Beacon Street Diary blog

Immigration, 1851 and 2015

The movement of people from one place to another always strains societies. Today's debate about who to let in and who to keep out of Europe and the United States echoes similar conflagrations from the past. The Congregational Library & Archives has sermons and pamphlets from the mid-19th century discussing arriving waves of immigrants in the United States.

The Irish, fleeing poverty and increasingly reactionary government in their home country, arrived en masse to the United States in the 1840s. Documents in the CLA's collection illuminate striking similarities between this migration and the arrivals in Europe today.

The business of moving people across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe has taken off since 2011. As Europe's borders become more tightly controlled, more migrants need help crossing. Migrant smugglers provide these services — everything from forging immigration papers to providing the low-cost transport methods that have caused so many deaths. The process was not much easier in the 1800s.

In 1851 and 1852, Edward E. Hale wrote a series of letters to the editor published in the Boston Advertiser. He explains the difficulty of negotiating border crossings:

"Emigrants do not themselves usually make their bargains with the masters or owners of ships, —but are brought together and put on board by some 'passenger broker' with whom they have contracted, and who furnishes their stores. Instances of fraud and cruelty on the part of these men sometimes take place, but, on the whole, they are not so many as in so immense a business, as one might have feared."

Emigrating by sea has changed little since the 1840s. It seems there is always another story of people dying as they seek refuge in Europe. Hale wrote of similarly dangerous journey from Ireland to North America, what he called the "terrors of the summer passage of 1847." Writing in December of 1851, he said:

"The experience of the awful suffering of emigrants in 1847, when, of 90,000 who embarked for Canada on British vessels, 15,000 died on the way, or after arrival, called the attention of the English government to the necessity of a more stringent law for passenger vessels."

Hale went on to describe the regulation that the British and American governments placed on passenger ships: 14 square feet of space per passenger, and a set ration of food and water for the length of the crossing to New York. Unfortunately, there are no such regulations in place to protect migrants today.

Congregational missionaries on Ellis Island greeted new arrivals in the 1800s, and helped the often-bewildered newcomers. The Congregational Home Missionary Society published a pamphlet about the experience, called "Daily Tasks on Ellis Island".

"The missionary must often take the place of a lawyer and make an appeal for an excluded immigrant who has a right to one but is helpless to obtain it himself. … The missionary must be a friend to win the confidence of the bewildered immigrant, who has gone through a great deal of previous examination. This takes some time, but success comes with perseverance. The immigrant has no one in whom to confide the story of his or her heart. The mind must be unburdened, and here the missionary acts as comforter and adviser."

Missionaries helped immigrants arrange travel to other cities join friends and relatives, visited them in hospitals, and helped them avoid scams. The work was difficult, but rewarding.

"The work at Ellis Island is full of care, and often brings pathetic experiences which make a large draft on one's sympathy. But there are so many hopeful things about, so many opportunities to bring happiness and cheer into the lives of strangers, that after all there is a glow of joy and satisfaction even in the most trying and discouraging days."

Today, we hear uplifting stories about Europeans bringing migrants food and water, or helping them call loved ones they left behind.

But not everyone is so welcoming. Anti-immigrant demonstrations have become commonplace in Germany, and human rights groups are reporting a spike in hate crimes in Europe. Some are concerned about the cultural impact of a large group of Muslims on majority-Christian countries. Others worry about the potential economic burden of impoverished migrants and refugees.

In his time, Hale was concerned about the impact the millions of newcomers had on the East Coast. While the "cream of the emigrants" moved on to the West, "The 'lame, blind deaf, idiotic, and lunatic,' as our statutes describe them, are strained off by the Eastern States, and remain to fill up our alms-houses and hospitals." He continued, "The public charge of Massachusetts for such persons is larger I think, than of any other State in the Union, New York not excepted." Hale was compassionate, and saw justice in the government caring for the newcomers. He wrote, "It is for the government of the nation to take a trifle from him in his prosperity with which to support hospitals for his sickness."

For all his sympathy, Hale considered even the "cream" of the Irish to be "inefficient as compared with the Saxon and other Germanic races which receive them." However, he welcomed the idea of 'inferior' people as much-needed labor. "Their inferiority as a race compels them to go to the bottom; and the consequence is that we are, all of us, the higher lifted because they are here. … No one can fail to observe… that to the ready transfer of emigrant population to the west, the government owes all the worth of its Western lands."

The United States needed the emigrants in the 1850s as much as they needed the United States. Hale wrote, "…by every laboring man who arrives, the danger of starvation becomes less and less."

Today, many economists say immigrants will help keep social security afloat for Europe's aging population. Germany in particular needs immigration to increase its workforce, and so is preparing to welcome 800,000 newcomers this year. Like the United States in the 1850s, Europe needs immigrants.

The documents in the Congregational Library & Archives hold a mirror to our contemporary dilemmas, and bring us powerful voices from the past. History matters at the Congregational Library & Archives. No matter what the dilemma, our librarians and archivists can help navigate the past to understand the present.



images of "State Emigrant Landing Depot, Castle Garden, NY" by Roylance-Purcell engravers, and "Verplanck State Emigrant Hospital, Ward's Island, NY" by J. Shearman from Immigration and the Commissioners of Emigration of the state of New York by Friedrich Kapp (1870)


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