No detail too small

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When I started researching family history more than twenty years ago, I was eager to find out about my great-grandfather Gerardo Smaldone, who emigrated from Italy to America. Where did he come from? When did he emigrate? Did other members of his family come too? I hoped immigration records would answer these questions. Unfortunately, before the twentieth century, passenger lists did not provide much information, but at least one could glean a passenger’s age, occupation, marital status, native country, destination, whether he or she was in transit or intending to stay in the U.S., what compartment they stayed in, and how much baggage accompanied them. Genealogists likely pay close attention to most of these details, but why care about baggage?! Amazingly, in Gerardo’s case, such trivial information was to prove decisive in determining when he immigrated to America.

In early May 2000, in response to my query to an Italian genealogy email group, someone sent me reference to a Gerardo Smaldone arriving from Naples at the Port of New York aboard SS Kronprinz Friedrich Wilhelm on 17 October 1894. The cited source was the multivolume series Italians to America, so I went to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and found Gerardo’s listing in Volume 8. On a later research trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, I found and copied the original passenger record from the microfilm. I thought I had found Gerardo’s immigration record (see illustration above).

Yet two tidbits of information about Gerardo in the passenger manifest puzzled me: he was married, and he had no baggage with him.

Yet two tidbits of information about Gerardo in the passenger manifest puzzled me: he was married, and he had no baggage with him. Of course I knew he had married sometime, but I didn’t know when or whether it was in Italy or New York. More curious was the absence of baggage, when almost everyone else on that passenger manifest page had one to three pieces. The fact that Gerardo had no baggage was intriguing, but at the time it seemed more engaging, even endearing. After all, we’ve all heard stories about impoverished immigrants who arrived in the U.S. with only the shirt on their backs! It looked like my Gerardo was one of them … literally! What a touching vignette for the family history, I thought.

But my folklore story-in-the-making began to unravel as research progressed. I eventually found that Gerardo’s wife-to-be, Rosa Tolve, arrived from Italy in 1891, they married in January 1892 in New York City, and by early 1894 they had the first two of their nine children. So 1894 could not have been the year of Gerardo’s immigration; rather, he was returning to New York from Italy after being away for an unknown period of time. This would explain why the 1894 arrival record shows him married and without luggage. I wondered if he went home because a parent, grandparent, or sibling was gravely ill or had died. However, years later, after completing research on his family in Italy, it was clear that none of these close relatives died around that time.

Realizing that Gerardo must have left Italy years earlier than I initially thought, I started searching for his immigration record again. I found it at the National Archives on microfilm. (Looking back, it was so tedious to do research in those days!) Gerardo arrived at the Port of New York from Naples on 27 May 1887 aboard SS Neustria with nearly 900 other mostly-immigrant passengers. He was 21, which was consistent with the only birthdate I had for him then, June 1865, as recorded in the 1900 census. (Subsequent research revealed that he was born in the small hilltop town of Potenza, Basilicata, on 30 January 1866.) Like everyone else on that manifest page, he was a “contad.,”[1] a native of Italy, and destined for New York. And on this voyage he did have baggage, as one would expect for someone moving from one continent to another! In fact, the faded manifest appears to show he came with 11 pieces! This seems like a lot of luggage for a farmer, but most of the other immigrants listed also had 10 or 11 items. He was indexed as Gerardo Smaltone; years later, even though posted the digitized record listing him as masc[uline], his name was indexed as Gerarda, the feminine variant of Gerardo. In fairness, his name on the manifest does look like it ends in “a.” In any event, I could now date his immigration more confidently: 27 May 1887 (see illustration above right).

Just to be sure I had the right Gerardo, and to see if he might have traveled abroad again, I searched passenger lists on Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, and Findmypast through 1912, when he died. I found several other men named Gerardo Smaldone or variants thereof, including some from Potenza, but none fit what is known about my great-grandfather. Admittedly, I cannot be certain that it was my Gerardo who arrived in New York in 1894. His age was given as 24, but my Gerardo was actually 28 at the time. Of course, ages recorded in passenger lists are often off by a few years, but there is no other information on the manifest to identify him uniquely.

Like most of the others listed on that page, he was a laborer and native of Italy, and New York was his destination. The only peculiarity was the lack of baggage. In this instance and context, that is not trivial information at all. Taking into account what is reliably known about my great-grandfather, and that I have not found any immigrant namesakes who better approximate his particulars, I think it is safe to say that he immigrated in 1887 and that he is likely the Gerardo who went back to Italy in 1894 for reasons unknown. Whatever the identity of this 1894 passenger, and whatever the purpose of his visit to Italy, my immigrant great-grandfather Gerardo Smaldone was among the first to transplant the name Smaldone in America.

Reflecting on the significance of baggage for this research effort, the moral of this story for genealogists is clear: no piece of evidence, however seemingly trivial or mundane, should be ignored!


[1] An abbreviation for contadino, i.e., a farmer.

About Joe Smaldone

Joe Smaldone and his wife Judy Warwick Smaldone have been researching their family’s history for 20 years. Their research has taken them to many national, state, and local libraries, archives, court houses, churches, cemeteries, historical and genealogical societies, and other research sites across the United States, and abroad to Ireland, Italy, and Sweden. They are members of NEHGS, the New Hampshire Historical Society, and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. Joe is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, where he created and taught a course entitled Your Family in History. He is a Genealogy Research Consultant at the Family History Center, Annapolis, Maryland, and has published several genealogical studies, abstracts, and indexes.

17 thoughts on “No detail too small

  1. Joe— You really need to meet my 2nd cousin who lives in Denver by the name of Jerry Smaldone whose paternal grandfather was Gerardo from Potenza.

  2. Very interesting story. Very interesting also that some of my ancestors on my father’s side came from Potenza and Avigliano in the Potenza area. And the kicker is my second great grandfather Gerardo Viggiani and his family came to America in 1894 aboard the USS Neustria. I am sure some of our ancestors commiserated together in Italy. I had very few contadini in my family. Some interesting jobs like swine herder and lamp lighter for occupations.

    1. Cousin Joe…,thank you for all the research you have done to look into our family heritage. It is so interesting to say the least….you have done and uncovered so much history about our Smaldone family.
      Thank you so much for all your dedication to our family heritage.
      Lorraine Smaldone Whitaker.

  3. I read this article and then pulled a book I have in my library called “Smaldone The Untold Story of An American Crime Family” by Dick Kreck. Chapter 2 entitled “Arrivals” refers to Raffael Smaldone born in Potenza, Italy, 1882 who “arrived in the United States, with his parents, as a two-year-old.” I wonder if there is a connection to your great-grandfather Gerardo?

    1. hi christine – thanks for your note. i have the book, and have talked to the author as well as gene smaldone, one of the descendants who cooperated with kreck. we compared notes about our ancestral smaldones in potenza, denver, & NY, but didn’t find any links. i also did some research in potenza records on the ancestors of the denver “crime family,” but didn’t find anything. perhaps further research will uncover something! do you have smaldone relatives?

      1. Hi Joe,

        No I do not have any Smaldone relatives. But I sure enjoyed your article!

        I know the Denver Public Library has an amazing manuscripts collection at the Central Branch, 3rd floor, Western History and Genealogy. If you haven’t already, I would mine that collection.

        Keep up the great work. I will look forward to more articles from you.


      2. Hello Joe, My son-in-law is related to the Denver Smaldone family. His great grandmother is Lucille Smaldone born 1914. However, I am having a hard time tying anything together. You mentioned that after talking to the Denver Smaldone’s you felt that there is no tie to Potenza, which is concerning and is making me question what I thought I knew…lol My Gerardo Smaldone born 1879-1880 is from Potenza as well. Hmmm I was wondering if you have jotted down anything that may help me in my search. I’m learning that it is fairly difficult to track the Smaldone’s. Thanks

        1. hi cheryl – i don’t know if the denver smaldones descend from a single immigrant ancestor, or whether there were multiple smaldones who brought or started families there. i only looked into the origins of the “crime family” from potenza, to see if they were related to my NYC smaldones from potenza. i researched the “crime family” in potenza records back to the early 1800s, and didn’t find a connection. however, my research was incomplete and of course, there’s always the possibility that common ancestry may exist in earlier generations. at this point, i do not intend to pursue this further, but hope that someone else with curiosity and tenacity will do a more comprehensive mapping of the smaldones from potenza! cheers, joe

  4. Joe, thank you again for all the work you have done on behalf of our family history. You have done an outstanding job and service to the family.

  5. Amazing – your hard and interesting work, research continues to inspire me to keep going on my family research, sorting and compiling photos and correspondence. Thanks for sharing. Anne

  6. My great-grandfather, Giuseppe, was born in ’65 also. Atessa, Chieti, Abruzzo. According to a later census he says he came over in ’80. I have not found any passenger list to confirm that. There is a Joseph from Atessa who comes to Philadelphia in the early 1900s but the age is way off.

  7. Many thanks to all who were kind enough to comment on this post, especially my cousins jerry & lorraine, and good friend and former “boss” anne ridder!

  8. Hello Joseph,
    I am Jerry (also Gerard A.) Smaldone from Denver, the cousin of Jerry Carbone, who commented above. I had told him how you contacted me many years ago, but that our ancestors didn’t connect. A professional genealogist, Jerry has found many of our relatives.

    At that time there were about 30 Smaldone names in the Potenza phonebook, with the next largest group of Smaldones in Naples and King’s County? N.Y. Your territory if I remember correctly. There are quite a few in Denver and we were the only other sizable group outside Potenza. I assumed that the Name came straight out of Potenza, which I found unusual. Also, there seemed no history to the name, unless it would relate to “smalto”, the enamelling applied to pottery. But I don’t really know. I have discovered over the years five Smaldone families here, unrelated to each other, including the crime family. Of course, everyone we meet thinks we are all related because they’ve always heard about the crime family.

    It is wonderful fun to imagine what life was like one, two, three hundred years ago, even later,
    what our ancestors did and what they were like. There are always interesting clues, questions and pieces of history.

    I remember well the enormous number of relations you’d tracked down back then, and I’m sure it’s grown. All I can say is Viva Smaldone!

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