European immigrants got mixed welcome

New York City 1890

It is not surprising that the United States — the land of opportunity — attracted during the decades of 1840 and 1850 a great host of European immigrants.

The Industrial Revolution, crop failures and political disturbances in Europe caused such turmoil during this period that huge numbers wished to flee their homeland. Since Europe had no adequate outlet of its own, the United States was fortunately in a good position to remedy the obstacle.

They came from many lands, but owing to special circumstances in Ireland and Germany, far more came from these two countries than from all other countries combined.

Largest migration

In proportion to the total population, the number of people coming to the United States during the two decades before the Civil War was the greatest in our history. Of the 31,500,000 numbered in the census of 1860, 4,736,000 were foreign-born. The census also showed that the greater part of the immigrants had come from two countries: 1,611,000 from Ireland and 1,301,000 from Germany.

The migration, which had gained momentum in the years following the Napoleonic upheaval, reached flood stage proportions by the 1840s and crested in 1854 when nearly half a million people came to the United States. The Crimean War, the Panic of 1857, and the Civil War were among the events which brought an end to the wave of migration.

When seen in a broad perspective, the migration reflected the process of economic and social change which had gathered force in the period of peace after 1815. The rapid increase in the population of Europe served to magnify the evils that the factory system brought about by displacing old societal patterns and by swelling the army of paupers. Of far greater importance at the time, however, was the disruption of life for the agricultural masses.

In Ireland, the pressure of population had led to a continuing subdivision of land and to a structure of rent from absentee owners down to the former that was often “six deep.” The remarkable fecund potato made this complex system possible, but events would soon discover its tragic limitations.

Irish incentives to leave the old country were numerous: political oppression, absentee landowners, overpopulation, diseases and above all a series of devastating famines that began with the potato crop of 1845. Practically all of the Irish immigrants who came from the southern counties of the island were Celtic in ancestry and Roman Catholic in religion.

The justification for the German migration is somewhat analogous; there was less actual misery in Germany, but rumors that the United States was about to close its gates created a situation approaching panic among those seeking to immigrate.

Some in the great exodus were liberal political refugees who had participated in the failed revolution of 1848, others were leaving to avoid compulsory military service required by the German princes. Still, others left because of the distressing economic conditions of the “cottage industry,” and the crop failures in the Rhine Valley. The overwhelming mass of people was driven by economic, rather than political forces.

Patterns of commerce that had developed between North America and Europe made cheap transportation available and helped to determine the way the newcomers settled in the United States.

Irish conquest

The “Irish conquest” of the Northeast was affected chiefly by two columns. Ships carrying timber from Canada to Ireland made the return trip with cargoes of migrants, most of whom then began the trek southward to New England.

Another route lay through Liverpool, where cotton ships from Southern ports returned to Boston and New York. Once in the new land, the unskilled and virtually destitute Irish took whatever jobs were available. They went to work at small wages in factories, building railroads, excavating canals and mostly in large urban areas. Thousands of Irish girls found work as domestics.

Soon nearly every large town had its “Shanty Town” where the newly arrived Irish lived in quarters that were worse than in Ireland, but rejoiced on income that Native Americans found ridiculously low.

German route

The Germans also came by two basic routes, but greater diffusion and diversity characterized their settlement. Some chose to stay in the East, while others moved westward along the Erie Canal and out west. A large contingent came to New Orleans on the cotton ships from LaHave. Some remained in the Mardi Gras city, but most traveled onto the area around Frederick, Texas, or up the valley of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

The Germans who settled in the East brought a range of crafts and professional skills into the urban centers. Those who settled the land preferred to buy farms already cleared by Native Americans. They found that pioneering did not suit their taste and they lacked the skill necessary for intensive and improved tillage.

The ordinary German immigrant was a little higher on the social register than his Irish contemporary and had often saved enough money to move “into the mainstream of America” quicker. The Germans went west to settle in Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee where they continued the language and clung tenaciously to the manners and customs of their European home.

Mixed reception

The reception of the “48er” to America was somewhat mixed. The abundance of work and land, an ideal of asylum generally tended to make the reception of immigrants favorable. There were influential men in the political world, such as Gov. William H. Seward of New York and a “rising star” in Illinois called Abraham Lincoln, who recognized the contribution immigrants would make to the development of the country.

Yet opposition arose on several grounds. The influx of immigrants undoubtedly increased the problem of poverty, unemployment and disease. Bloc voting and the political habits of the Irish made many fear for the fate of freedom, while the radical political thought of some Germans threatened in another way.

Religious zealots were alarmed at the increase of the Catholic element, native workingmen complained their wages were being lowered by alien competition, and Southerners were concerned that foreigners were swelling the population of nonslave states and territories and would destroy the voting in Congress.

Irish wakes, parochial schools, German beer gardens and “continental Sundays” were among a host of strange customs that offended Puritan sensibilities. But a belief in a Papal plot to subvert Protestantism and democracy provided the greatest focus to nativist sentiments.

In 1850 a political party, the Know-Nothings, attempted to harness such feelings. Later the American party took up the chant, but its timing and rapid demise reflected less fear of foreign influence than the internal tension engendered by the conflict over slavery and the demise of the Whig Party.

In the years just before the union-split, few Americans called for anything more than closing the gate on undesirable immigrants and maybe a probationary period for citizenship.

The slavery controversy captured the nation’s fancy in the late 1850s. Many of these immigrants would find themselves in the Union and Confederate armies because Civil War was over the horizon.

That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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