At the very end of my year in Italy, I was fortunate enough to be able to take the time and journey down to the Basilicata region of Southern Italy and reach San Fele, which, I can tell you, is extremely difficult to get to. My research was very productive and I loved the town itself.
San Fele sits 864 meters above sea-level on the crossing of two mountains, Monte Torretta and Monte Castello. It covers an area of 97 square kilometers and is divided into eight frazioni: Agrifoglio, Armatieri, Difesa, Cecci, Montagna, Pierno, Masone, and Signorella. It has around 4200 inhabitants.
The town has a long and rich history. On his third expedition to Italy, Otto I of Saxony, who was the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Italy at the time, ordered that a fortress be built in this area to protect against Byzantine incursions. This site was chosen for its obvious defensive advantages. In 969 A.D., the castle-fortress was completed. The constructors of the fortress, being from Venosa, dedicated the fortress to their protector-saint, San Felice.
Around the middle of the next century, a group of Milanese rebels were imprisoned here and, after their release two years later, decided to settle permanently, marrying with women from the surrounding area. Over the centuries, the settlement expanded and its name became San Fele. It was a barony during the Middle Ages and always served as the most strategic location from which to defend the Valley of Vitalba. The fortress was expanded several times; however, it was destroyed in 1438.
The modern history of San Fele follows that of much of this part of Italy. Under the Bourbons, conditions here were miserable and hopeless. Landslides and earthquakes repeatedly destroyed parts of the city and threatened the inhabitants. Most of the inhabitants were peasants. At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, the population of the city, like that of many other Southern Italian towns, was cut in half by emigration. Among the emigrants of this period was Giovanni Tronnolone, his wife Elisabetta, and several of their children.
The town itself seems like it is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by grain fields that give the land a very different look from much of Tuscany. In the past, the workers of the town would often have to walk around three hours to the fields on which they worked. Although before the latter part of the last century, raising livestock was common, the area moved to almost exclusive grain production in the 1860's and early 1870's. During this time, important technical advances were making transcontinental transport far less costly. This had two very important effects. Firstly, grain could be imported cheaply from America and Russia, causing grain prices to drop dramatically and provoking a severe economic crisis in many areas of Southern Italy, including San Fele. The second effect was that emigration was far more feasible, and people began to leave the South by the thousands in search of a less arduous life.
I would confidently say that the Tronnolone family was one of the thousands of families that were caught in the economic crises of the end of the last century. John Tronolone was a proprietario at the time of Elizabeth's birth, which means he owned his own land. However, this is far from saying that he was wealthy. Most likely, he was part of the class of small-landowners that were most seriously affected by both the grain crisis and the prospect of emigration. Likely, his land did not produce income to sustain his family and by selling it, he could accumulate enough money to pay for passage for his family to America. Now, this is, of course, all speculation; however, it follows the pattern of many of the people in this area at the time.
If you ever want to go to San Fele, take a train to Melfi and you will find a bus that goes right into town. Do not, as I did, take the train to the station called San Fele: it is no where near the town and there is no public transportation that will take you there. I ended up walking over fifteen miles up and down mountains to get there.
There is one hotel in San Fele, "L'Usignolo," but it is relatively nice and inexpensive. I found the people at the Municipio, the city hall, to be very welcoming and helpful to researchers. I spent half the morning in the Vital Records office and they seemed just as excited about my search as I was.
Browsing through the cemetary, you will find that there are a group of names very common to people of the town. Tronnolone, Pascale, Di Leo, and Andraccio are among them. The Sanfelese are very proud of these local names. In fact, when I could not find the birth record for Michele, John's father, I asked the man if it were possible that he came from another town. He assured me very emphatically that there was no possibility of that because all Tronnolone's came from San Fele. I traced the Tronnolone line back three generations, to Michele, but got further back on other lines from which Elizabeth descended. The oldest ancestor I found was Leonardo Pascale, the great-great-grandfather of the elder Elizabeth, which would make him my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather; however, I only found a reference to him and do not know what year he was born, other than that it would be in the late 1700's.