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.

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