A Closer Look - Massachusetts

No other state is more associated today with Irish immigration than Massachusetts. No other state in the 1850s felt the impact of Irish immigration more strongly than Massachusetts. Percentage wise, more Irish immigrants settled in Massachusetts than New York and politically the response to the influx of Irish was no where as strong. In 1854 Know-Nothings and their anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic platform won the governorship along with both houses of the Massachusetts legislature.

By 1860 most Bostonians had been born in Massachusetts, but most foreign born residents were Irish. Information from the census of 1860 provides a very basic look at the demographics of the city's population. We have information about age, place of birth, literacy, and occupation that will allow you to make general observations about the impact of the Irish immigration on Boston's character and the role of the Irish. Explore the sample in the spreadsheet below. The 1,650 entries were extracted from the US census for 1860 and represent a 1% random sample of the individuals residing in Boston that year:

Boston Census - 1860
To sort columns - click on the arrow in the column heading and select to Sort ascending or Sort descending.
Filter... allows you to select specific values in a column.
Double click on cell J4 to change the count.
For example, change to =COUNTIF(C2:C1651,"M") to count all males in the sample (sex is recorded in column C).
Data may be downloaded if more convenient.

Females among the Irish immigrants commonly took jobs as domestic servants - maids, cooks, etc - as they had in Ireland. You may have noticed in the census spreadsheet that there was no occupation listed for most females. This information did not begin to be recorded until 1870. We know from documents like these letters from Mary McBride and William Dever that many Irish women worked as domestics and that, as the census suggests, most Irishmen were common laborers.

As you read, Mary McBride and her sister did not stay in Boston. What they found in the tenements into which the Irish were forced to live may well have encouraged them to move on. In a Report of the Cholera in Boston in 1849 H.G. Clark wrote:

The average age of Irish life in Boston does not exceed fourteen years. In Broad Street and all the surrounding neighbourhood, including Fort Hill and the adjacent streets, the situation of the Irish is particularly wretched. During their visits last summer, your committee were witnesses of scenes too painful to be forgotten, and yet too disgusting to be related here. It is sufficient to say, that the whole district is a perfect hive of human beings, without comforts and mostly without common necessaries; in many cases, huddled together like brutes, without regard to sex, or age, or sense of decency: grown men and women sleeping together in the same apartment, and sometimes wife and husband, brothers and sisters all in the same bed. Under such circumstances, self-respect, forethought, all high and noble virtues soon die out, and sullen indifference and despair, or disorder, intemperance and utter degradation reign supreme.1

Boston was one of the first American cities to form a relief committee for the Irish famine. Money, food, and clothing came not only from Catholic groups, but from Protestant churches and civic groups as well as this letter from William Lloyd Garrison attests. Charity for the relief abroad was applauded, but resentment of the the need to provide public support for indigent immigrants was another matter:

Of the 3,000 paupers at present supported by this city, over 2000 are foreigners! and without taking into view this almost daily increasing burden by our 'spring ships,' there are more important and solemn considerations which are due our country in endeavouring to protect it from the baneful and deteriorating influence, which this mass of bigoted, ignorant, and vicious offscouring of Ireland and England, &c., must have upon our national character, our institutions, morals, &c. . . .2

The deleterious effects of the immigration on the national character and morals cited by the Bee were graphically outlined in an 1854 editorial in the Worcester, Massachusetts Daily Evening Journal. To be sure, these were extreme views, but they represented an opinion that prevailed in the 1854 election in Worcester and across Massachusetts. Irish need not immigrate.

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To Start You Thinking

1) The 1,650 entries in the spreadsheet above represent a 1% sample of the total population of Boston in 1860. What was the approximate population of the city? What percentage of them were born in Massachusetts? in Ireland?

2) Sort the Birthplace column and then Filter... the Occupation data to list all of the laborers. How many laborers are listed. Now Filter... the Birthplace column to list just the Irish. What percentage of the laborers were Irish? What percentage of the Irish were identified as laborers?

3) After laborers, what was the next most commonly held occupation for the Irish.

4) How accurate is H.G. Clark's estimate of the average age of Irish life in Boston based on the census sample in the spreadsheet?

5) Compare and contrast the views regarding Irish famine victims on the one hand and Irish immigrants to Boston on the other in the letter from William Lloyd Garrison and the 1854 editorial in the Worcester, Massachusetts Daily Evening Journal.

6) Open the Immigration map and use the Bookmark to zoom in on Massachusetts. The map shows those born in Ireland as a percentage of the total population in each Massachusetts county. Describe the pattern of settlement of the Irish. How does this pattern compare with that of other English speaking immigrants from England, Wales, and Scotland?

7) Use the available template and the data from the Boston census to create an age distribution graph of the Irish population in Boston. The popup for Suffolk County (including Boston) in the Immigration map provides an age distribution graph for the county. Describe how the two populations compare in terms of age.







census data from Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010.


1H.G. Clark, Report of the Cholera in Boston, Boston, 1849, p13 as found at US National Library of Medicine downloaded April17, 2015.

2Boston Bee, 17 April 1847.

Last modified in May, 2015 by Rick Thomas