For centuries, Italians have left an unmistakable imprint on the American continent, the United States as a nation, and the state of California. Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine explorer and geographer, demonstrated that the landmasses that comprise North and South America were distinct continents, not part of Asia, as was popularly believed. The term “America” first appeared on maps in 1507, when a German cartographer proposed that the continent be named in Vespucci’s honor. The map, seen here, is known as the Waldseemüller map. The word America is placed on what is now South America, and can be seen on the bottom left continent.
The explorations of Giovanni Caboto, best known as John Cabot, led to the European world’s discovery of portions of North America in 1497. Cabot is credited with being the first European to land in North America since the Vikings, and his explorations served as an impetus for England’s, and later, Britain’s colonization of the Americas.
Under the auspices of the Spanish monarchy, Genovese navigator Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) made four voyages to the Americas, and initiated the Spanish colonization of what was then referred to as the New World.
Italians also played a critical role in America’s struggle for independence. Two of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Italian origin: William Paca and Caesar Rodney. Paca was an important Revolutionary War general and an early senator from Maryland who later became governor.
Rodney, an attorney and politician who was born on his family’s farm in Delaware, descended from the Adelmare family of Treviso, Italy. In July 1776, though stricken with cancer, he rode through thunder and rain to vote for independence.
The phrase “All men are created equal,” which appears in the Declaration of Independence, was suggested to Thomas Jefferson by Italian physician and businessman Filippo Mazzei, his friend and neighbor. Mazzei's original words were “All men are by nature equally free and independent.” Hundreds of Italian Americans fought in the Revolutionary War.
Long before an Italian community was established in Southern California, Italians influenced the Western United States and stimulated international interest in the region.
In 1702, Jesuit priest and explorer Eusebio Kino declared that California was a peninsula, not an island as was believed at the time. Nicknamed the “Padre on Horseback,” Kino established over twenty missions in present-day Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico. He is also credited with establishing the region’s first vineyard at the San Bruno Mission in 1683.
Alessandro Malaspina was an Italian naval officer who spent most of his life working for the Spanish monarchy. From 1786 to 1788, he undertook a voyage around the world. Malaspina also led a scientific exploration of the Pacific, mapped the coasts of North and South America, and journeyed as far north as Alaska, after stopping in Monterey, California.
Italian-born scientist and archaeologist Emilio Botta participated in a French-led journey around the globe. Botta visited California in 1827, and provided early accounts of the region’s indigenous peoples and natural habitat in the book, Observations on the Inhabitants of California.
Born in Peru to a family of Italian lineage, Juan Bandini was one of the earliest settlers of San Diego, California. He witnessed California’s transition from Spanish to Mexican rule, the annexation of California from Mexico, and California’s entry into the union as the nation’s 31st state. Bandini held a variety of leadership roles in early California, including juez de paz, or justice of the peace, and served as secretary to Pio Pico, the last governor of California under Mexican rule. His former ranches are located in present-day Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and streets named after the family can be found throughout Southern California.
In 1781, Spain established El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, the town that would become the great metropolis of Los Angeles. The site of the original pueblo was chosen for its proximity to the Los Angeles River, and the Native American village of Yangna. It was not until Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, however, that permanent Italian settlement took root in the region.
Content Author- Marianna Gatto
Graphics- Robert Checchi and Clyde Crossan
Images Courtesy of University of Southern
California Libraries, Alamy, and the California Historical Society
Special thanks to Anastasia Pineschi