Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

James M. O’Toole

Second Advisor

Paul G. Faler

Third Advisor

Thomas A. McMuIIin


More than four million Italian immigrants entered the United States between 1880 and 1920, a number greater than any other ethnic group during America's peak immigration years. From 1900 to 1910 alone, more than two million Italians flowed through American ports. This thesis examines the great Italian migration to and settlement in the United States, focusing on one of America's strongest and most vibrant ethnic communities, Boston’s Italian North End.

The vast majority of Italian immigrants were peasants from agrarian Southern Italy, seeking refuge in America from nearly unbearable conditions in their homeland. They were mostly young, usually poor and unskilled, and the overwhelming majority were illiterate even in their own language. Only a fraction spoke or understood English. Many, perhaps more than a million, could not make the adjustment to a strange, increasingly urbanized, faster-paced America and repatriated to Italy permanently. Others, known disparagingly in America as "birds of passage,” traveled to America seeking seasonal employment during the warm weather and returned to Italy in the winter.

Nearly three million Italians eventually settled in America. They formed close-knit community enclaves, and became one of the country’s major ethnic groups. However, because so many Italians returned to Italy, most Italian-American neighborhoods were in a state of flux right up until World War I, when transoceanic travel virtually ceased. This was not the case in Boston’s North End, where the “process of settlement" began much earlier, and the neighborhood developed stability before 1910. Italians in the North End were marrying, having children, and purchasing homes during the first decade of the new century. Later, often many years later, they became citizens.

How did Italians fare in the New World? What settlement steps did they take after they arrived in America? What evidence supports the contention that the North End was a stable Italian community before 1910 and why was this so? This thesis makes use of naturalization petitions and other official government documents to answer these questions and offer insight into one of America’s - and Boston’s - largest and most important immigrant groups.