Downtown View: Immigrants, 1850

Recently I’ve researched and written a book about a group of immigrants to America in the 1840s and 1850s. Getting to Grand Prairie: One Hundred Londoners and Their Quest for Land in Frontier Illinois will appear this summer. It tells a true story of the farming community I grew up in. I’m preparing the book’s index now.

Although I have published three books with commercial publishers, I could not find one for this book. I can understand—where is the market? It’s about English immigrants who were not fleeing poverty or religious persecution as were many 19th-century arrivals in America. It was not the high drama publishers want.

At some point, though, I realized I had a ready-made audience. Those hundred Londoners now have hundreds of descendants and, in doing the research, I acquired many of their emails. Why share proceeds from this book’s sale with a publisher when I would be providing them with their buyers? I’m not David McCullough. Most lesser known authors have little negotiating power and realize little profit from their works. I decided to publish it myself.

But that’s not what this column is about. It’s about what I learned about views toward immigrants in researching this book.

Today, Americans already here heap vitriol on hapless children fleeing deadly gangs in Central America. Some Americans, especially those elected to Congress, want to send back the offspring of illegal immigrants to a homeland they left as children. Some Republican presidential candidates draw support by eliciting nativist bigotry and fanning fears of immigrants stealing jobs and wreaking havoc. Meanness all around.

The research for my book showed the attitude toward immigrants was different in America in the 1840s and 1850s, especially in the Middle West. There was land to be sold, business to be done and a population to build. Only 20 years after Illinois became a state, its citizens clamored for everybody to come. It was mostly European immigrants who were arriving. Germans, Poles, Irish—all were welcome.

I learned the most about the Londoners, since they came together and had a great impact on their new community. They chose Illinois’ Grand Prairie because they were invited.

A land speculator, Isaac Sandusky, sponsored a lecture in London, extolling the virtues of the Grand Prairie, which stretched south from a growing Chicago along the Indiana border. It was one of about 100 named Illinois prairies, separated by rivers or forests. Abraham Lincoln’s family moved from Indiana and settled on Goose Nest Prairie, just west of the Grand Prairie, when he was a young man. The prairie names were used because the civil boundaries had either not been established or were in flux. Sandusky, whose original family name was Sodowsky, was said to have noble antecedents in Poland. Maybe that is true.

Isaac and his family had bought thousands of acres from the federal government in the 1830s and early 1840s, paying $1.25 an acre. They sold parcels for $4 or $5 an acre during the 1840s and ‘50s, so they prospered from the immigrants they had invited. They also sold the newcomers equipment and livestock.

It wasn’t just the Sandusky/Sodowsky family welcoming the immigrants. Immigrants were a profit center everywhere, so those with an eye on making money welcomed them.

New York (and presumably Boston too) was prospering from the dozens of ships, mostly owned by American investors, that sailed from Europe, bringing 300 to 500 immigrants per crossing. A shipboard letter one of the Grand Prairie immigrants wrote described the customs agents as polite and welcoming as they boarded the Hendrik Hudson, with no restrictions on what immigrants could bring with them. The agents examined the passengers for signs of illness, but they allowed all to enter.

Immigrants paid for passage on the ships, enriching the owners and crew. Even the poorest bought supplies from local merchants when they arrived. They paid for trains, stagecoaches and boats that took them inland. It wasn’t hard to start a business or find a job. Such a welcome in New York and in the rest of the country made me rethink some rejection stories of Irish immigrants in Boston. Some probably had a hard time. But it is also likely that many entrepreneurial Yankees saw the Irish as potential customers who would soon be buying what they had to sell.

The immigrants whose stories I unearthed were luckier than many. They spoke the same language as Americans. They shared an ancestry with many of them. The ships’ manifests show they often came with families. That was not true of the Irish and Germans on the same ships. They were usually coming alone.

Even though the immigrants before the Civil War were welcomed, they must have had mixed feelings. In most cases, they would never again see family or friends left behind. Finding a job, starting a business, learning the language and culture, even if they had commonalities, must have been both frightening and exciting.

What comes through strongest is that in the mid-19th century, Americans realized they needed the immigrants. Today, except for economists, university research labs and large-scale farmers and business owners, most folks don’t see the connection. It’s true in Europe too. A couple of years ago, when visiting in England, I heard people say, “We have enough people here.” I realized it was code for “No more immigrants.”

I don’t know how to solve the immigrant problems that appear to now be worldwide. I do know we must pay tribute to our history of welcoming immigrants, and we must find a humane, new way to do it.

Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.

3 Replies to “Downtown View: Immigrants, 1850

  1. Dear Karen, I always enjoy reading “Downtown View” and I am looking foward to reading your book on Immigrants: 1850. However, I suggest you might want to do some research on The American or as it was nicknamed, “the Know Nothing” Party that was very active in the 1850’s. It was formed by Americans who were alarmed by the waves of immigration coming to the U.S. in the late 1840’s & 1850’s, mostly from Ireland and the German states. The goal of the party was to enact immigration regulations to curtail immigration. The party had prominent Americans among their leaders including Pres. Filmore. In 1854 it won control of the Mass. state legisature. Anti immigrant feelings were very strong during this period. Job ads often included the phrase “no irish need apply”. Yes it is true American manufacturers welcomed the cheap labor that they could exploit just as they do today. I really don’t believe bigotry was less in the mid-ninteenth century. Therefore I must take issue with your conclusion that Americans of that period welcomed immigrants

    1. Thank you for your comments. Unfortunately I know plenty about the Know Nothings since it had a great following among some people in the midwest. But I’m not saying all Americans welcomed immigrants. I’m not saying that some people were not bigots. I’m saying there are other stories too, and this is one of them. In all the letters and original materials I have from that time in that place, there was a feeling that immigrants choosing that area of the country flattered the decision the earlier settlers had made.
      Remember, few Europeans had been in Illinois (except the French along the Mississippi) until the 1830s. Chicago was just a speck. So no group had been able to claim it as their own. They needed the man power and they needed better transportation and they needed goods and services that only a bigger population could bring. The earlier settlers welcomed anyone who could help out. (And then there were the land speculators like Isaac, who wanted to sell their land and didn’t care who bought it.)
      And Henry Jones (one of the immigrants whose great-great-granddaughter was my best friend in high school) wrote a letter that detailed all the ways he spent his money in NYC. There were many services for immigrants and those providing the services were doing a nice little business with all of them, English, Germans and Irish alike. These were all Europeans. There were few immigrants of color going to the midwest at that time, although Illinois, because it was slave-free, did have a few free African-American residents in that area. They were mostly farm-hands, but then so were many single European immigrants, working to save money to buy farms of their own.
      A lot of history gets forgotten in the mess of tales about bad human nature.
      I also think making money off a group of people goes a long way toward accepting them.
      Even though I moved to Boston long ago, I retain a midwestern belief in the goodness of human nature that manifests itself more often than some people think. I’ve always thought Bostonians are grumpier and bleaker than the people I grew up with. The original materials that formed most of the book I wrote is evidence of some of the goodness of human nature. (On the other hand, Henry Jones had an affair with his wife’s niece, so it’s not all good. I liked him anyway.)

  2. “Rethink some rejection stories of Irish immigrants” & “some probably had a hard time”? May I suggest that you do a wee bit more “research”? What’s next, some of the slaves brought over from Africa “had a hard time”?

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