The Mass Immigration of the 1840s

Photograph of the Five Points Neighborhood of New York City. Photographer Unknown.

In the mid-1840s, the last major famine in European history would take place in Ireland. This famine would have significant ramifications for America, as it would lead to a massive wave of immigrants.

In 1845, a blight ruined approximately one third of the potato crop in Ireland, creating significant hardship. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 822. Then, in 1846, the crop was almost entirely destroyed. See id. By 1847, “most people had eaten their seed potatoes, so only a small crop appeared.” Id. Then, in 1848, the blight came back, destroying a significant amount of the crop again. Id.

To help compensate for this famine, Ireland imported three times as much food as normal from America. See id. Notably, the Creek tribe of the Native Americans of Oklahoma, donated 100,000 bushels of maize to the Irish. Id. citing Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas: North America, ed. Bruce Trigger and Wilcomb Washburn (Cambridge, Eng., 1996), pt. i, 528.

The Irish left their country in droves, many coming to America. Many settled in Five Points, a notorious slum in New York City, where a vibrant Irish community lived. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 824.

Immigration serves as a benefit to a country in that immigrants are typically ready to work. The Irish immigration was no different. Irish immigrants worked on building the infrastructure of America, from expanding the nation’s railroads to constructing canals. See id. at 826.

Americans, as a whole, did not resoundingly approve of this Irish immigration. Many saw the Irish as simply “competitors in the job market.” Id. Cities like Boston and New York became especially crowded, as many of the Irish immigrants could not afford to travel further inland. See id.

There was a significant amount of British and German immigration during this time period as well, but most immigrants did not come from the dire circumstances that the Irish did. See id. The British and Germans moved further inland, preventing more tension between them, Protestants, and the Irish, Catholics. See id.

Nativist sentiment and anti-immigration rhetoric was abound. A somewhat secretive nativist movement emerged, whose followers would be known as “Know Nothings,” as when some asked about the movement, they answered simply that they knew nothing about it. See id. at 827. The pro-immigration Democrats absorbed a significant number of Irish members, while the Whigs fell behind in support amongst immigrants. See id. Many in the nativist movement would later join the Republican Party in the 1850s. See id.

The mass immigration of the 1840s shaped America to become a more open, diverse society. It also revealed that acceptance of immigration was far from unanimous. There was tension because of religion, because of competition for jobs, and because of ignorance.

To some extent, immigration will always provoke these sentiments from those prone to having this reaction. Many Americans inevitably felt that the Irish would never fully integrate into American society. However, within a few generations, the Irish would be ubiquitous and mostly accepted.

America was being shaped into the diverse, inclusive society that modern Americans recognize. It was also setting an example that individuals who suffered hardship could come to America and begin a new life. Nativism would go by the wayside eventually, as it always does.

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