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.

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 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.