Miners, Milkers & Merchants Miners, Milkers and Merchants
LifeCircle Press
350 pages
ISBN: 978-0982537848

Miners, Milkers & Merchants


Oral historian Geary’s illuminating study examines the emigration of Swiss Italians to Australia and California through the letters of the Rotanzis, a middle-class family from the “isolated alpine village” Peccia in the Swiss canton of Ticino. Three brothers—Francesco, Virgilio, and Alessandro Rotanzi—choose to seek fortune far from home, each writing to their father, Luigi Rotanzi, of their excitement, frustrations, hopes, and worries over twenty-five years. The narrative closely follows their success (and failures) as they chase riches and bear witness to monumental historical events–all set against the fascinating backdrop of immigration in the 19th century.

In 1855, eldest brother Francesco is the first to leave; later, after experiencing severe food shortages and illness, he would write in a letter to his father “I would not wish this trip on anyone.” Six years later, Virgilio chooses the adventure of journeying to California, along with “hundreds of Swiss-Italian Emigrants who had taken off for [the] state,” eventually being joined by Alessandro. Readers will appreciate the opportunity to compare the brothers’ different journeys, as well as life in both Australia and America from the viewpoint of the same family. Images throughout the narrative provide clarification and context for the Rotanzi brothers, including a family tree and maps of important places like Australia and the Ticino Districts, in addition to numerous photos, portraits, and various documents, such as advertisements and handwritten letters.

Though this account will most interest readers specifically interested in the emigration of Swiss-Italians, Virgilio’s life in California naturally intersects with other facets of American history, including the Civil War, discrimination against Chinese workers, and the Ghirardelli chocolate and soda factories. The Rotanzi family is the main focus of the narrative, but Geary adeptly weaves in the experiences of other immigrants, ensuring anyone fascinated by the experience of emigration to the U.S. will find revealing and resonant.

Takeaway: A fascinating study of the 19th century American immigrant experience, drawn from letters between three Swiss-Italian brothers and their father.

Great for fans of: Leo Schelbert ‘s America Experienced: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Accounts of Swiss Immigrants to the United States, Howard Blum’s The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A

Print Date: 10/25/2021

Clarion Foreword Review   5 stars out of 5

Marilyn L. Geary’s Miners, Milkers & Merchants is the biography of a Swiss-Italian family whose lives were changed by immigration.

The Rotanzi family’s immigrant story began in the mid-1800s, when their eldest son, Francesco, left Peccia, a tiny mountain village, for Australia in search of gold; his younger brothers, Virgilio and Alessandro, followed suit years later, though they headed for California, having witnessed their brother come up short in Australia’s gold rush. None of the brothers ever returned home, despite their father Luigi’s constant entreaties for them to do so. Further, none achieved their dreams of wealth. Instead, they experienced vicissitudes of fortune and struggles as immigrants.

The book draws from family letters; each chapter begins with a quote from these exchanges, often addressed to the father from his sons. But only a portion of their correspondence was preserved, and so Geary works to fill in gaps in the record, turning to other, contemporaneous sources, including local newspapers, surveys, and brochures and pamphlets for immigrants. References to other books and case studies bolster this work, while maps and photographs are included as a complement.

With nuanced ideas about what life was like in the three countries where the Rotanzis lived, the book gleans inferences from the bare facts. It also shows how people of other nationalities were treated as they, too, arrived in the United States and in Australia. Indeed, the epilogue is devoted to those mentioned beyond the Rotanzi family, reconciling their stories to its history.

This is often emotionally nuanced work, in which the emotions underlying the sections varies: the brothers’ letters show their initial optimism and confidence, imparting joy; but they also show their growing dissatisfaction and hopelessness as their dreams of wealth failed to come to fruition. The sections devoted to Luigi are particularly poignant, conveying his fear for his sons’ safety; his grief when, one by one, they all passed away far from home; and his determined faith in the face of this enduring sorrow.

The manuscript does an excellent job at capturing the three Rotanzi brothers as distinct people, despite the relative scarcity of information aside from the letters. Their experiences, although similar in some crucial ways (such as the low-paying jobs they were forced to take as new immigrants who didn’t speak their new country’s language, or their initial loneliness), are by no means identical. The result is an evocative, striking portrait of migration in the nineteenth century.

The family biography Miners, Milkers & Merchants follows three immigrants’ tales, and is filled with hope, fear, and loneliness.
Reviewed by Carolina Ciucci 
July 28, 2021

Miners, Milkers & Merchants Miners, Milkers and Merchants
LifeCircle Press
350 pages
ISBN: 978-0982537848