Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Ringing church bells day and night

Maggia as seen looking north from the chapel, Saint Mary of the Graces

How did individual villages in upper Ticino develop and adapt to the various crises of the 19th century?

In a study first published in 1974, historian Giorgio Cheda takes a close look at his home village of Maggia.

This summary from Maggia Viva was translated and interpreted by Jay Grossi, a descendant of Ticinese emigrants and a lecturer of Italian language and culture at the University of California at Davis.

Maggia Viva

At the beginning of the 1800s relatively few Valmaggesi emigrated. The data of the 1808 census allows us to establish that out of a total population of around 6,000 inhabitants, not even 50 were absent for several years.

The village of Maggia had in this period 381 people: 190 males and 191 females; those who were temporarily absent from the village numbered only ten, and one had emigrated several years earlier.

The parish priest, entrusted with the census by the Swiss government in Bern, had to compile the census tables in March when not all of the seasonal workers who regularly travelled in the Italian states in search of work had already packed their bags with their few miserable clothes and tools; therefore, it is probable that the reported number absent from the village was lower than the true number of absent villagers.

However, temporary emigration was limited to modest numbers, and this was also on account of the Napoleonic wars which had upset the ancient custom of seasonal emigration tied to impelling economic needs.

Food crisis

A serious food crisis of the first years of the Restoration in 1803 forced many peasants to look for work outside the narrow confines of the village. Although the village had the privilege of being surrounded by a vast countryside where rye and maize grew abundantly and some vineyards thrived, it could not satisfy the needs (food and work of a population in continual expansion.

A document published by school teacher Mr. Poncini showed that in 1816, the people in order to satisfy their hunger, would eat anything: the stock of corn is the best food when grounded up and also the same thing with the hull of the walnut; one grinds up the bark of the beech tree, vine flowers (…) one grinds up the hay and straw which one gives to the animals, and they make it into polenta and into flat bread. As bad as the economic depression was in those years, it is surely not comparable to the depression in the middle of the 1800s.

The consequences of this first depression changed less tragically the demographic fibre of the village than the catastrophic crisis of the 1850s which depopulated so many other villages of the poorest regions in the canton.

1850 to 1920

There are enough elements to affirm that the increase in population must have been large: never in prior centuries had the village registered such large increases. In 1808 as mentioned above, there were 381 people, equally distributed between males and females.

The first federal census of 1850 shows a population of 641 souls: in little more than 40 years there was an increase of 260 people in the village. But beginning in 1850 the population of Maggia village shows a frightening drop in the number of inhabitants.

A first exodus takes place between 1851 and 1856 when very large numbers of emigrants depart to go overseas: 51 men to Australia, 78 to California, and one Agostino Bonetti who died in Buenos Aires a short time after his arrival.

After the tragic floods of 1868 a second wave of departures takes place; to the ranches in California where the pioneers of the first emigration wave had settled. The last great exodus takes place between 1890 and 1900. During this period, the population of the village suffered again a sharp loss of people: 100 inhabitants departed. The comparison between the evolution of the males and females allows us to make some interesting observations.

In the mid 1800s in Maggia there were 315 males and 326 females. The difference is minimum; the situation of perfect numeric equilibrium among the sexes from 1808 appears hardly changed. However, in 1870 the difference is already impressive. The number of women has remained unchanged, 320; but not even a half of the men counted in 1850 are present 20 years later. In every successive census also the number of women decreases: in 1920 there were not even 200.

Demographic imbalances

It was not that these women were emigrating accompanying their husbands and children; these were rare cases. Instead it should not be forgotten that precisely on account of absence of the men, many women were not getting married, and their numbers could only diminish with the passing of years.

These demographic imbalances, besides being documented in the statistics, find both a accurate and moving confirmation also in popular art and the letters written by the emigrants. The two principle themes one is able to read in the precious paintings found in the church of Saint Mary of the Graces are precisely male emigration and the work left to the women in the mountains.

Under the large ship painted by Vanoni which is at risk of being swept away by breakers in the Atlantic Ocean, one is able to read the name of some emigrants from the villages of Maggia and Moghegno. These emigrants had departed in April of 1868 immediately after having witnessed the damage caused by avalanches that winter and before the historic summer flooding which would force many villagers to follow them beyond the ocean.

Men and animal decrease – 1850 to 1920

On the other hand, in the numerous falls in the mountains painted by the same great artist from Aurigeno or by some imaginative, naive valley painters, one sees only women; for the most part these women are accompanied or helped by some old men who have returned from overseas, perhaps even showing the signs of this experience.

The largest part of the work was put on the backs of the women, work which the seasons unfurled with a slowed down pace after the departure of their husbands and fiances. This work included hoeing the fields in the plain bent over the unforgiving soil, scything the last tuft of grass even on dangerous cliffs above Antrona in the direction of Nimi where not even the goats dared to venture, making fodder near the village, and taking care of the animals, children and elderly.

These women of marriageable age worked hard to realize their dreams because the young men were in California or Australia, and they have the village church bells rung night and day in order to have the young men attend mass. Thus they are able to have an opportunity to peek to see and watch them in front and back in order to be able to allow themselves, the poor things, to be searched out by one of the young men. There are no limitations to what a woman will do to find a mate.

With the decrease in the number of men, there could only be a net drop in the number of livestock in the whole valley as already documented. If in 1850 in the village of Maggia there were 182 cows, by 1865 their numbers had already decreased to 133 and by the end of the First World War to only 66.

Maggia emigrants in California between 1851 and 1855

With all probability, the first Valmaggesi to depart for the United States were two masons from the village of Maggia. In a detailed report written by the commissioner Patocchi, one reads that on November 2, 1834, Giovanni Campigli and Giovan Battista Cheda respectively 20 and 19 years of age, tried their luck overseas.

I did not succeed in finding other information concerning these two pioneers, and therefore, it is rash to put forward assumptions as to their fate. However, it is permissible to presume that they must not have had excessive good luck overseas since their example did not set a trend.

Moreover, up until 1848, very few Valmaggesi departed for overseas. In the Patocchi report, only the following cases are mentioned:

Daniele Janner from Bosco Gurin sailed in 1836 for the United States.

Bonifacio Cassarini from Cerentino followed him the next year, and returned home some years later with a considerable fortune valued at 200,000 Milanese lira.

Giacomo Pietro Morelli from Cevio departed for Algeria in 1845 but died there shortly after.

In 1848 seven masons form Bosco Gurin and one from Cevio set sail for the new world. Beginning in 1851 together with the discovery of gold in California, emigration became more intense, without, however, taking on the characteristics of a tragedy as was the situation in Australia between 1854 and 1855.

The village most affected by emigration to California was Maggia which in a few years lost 78 men. If one adds to this number the 51 emigrants who had departed for Australia, one can establish that between 1851 and the beginning of 1856 almost a third of the population (for the most part men) left the village to go overseas.

Giorgio Cheda
Special Edition of the Pro Valle Maggia, 1974
Printing House-Offset, Inc., Locarno

Deeply Read

Most Discussed

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here . Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR