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Mass Migration under Sail: European Immigration to the Antebellum United States

Author(s):Carson, Scott A.
Reviewer(s):Cohn, Raymond L.

Published by EH.NET (May 2009)

Raymond L. Cohn, Mass Migration under Sail: European Immigration to the Antebellum United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xiii + 254 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-51322-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Scott A. Carson, Department of Economics, University of Texas ? Permian Basin.

Before the 1960s, most analysts concluded that willing and able nineteenth-century European immigrants could easily stake their claim and take advantage of a dynamic labor market in the United States. Research by Stephen Thernstrom, Dean Esslinger and Sally and Clyde Griffen called this optimistic view into question, finding that upward occupation mobility was fairly limited for first generation migrants. This revisionist view itself has come into question more recently. Joseph Ferrie, for example, presents evidence that the mid-nineteenth century U.S. was, rather, a place of considerable upward occupational mobility. Raymond Cohn weighs in on this important question in his latest contribution to the economic history of American immigration. However, where others devote considerable attention to conditions awaiting immigrants, Cohn evaluates conditions in the Old World ? Britain, Germany, and Ireland ? before mid-nineteenth-century migration, conditions during transit, and conditions after immigrant arrival. In the end, Cohn supports the optimistic view that the U.S. was, indeed, a place of opportunity for those willing and able to make the passage.

Organized into nine chapters, Mass Migration under Sail has three broad sections. Chapters two through five address immigrant origins, their pre-migration occupations, and factors motivating immigration. A second narrative that distinguishes Mass Migration from other like works is chapter six, in which Cohn considers migrant conditions during transit. The remainder of the book, chapters seven and eight, consider immigrant status after arrival, and like other research in this recent vein of the migration literature, considers how immigrants influenced nineteenth-century U.S. economic growth. Thus, readers are given a comprehensive examination of nineteenth-century Northern European immigration, a migration wave that radically transformed U.S. culture and labor markets.

Of interest to economic and immigration historians is the way in which Cohn places the immigration decision into push and pull factors and how these interacted with European economic conditions. European push factors included overpopulation and the Napoleonic Wars. Pull factors included U.S. economic growth and kin effects. However, other non-push and pull factors played an important role. Shipping costs fell; ship capacity and the number of passenger ships increased. Between 1815 and 1860, approximately 5.2 million Northern Europeans immigrated to the U.S. The increased flow of immigrants is frequently attributed to the onset of the Irish potato famine. Cohn, however, demonstrates the increase in mass migration began as early as 1815; immigration increased rapidly between the 1820s and 1830s, well before the outbreak of the potato famine. While Britain was a primary source of colonial era migration, Germany and Ireland sent comparatively more immigrants during the antebellum period. Two German and Irish geographic regions were responsible for pre-1840s migration: Southwest Germany and Northern Ireland.

Immigrants took a variety of pre-migration routes and transportation means before they embarked for the U.S. British and Irish immigrants embarked from London and Liverpool; Germans left from Le Havre, Bremen, and Hamburg. While high mortality rates were prominent on specific passages, the in-transit death rate was relatively low, around 1.56 percent of total migrants. Of the small share of immigrants who died during transit, the primary mortalities were typhus and cholera. Major ports of arrival were New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston; however, New York became the primary U.S. port of arrival. In response to diseases carried by immigrants on ships, the New York State government sent immigrants with contagious diseases to the Marine Hospital and Wards Island. In response to port runners, in-transit disease, and post-arrival health costs imposed on 1840s and 1850s U.S. populations and on local governments, government reforms on both sides of the Atlantic were enacted, which reduced many of the problems facing immigrants.

The final two chapters of Mass Migration under Sail offer additional evidence that the nineteenth-century U.S. was, indeed, a place where immigrants could stake their claims for a new life. After arrival, German and Irish immigrants settled regionally by nativity within the U.S. The Irish accounted for 68 percent of all immigrants to the Northeast; Germans accounted for 47 percent of all immigrants to the Midwest; British immigrants accounted for 19 percent of immigrants to the Northeast and 20 percent of immigrants to the Midwest. After arrival, the British, German, and Irish achieved success in U.S. labor markets, and the British and German immigrants found opportunity in skilled occupations. Irish immigrants did not fare as well as the other two groups, but still fared better than had they remained in Ireland. Moreover, all three cohorts improved their average skills in the U.S. after arrival.

The last issue Cohn addresses is possibly the most relevant to modern economics. Does immigration help or hurt native labor and will migration lead to long run economic growth? The answers, of course, vary widely, but if current migration is like the mid-nineteenth century, immigration will probably increase the long-run rate of economic growth. During the nineteenth century, immigration extended the U.S. product market and allowed labor in manufacturing and agriculture to specialize. Larger pools of unskilled labor after 1845 put downward pressure on wages. However, over time, labor markets adjusted, migrants assimilated, and the economy moved forward. In this sense, Mass Migration under Sail is a valuable contribution to economic and migration history and gives perspective on current migration issues.

Scott A. Carson?s recent publications include ?Indentured Migration in America’s Great Basin,? Journal of Interdisciplinary History (2002) and ?The Effect of Geography and Vitamin D on African-American Stature in the Nineteenth Century: Evidence from Prison Records,? Journal of Economic History (2008).

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century