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Yankeys Now: Immigrants in the Antebellum U.S.,1840-1860

Author(s):Ferrie, Joseph P.
Reviewer(s):Steckel, Richard H.

Published by EH.NET (August 1999)

Joseph P. Ferrie, Yankeys Now: Immigrants in the Antebellum U.S.,

1840-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. xii + 223 pp. $49.95

(cloth), ISBN: 0-19-510934-1

Reviewed for EH.NET by Richard H. Steckel, Department of Economics, Ohio State


Immigration and mobility are fundamental features of American history.

Trans-Atlantic migration, western settlement, urbanization, and social fluidity

all played an important role in shaping the United States. Unlike the situation

in many European countries, however, the records for studying these phenomena

are rather thin. Governments in the United States never maintained population

registers, and systematic registrations of births and deaths were not well

underway until the turn of the twentieth century.

Census manuscript schedules have been widely used to glimpse families at a

point in time, but it has been difficult for historians to trace and to assess

the significance of what is known to be a central feature of the past and an

important aspect

of the present.

In Yankeys Now Joseph Ferrie breaks considerable new ground in the study

of mid-nineteenth century immigration and its aftermath. He brings prodigious

new longitudinal data to the kitchen, which he artfully seasons with other


sources and skillfully prepares with econometric analysis. Demographic,

economic and social historians will feast at this table for years to come.

The quantitative center piece of Yankeys Now is a sample of 2,595

European emigrants who were listed on

ship arrival records in the port of New York between 1840 and 1850. All were

male family heads or unaccompanied males, of whom 1,456 were located in the

1850 census, 1,647 were located in the 1860 census, and 508 were found in both

censuses. For comparison purposes Ferrie also linked a sample of 4,271

native-born Americans and 667 emigrants in the 1850 and 1860 censuses.

Forward linkage in the census was achieved by electronic searches though the

names of millions of household heads that were assembled by Mormons to assist

in genealogical research. It is doubtful that a linkage project of this scale

could have been done readily more than a decade ago, when computers were

smaller and software was less developed. Ferrie devises reasonable procedures

for determining a match, limiting searches of common names, and testing for

representativeness. The percentage of men on ship lists found in either census

was about 10.6 per cent, which may seem low,

but significant losses are created by underenumeration in the


mortality, return migration, errors in the indexes, and common names.

The passenger ship lists provide ethnicity and occupation, and linkage with the

censuses of 1850 and 1860 also gives county of residence, occupation and wealth

(real estate only in 1850). These longitudinal data are used to study

geographic, occupational, and wealth mobility.

Although households had many geographic options, Ferrie reports that most chose

to remain nearby. The poor were more likely to remain in New York City,

but other groups often selected urban life as well, with 45 percent of the

British, 60 percent of the Irish, and 41 percent of the Germans settling in

cities or towns of the Northeast. Somewhat more than one-half of the immigrants

settled in New York, Pennsylvania or Ohio, and the Germans were the only group

who gravitated to the west in large numbers.

The German migrants to the west chose cities about half the time,

establishing large communities in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.

The book is most

informative in tracking economic change. All immigrant groups experienced some

occupational mobility from farmer or unskilled to white collar or skilled, most

of which was concentrated within a few years of arrival. Literate British and

Germans were the

most successful,

especially if they located in a rapidly growing area of the Northeast or the

South. Ferrie suggests that the low upward mobility of the Irish may have

resulted from labor market discrimination or from lack of readily transferable


labor market skills.

Study of wealth ownership shows, however, that the Irish caught up to the

Germans and the British by 1860, after controlling for changes in occupation

and location. The relative economic position of all immigrants improved with

length of time spent in the country. In 1850 they possessed only one-fifth the

average wealth of the native born, but by 1860 the share had risen to one-half.

Ferrie suggests that with time immigrants were better able to match their

skills with opportunities the American economy had to offer.


have criticized community based studies of social and economic mobility for

their possible biases in analyzing only those who persisted.

After controlling for age, literacy and other characteristics, Ferrie reports

that the upper groups (white collar, skilled, and farmers) of natives and

immigrants who moved were somewhat more likely to lose occupational status. The

unskilled who left did no worse than those who remained behind. Community based

studies therefore

underestimate the extent of upward and downward mobility.

If immigration had a substantial effect on natives, one would expect to notice

the results during the high immigration rates of the mid-nineteenth century.

Ferrie analyzes this impact using a mover/stayer framework in which the

choices are urban places in the Northeast, rural places in the Northeast, and

locations outside the Northeast. Estimates of this model indicate that

immigration lowered the incomes of skilled workers, but in contrast to other

studies, the unskilled apparently benefited.

As a reviewer and potential user of the book in the classroom, I have a minor

complaint: the lines in several figures, especially 3.1, lack contrast. They

are difficult to follow in the original and will be indecipherable if

reproduced on overheads. But this is nit picking in a book that gives us such

novel and important results through extraordinary effort and ingenuity.

Generations of students will compare this book against all others in the field

of immigration history.

Richard Steckel is co-editor (with Roderick Floud) of Health and Welfare

during Industrialization (Chicago, 1997) and (with Michael Haines) of A

Population History of North America, forthcoming.

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