Bartolomeo (Bartolo) Russo was born probably in 1866 or 1867 on the island of Stromboli, Italy, the eldest son of eight children of Domenico Russo, a farmer, and his wife, Giuseppina Costelano. Activities centred around the sea and fishing, growing grapes and wine-making, and tending vegetables, fruit, and olive and nut trees. His island childhood strongly influenced Bartolo who went to sea at an early age. Shipwrecked on a voyage to India, he was rescued and offered a passage home, but he continued at sea and arrived in New Zealand in 1881, aged 14 years. A brother, Gaetano, followed in 1891 and the youngest in the family, Domenico, in 1897 or 1898. This chain migration of an Italian family to New Zealand is one of the earliest recorded.
Settling in Wellington, Bartolo Russo began fishing from the eastern shores of Wellington Harbour, which at that time had an abundance of fish. At Russo Bay (Rona Bay), hard work and a keen business sense saw him prosper. In 1894 Bartolo and Gaetano Russo and brothers Allan, John and Hugh Cameron purchased 332 acres of land in the Eastbourne area; by 1897 210 of these belonged solely to Bartolo. He extended into horticulture on the flat land and dairying on the hills, where Russo Terrace in present-day Eastbourne is named after him. He was 23 when, on 14 October 1890 at Wellington, he married Italia, the 18-year-old daughter of Italian settlers Cesare Pierotti, a fisherman, and his wife, Louisa Bartelotti.
Bartolo and Italia Russo raised a family of eight sons and four daughters and encouraged other Italians, attracted by the fishing, to come to Eastbourne. Bartolo's main interest, however, was farming. In 1898 he purchased Waitai, 5,063 acres of land at D'Urville Island in the Marlborough Sounds. In May that year his 13-year-old brother Domenico left for this property with two cousins and a friend, his belongings, food and 300 sheep; he was to live there for the next 21 years.
At Eastbourne a house was built for the Russo family with extensive greenhouses for tomatoes and grapes. Around 1903 a 16-roomed hostelry named Rona Bay House was constructed, and in October that year Bartolo arranged the purchase of land for the first Catholic church in Eastbourne. He also purchased a 35-ton ketch, the Rona, captained by Gaetano Russo, to work the coast and fish. Both brothers became naturalised New Zealanders in 1896 and Domenico followed in 1906. That year Bartolo stood for the first Eastbourne Borough Council elections, but was defeated.
Three years later Bartolo Russo suffered more substantial setbacks. In March 1909 the Rona was wrecked in Palliser Bay while on a salvage errand, and in August Rona Bay House was destroyed by fire. However, as roading around the bays improved, the demand for housing increased and from about 1906 Bartolo subdivided his land: first the waterfront, then the central Rona Bay sections. Water for the Russo gardens was piped from a reservoir on the hillside stream, and when in 1914 a householder connected to his water supply without permission, he took her to court and won his case.
In 1909 Bartolo formed the Russo Land Company in association with four Wellington businessmen and bought land in Waikato. By 1920 he and other family members had begun dairying there, where his brother Domenico and sons Dominic, Cesare and Angelo were prominent pioneer settlers. While he was said to be a 'farmer, of Roto-o-Rangi, near Te Awamutu', others of the family remained in Wellington.
In the atmosphere of the Second World War and difficult financial times, and in the certainty that he was suffering a fatal illness, Bartolo became severely depressed and took his own life at Otorohanga on 29 July 1941. He was survived by five sons, two daughters and his wife, Italia, a small, brisk figure and a respected resident of Eastbourne, who died in 1959.