begin dairies of their own.
Giuseppe Natale Dodini doubtless did not know in 1844 that he was marrying into a famous future dairying family, and he and Annunziata soon left Sant’Antonino for Cugnasco, where they ultimately settled into a large house overlooking the village. Giuseppe Natale and Annunziata raised four children in Cugnasco: oldest daughter Maria Anna, born in 1846 and married in 1867 to Benedetto Minetti in Gudo; Filippo, born in the ancient village of Lavertezzo in 1848 and married there in 1868 to Teresa Braghetta; Giovannina, born in 1854 in Cugnasco; and Antonia, born in 1857 in Cugnasco and married in 1875 to Fulgenzio Antonio Morosoli.
But the catalyst of the next stage of Dodini wandering is Giovannina, who comes to San Francisco unattached in 1874, perhaps accompanying her brother, Filippo, on one of his 14 trips to America. Here she marries James Varozza in 1877, befriends Sabina Salmina in Napa in 1878, and helps her with the birth of her daughter, Katie. In 1879, Giovannina, who by now calls herself Jennie, and James move to St. Helena with their close friends, Sabina and Battista Salmina.
Here James finds work on the Chevalier vineyard ranch on Spring Mountain Road, where two sons, Emile “Mele” and Joseph were born, and then in 1882 he winds up as manager of the W.W. Lyman ranch north of St. Helena. W.W. Lyman, whose 1846 ranch home is adjacent to today’s Bale Grist Mill State Park, was one of the early settlers of the upper Napa Valley. A prosperous and distinguished family by the 1880s, W.W. Lyman’s son, W.W. “Jack” Lyman, who lived to be nearly 100, was a noted Celtic scholar who attended Oxford and Harvard and was a fixture in the Napa Valley into the 1970s with long white hair and a trim white mustache and beard. Clearly, managing the Lyman ranch was a prestige job.
But for reasons unclear, in 1886, James and Jennie decide to return to Switzerland. It is not a good time to come home. James’ ancestral village of Mergoscia, where he was born, is in the depths of depression. There is little for them to do in Cugnasco, although Jennie’s parents, Giuseppe Natale and Annunziata Dodini, have carved out their niche in the village. But for six years, the Varozza family remains in Switzerland, where a daughter is born.
And then, in 1892, they decide to return to California. Now Jennie’s sister, Antonia, enters the picture. Antonia convinces James and Jennie to take her two sons, Fulgenzio and Attilio Morosoli, to America with them. It is, as one would say, a good deal for the kids. Since their father, Fulgenzio Antonio Morosoli, had died in 1886, they had been functional orphans. There is a flood of Ticinese heading to America in the 1890s, and surely life will be better there.
And so in a scene replicated countless times throughout Europe in the late 19th Century, a mother says good-bye to her children, as they depart across the vast ocean for America, knowing full well she will probably never see them again. Indeed, Antonia will never see her children again, and she will tragically outlive both of them. America, for Fulgenzio and Attilio, will be a mixed blessing at best.
And so in 1892, the Varozza family of five, with two nephews in tow, returns to St. Helena, where James finds work once again on the Chevalier ranch. Eventually, James himself goes into the vineyard business, leasing the Summit Vineyard on Spring Mountain in 1897. Meanwhile, James and Jennie raise the two Morosoli boys along with their own two sons and daughter.
Fulgenzio quickly learns English, changes his name to Frank, and grows to manhood assisting his uncle in the vineyard work. Tall like his father but thinner, Frank Morosoli has the same rich head of hair and trimmed handlebar mustache favored by his father, Fulgenzio Antonio, in his time in the Swiss cavalry.
But for Frank, Switzerland, a land he left when just a boy of 15, is a long way away, and it becomes even more remote in 1898 when he marries Katie Jennie Salmina, a native Californian for whom the old world ways are already foreign.
And so the Dodini connection – Antonia’s decision to ask her sister Jennie to take her sons to America – leads to Frank Morosoli marrying Katie Jennie Salmina, who is in fact named after the aunt of the man she will marry. The Dodini descendants have come far from the harsh world of the Verzasca Valley. In time, children of Filippo and of Maria Anna will join their Varozza and Morosoli cousins in America.
No Dodini was born in Lavertezzo after 1895, and by the early years of this century the name was dying out in Switzerland. Today, no Dodinis of Lavertezzo are left in Ticino. But across America are a myriad of names, some Swiss, some not, who form the descendants of Giuseppe Dodini, the dreamy lad who couldn’t be found when Father Marco Antonio Galli counted the souls of Lavertezzo on a hot and humid July day in 1776.
EPILOGUE – INTO AMERICA
From generations of vintners in Switzerland – during the beginning of the wine industry in California – came the Salmina family to the Napa Valley
1940s Larkmead wine label
Katie and Frank Morosoli’s first two children were Eugene, born on December 15, 1898, and Antoinette, born on July 24, 1900. At the time of their births, both children had five surviving great grandparents living in Ticino. None would ever see these great grandchildren.
News of the birth of the first great grandchildren of Giacomo and Caterina Salmina was greeted happily in Corcapolo, where the ill feelings over Battista and Sabina’s journey to America were long forgotten. At the large yellow house in Cugnasco, word of the great grandchildren also met with approval, Giuseppe Natale and Annunziata Dodini were pleased to learn that their grandson had married well and now had a family of his own. In Monte Carasso, it is not known whether Giovanni Fulgenzio Morisoli, now in his 80s, ever learned that his grandson with a different spelling of his last name had offspring in America.
Frank and Katie Morosoli now had to make their own way in the world. They first moved to San Francisco, living on Broadway Street, and then moved to Solano County, near Suisun, where several of Frank’s Dodini cousins had settled.
In 1897, after giving birth to 13 children and seeing five die in infancy – two on the same day -- a nearly exhausted Teresa Braghetta Dodini brought her youngest children to Vallejo where her husband, Filippo Dodini, worked on the Mini family ranch. The Minis, also from Gudo, were Dodini cousins.
In 1900, Teresa died and Filippo moved back to Cugnasco, where he married again and settled for the rest of his life. The eight surviving Dodini children spread themselves throughout northern California, the older ones raising the younger ones. Frank Morosoli lived near his cousins, and for a while worked with three of them on a dairy on Grizzley Island, where he also shot game for San Francisco restaurants.
In 1906, Frank saw an opportunity to better himself and rented a dairy ranch near Middletown in Lake County, just north of Calistoga. Here on June 22, 1907, a second daughter, Sabina, was born. Frank formed a partnership with a Swiss cousin of Katie’s, Felice Salmina, who had lived in Middletown for several years and was supporting a wife and two children back in Corcapolo.
Life was a struggle, but slowly the dairy business began to prosper, and then, just days from his 32nd birthday, and almost at the exact age as his father’s death, Frank died in a freak accident.
Just before Christmas of 1908, Katie opened a jar of beans she had canned the previous summer. The beans were cooked and the family ate them. But the next day, Frank and Felice, tired after skinning a cow, helped themselves to the cold uncooked beans, and within hours both were dead. The beans, it turned out, were filled with deadly but invisible botulism spores.
Botulism is a microorganism, clostridium botulinum, found in the soil. It produces a spore that attaches itself to many vegetables, but can only grow in the absence of oxygen. String beans are a favorite host for the botulism spore; of the 483 cases of botulism recorded in the United States between 1899 and 1949, 98 were associated with string beans.
Heat of the canning process kills the spore, but inadequately heated beans with no oxygen form a perfect environment for botulism, and that occurred here. Frank and Felice ate beans that had just the right mixture of elements for botulism to flourish. So intense was the bacterial infection in the beans that scientists at the University of California at Berkeley analyzed them to see how such a strain could have developed. Had the night before’s beans not been cooked, the whole family would have contacted botulism and died.
On December 27, 1908, just four days before his 32nd birthday and 22 years almost to the day of his father’s burial, Frank Morosoli was laid to rest in the Salmina family plot in St. Helena, near his father-in-law, Battista, who had died the previous year. “By his noble and generous nature, deceased had gained for himself many friends,” the St. Helena Star noted in its obituary. Felice Salmina was buried nearby, and sad word went to Corcapolo and to Cugnasco relating the tragedy.
Attilio Morosoli died a year later, just 26 years old, in Paso Robles, leaving Antonia to mourn both her sons, dead in the new land where they had gone with such hope.
In an act of generosity, Katie’s uncle Felix Salmina, now head of the family, invited her and the three children to live with them at Larkmead where he was already establishing the Salmina name as a pioneer in the fledging Napa Valley wine industry.
In time, the mist of Ticino burned away in the hot sun of life in America. Today, no descendant of Battista or Felix Salmina carries that name, although the Morosoli name survives to the sixth generation following its change from Morisoli by Fulgenzio Antonio. Descendants of Filippo Dodini still boast that last name, rare in America but gone entirely from Ticino.
And the ability to communicate in the expressive Italian language and the unique dialect of Ticino is too a thing of the past.
But once in a while, just every so often, someone will hit a vowel just right, and chuckle, that’s an old Swiss word, and for an instant, the world of Sabina Salmina, and Fulgenzio Antonio Morosoli, and Giuseppe Dodini flickers alive again, and reminds our hearts of days long past.
On Wings of Gold (T. Anthony Quinn)
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