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

$0

69

$10-99

0
$100-499

2

$500-999

2

$1,000-1,999

2
$2,000 or more

13

Total Households

88

 

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

Occupation

Number of Employed Irish

Laborer

40

Tallow Chandler

2

Shoemaker

8

R.R. Contractor*

1

Block and Pump Maker*

2

Farmer/Gardener

4
Blacksmith

2

Carpenter

1

Merchant

4

Coppersmith

1

Baker

1

Cooper

1

Contractor on Canals*

1
Shopkeeper

3

Seaman

1

Clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives

1

Fisherman

1

Himenailmaker???

1

Stone Mason

1

Spinner in Cotton Mill

1

Physician

1
Miller

1

Sale Collector on Canal*

1

Clerk

1

Student

1

Corn Doctor

1

None

4

Not Listed

5

Total:

92

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.

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