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Roma of the Americas

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The Gypsies Are Coming!

By Ed Nizalowski

This is a phrase that may elicit a variety of emotions in the listener: curiosity, excitement, wariness, fear . . . . Gypsies were travelers. They spoke a mysterious dialect (Romani) which had its origins somewhere in India. Their presence was first noted in Western Europe in 1417 and they had been in America since colonial times. Most Gypsies had blended with the general population in subsequent years, but with the influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century, the Gypsies became a much more familiar presence on the American scene.

Although contact with Gypsies in recent years has been sporadic, Tioga County has had a long history with these colorful migrants. One band which garnered considerable respect was a group led by Joshua Small otherwise known as "Gypsy Josh". The group started making yearly excursions through the county starting in the 1870's. The normal time was May or June and the encampment of June 1900 was typical of his band: 7 wagons, 11 horses, 2 families and 8 people.

Josh was a horse trader and dealing with horses was one of the best known talents of Gypsies along with tin smithing and copper smithing. Anyone visiting a camp would be hard pressed not to buy some trinket or charm while a Gypsy woman told your fortune. Josh's usual campground was Goodrich Settlement, but other campgrounds used by Gypsies included Dean's Tannery, Sawyer's Bridge and an area near Hiawatha Island.

There were references every year in the Owego Gazette concerning the arrival of Gypsies from 1899 to 1933. It was in 1900, however, that another type of Gypsy band started making yearly excursions into the county. Their identified nationality was as varied as their costume: South American, Brazilian, Rumanian, Syrian, Assyrian, Serbian or Spanish. It is more likely that these Gypsies were from the new immigrant centers of Europe. The headline from August 2, 1900, read this way: "The Chief of Police Clears Owego of a Band of Gipsy [sic] 'Flim-Flamers'".

This was a description given from the Gazette on August 22, 1907:

"The largest, dirtiest and most picturesque band of gypsies that had passed through Owego in many years arrived here from the east at about noon last Friday, but their stay in town was limited to about thirty minutes because Sheriff A. W. Parmelee drove them out . . . There were thirteen dilapidated wagons drawn by 31 horses in various stages of emaciation and 68 dirty looking men, women and children. As soon as they arrived here the women began to visit the various business places on a begging tour, while others grabbed men in the streets, importuning them for money in payment for telling fortunes."

When a similar band arrived in town in 1908, Gypsy Josh's reaction was as negative as the local residents. He referred to the other band as "Turks" and that if they approached his camp he would "shoot all of them".

Gypsies were forced to change with the times and before too long they had traded their horse drawn wagons for automobiles. The first motorized troop of 11 autos came in April 1917 and the Gazette made this remark: "Probably the next band will come in aeroplanes".

An article from the Gazette (July 30, 1931) acknowledged the end of an era and took a much more romantic, nostalgic view of Gypsy visitation. The automobile had definitely taken much of the charm associated with the "gaily painted vans and strings of horses which were a source of delight". The Gypsies had brought some color and excitement into the hum-drum lives of the townspeople. The impetus for the article was prompted by two Gypsy bands which had passed through Owego and had subsequently gotten into a pitch battle near Binghamton. State police and local law enforcement officials had to be deployed to quell the fight.

The author was contacted by Matt and Sheila Salo via the internet concerning Tioga County's Gypsy heritage. They have formed the Gypsy Lore Society which works to document the various groups in the United States known as Gypsies. The Tioga County information helped fill a gap concerning Gypsy travels in central New York.

They have a book in print entitled Gypsy Travels in North America An Annotated Bibliography. They can be reached at ssalo@capaccess.org and would appreciate anything that fills in more of the Gypsy presence in the Southern Tier.

Gypsies in Tioga

By Ed Nizalowski

Gypsies started coming to Tioga County on a regular basis starting the early 1870's. They would come through in the spring of the year and usually camped at Goodrich Settlement. From the 1870's through the early 1900's the band was led by "Gypsy Josh", an Englishman by birth.

Starting in 1900 there were different groups that came that generated much hostility. A group coming through in August 1907 were described as having "thirteen dilapidated wagons, drawn by 31 horses in various stages of emaciation and 68 dirty looking men, women and children." The women went begging and grabbed men in the streets in an attempt to tell their fortunes. When the first band arrived in autos in 1917, the Owego Gazette remarked, "Probably the next band will come in aeroplanes."

This document is copyrighted Copyright ©2006 by the Newark Valley Historical Society, P.O. Box 222, Newark Valley, NY 13811,  (607) 642-9516 ? info@nvhistory.org,  and may not be sold, nor given to anyone who may attempt to derive profit from same.  

Anyone with information on Gypsies in the Americas, please contact me.


Frank O. Clark, Ph.D.