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Irish Immigrants - 1850s


The potato famine resulted in the immigration of over a million Irish immigrants into the United States in the late 1840s and 1850s. Irish immigration to the US was hardly a new phenomenon, though. It had been increasing since the 1820s right along with dramatic increases in the Irish population itself:


Decade 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860
Irish Immigrants 5,1617 170,672 656,145 1,029,486 427,419
Irish Population 6.8 million 7.8 million 8.2 million 6.6 million 5.8 million

The immigrants who arrived in the United States in the late 1840s and 1850s were not a cross section of the Irish population. The two ships's manifests below provide a picture of the background of typical immigrants arriving in New York as a result of the potato famine. Columns in the tables can be sorted by age, sex, and occupation allowing you to study the characteristics of this population in more detail. Perhaps you will even find your own family name.

 

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Manifest of the Barque Archimedes
Sligo, Ireland - New York, 1848
Manifest of the Brig General Scott
Cork, Ireland - New York, 1849

To sort columns - click on the arrow in the column heading and select to Sort ascending or Sort descending
Data may be downloaded if more convenient.

 

As the map at the right suggests the largest numbers of Irish immigrants coming into the United States as a result of the potato famine settled in two states - Massachusetts and New York - and actually in two cities - Boston and New York City. Wise newcomers like Margaret McCarthey recommended to family back home that they come with enough money to escape the cities and to be able to move west where the opportunity to acquire jobs and land was greater. Most could not. The emigration from Ireland took their entire fortune. Port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans became overwhelmed with the new arrivals from Ireland and the disease and poverty they brought with them.

Vessels are continually arriving here with vast multitudes of miserable human beings, from famine-stricken Ireland, who were both physically and morally enfeebled before commencing a voyage which disease tracks across the ocean with an unerring certainty. Complaints are made that the ship fever is by no means confined to the emigrant vessels, but that it appears on shore, clinging to the Irish emigrant, and breaking him down farther in the country, after he has escaped from the confinement of a ship hold.1

 

New immigrants were more often than not confined to the slums and tenements in the poorest neighborhoods - not always happy with their decision to emigrate as this letter from William Dever suggests. Stereotypes of the Irish made the Atlantic crossing as well - happiest with a drink in hand, lazy, and potentially violent - all contributing to an unwillingness in some quarters to hire an Irishman.

No Irish

 

The politics of the 1850s became infected with anti-Irish/anti-immigrant sentiment as the numbers of immigrants grew and their poverty was pressed on the cities in which they settled. It found its fullest expression in the American Party. In its short history the American Party, or the "Know- Nothings," grew to briefly be the second largest political party in the country as the Whig Party split apart in the late 1840s and 1850s. Its base was working class white male Protestants - those most threatened by the growing supply of cheap labor brought by large scale German and Irish Catholic immigration. The political cartoon and the excerpts from the party's 1856 platform below suggest the strength of the sentiment against the newly arrived Irish immigrants amongst a significant segment of the population - particularly in the states experiencing the greatest influx - New York and Massachusetts.

Know Nothings
Platform

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To Start You Thinking

1) Use the ship manifests above and characterize the Irish immigrants who arrived on the Archimedes and General Scott in 1848 and 1849 as thoroughly as you can by age, sex, occupation, and family group.

2) There were 208 total passengers aboard the two ships. Sort each ship's manifest by age and use the available template to prepare a population graph showing a breakdown of the population by age. Follow the example on the template showing the percentage of the population from ages 1 - 4 (14/208 ~ 7%) and from 5 - 9 (9/208 ~ 4%).

3) The Immigration map shows the breakdown of the population by age for each state. Prepare a population graph for New York like you did for the passengers of the two ships of Irish immigrants. How do the two populations compare in terms of age?

4) California and Washington Territory were also among the states with the highest percentage of Irish immigrants in 1860. Describe how these two regions of the country differed in terms of Irish immigration from New York and Massachusetts. Why do you suppose the percentage of Irish immigrants in California was so high?

5) Make a list of the Dos and Don'ts for emigrants that Margaret McCarthey suggests in her letter home and briefly explain her rationale for each.

6) Describe the stereotypes to which the "Know Nothing" political cartoon and the plank from the party platform appeal and the perceived threat that they address.

Notes

Irish immigration data from Office of Immigration Statistics, 2006 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Washington D.C.: Department of Homeland Security, 2006.

Irish population data from O’Grada, C. (1988). Ireland before and after the famine: Explorations in economic history 1800-1925. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Transcriptions of passenger lists from "Irish Ancestors: Passenger-list websites by ship's name and year," The Irish Times, 2014.

images from "Taking a smile," date unknown, N. Currier, New York, as found at Library of Congress .

"Notice to Contractors," New York Times. May 10, 1859 as found at Yesteryears News.

J. A. Wales, "Untitled," Puck, date unknown, found at Michael O’Malley, History 120, George Mason University.

1Boston Evening Transcript, 21 June 1847 as found in Farrell, James M., "Reporting the Irish Famine in America: Images of "Suffering Ireland" in the American Press, 1845-1848" (2014) Communication Scholarship, Paper 17.

"Know-Nothing Political Cartoon," source unknown, ca. 1850 as found at Granger FineArtAmerica.

Platform of the American Party, adopted by the National Convention, June 15, 1855,” Philadelphia: E.B. Bartlett, C.D. Deschler, and James M. Stephens,1855 as found at Seth Kaller Historic Documents & Legacy Collections.


Last modified in May, 2015 by Rick Thomas