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
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
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
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.