Ethnic Identities

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Ethnic Identities


Five Million Newcomers. In the forty years before the Civil War five million newcomers reached Americas shores. Most came from northwestern Europe and the British Isles, fleeing famine, wars, revolutions, and religious persecution. News of the discovery of gold in California in 1848 brought thousands of immigrants from China as well. The greatest period of immigration to the United States occurred between 1847 and 1857, when 3.3 million people arrived. Between 1865 and 1875 another 3.5 million landed in American seaports. In all nearly ten million newcomers arrived in the United States during the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s. The two largest groups were the Irish and the Germans, who composed nearly three-quarters of all immigrants residing in the United States in 1860. About 60 percent of all immigrants were men. The disparity between males and females was perhaps greatest among Chinese immigrants, of which men outnumbered women 16 to 1 in 1860. The ratio was about 1.5 to 1 among northern European immigrants. European men more often came with their families or brought them over within a year. About two-thirds of all immigrants were between the ages of fifteen and thirty-nine. The majority were farmers or unskilled laborers, and many were illiterate.

Why They Came. Perhaps the most significant reasons for leaving Europe were poverty and overcrowding. Most of those who eventually decided to come to America were in fact part of a much larger movement. Europe was in the midst of one of the greatest periods of migration in world history. While European population growth during the nineteenth century was less than that of the United States, the population of Europe had doubled between 1750 and 1850, and the lack of available land forced young people to leave farms in search of work in the cities. Most of the immigrants who crossed the Atlantic had first made the difficult move from the family farm to a nearby city. From there they had gone to a seaport where they sought cheap transatlantic passage. Work and food were scarce, and some people faced other problems as well. A small percentage were revolutionaries escaping imprisonment for their political activities or members of radical religious groups fleeing persecution.

Inducements. Immigrants were drawn to the United States by tales of ample work and high pay. The dream of farming ones own land lured millions of Germans, Scandinavians, and Irish. After the late 1840s increased transatlantic shipping and trade lowered the price of passage, making the crossing affordable to many poor Europeans. American entrepreneurs, boosters, and railroad builders actively encouraged immigration. Many western states, such as Wisconsin, advertised heavily in European newspapers, touting rich farmlands and the many opportunities for employment. Many newcomers sent relatives at home American letters that included glowing descriptions of new freedoms and high wages. One young Irishman wrote home to his sister that it would give him great pleasure to think that you Come here, for I think you would do verry well in this Country.

How They Came. Most European immigrants could afford only the cheapest passage, in steerage on cargo ships. Steerage, the lowest deck on the vessel, often lacked bathing facilities or adequate numbers of toilets. With hundreds of passengers crowded together, sickness was often rampant; nearly seventeen thousand Irish immigrants died of an infectious disease they called ship fever. Chinese immigrants crossed the Pacific under similar conditions.

What They Found. Most newcomers landed in seaport cities such as Boston or New York. Although many Germans, French Canadians, and Scandinavians moved westward to settle on their own farms within a generation, most other immigrants stayed in urban areas. Many lacked the funds to buy land and start a farm, and large numbers of them had no experience as farmers. Their arrival had a profound impact on American city life. By 1860 the population of New York City was 25 percent foreign-born. Boston had a significant Irish population, and Germans gravitated to neighborhoods in Philadelphia. In such urban areas hucksters and swindlers often cheated immigrants of their hard-earned savings. Many immigrants were crowded into some of the worst urban slums, such as the notorious Half Moon District in Boston or the Lower East Side in New York City.

The Irish Exodus. In the mid 1840s the Catholic poor of Ireland, who were already paying high farm rentals to Protestant, usually absentee landlords, suffered an appalling disaster. A blight, or fungus, caused their potato

crops, the main part of their daily diet, to rot in the fields. By the early 1850s about two million people, one fourth of the population of Ireland, had died of starvation. Irelands starving poor flocked to American seaport cities such as New York and Boston. Typically, the oldest son or daughter left Ireland for the Land of Plenty first, paying for passage in steerage with money scraped together by the rest of the family. Once in America they hoped to earn enough money to pay the fares of their siblings and parents.

Discrimination. Perhaps the greatest obstacle the Irish faced was the severe anti-Catholic sentiment that was rampant throughout the United States. Many Protestants, including potential employers of the new immigrants, believed that the Irish owed their first allegiance to the Pope rather than the American government. Furthermore, many considered the Irish to be overly fond of intoxicating drink and prone to violence. These stereo-typical views made it difficult for Irish immigrants to find work. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, shops and factories frequently sported signs proclaiming No Irish Need Apply. Relegated to back-breaking labor, the men often toiled in mines or worked at building canals and railroads. The women went into domestic service as kitchen maids and laundresses.

Self-Help. During the 1840s the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a secret society imported from Ireland, looked out for the welfare of the Irish laborer. By the 1850s and 1860s Irish immigrants had become influential in the Democratic Party, making use of corrupt but highly efficient urban party machines such as Tammany Hall in New York City. In return for promises of political support, machine politicians supplied cash for emergency expenses or helped immigrants find jobs. Through the influence of urban machines, Irishmen became policemen in many cities.

The Irish in the Civil War. Irish regiments served on both sides of the War Between the States. In the Confederate army eight southern states had Irish units, including the elite Emerald Guards. The Union army had forty regiments composed entirely of Irish volunteers, including the famous fighting Irish of the Emerald Brigade. Not all Irish immigrants supported the war effort, however. In July 1863 one of the worst riots in U.S. history exploded in New York City just a week after Irish soldiers fought in the Battle of Gettysburg. For more than a week rampaging mobs surged through New York City, protesting the newly enacted draft law. Much of the Irish population of New York was outraged by the commutation clause of this law, which allowed wealthy northerners who had been drafted to pay $300 to avoid conscriptiona price few Irish laborers could afford. They were also angry over the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln had issued on 1 January 1863, because they feared that freed blacks would take jobs away from Irish laborers. Hundreds of people were killed, including many free black workers. Millions of dollars worth of property was damaged or destroyed, including an orphanage for black children and houses of prostitution known to cater to black sailors.

The Germans. In 1848 a small group of idealistic German revolutionaries called the Forty-Eighters fled to the United States after the failure of their attempt to create a unified, democratic Germany. (The various German states did not become a single nation until 1871.) Other Germans came to the United States seeking religious freedom, among them Jews, Mennonites, and the Amish. Most Germans, however, immigrated to America for more-practical reasons. The revolutions and economic disruptions of early-nineteenth-century Europe affected the German countryside as they did the rest of the continent, resulting in high rents, overcrowding, and a scarcity of jobs. Though the infestation on the continent was less severe, potato crops in Germany and the Netherlands were afflicted with the same potato blight that devastated the economy of Ireland.

Distribution. German immigrants typically reached the United States with savings and some experience in farming. They kept to themselves, particularly the religious sects who practiced their simple ways of life in the heartland of Pennsylvania and in the Midwest. Between 1815 and 1865 about three thousand members of the Amish sect settled in Pennsylvania. They were soon followed by similar groups, which settled in Indiana and Ohio. Following the dictates of Swiss religious leader Jacob Amman, the Amish fled religious persecution, mainly because of their deeply rooted opposition to infant baptism. Some Germans settled in Wisconsin and began dairy farming. About 1.3 million settled west of the Ohio River, in or near cities such as Cincinnati, Saint Louis, and Milwaukee. By 1854 the Germans were the single largest group of immigrants arriving in the United States. Wherever they went, they took their own culture and customs, including the Christmas tree and kindergartens.

Acceptance. Because they seemed to fit more easily into established American communities, Germans commanded more respect than other immigrant groups. Many were highly skilled artisans and craftsmen, who had come to the United States because they had been displaced by the Industrial Revolution. While many native-born Americans perceived German immigrants favorably as industrious, self-reliant, and thrifty, these newcomers were sometimes criticized, especially for their custom of celebrating Sunday not merely as a day of rest but of amusement. Native-born Americans who were accustomed to celebrating the Sabbath in a reserved and pious manner were often shocked by the German customs of eating, drinking beer, playing cards, listening to band music, singing traditional songs, and even dancing on Sunday.


DecadeGermanyIrelandEngland Scotland WalesScandinaviaItalyAustria-HungaryRussia Baltic StatesAsiaTotals
Source: U.S. Census data.

The Chinese. After the discovery of gold in 1848 in California, more than forty thousand Chinese men flocked to the West Coast, hoping to earn enough money to return to their native land and establish themselves in wealth and comfort. (The Chinese characters for San Francisco roughly translate as Gold Mountain.) Most of these immigrants came from Toishan, a depressed agricultural region about 150 miles northwest of Hong Kong. Unable to survive as farmers, many people from this region had gone to live in the seaport cities of Hong Kong and Canton, where they engaged in commercial activities that brought them into contact with European and American merchant ships. About 90 percent of Chinese

immigrants were male. The majority of women who did make the journey were prostitutes, although many of them were probably forced into this way of life after their arrival in the United States. Two-thirds of all Chinese immigrants settled in California, mostly in San Francisco, and nearly all remained in the western states. For most their initial dreams of prosperity were quickly disappointed, and they found employment only as manual laborers, building railroads or working in mines. In part because they competed with other working-class men for jobs and in part because of racism, the Chinese encountered a great deal of hostility in the United States. Beliefs that the Chinese were an inferior, immoral race, prone to prostitution, gambling, and drug abuse, became widespread, particular on the West Coast. A movement to ban Chinese immigration to the United States arose in California in the 1870s and resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which refused admittance to any individuals except white persons and persons of African descent.


Leonard Dinnerstein and David M. Reimers, Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration and Assimilation (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975);

Richard A. Easterlin, David Ward, William S. Bernard, and Reed Ueda, Immigration (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982);

Oscar Handlin, Bostons Immigrants: A Study in Acculturation, revised and enlarged edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959).