American Era of “Old” Immigration Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the wake of economic and political upheavals in Europe, more than one million Germans and Irish migrated to the United States during the two decades before the Civil War.

Summary of Event

The decades preceding the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) saw a large influx of German and Irish immigrants into the United States in what was one of the most significant periods in U.S. immigration history. Of the 31,500,000 persons counted in the 1840 U.S. census Census, U.S. , 4,736,000 were of foreign birth. The census also showed that the greatest number of immigrants had come from two countries: 1,611,000 from Ireland and 1,301,000 from Germany. The latter were principally from the southwestern German states of Württemberg Württemberg , Baden Baden , and Bavaria Bavaria . Immigration, which had gained momentum in the years following the Napoleonic Wars, reached a new level during the 1840’s and grew even more dramatically during the 1850’s, when more than one million Germans and Irish came to the United States. The Crimean War of 1853-1856, the American economic Panic of 1857 Panic of 1857;and immigration[Immigration] , and the U.S. Civil War Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and immigration[Immigration] were among the events that brought an end to this wave of immigration. Immigration;to United States[United States] Germany;emigration from Ireland;emigration from Irish immigrants [kw]American Era of “Old” Immigration (1840’s-1850’s) [kw]Era of “Old” Immigration, American (1840’s-1850’s) [kw]"Old" Immigration, American Era of (1840’s-1850’s) [kw]Immigration, American Era of “Old” (1840’s-1850’s) Immigration;to United States[United States] Germany;emigration from Ireland;emigration from Irish immigrants [g]United States;1840’s-1850’s: American Era of “Old” Immigration[2140] [g]Germany;1840’s-1850’s: American Era of “Old” Immigration[2140] [g]Ireland;1840’s-1850’s: American Era of “Old” Immigration[2140] [c]Immigration;1840’s-1850’s: American Era of “Old” Immigration[2140] [c]Sociology;1840’s-1850’s: American Era of “Old” Immigration[2140] Seward, William H. Seward, William H. [p]Seward, William H.;and immigration[Immigration] Schurz, Carl

European Emigration to the United States, 1820-1920





When seen in broad perspective, migration trends reflected the processes of economic and social change that 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 had brought about by displacing old societal patterns and swelling the army of paupers. Of far greater importance at the time, however, was the disruption of life for the agricultural masses. In Ireland, population pressures had led to a continuing subdivision of land and to a structure of paying rent to absentee landowners that amounted to economic persecution.

The remarkably fecund potato, Potatoes;and Irish immigration[Irish immigration] which had been introduced to Europe from the Western Hemisphere, made this complex system possible, but events would soon uncover its tragic limitations. Dependence on potatoes was not as great in southwestern Germany as it was in Ireland, but the process of subdividing the land there had grown considerably. Moreover, the encumbrance of ancient tithes and dues was compounded by a web of mortgages, as debts were incurred to improve farming practices. In both Ireland and Germany, tenant farmers Ireland;tenant farmers constituted the bulk of emigrants before the 1840’s. However, their departure, inspired chiefly by the fear of losing status and not by immediate need, revealed that a long-run process of adjustment was in the making.

A Ireland;potato famine Famines;Irish great potato famine precipitated this process. The blight began in Ireland in 1845 and assumed devastating proportions by the following year. Untold suffering and death marked the movement of the Irish to the coasts, where ship fever took its toll in 1847. Although the potato famine extended to Germany, there was less actual misery in the country. Rumors that the United States was about to close its gates to immigrants, however, created a situation approaching panic among the many who were desperately seeking to emigrate before it was too late. The great exodus enabled a process of land consolidation to begin; consolidation, in turn, stimulated further emigration after the famine had passed. Repression in the wake of Europe’s Revolution of 1848 also added political exiles to the tide of migration from Germany, but their numbers were small. The overwhelming mass of people were 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 ways in which newcomers settled in the United States. Irish immigrants arrived by two major routes. Ships carrying timber from Canada Canada;immigration Immigration;to Canada[Canada] to Ireland made their return voyages to Canada with cargoes of emigrants, most of whom then began the trek southward to New England. Another route lay through Liverpool, where the cotton ships from southern U.S. ports returned to Boston and New York. After arriving in the new land, the mostly unskilled Irish took whatever jobs were available. It was common for male immigrants to start in canal and railroad construction and then move into the mill towns to take on more permanent work in large urban areas.

Among the unique aspects of Irish immigration during the nineteenth century was the fact that more women emigrated than men. Thus, Irish women Women;immigrants outnumbered Irish men in the United States throughout the century. Although female Irish immigrants have often been stereotyped as maids, they worked in many of the same occupations as other U.S. women during the nineteenth century and were often able to see their daughters move into higher-paying and more prestigious positions, such as that of schoolteacher.

Germans, on the other hand, were unique because of the large numbers of them who emigrated in family groups. Approximately two-thirds of the Germans emigrated in family groups. The first large group of German Jews Jews;immigrants came during the 1840’s, as thousands fled social and economic persecution in Bavaria Bavaria . Like the Irish, the Germans came by two basic routes, but greater diffusion and diversity characterized their settlement. Many chose to stay in the East, while others quickly moved westward along the Erie Canal through Buffalo and out to Ohio. By the 1840’s, large numbers of Germans were arriving in New Orleans New Orleans;immigrants on the cotton ships from Le Havre. Some remained in the South, notably in Texas, but the majority of German immigrants moved to the valleys of the Upper Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. There, as in the East, they brought a range of craft and professional skills into the urban centers. The vast number who settled on the land, meanwhile, generally preferred to buy farms already cleared by earlier settlers.

The immigrant Carl Schurz had a career that was almost spectacular. After fleeing the political disorders of Germany in 1848, he settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where he became a journalist and a leader in the local German community. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War and rose to major general. Afterward, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and served in President Rutherford B. Hayes’s cabinet as secretary of the interior.

(Library of Congress)

The reception of new Irish and German immigrants was somewhat mixed. The abundance of space and the American ideal of offering asylum generally tended to make the reception of immigrants favorable. Some persons of influence, such as New York governor William H. Seward, Seward, William H. Seward, William H. [p]Seward, William H.;and immigration[Immigration] added to this positive viewpoint by recognizing the contributions that immigrants were making to the development of the United States.

Opposition to immigrants arose on several grounds, however. The influx of immigrants undoubtedly increased the problems of crime, poverty, unemployment, and disease, particularly in large urban areas. Bloc voting and the fear of political radicalism made many people fear newcomers. Moreover, certain customs of the Irish and Germans, such as German beer gardens and Irish wakes, offended many Americans. Many Americans also believed that German and Irish Roman Catholics Roman Catholics;immigrants supported a papal plot to subvert Protestantism and democracy; that belief encouraged anti-immigrant nativist sentiments. During the 1850’s, a nativist Nativism, U.S.;Know-Nothing Party[Know Nothing Party] movement known as the Know-Nothings attempted to harness such feelings; its timing and rapid demise reflected less a fear of foreign influences than the internal tensions engendered by the conflict of slavery and the disruption of the Whig Party (American);and slavery[Slavery] Whig Party.


Despite occasional outbreaks of anti-immigrant feelings, few people in the United States called for anything more than closing the gate on any undesirable immigrants, and the lengthening of the probationary period of citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;qualifications for from five to twenty-one years. The significance of German and Irish immigration in the two decades prior to the Civil War lies in the cultural diversity they contributed to the United States and the assistance they gave to the building of their new country. One of the most prominent immigrants from that era was Carl Schurz Schurz, Carl , who fled to the United States from the German revolution of 1848. After starting a new life in Missouri’s German community, he entered politics. He eventually served as a U.S. senator, a cabinet minister, and a Union general during the Civil War.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bankston, Carl, III, and Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo, eds. Immigration in U.S. History. 2 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2006. Comprehensive collection of reference articles on all aspects of American immigration history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Dennis. Hibernia America: The Irish and Regional Cultures. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. Discusses the Irish in the United States from the colonial era through the nineteenth century, with emphasis on the push/pull factors of immigration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diner, Hasia. Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant Women in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Well-balanced portrayal of Irish immigrant women, describing their lives in Ireland and their successes and failures in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Victor R. A Singing Ambivalence: American Immigrants Between Old World and New, 1830-1930. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2004. Comparative study of the different challenges faced by members of eight major immigrant groups including the Irish and the Germans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Bruce. The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Discusses the relationship of Germans in Europe and the United States. Compares the European revolutions of 1848 and the American land debates that led to war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Kerby A. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Especially valuable for the discussion of the ambiguous Irish attitudes toward overseas emigration and the cultural shock many Irish experienced on arrival.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knobel, Dale T. American for the Americans: The Nativist Movement in the United States. New York: Twayne, 1995. Study of a variety of American nativist movements, from the 1820’s through the 1920’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paulson, Timothy J. Irish Immigrants. New York: Facts On File, 2005. Broad survey of Irish immigration history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rippley, LaVern J. The German-Americans. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Focuses on Germans in the United States during the nineteenth century. Discusses German American contributions to U.S. culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scally, Robert J. The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine and Emigration. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1995. Study of the disturbances and famine conditions in Ireland that prompted emigration to North America.

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Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Carl Schurz; William H. Seward. Immigration;to United States[United States] Germany;emigration from Ireland;emigration from Irish immigrants

Categories: History