The Ustica Connection

Newsletter of the San Bartolomeo Society Apostolo of New Orleans
Issue 4 - 25 July 2002

To Ustica . . . And Beyond
By Fred Laurice

In October 1763, 100 families suddenly were moved from the island of Lipari in the Aeolian Islands north of Messina, Sicily to a tiny island 45 miles north of Palermo. Why is this important to me? My father, his father and generations before them were born on this tiny island of Ustica. But how and why did my ancestors come to relocate to that island in the first place?

About 100 years before the unification of Italy, Southern Italy and Sicily together were known as the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.” The king resided in Naples. Ships from Naples traded at ports throughout the Mediterranean. At the same time, a group of Barbary pirates roamed those seas. They were using Ustica as a base and attacking the king’s merchant fleet. Ustica, an uninhabited island, provided a natural harbor and ready access to the shipping routes from Naples to Palermo. In fact, pirates had used the island since the 15th century.

One way to deal with the pirates would be to populate the island, so the king sent his emissaries to find families willing to move to Ustica. They probably looked to the Aeolians because they related well to the sea, and could sustain themselves from fishing and small farms. The king’s representatives arrived on Lipari and offered land grants to families who would relocate. Surprisingly, 100 families volunteered to make the move.

They arrived on Ustica in 1761, and settled into their new life. The pirates, however, did not give up easily. Waiting for the right moment, on September 8, 1762, they slipped ashore at night and kidnapped 70 settlers whom they took to Tunisia, where they were held for 9 years! Back on Lipari, the monks wrote to their counterparts in Tunisia asking for assistance in the return of the captives. Eventually some sort of ransom was arranged and they were released.

Meanwhile, the brave little settlement on Ustica decided that the pirates were a threat they could not deal with, and they returned to Lipari. A few months later, the king ordered his emissaries back to Lipari to try and persuade them to return to Ustica. “Tell them that we have fortified the island with watch towers and cannon, and we will protect them.” To their surprise, approximately 100 families again agreed to relocate, and those 4 watch towers are still prominent features of the island.

In October of 1763 the families arrived on Ustica for the second time. In that group of settlers were two families with the name “Lauricella” … my family name, from which my family is descended. Over the generations, those original families grew. Two, four, six generations followed, with most remaining on the tiny island. Following the unification of Italy by Garibaldi in 1860, the islanders heard that the authorities were coming to Ustica for its young men. They were raising an army for the new unified Italy. A sailing ship was hired to slip into the harbor and spirit away some of their men of military age.

On February 14, 1861, the bark Elisabetta set sail for New Orleans, Louisiana with about 28 young passengers! Meanwhile, in America, the Civil War was raging, and the North decided to blockade the Port of New Orleans. It is said that on March 7, 1861, the little ship from Ustica was the very last ship to enter the port ahead of the blockade! Those young men settled in New Orleans. Many became farmers, some became fisherman and more began to follow. By 1879, a thriving community of Usticesi lived in and around New Orleans. Today, there are thousands of Usticesi in New Orleans.

The ties are still strong between New Orleans, Ustica and Lipari and frequent reunions are held between the families to this day. This is my family’s special heritage.

This article was written for the March/April 2002 issue of “Altre Voci”, Newsletter of the Italian Cultural Society of Sacramento, California, and graciously offered for reprint by Fred Laurice.