The Italian Almanac

gold nugget

Italian News - February 28

A gold nugget labeled “California U.S. 1853” has revealed a little known insight into the making of modern Italy. According to newly publicized research, gold dug up by Italian immigrants in the 1849 California gold rush found its way to Giuseppe Garibaldi and his “Spedizione dei Mille” (the Expedition of the Thousand) that conquered southern Italy.

Alessandro Trojani, a history professor at Florence University, said he found the gold nugget in the house of Andrea Sgarallino, one of Garibaldi’s officers, in the Tuscan port city of Leghorn. Trojani followed the gold trail to San Francisco and other Pacific coast gold rush cities, finding tales of Italian immigrants who endured the hardships of gold mining partly for the cause of a united Italy.

Change came in dramatic fashion to Italy, then divided into several small states, when Garibaldi and just over 1,000 men boarded two ships in 1860 and set sail for Sicily. They were secretly supported by Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, who saw himself as the future sovereign of a united Italy. After landing in Sicily, Garibaldi and his “Red Shirts” - named after the uniform that always made them visible in battle - pushed north, their victorious ranks swelling with enemy deserters and patriotic southerners, to the mainland and Naples. In 1861, Victor Emmanuel II annexed the newly captured lands and was crowned king of Italy.

Trojani has been studying the stories of Italian immigrants in the gold rush since 1999, but it was the discovery of Sgarallino’s nugget in 2003 that led him to uncover the link between the early development of the U.S. Pacific Coast states and the birth of Italy. Trojani said he found documents belonging to charitable foundations scattered throughout California listing hundreds of donors to Garibaldi’s cause. “Such elements told us it was all connected,” he said. “These were people from all backgrounds, mainly from northern Italy but also Americans, who believed in the project of a united Italy.”