Finding Your Roots: Exploring a Rich Italian Heritage

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown June 15, 2014 18:46

Isabelle MacLean Drown

Cheryl Gandolfo Maddox, a descendant of one of Tuolumne’s pioneer families, shared her family’s story with me. One thought that proudly ran through her conversation: “He came with absolutely nothing but the clothes on his back, and look what he accomplished with plain, old-fashioned hard work.”

The Sonora woman, whose abiding interests are history and her family – especially her grandchildren – was speaking about her grandfather’s uncle, Giovanni Rocca, born in Italy in 1845. John, as he became known, arrived in California in 1859 at age 14 after immigrating to the U.S.

He was far from alone. By the 20th century, the Italians were among the largest European immigrant group in the mines. In 1850, there were 3,679 Italians in America,  according to the U.S. Census. A half-century later, more than 470,000 Italians had arrived – many of them in the Mother Lode. By 1870, 25 percent of California’s Italian population lived in Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

After settling in Jamestown, John Rocca progressed from being a clerk for his uncle, J. Lartora, to becoming a successful gold miner. His business acumen kicked in, and his land holdings grew to include seven business buildings in downtown Jamestown. A county supervisor and road overseer, he married Anna Sturla, who bore him six children. After her death, he married Margaret Gianelli, with whom he had 13 more.

A common thread runs through his and other Italian immigrants’ stories: They came with nothing and built their successes on hard work. Startup money was unavailable – and never expected. Lured by California’s gold, they left a legacy still obvious today on our foothill maps, places like Italian Bar, Italian Camp and Italian Diggings.

Would you like to learn more about your own Italian heritage? Start online at the home page. Click on Continental Europe, then click on Italy on the next screen. Here you’ll be able to view 134 collections of records and photos. It helps to know a little Italian and your family’s place of origin.

Next, look at immigration records on, which you can access free at the Family History Center at Sonora’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 19481 Hillsdale Drive.

The Sacramento Italian Cultural Society has an informative article about the Italian migration online at And Carolyn Fregulia’s book, Italians of the Gold Country, includes a wealth of information and photos for those researching heritage.

And a rich heritage it is. Many immigrants turned from mining to market gardening, farming and ranching. Italian gardens were numerous.

Among the most well-known were those at Mokelumne Hill and the Pa-ta-ta Ranch at Bald Mountain, Amador County, started in 1862 by six young miners and referred to as Little Genoa.

Others included the Podesta Gardens in Columbia, Palemone Gardens in Tuolumne and the Valponi and Cavalero Gardens in Sonora.

Some of the Italian pioneer merchants were Luigi Costa in Calaveritas, Louis Trabucco in Hornitos, Agostino Chichizola in Jackson and Nicolas Pendola in Angels Camp.

One woman who came to Sonora from Genoa at age 16 was Olivia Elena Antonini, who later married Gerolamo Rolleri. Widowed with 11 children, she became a successful businesswoman with several cattle ranches and mining interests. And in the late 1880s, she established the Hotel Calaveras. Wow! Olivia, you are an inspiration!

And don’t forget the wine industry: Italians planted so many of the vineyards for which California today is famous. The D’Agostinis, the Deavers, the Cuneos and the Cavagneros are just a few of these pioneers.

To end on a sweet note, consider Domenico Ghirardelli, born in Rapallo, Italy in 1817, and apprenticed to a candy maker. At age 20 he immigrated to Peru and then, lured by California’s gold, came to the Mother Lode.

He opened a store in Hornitos, Mariposa County but later moved his business to San Francisco. The Mariposa ruins still stand, bought by the company Domenico founded.

Mmmm, Ghirardelli chocolate. What a lovely Italian legacy. Until next time, good luck with your research.

Geneaology expert Isabelle Drown lives in Sonora. Email her at

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown June 15, 2014 18:46
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