Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Lost Connection: California Ticinese and the Trentinese Resistance

One historical period, which literally ties many of us together on both sides of the ocean, was the Austrian occupation of the northeast Italian peninsula. This occupation did not end in 1860, but continued on in the Trentino through World War I. The Lombardian resistance, and later the Trentinese resistance, hid out in Ticino. It was naturally an ideal location for many reasons. First, it was the same culture and even the same Lombard dialect. Also, when you view history, "nobody messes with the bank." Nobody interferes with Switzerland, as history shows us. Not Napoleon, not the Hapsburgs, not the National Socialists, nobody.

In response, the Austrian army blockaded the southern borders of Ticino. This cut off many people from employment, supplies, trade, produce, etc. Back then, it was just heavy Alpine mountains to the north. No express trains. I don't know how long or how many times this blockade may have been in place between 1850 and 1930, the years of Ticinese emigration. It must have been a long time since the resistance movements were operating between 1848 and 1918.

[Above: Cesare Battisti, probably the most important figure of the Trentinese resistance]

This time period, although socially and politically long past, is only a blip on the historical scale. Some of us were alive when Cesare Battisti was hanged in Trento in 1916. For a few of us, our grandparents may have been alive during the Cinque Giornate Revolt in Milano in 1848. It's even possible that they were even living in those cities and witnessed it. The Trentinese, the Lombardians, the Venetians, and the Ticinese, are all one people at the end of the day. The following in an article from May, from the 'Sonoma Valley Sun' newspaper, which ties into this subject.

Swiss in Sonoma

George McKale - 'Sonoma Valley Sun' - May 22, 2009

There are two kinds of assumptions. In science, a theory is an assumption, and it is the basis for how one interprets data collected during a scientific study. With this kind of assumption, it is necessary to explicitly describe and declare the underlying assumption (theory) for the investigation. The other assumption is a proposition that is taken for granted, as if it were true without preponderance of the facts. It is this type of assumption one looks to avoid. In last weeks segment I made the second type of assumption stating that Fernando Nichelini was Italian, when in fact, as Walt Picchi, Nichelini’s great nephew has pointed out, he is Swiss. According to Picchi, Nichelini was extremely proud of his Swiss heritage. In restitution, I dedicate this segment to Florindo’s homeland.

Florindo’s father, Francisco, immigrated from Verscio, Switzerland, located in the Italian-speaking Canton Ticino, in 1870. The Swiss nation is a confederation of 26 states called cantons. Francisco settled just north of Sonoma at what is now the Moon Mountain Christmas Tree Farm. Once established, his son Florindo arrived in Sonoma County in 1880 at the age of twelve. The rugged Moon Mountain property reminded Francisco of his homeland. A deed dated September 4, 1920 indicates that the Nichelinis sold the Moon Mountain property in 1920. Two other deeds dating to 1906 and 1908 show Florindo purchasing land from both Joshua and Henry Chauvet in Glen Ellen. In the early 19th century, Switzerland was troubled with political and economic turmoil. Just to the south of Ticino was Italy, and Northern Italian nationalists operated out of Switzerland in their war for independence from Austria. Austria reacted by blocking the Italian-Swiss border, which curtailed commerce between the two nations. Ticinesi families residing in both Switzerland and Italy were no longer able to support their families, and many made the difficult decision to leave their homeland for the United States.

In the first half of the nineteenth century large numbers of Swiss settled in the mid-West. The gold rush brought thousands of Swiss immigrants to California. One of California’s most notable Swiss immigrants was Johann August Sutter (John Sutter), who founded Sutter’s Fort. He referred to the fort as Nueva Helvetia, meaning New Switzerland. Migration out of Ticino and into California began in earnest by the mid-nineteenth century. Of all Swiss immigrants to California, the greatest number came from Ticino. Between 1820 and 1930, 290,000 Swiss migrated to California.

Many of the Ticinesi rebuilt their family life known back in the old country. In northern California, Ticinesi settled on ranches in the Salinas Valley, West Marin, and throughout Sonoma County, forming full-scale colonies. Ticinesi women often married Ticinesi men. Prior to 1869, Swiss immigrants to California had to make a long and grueling journey by boat around the southern tip of South America. With the transcontinental railroad completed in 1869, it took around ten days to travel from the East Coast to the West. This also enabled Swiss immigrants to return for extended visits to the home land, with a ten-day trip by train and a three-week trip across the Atlantic by boat.

The Swiss immigrants did very well in California and were exceptional vintners and ranchers. They were able to send or bring money back to the home land, building larger houses and spurring the economy. In one Ticinesi town, they built a new cemetery with large stone monuments dedicated for those who had returned from California. Ira Cross in his 1927 “History of Banking in California” states, “Among the people of foreign nations who have settled in this country, none have been more worthy of success than those from Switzerland … They possess to a marked degree the innate qualities that go to make a people great in the truest sense.” Picchi stated that Florindo was still climbing windmills well into his eighties. A picture of Florindo at Nichelini’s Hardware on First Street West can be seen hanging at one of our local bars and eatery. Where? None other than the Swiss Hotel. Go have a drink and peruse the wonderful collection of old Sonoma photographs hanging on the walls.


This article has the quote that I had been looking for, which I had lost, regarding predominently the Ticinese immigrants. I suppose it reflected also the German-Swiss in California as well, whose history is also remarkable. The 290,000 number for immigrants from Ticino sounded very high. If that's true, then it changes my perception of their significance. Lastly, the Ticinse and the culture of southernmost part of the Graub√ľnden canton (Grigioni) are Lombardian, as they speak the Lombard dialect.