Irish Grocers in Alexandria (1850-1880)

In most historical analyses of the Reconstruction Period (1865-1877), the southern economy is often described as devastated due to the war.  This argument, however, is far too simplistic.  In Alexandria, Virginia, Irish grocers did well financially from 1860 to 1870 based on census data.  Although the majority of Irish in Alexandria were laborers when the 1850 U.S. Census was taken, there was a significant increase in Irish grocers in 1860 and and again in 1870. And many of these families also became wealthy during the decade.

Irish Grocers in Alexandria, Virginia, 1850-1880

Year Number of Grocers Value of Property
1850 0 $0
1860 16 $93,020
1870 31 $156,700
1880 14 Not Listed

The 1850 U.S. Census for Alexandria reported that most of the Irish workforce were employed as laborers; there were no reports of Irish grocers. Most Irish laborers had no assets of value, which indicated their poverty. By 1860, one year before the Civil War, the U.S. Census reported 16 Irish grocers, a noticeable number considering a decade ago there were none.  A majority of these grocers listed assets at $1,000 or more.

In 1870, the U.S. Census reported 31 Irish grocers in Alexandria, a doubling over the previous reporting. The value of property listed also demonstrated that not only were these grocers prosperous, but also they had accumulated wealth during wartime. At least for one individual–Michael Harlow–was able to change his economic situation during the 1860s and become well-to-do.  In 1860, Michael Harlow was listed as a laborer with no assets (NOTE: almost all laborers had assets valued at $0 in 1860 and 1870). A decade later Michael Harlow was listed as a grocer and his property was valued at $10,000. Harlow’s success was also passed down to his sons. Michael B. Harlow Jr. became the city’s Treasurer and President of the Catholic Beneficiary Society. H.M. Harlow became a grocer and joined the Executive Committee of Liquor Dealers. The status of this family’s second generation symbolizes the economic potential and acceptance of Irish in the South.

Irish Merchants in Alexandria, Virginia, 1850-1880

Year Number of Merchants Value of Property ($)
1850 18 142,000
1860 2 150
1870 0 0
1880 15 Not Listed

Additionally, it is important to note is the relationship between the terms grocers and merchants in the 1850 U.S. Census. In 1850, there were no grocers and 18 Irish merchants. A decade later. the U.S. Census reported 16 grocers and only 2 merchants. Many of the grocers listed in 1860 were merchants in 1850.   Two examples are Thomas Burns and Thomas Davy. They were  financially successful business owners, and increased their property over the course of the decade. By 1870, the U.S. Census listed 31 grocers, the highest number of Irish grocers from 1850 to 1880, and no merchants.

There are several reasons why the number of grocers dropped to 14 in Alexandria by 1880. Based on the U.S. Census, the second generation began running these stores as their parents–the immigrant generation–retired.  There were also other immigrants–Germans and English–who opened similar establishments.  At least in Alexandria, grocery stores were one of the few small business options open to immigrants and their offspring.

Female Occupations Throughout the Years

When comparing the four U.S. Censuses from 1850 through 1880, there were not large numbers of Irish immigrant women living in Alexandria, Virginia at first. In 1850, there were only 85 females; however, there were 345 females recorded ten years later. This surge in the number of Irish immigrant women was tied to jobs, not necessarily for their fathers or husbands, but for themselves.

The 1850 U.S. Census does not give the occupations that women held. 1860 was the first year the census kept track of female occupations, along with how much money they had. Many of the positions they filled were jobs that were extensions of what was seen as “women’s work”– washerwomen, domestics, and seamstresses.

In the 1870 U.S. Census, a handful of women were listed to be clerks in stores and grocers. 49 Irish immigrant women would be keeping house; these women were married and were at home taking care of their family.  12 women had “at home” written next to their names, meaning that they lived with their families though they were not in charge of caring for them. At least one individual inherited money.  In 1870, Margaret Purcell, married to Richard, had $2,000 next to her name.

In the 1880 U.S. Census, almost every grown woman either had a job or, if married, kept house. Whether in their own home or someone else’s, Irish immigrant women worked in some form of domestic labor. A few had other jobs, such as small business owners.

From 1850-1880, information for around 600 Irish immigrant women living in Alexandria, Virginia was collected.  Many of these women–young and single–worked to support themselves.  Older, married women, however, tended to care for their families.  A few outliers owned their own businesses, worked in stores, or had large amounts of property.

Irish Women and Their Occupations

The 1850s saw an influx of Irish immigrants to the U.S. South, many of whom came in response to the Great Famine.¹ Both Irish men and women settled in urban areas where they found various occupations. That said, an analysis of U.S. Census data from Alexandria, Virginia from 1860 to 1880 (NOTE: the 1850 U.S. Census contained no information on women’s occupations) shows little variation in the occupations that women held.  jgarner_001Census data indicates that single Irish immigrant women in 1860 found work outside of the household, but mostly as domestics living in their employers’ homes.² According to David T. Gleeson in The Irish in the South: 1815-1877, white southern women relied on Irish to run their households as they did slaves and free blacks.3  Southern white women preferred hiring other whites to work in their homes, which affirmed their elite social status.  It could also be that these households disliked slavery and preferred to hire people for domestic positions. Nevertheless, even though Irish women were considered “white,” they were still near the bottom of social hierarchy.

In the post-Civil War era, new “occupations” for married, Irish women appeared on the U.S. census: “keep house,” “keeping house,” and “at home.” These phrases indicate that married Irish women were leaving the workforce, possibly upon their marriage, to care for their families. The ability of married women to leave the workforce was arguably tied to the types of jobs that their spouses held.  More and more men–Irish and native-born–married to Irish women were of the middling classes and possibly earned enough money to care for their family.  Staying home to care for one’s family was a marker of being middle class, and Irish immigrant women–who struggled to be accepted among native-born whites–might have felt compelled to embrace this role in southern society.

Analyses of the U.S. Censuses for Alexandria show little variation in the occupations of Irish women.  Very few single, Irish women had jobs outside of domestic work, and married women seemed to leave the workforce entirely.  More research will need to be conducted to ascertain whether this is the whole history of Irish immigrant women in the mid-to-late nineteenth-century Alexandria.

1 David. T Gleeson, The Irish in the South: 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 19.

2 Data is provided from the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 US censuses and were put into spreadsheets by Krystyn R. Moon.

3 Gleeson 46.


Irish Labor Patterns in Alexandria, VA from 1850-1880

A close analysis of the US Census for Alexandria, Virginia from 1850-1880 points to a variety of occupations held by Irish immigrants. The following table lists the number of Irish immigrants with the following occupations:1

Irish Immigrant Occupations in Alexandria, Virginia, 1850s-1880s


# of Irish immigrants listed with occupation in 1850 In 1860 In 1870 In 1880



219 17 3

domestic servant



3 2


17 15


Other* 29 101 18


* This includes a variety of semiskilled occupations and trades, artisanal work, and professional work (i.e. blacksmiths, silversmiths, tailors, fishermen, farmers, carpenters, etc.).

The numbers above are skewed because more information was reported in the 1860 U.S. Census in comparison to the three other years; there were also many more Irish immigrants in Alexandria in 1860.  Census data from the antebellum period mostly listed Irish immigrant men as laborers. There are several exceptions; for example, in the 1850 US Census, John Richards was listed as a physician with property worth $5000.By 1860, there was a small yet noticeable spike in the number of Irish immigrants who worked as grocers, shopkeepers, clerks, or merchants. A large number of Irish immigrants were artisans and craftsmen–blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters, and tanners, among others. Many single, young adult women also were shown as working as domestic servants and seamstresses, particularly in 1860.  No female occupations was included in 1850.3

In the post-war censuses, Irish immigrants moved toward more skilled occupations, trades, small businesses, and white collar professions. One interesting trend are the number of Irish grocers and merchants listed in the 1870 U.S. Census whose property values increased since the last census.  Married Irish women were also noted as keeping house as their occupation, signaling that they no longer worked outside the home or perhaps worked only episodically.

Occupational trends reflect how Irish immigrants melded into the American workforce during the mid-nineteenth century. Starting as unskilled laborers, Irish immigrants–followed by their children and grandchildren–were able to move into more professionalized and skilled work as the century progressed. Irish women, once used to working in order to support themselves and their families, found themselves assuming the role of wife and mother after marriage. Irish workers’ shifting roles in Alexandria’s economy indicates their status as “Americanized” citizens.

1 Krystyn R. Moon, “1850-1880 US Census Data for Alexandria, Virginia,” Unpublished Spreadsheets (2014).

2 “1850 US Census Data for Alexandria, Virginia.”

3 “1860 US Census Data for Alexandria, Virginia.”

Work and Irish Immigration

For members of any immigrant group, one of the most important distinctions for an individual is where they work.  This sentiment was no different for Irish immigrants in the U.S. South in the mid-to-late 19th century.  What is astonishing is how quickly and to what extent Irish occupations transformed in a period of only thirty years.  While not all Irish worked, it can be said that there is a visible shift from unskilled work to artisanal jobs, small business ownership, and even white-collar positions over the period from 1850 to 1880. In the 1850 U.S. Census, many Irish-born men were listed simply as laborers, but by 1880, they were moving into the middle classes.  Caution must be taken, however, when looking at this data. For the most part, those immigrants present in the 1850 U.S. Census were absent in later ones for Alexandria.  Still, by looking at the number of Irish-born within each type of occupation, it is possible to see some upward mobility among these immigrants.

The 1850 U.S. Census for Alexandria shows a large number of Irish immigrant men listed simply as “laborers.”  There are also a few outliers with jobs such as “merchant,” “blacksmith,” or “physician.” Unfortunately, due to the term being used rather loosely, it is impossible to know exactly what type of laborers these men were; however, based on other histories of Alexandria, they probably worked on the newly constructed canal or in railroad construction.  Sadly, women’s jobs were not recorded, so it is impossible to know exactly what percentage of women worked outside the home or episodically through the census.  In Irish in the South, David T. Gleeson contends that in other areas of the South, a handful of Irish women could get jobs as teachers, but an overwhelming majority worked as domestics.1

Irish Immigrant Occupations in Alexandria, Virginia based on the 1850 U.S. Census*

 Occupation Number Percentage
Laborer 41 47.12%
Unskilled/Semi-skilled 2 2.3%
Skilled/Artisan 21 24.14%
Other 19 21.84%
Unemployed/Unknown 4 4.6%
Total 87 100%

*The occupations listed in the table above and elsewhere in this blog post were based on Gleeson’s research; however, in an effort to maintain simplicity, any job that was not listed as “laborer” and did not directly fall under one of the above categories was listed under “Other.”

In 1860, the jobs were fairly similar; however, a sizable number of grocers appeared in the U.S. Census for the first time.  The number of skilled artisans also increased.  Women’s jobs were also recorded, most of whom worked as domestics.  It is important to consider the fact that the number of Irish immigrants living in Alexandria also increased between 1850 and 1860, so when determining the number of immigrants in each type of job, the percentages are arguably more important than the numbers.

Irish Immigrant Occupations in Alexandria, Virginia based on the 1860 U.S. Census

 Occupation Number Percentage
Laborer 219 (male); 0 (female) 66.36% (male); 0% (female)
Unskilled/Semi-skilled 19 (male); 0 (female) 5.76% (male); 0% (female)
Skilled/Artisan 44 (male); 0 (female) 13.33% (male); 0% (female)
Domestic 0 (male); 38 (female) 0% (male) 61.3% (female)
Other 48 (male); 16 (female) 14.55% (male); 25.8% (female)
Unemployed/Unknown 0 (male); 8 (female) 0% (male); 12.9% (female)
Total 330% (male); 62% (female) 100% (male); 100% (female)

By the 1870 U.S. Census, the number of Irish-born immigrants living in Alexandria had decreased significantly, most likely because of the Civil War.  Yet, the types of occupations that Irish immigrants held are still important. There are many more women listed as domestics than in 1860, and they outnumber working men.  The number of laborers is about even with skilled artisans, grocers, and professionals.

Irish Immigrant Occupations in Alexandria, Virginia based on the 1870 U.S. Census

 Occupation Number Percentage
Skilled 4 (male); 0 (female) 12.12% (male); 0% (female)
Unskilled/Semi-skilled 2 (male); 0 (female) 6.06% (male); 0% (female)
Laborer 8 (male); 0 (female) 24.24% (male); 0% (female)
Domestic 0 (male); 32 (female) 0% (male); 76.19% (female)
Other 18 (male); 5 (female) 54.54% (male); 11.9% (female)
Unemployed/Unknown 1 (male); 5 (female) 3.03% (male); 11.9% (female)
Total 33 (male); 42 (female) 100% (male); 100% (female)

Finally, in the 1880 U.S. Census for Alexandria, only five Irish immigrants were listed as laborers, although many others held unskilled occupations that were included in the census. Still, a large number of men held skilled positions, white-collar occupations, or owned a business.  For women, the majority of those who worked outside the home were still domestics.

Irish Immigrant Occupations in Alexandria, Virginia based on the 1880 U.S. Census

Number Percentage
Skilled 2 (male); 0 (female) 8.33% (male); 0% (female)
Unskilled/Semi-skilled 1 (male); 0 (female) 4.17% (male); 0% (female)
Laborer 5 (male); 0 (female) 20.83% (male); 0% (female)
Domestic 0 (male); 27 (female) 0% (male); 72.97% (female)
Other 15 (male); 7 (female) 62.5% (male); 18.92% (female)
Unemployed/Unknown 1 (male); 3 (female) 4.17% (male); 8.11% (female)
Total 24 (male); 37 (female) 100% (male); 100% (female)

Although it is difficult to fully analyze the occupations that these immigrants held across several decades, it is still interesting to see how the workforce changed in the mid-nineteenth century.  After the Civil War, fewer than ten percent of male occupations were unskilled, while the percentage of men entering the middle class increased.  Single women working outside the home also continued to expand.  In the end, the changes in occupations listed in the U.S. Census speaks to shifts in the local economy as well as the Irish immigrant population.

  1. David T. Gleeson, Irish in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 42.






Irish Immigrants and Financial Opportunity in Alexandria (1850-1880)

One of the major trends in U.S.  Census data from the mid-nineteenth century is the amount of information on jobs and property.  This information is especially helpful in understanding the different levels of economic success among Irish immigrants. As David T. Gleeson argues in The Irish in the South: 1815-1877, most Irish who immigrated to America in the mid-nineteenth century were “economic migrants,” who came for economic opportunities that were no longer available in their homeland.1 Irish immigrants arriving in Alexandria before the 1850 U.S. Census was taken were generally poor; yet, several families were able to accumulate quite a bit of property or find jobs outside of canal and railroad work.  Families who remained in Alexandria beyond the 1850s usually stayed because they were able to find financial stability, whether through employment or inheritance.

As the census data shows, Irish immigrants were predominately employed as “laborers” in 1850. Out of the 292 immigrants listed in the census, 93 were working age men (aged between 16 and 70). Out of those men, 41 or 44% were employed as laborers.2 Furthermore,  the majority of Irish families had no property of value; only 17 people n the census are listed as having anything that census takers recognized as having value. These two phenomena reveal that Irish immigrants came to Alexandria with little-to-no money and in search of economic opportunity.

Those who remained in Alexandria throughout the mid-1800s did so because they were able to find some level of economic security. Several men, including the Anthony Moran, Michael Harlow, and Jeff Roberts reflect this. All of these men have one thing in common: they moved from the job title of laborer to skilled jobs. Along with this economic success, came a rise in property value, which is documented in later censuses. Due to inheritance of money and businesses, many of their children also stayed in Alexandria.

Some individuals, however, complicate this trend. For example, Edward Burchell, who was a cooper in 1850, is listed as unemployed by 1860 yet still managed to double his property value. It is unclear as to why this happened, but the fact still remains that he was financially stable enough to remain in Alexandria.

In addition, census data from 1850 through 1880 shows that the majority of families who came to Alexandria did not stay in the area. The men listed in the table, who only constitute about 10% of working age men, were the majority of individuals to remain in Alexandria. This portrays a larger trend that Irish immigrants came to the city in search of economic opportunities, and those that did not find success moved elsewhere.


MORAN, ANOTHNY 1850 Laborer $0
1860 Sailor $3,000
1870 Saddle & Harness $10,500
HARLOW,MICHAEL 1860 Laborer $30
1870 Grocer $10,000
ROBERTS,JEFF 1860 Laborer $0
1870 Grocer $2,300
PURCELL,RICHARD 1850 Coppersmith $0
1860 Turner $50
1880 Copper and Tin Smith unknown
BURCHELL, EDWARD 1850 Cooper $5,000
1860 N/A $10,050
CAMPBELL,DAVID 1850 Shoemaker $0
1860 Shoemaker $560
BURNS,THOMAS 1850 Merchant $5,000
1860 Grocer $11,000
BARTON, RICHARD 1850 Fisherman $0
1860 Lumac Man $1,500
1860 Laborer $1,500
FOSTER,JOHN 1850 Laborer $0
1860 Laborer $100

Several of these Irish immigrants, upon their deaths, passed their groceries down to the next generation. For example, Michael Harlow passed down his grocery to his son, George Harlow, by 1880. Furthermore, Elizabeth Burns, wife of Michael Burns, inherited his grocery.


1 David Gleeson. The Irish in the South: 1815-1877. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 10.

2 This study will focus on Irish men as they were listed as the “head of household” in the U.S. Census, and therefore the primary providers.  Furthermore, the 1850 U.S. Census does not list women’s occupations.

Irish Loyalties in the Civil War

The Civil War brought violence and upheaval to countless locales throughout the United States, which–in turn–caused large movements of the population. One place in particular that experienced massive waves of migration because of the war was Alexandria, Virginia. While looking through Alexandria’s census data from 1860, I began to wonder if the loyalties of individuals was the driving force behind their decision to stay in the city or to leave, especially among the city’s Irish population. The strategic location of Alexandria attracted the attention of Union forces, which occupied the city in late May 1861.  It remained under Union control until the close of the war.  The needs of the Union Army combined with large numbers of African American refugees was a potential business opportunity, and those Irish who stayed might be able to make a handsome profit.

In David T. Gleeson’s The Irish in the South, 1815-1877, he argues that a majority of the Irish immigrants in the region joined the Confederate cause because they viewed the North as an oppressive force, much like England.  They were also invested in slavery, a system which they felt guaranteed white privilege in spite of their outsider status and limited job opportunities.1

So who were these Irish immigrants who chose to stay in Union-controlled Alexandria? A quick online search for Union and Confederate supporters in Alexandria led me to Alexandria’s Public Library website, which includes a transcription of the Union Oath of Allegiance, a document that local whites were asked to sign as a pledge to the Union cause, and a list of signatures. The list can be found here. Comparing the Oath to the 1860 U.S. census, I found only 13 out of 57 Irish immigrants had signed. This list does not take into account the people who might have fled from Union-occupied Alexandria in the years between the 1860 U.S. Census and the signing of the Oath.  Others might have signed up to serve in the Confederate cause or were drafted into the Union Army.

Irish Immigrants who Signed Oath

Name                           Age      Sex    Race      Occupation    Value of Prop.  Country of Origin

                                       Flood, John              45      M      W         Laborer              $1,150            Ireland
Graham, Charles      70      M      W         Grocer                $11,000          Ireland
Lynch, John              35      M      W         Laborer              $1,500            Ireland
Meaghor, Elizabeth  42      F       W        Grocer                 $1,800            Ireland
Moran, Anthony       52      M      W        Sailor                   $3,000           Ireland
Murphy, Thomas      33      M      W        Drayman              $500              Ireland
Nugent, Owen         36      M      W        Grocer                  $300              Ireland
O’Leary, Cornelius    45      M      W        Porter                   $525             Ireland
Roach, James           28      M      W        Laborer                 $0                 Ireland
Swain, Stephen       41      M      W        Master Carpenter  $1,350          Ireland
Taylor, George P.      37      M      W        Laborer                  $830            Ireland
Vaccari, Rose           64      F       W       Grocer                    $4,120          Ireland
Walsh, John             60     M       W       Grocer                    $1,000           Ireland

Five out of the thirteen who signed had listed “grocer” as their profession. In a city with an influx African American refugees and Union soldiers, it is likely that these grocers catered to these populations as well as local residents–both black and white–who decided to stay. Others who signed the oath might have benefited similarly. Some of these men and women might have also had pro-Union or abolitionist leanings; however, more research will need to be conducted to ascertain their political beliefs.

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

Irish Immigrant Families Migrating South in the 1850 U.S. Census

Irish families who came to the United States in the nineteenth century tended to arrive from ships in the Mid-Atlantic and then migrated South.  This trend is documented in the 1850 U.S. Census for Alexandria, Virginia.  Out of the 43 Irish family units who lived in Alexandria in 1850, 24 families (or 56%) migrated South.  This tendency is demonstrated by their children’s birthplaces listed in the census.

The Moran Family Data in the 1850 U.S. Census of Alexandria, Virginia
Family # Name Age Sex Race Occupation Value of Property Nation of Origin
99 Moran, A. 40 M W Laborer $0 Ireland
99 Moran, Charlotte M. 39 F W $0 Ireland
99 Moran, Honora 3 F W N/A Maryland
99 Moran, Charlotte M. 7 F W N/A New York
99 Moran, Mary 1 F W N/A Maryland

The Moran family, for example, probably came to the U.S.  through New York City where their first child, Charlotte, was born.  The Morans’ other children, Honora and Mary, were born in Maryland.  Because Mary was only one year old when the census was taken, the Morans had only recently moved to Alexandria.

David T. Gleeson, author of The Irish in the South 1815-1877, argues that many nineteenth century Irish immigrant families migrated south like the Moran family did.  “A large number of the newer migrants did not come directly to southern towns but traveled south after having landed in the northern states or Canada.”1

Irish families who left the North in search of jobs in the South found ample amounts of unskilled and semi-skilled work.  Due to the value of slave labor, Irish often filled jobs for which slaveowners were unwilling to hire out their property.2  In Alexandria, Irish immigrant men most likely worked on the canal or the railroad, the latter of which was under construction at the time.

1 David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 28-29.

Gleeson 53.

The Vaccari Family

Among the mundane data found in the U.S. Census, there are bits of information that are too intriguing for a historian to pass up. That was the case when I found Frederick and Rose Vaccari listed in the 1850 U.S. Census for Alexandria, Virginia.[1] Frederick, who was born in Tuscany, was listed as a “mariner” worth $2,000. Rose, who was four-years older than Frederick, had emigrated from Ireland. Although it is not uncommon for Italian and Irish immigrants to intermarry, finding such a couple in antebellum Alexandria seemed unique.

Based on scant online records, Frederick was a local shipmaster, living in Alexandria by 1830 at present-day 115 Prince Street (then known as 25 Prince Street) on Captain’s Row. In 1833, he was listed as manumitting Ann Berry, a slave whom he had bought from Henry Chatham.[2] That same year, Ann gave birth to a child, Mary Catherine, who was named after one of Vaccari’s daughters. Mary Catherine was supposed to be freed like her mother based on conditions set by a previous owner; however, Mary Catherine was sold to James S. Simpson, an agent for a slave trader. For more information on what happened to Mary Catherine, see the Library of Virginia’s Out of the Box Blog.[3]

Upon further sleuthing, I also discovered the obituary for Rose on July 9, 1886 in the Washington Post (see below) and the headstones for both Frederick and Rose at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church Cemetery in Alexandria.[4] Rose was originally from Belfast, Ireland, and though from the north, she was Catholic.   After her husband’s death in 1858, Rose became a grocer, increasing her family’s property value to $4,120 by 1860. During the Civil War, she remained in Alexandria working as a “merchant” and signing the Oath of Allegiance to the Union. Her brother, Hugh Latham, became mayor after the Civil War from 1866-1868 and then 1869-1872 (he was replaced briefly from 1868-1869 by the military.[5] The Vaccari and Latham families—while Catholic immigrants—were accepted members of Alexandria’s white elite by the mid-nineteenth century.

 Vaccari Image 1

By the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Censuses, Rose had retired from running her store. In 1870, she was still head of her household, although her occupation was “keeping house.” Her property was worth $4,700. Ten years later, she was living with her nephew, R. M. Latham, who married her grand daughter, also named Rose in 1867.[6] He worked as a jeweler and lived on King Street with his family.

Rose died on July 8, 1886 at the age of ninety. In her will, which was contested among her relatives, she divided her property between her two daughters.[7]

No doubt, there is more to the Vaccari story yet to be uncovered!!!

[1] 1850 U.S. Census, Alexandria Virginia;  Information from the 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses were also used throughout this post.

[2] “Slave Manumissions in Alexandria Land Records, 1790-1863,” (accessed September 17, 2014).

[3] Bari Helms, “12 Years a Slave,” Out of the Box: Notes from the Archives @ the Library of Virginia,” (accessed September 17, 20114).

[4] “Alexandria,” Washington Post July 9, 1886.

[5] “Discovering the 1860s,” Historic Alexandria, City of Alexandria; (accessed September 17, 2014).

[6] “Alexandria Items,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) 16 May 1867, 9.

[7] Chancery Cases: Emanuel Francis vs. Rosa C. Latham, et al., Virginia Memory: Chancery Records Index–510-1894-012; (accessed September 17, 2014).



Irish Immigrants in 1850s Alexandria, Virginia

In a conversation with someone about Irish immigration, it is unlikely that he or she would see Alexandria, Virginia as a major hub in the mid-nineteenth century. Popular understandings of U.S. immigration history looks at places such as New York City and Boston. This popular narrative completely ignores the presence of the Irish in the South and, in turn, Alexandria. Through an examination of the 1850 U.S. Census, however, one finds that Alexandria did play a role in the lives of several Irish immigrants, both rich and poor.

Alexandria’s 1850 U.S. Census data proves that many immigrants settled there, often in family units with little to no money or property. Out of the eighty-eight family units that included at least one Irish immigrant, the average property value for each “family” was around $1,561. While this may seem like a fair amount of money, $135,000 of the total $137,400 came from only fifteen families. The average property value of the remaining seventy-five households was $32. As the table below illustrates, there is a sizable wealth gap among Irish immigrants. While one-fifth of the family units have a property valued over $2,000, the rest have property valued at $0.

Irish Immigrants’ Wealth in Alexandria Based on the 1850 U.S. Census

Property in Dollars

No. of Irish Families









$2,000 or more


Total Households



The lack of property among the Irish, as demonstrated in the table above, was also tied to occupations. Despite coming from a mostly agrarian society, an overwhelming majority of Irish immigrants avoided farming and pursued jobs related to local public works projects. As David T. Gleeson explains in his book The Irish in the South, 1815-1877, part of the reasoning for the switch in occupation was the fact that most Irish families did not have the money to run their own farms.1  They also felt that agriculture was an unreliable occupation and potentially as oppressive as it was in their homeland.2 Instead, as the table below demonstrates, a large number of Irish, working age males found in the 1850 U.S. Census had jobs  laborers, probably working on railroad construction or canal building.

Jobs of Working Age Irish Males (16 and Up) in Alexandria, Virginia Based on 1850 U.S. Census


Number of Employed Irish



Tallow Chandler




R.R. Contractor*


Block and Pump Maker*















Contractor on Canals*





Clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives






Stone Mason


Spinner in Cotton Mill





Sale Collector on Canal*






Corn Doctor




Not Listed




Out of the ninety-two working age Irish males in Alexandria, Virginia listed in the 1850 U.S. Census, a little under half were employed as laborers. Out of the fifty-two men remaining on the table, five men held other positions relating to railroad and canal work, bringing the total to around forty-five and almost half of the total number of working age males.3 As Gleeson and other historians have argued, unskilled and semi-skilled Irish flocked to cities like Alexandria and took whatever work was available, including poor paying, back-breaking labor.

The Irish played an important role in the development of Alexandria, Virginia. Based on the 1850 U.S. Census, one sees a number of poor families migrating to Alexandria and taking whatever jobs were available, most likely on the canal or the railroads. While new waves of immigrants led to other changes in the city’s population, there can be no denying the role that the Irish played in Alexandria in the mid-nineteenth century.


1 David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 23.

2 Ibid, 38.

3 See the starred occupations on Table 2.