Italians accompanied Louisiana's earliest Spanish and French explorers. Neapolitan Enrico de Tonti was with La Salle in 1682 when the French expedition claimed Louisiana for King Louis XIV. Undetermined numbers of Italians trickled into colonial Louisiana throughout the eighteenth century. Many colonial immigrants were from the northern Italian peninsula. Because they usually pioneers did not maintain their ethnic identity; indeed, most of them married into established French and Spanish families.
The Italian influx into Louisiana continued and expanded in the early nineteenth century, and, in 1850, the Pelican State boasted the United States' largest Italian-born population in the United States. The colonial and antebellum Italian immigrants dispersed as far north as Natchitoches.
These early Italian immigrants held diverse occupations, including soldiers, sailor, farmer, artist, doctor, and pirate. Others established themselves as Caribbean fruit importers. Some Italians distinguished themselves in the War of 1812, while others served in the Confederate army during the Civil War.
The pockets of Italian culture persisting in present-day Louisiana are the legacy of the individuals who participated in the massive influx of Sicilians during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of the Sicilian immigrants were peasants fleeing the poverty of their homeland. Like the Irish immigrants of an earlier generation, the Sicilians worked alongside African Americans on the Port of New Orleans docks. They also labored in the south Louisiana sugar fields. So many Sicilians occupied the then-declining French Quarter section of New Orleans that the area became known locally as "Little Sicily" and "Little Palermo."
Some Sicilians eventually managed to open corner grocery stores, meat and fish markets, and bakeries. Although most of these neighborhood "mom and pop" stores no longer exist, Italians maintain a high profile in the New Orleans food industry by operating restaurants and bakeries. Second- and third-generation Sicilian immigrants served the city as firemen, police officers, and politicians.
Italian-Americans no longer maintain a visible ethnic presence in New Orleans' inner city. Most have moved to the Crescent City suburbs and to rural parishes throughout Louisiana. In Morgan City, Alexandria, and Lafayette, Italian-Americans have settled in numbers sufficiently large enough to form organizations acknowledging familial and cultural ties to Sicily. The largest concentration of Sicilians outside metropolitan New Orleans, however, is found in the Florida Parishes. The town of Independence is particularly proud of its inhabitants' Sicilian heritage. Many turn-of-the-century immigrants became migrant workers, trekking to Florida Parish strawberry patches from the Crescent City or river parish sugarcane fields. Within a short time, these migrant workers acquired sufficient funds to buy a small farm and start a new life.
A curious distinction persists within New Orleans' Italian-American community. Among the Crescent City's Sicilian immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were members of an ethnic group known as the Abreshe. Originally from Albania, members of this group were given land in Sicily in the fifteenth century. For nearly five hundred years, these transplanted Albanians segregated themselves from the native Sicilian population. Although technically Italian immigrants, the Abreshe refused to identify with other immigrants from their homeland, and they founded their own benevolent societies in New Orleans.
by Diana C. Monteleone