Early Migration Chapter 3

Author: Fr Lawrence E.Attard


When in 1865 the Americans had stopped fighting their internecine Civil War the West of their country began attracting large numbers of settlers. These settlers were Easterners who wanted to forget bitter memories and also many foreigners who were hoping that the west of the U.S.A. would provide them with work and a decent living. These immigrants arrived from Britain and Ireland; later on Germans and Scandinavians joined them to clear the forests, work the land and build railways. The railroad companies were selling vacant land to encourage the growth of new population centres so that more people would travel on trains. During the Civil War Congress had passed the Homestead Act which practically offered free land to adults who intended to migrate to the West. After 1865 not only was the West attracting large numbers of immigrants, but in the East new industries were emerging and these could not expand unless they were provided with cheap labour and European expertise. Thousands of unemployed were lured from the overcrowded cities of Europe only to find that life across the Atlantic was no pretty dream. Conditions at work were harsh, but those of accommodation were deplorable. Probably some 98% of the new arrivals ended up in unhealthy tenements thus creating slums and ghettos.

After 1880 the racial character of American immigration began to alter. The British were now settling in the lands which formed their Empire while the Northern Europeans stayed at home because of improved local conditions. The Germans, inspired by the military and diplomatic successes of their brilliant Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had by now plans for an empire of their own right in the heart of the European mainland. Such international changes meant that recruitment for heavy work had to shift to those less desirable types of immigrants: Southern and Eastern Europeans. During the tweny-four years between 1890-1914 more than fifteen million immigrants from Europe and the Middle East poured into the U.S.A.

Dr Charles Mattei had been to North America on more than one occasion and he was of the opinion that Maltese migrants would be wise to forget all other suggestions and join the rest of the Europeans in trying to make their American dream materialise. On July 21, 1910 he wrote to a Maltese daily newspaper giving his opinion on Maltese emigration to the U.S.A. He recommended those who were thinking of leaving Malta to find work abroad to go to the Pacific slope of North America, to the states of Washington, Oregon and California. Dr Mattei preferred California because there many railroads were being built and the employers were competing for strong men and paying them well. Dr Mattei had met Maltese fitters in California who were engaged on the North Pacific Railway, earning four dollars a day. Many other Maltese were engaged in various trades and he had met a number of them who had been in California before 1900. He said that he had spoken to sixty men who had left Malta some years before and that they claimed that since they arrived in California they had never experienced an idle day. Other Malteseimmigrants earned their living driving cars, cutting stone and cooking in hotels. Mattei noted that Maltese workers lacked technical skill but were in many cases so eager to learn that a few months experience put them on the same level as their American fellow workers. By 1900, emigrants from Malta had settled in New York, Louisiana, Alabama, Pensacola, Mobile, Galveston and New Orleans. In the deep South they were usually small fruit traders.

By 1910 arrangements had already been made to ensure that emigrants who wished to go to the U.S.A. would be screened by the Emigration Committee in order that they would comply with the stringent immigration laws and thus avoid their being stranded on Eiiis Island. Once they had passed through the immigration procedure the new arrivals from Malta would be met by a fellow Maltese who would put them on a train to San Francisco. In that town Mattei had met Maltese of the third generation who were doing very well. Emigration to the West was gathering momentum and ships entering Grand Harbour, Valletta, very often took on emigrants for European ports and thence to New York or Montreal. In June 1910, 120 emigrants, some of them accompanied by their wives, boarded the two ships, s.s. Washington and s.s. Patris and left Malta for California.

The Maltese, along with numerous other new arrivals, made their first contact with America on Ellis Island. This was a 27-acre chunk of land in New York harbour which in 1891 had been made the chief port of entry and control. Ellis island served as the place where immigrants were examined before they were allowed to set foot on the American mainland. After a usually rough crossing of the Atlantic under very trying conditions, the newly arrived strangers found no warm welcome. They were labelled as "greenhorns" and they had to face corruption and prejudice on the part of some immigration officials who may well have belonged to the Immigration Restriction league which, since 1894, had been actively campaigning against the "greenhorns" because they were considered as a threat to the American way of life.

A daily average of some 5,000 immigrants made the total of about 12,000,000 arrivals between 1892 - 1924; it is now estimated that more than 1 00,000,000 Americans, about half that country's population, can trace their ancestors back to Ellis Island.

A number of Maltese who arrived on Eilis Island never actually set foot on the Continent. They were sent back because of some disease or infection, or because they did not possess enough cash, or else because they had nobody to meet them and offer accommodation. The author interviewed some relatives who now five on Long Island and one of them described how he made his first acquaintance with America: "... because my father had entered the U.S.A. in 1902 we were automatically U.S.A. citizens. It took us some seven days to cross the Atlantic. When we disembarked we had to show that we had twenty-five dollars as a requirement before gaining admittance into New York City. We would get through the gate at Ellis Island and put the twenty-five dollars in our caps. Then we would pass our caps through the fence to someone in the line who did not have the twenty-five dollars. The same money would be used again and again".

The Immigration Restriction League had been campaigning for stricter control over immigration particularly of those immigrants whose ethnic origin was not Nordic and whose religious persuasion was not Protestant. These unwelcome arrivals, among them the Maltese were included, were supposed to pose a threat to democracy, and to the unity of the United States because they spoke other languages than English, had no respect for the right of private business and industry and were critical of private enterprise. The trade unions agreed with the League, and immigrants were sometimes attacked as a cause of unemployment since they provided cheap and docile labour,

In 1903 the Dillingham Commission was set up in order to study the whole problem of immigration and in 1911 the Commission made its findings known. In a report which covered some forty-two volumes the Commission concluded that restriction of immigration on the grounds of ethnic origin was not desirable. The Commission however, did suggest a literacy test but it also suggested that immigration should be planned according to the economic needs of the nation and the welfare of the American people.

The Literacy Test Act was passed in 1917. As its name implies the Act made it obligatory for immigrants to read a short passage in English or some other language before being admitted. Although the Act seemed innocent enough it effectively barred from entering America large numbers of Southern Europeans and practically all Asians. The Asians were referred to as the Yellow Peril who were biding their time before they would swamp the U.S.A. and put an end to the domination of the White man. President Theodore Roosevelt had urged Japan in 1908 not to issue passports to labourers who wished to emigrate to California. Immigration had become a very controversial issue and the outbreak of the First World War in Europe had given an exaggerated impetus of xenophobia to isolationist Americans. As hostilities broke out in Europe a number of immigrants who had only recently left their countries of origin found it difficult not to take sides. These "hyphenated-Americans" were considered as a threat to neutrality and were seriously criticised by two presidents of the time, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Maltese settlement in the U.S.A. was naturally hampered by the obstacles referred to already, especially as settlers from Malta were classified with the "foreign" category. Yet adventurous Maltese still managed to find their way to American shores. Late in 1910, a Maltese priest wrote from Floresville, Texas, to encourage farmers and market gardeners to emigrate to that part of the country. Fr Peter Paul Zarb had been pastor at Floresviiie since August 1898 and he held that position till January 1940. Fr Zarb had obtained his doctorate from the Dominican Fathers at Rabat, Malta in 1885 and a year later he was in Gibraltar where he stayed till 1898. On May 6 of that year at the request of Bishop Forest of San Antonio he took charge of the parish of Floresville. He died on May 23, 1942, and was buried three days later in Mount Olivet Cemetry in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

A number of men were interested in Fr Zarb's idea. They were small farmers v hailed mostly from Mosta and Luqa. According to further information sent over b) Zarb, the Maltese were to buy or rent small holdings and they would be able to save necessary cash by working on their farms and at the same time pay for them. Fr Zarb of the opinion that a thriving Maltese colony could be established, and he urged th, interested to bring their families with them. He wrote to newspapers in Malta wherein described the weather in Wilson county as healthy and bracing though the win tended to be a little cooler than those in Malta. The Malta Herald of November 1 1, 1 1 hailed Floresville as the golden opportunity of the century and declared that it would b the height of folly to let such an opportunity slip. An energetic and learned Maltese prie! was already on the spot, conditions seemed to be good and some pioneering Maltese ha already settled there permanently.

The Emigration Committee approved of the idea and a League of the Apostieship Prayer was formed to provide moral and material help to intending migrants. The League established a Penny Bank where migrants would deposit any surplus money they had a from which they would be able to pay their passage to Galveston or New Orleans a from there proceed to Floresville by train.

Besides Floresville, the Emigration Committee also tried to interest Maltese se going to the state of Montana which seemed to offer good opportunities to those) not wish to settle in the South. The Catholic bishop of Great Falls wished to encourage Maltese immigration into his diocese in order to increase the number of Catholic area. Professor Lawrence Manche' thought Montana to be a good place because in that state was a small town of some 800 people; it was near a railway line and its name was Malta! Manche' somewhat naively envisaged Montana's Malta as the beginning of a greater Malta on the American continent.

Floresville and Montana eventually came to nothing, like so many other projects of the time. While millions of immigrants made America their new home the Maltese lost precious time because no leadership was coming from those who ruled them and their pockets. Without sufficient funds few Maltese could scrape enough money to cross the Atlantic ocean. The gentlemen on the Emigration Committee urged the State, the Church and the monied classes to help create a scheme by which intending migrants could be lent money to obtain their tickets, but financial assistance to needy emigrants had to waitfor another thirty years. However a few Maltese did manage to join Fr Zarb and the other settlers from Malta.

Although the Church as a body did not act on behalf of Maltese migrants in the period under scrutiny, a number of priests did act as escorts to groups which were leaving the Island. On February 19th 1911 the Revd Antonio Sammut accompanied ten emigrants to New York on board the Italian steamship "Birmania". When they arrived in New York they found no less than ten thousand immigrants waiting to be processed. Father Sammut acted as interpreter for the Maltese and this speeded up their selection process considerably. When one of the group, a certain Deguara, abandoned the rest of the Maltese and tried to fend for himself, he found out that he could not make himself understood. Sammut said that the immigration officials sent Deguara back home. Father Sammut later moved on to Canada where he was given the job of lecturer in a seminary.

California certainly proved to be the most attractive state to Maltese settlers in the early years of the twentieth century. Small farmers and fruit growers from Gozo, Mosta and the three villages had already settled in the Golden State before the beginning of the twentieth century. Success stories about Maltese emigrants in California eventually found their place in some of the Maltese papers. One such story was about a certain Joseph Fenech who hailed from Lija and who had gone to California in 1903, accompanied by his wife, children and two brothers. Joseph set up the Santa Rosa Poultry and Game Depot and soon had a thriving business in dairy produce. Fenech corresponded with various friends in Malta and he praised the general standard of living prevailing in and around the city of San Francisco; he also said that all the Maltese he knew in the Bay area were doing well. Joseph did however mention a few gamblers who soon squandered all their money. The majority of the Maltese, according to Joseph Fenech were working regularly and sending money home. Joseph suggested that immigrants to California were to accept the first job they were offered and then hope for something better.

San Francisco in 1911 had about 200 Maltese and these were living in the areas of San Bruno and Butcherstown. The city was expecting a significant boom in its trade when the Panama Canal was to be completed; that historic event occurred on August 3th 1914 where the canal was opened for commercial shipping, thus bringing California closer to the American Eastern seaboard and to Europe. This increase in the wealth of California, especially in that of its sea-ports, meant that prospects for immigrants were now better than ever before and besides farming, the Maltese could find jobs in the building industry, factories and in opening small businesses. Maltese immigrants who had been in San Francisco for some years took it upon themselves to go and meet new arrivals from Malta at the Ferry Building where the Information Bureau of the Southern Pacific Company wa situated. Two Maltese gentlemen, Mr Velia and Mr Schembri volunteered to answe telephone calls during the day and also during the night from Maltese who had jus arrived in the city.

Those emigrants who arrived in San Francisco accompanied with their families preferred to settle in Butcherstown. According to Joseph Fenech a good house in Butcherstown could be rented for about eight dollars a month. Food was thought to be cheap and abundant. Fenech suggested that a family should keep a cow and some goats to make themselves more self-sufficient, the cows had plenty of pasture on the nearby hills.

Young men were able to earn two dollars a day at the rope works and those who were more industrious were able to save more money. Maltese workers had a good name and they were satisfied with their weekly wages which they received in Californian DoubleEagles. Fenech also said that there was a great demand for women and young girls in the factories. Work for women was not a familiar experience in Malta where the men w had good jobs were considered the lucky ones. The Californian State Legislature had lately passed a law which prohibited work for women which was longer than eight hours a day except in factories which produced perishable goods.

Joseph Fenech thought California was a great place to live in and work. While in Malta one had to work hard all one's working life, in that State a single man needed only to work for three months, while a married man needed only six months work to make ends meet. It is possible that Fenech was somewhat over-optimistic but in July 1913 the British Lieutenant Governor of Malta, Sir John Clauson, did refer to emigration to the Pacific coast of North America, particularly to California. Sir John said that Maltese settlers in that region were successful and hardly any of them ever came back.

On April 27th 1913, a meeting was held in San Francisco in which a Maltese welfare group was formed. This was called the Malta Protective Society of California. The main scope of the Society was to assist Maltese workers when they were in need especiall when they were incapacitated through serious accidents. The California Senate had passed in that year the Compensation Act and the Society wanted to make sure that Maltese workers availed themselves of the benefits which the Act offered. The secretary of the Society was a certain Ted Velia. In his speech Mr Veila regretted that in the past the conditions of the Maltese worker in California, especially during the first years of settlement, was very precarious. It was the Society's aim to provide some sort of leadership to the Maltese in San Francisco.

Another important development in the history of Maltese emigration to California was the establishment of a national parish in San Francisco. It had been said from almost the very beginning of modern emigration from Malta that the Maltese emigrant would never settle permanently unless he had with him his family and his faith. Whenever there was a priest who resided permanently with a group then that group had a good chance of survival. The Maltese in San Francisco knew this and in 1913 they had a priest with them, Father Andrew Azzopardi, a Franciscan friar, who soon established a church in the city which was to be the nerve-centre of the Maltese community for many years.

Fr Azzopardi called the Maltese church that of St Paul of the Shipwreck, recalling the famous episode in Maltese history when St Paul and his companion St Luke, were cast on the shores of Malta during a tremendous gale, with the result that the Maltese received Christianity from St Paul himself. In dedicating his church to St Paul, Fr Azzopardi not only appealed to the religious sentiments of his people but also touched their national pride and identity. In that church the Maltese observed their traditional festas, and more important still, they prayed and sang in their own tongue. The church helped to group the Maltese, give them a feeling of belonging, and preserve their heritage.

In 1919 another Maltese priest assumed the leadership of the Maltese community. This was Father Theophilus Cachia who served the Maltese church for forty years. Under the guidance of their pastor the Maltese not only preserved their religious heritage but they also kept their ethnic identity in a time when multicuituralism was still unknown.

Maltese emigration to California was a success, even if on a modest scale. If Maltese efforts at settling in other parts of the world had been unified and solely directed to North America, then so much heart-break would have been avoided and Maltese presence in North America today would be far more numerous. A regular flow of Maltese immigrants kept flowing into the U.S.A. right up to the beginning of the First World War in 1914. By that time it is roughly estimated that in California alone there were some five hundred Maltese. Since many of those settlers were happy with their position they kept on urging relatives and friends to join them. Had the economic factor, especially the cost of the journey from Malta to North Americ,3 not been so prohibitive, the total Maltese population in North America would have been higher still. Later trends shifted from California to Detroit and New York, but interest in California never died out. That state was a distant part of the world, but it was prosperous and work was well paid. The climate was similar to that at home and the future was secure.

top-of-pageprevioustopic-indexnext Email-A-Page



We need your support to continue working on this site. Help us.
Text and pictures (c) 2001-2017 Malta Emigration Museum and/or its contributors.

Consultancy, hosting, programming and technical assistance provided by A6iT.