From Italy to Nevada County
Special to The Union
Italian immigrants were lured to the Gold Country with the promise of striking it rich. However, it was California’s land they fell in love with and a heritage began that continues today.
Their descendants, customs and traditions can still be found in Gold Rush towns that dot Highway 49. In Nevada County, we recognize familiar Italian surnames, like Personeni, Gallino, Seghezzi, Ghidotti, Pardini and Tassone to name a few.
In the 19th century, Italy was divided by city-states and regions.
Beginning in the 1830s, there was a movement to unite these communities, and by 1848, an army of “Red Shirts” led by Giuseppe Garibaldi fought against an Austrian-controlled government. In 1870, the civil war was won by the Italians.
During the war, Italian men, who were not the eldest and, therefore, would not inherit their family’s estate, generally had two options: join the military or become a priest. The news of the Gold Rush provided another option for many of these young men.
They left their native land and boarded ships to find their riches, travelling to Ellis Island via the Horn or Isthmus of Panama. They arrived in San Francisco and made their way east into the foothills.
Nevada County residents Laurence Personeni and his niece, Frances Personeni Gates are descendant from one such family. Laurence’s father was Andrea (Andrew) Personeni. Andrew and his wife, Maria, lived in a small village in Northern Italy and worked for their family’s furniture factory.
After the economic and political strife of the Garibaldi conflict, prospects at home were dim for the young family. Andrew came to the United States in 1907, encouraged by a letter from his brother-in-law, John Manzaneli, who had immigrated earlier and urged Andrew to bring his family to the “land of opportunity.”
For nearly a century, hardrock mining was the main industry of the foothills. As technology changed, surface mining, or placer mining, gave way to hardrock mining. Mining corporations sprouted up along the Highway 49 corridor and many Italian Immigrants went to work for them, alongside the Cornish miners who shared their expertise.
Some of the men, however, found overworked placer claims and abandoned mines, but realized the foothills in California were much like their native lands. It was very similar to Italy’s Liguria region. Instead of mining, these early immigrants turned their attention to running stores, saloons, hotels and working the land.
They became farmers, ranchers, stonemasons, carpenters, barbers and shoemakers.
Once the first wave of Italian immigrants established themselves, they began to send for their families. After working his way to California and saving his earnings, Andrew Personeni sent for his wife and two sons in 1914.
The Italian pioneer women arrived by boat, wagon and train. They came looking for a better life, understanding success in America demanded a good education. They became active in establishing schools and promoting higher education for their children.
The land offered many opportunities and these sturdy women recognized it. If they lost their husband to a mining accident, they took in miners as boarders. Their daughters became teachers, shop owners and community leaders.
Many Italian prospectors turned their placer claims into agricultural land. The climate and topography of the Sierra Foothills is very similar to the region now known as Tuscany.
The miners and townspeople were far from major population centers and became dependent on these local farmers and ranchers, who became the main supplier of fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products, along with grain and wine.
The landscape has not changed much. Today you can take a ride through the foothills and enjoy the rolling vineyards, orchards and ranches, some still operated by descendants of these Italian families.
Andrew Personeni settled on a ranch on Jones Bar Road where, among his many enterprises, he developed a 25-acre vineyard and winery selling wine throughout the county.
His son, Philip, purchased 300 acres in the 1920s for $2,750 and developed the Personeni Ranch, which is still part of the community today. He raised cattle and livestock, planted a fruit orchard and developed a logging business. The Pardini family built up Hills Flat Lumber and manage it today.
One does not have to look far to see the contributions made to Nevada County by these Italian immigrants and their descendants, many of whom live here today.
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