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Antebellum Migration Patterns - The March of Millions

Page history last edited by Mr. Hengsterman 4 years, 7 months ago


The March of Millions

By David Kennedy, The American Pageant


[1] As the American people moved west, they also multiplied at an amazing rate. By mid century the population was still doubling approximately every twenty-five years, as in fertile colonial days. By 1860 the original thirteen states had more than doubled in number: thirty-three stars graced the American flag. The United States was the fourth most populous nation in the western world, exceeded only by three European countries—Russia, France, and Austria.


[2] Urban growth continued explosively. In 1790 there had been only two American cities that could boast populations of twenty thousand or more souls: Philadelphia and New York. By 1860 there were forty-three, and about three hundred other places claimed over five thousand inhabitants apiece. New York was the metropolis; New Orleans, the “Queen of the South’’; and Chicago, the swaggering lord of the Midwest, destined to be “hog butcher for the world.’’  Such over rapid urbanization unfortunately brought undesirable by-products. It intensified the problems of smelly slums, feeble street lighting, inadequate policing, impure water, foul sewage, ravenous rats, and improper garbage disposal. Hogs poked their scavenging snouts about many city streets as late as the 1840's. Boston in 1823 pioneered a sewer system, and New York in 1842 abandoned wells and cisterns for a piped-in water supply. The city thus unknowingly eliminated the breeding places of many disease-carrying mosquitoes.


[3] A continuing high birthrate accounted for most of the increase in population, but by the 1840's the tides of immigration were adding hundreds of thousands more. Before this decade immigrants had  been flowing in at a rate of sixty thousand a year, but suddenly the influx tripled in the 1840's and then quadrupled in the 1850's. During these two feverish decades, over a million and a half Irish, and nearly as many Germans, swarmed down the gangplanks.  Why did they come? The immigrants came partly because Europe seemed to be running out of room. The immigrants came partly because Europe began to generate a seething pool of apparently  “surplus’’ people.


[4] They were displaced and footloose in their homelands before they felt the tug of the American magnet. Indeed at least as many people moved about within Europe as crossed the Atlantic. America benefited from these people-churning changes but did not set them all in motion. Nor was the United States the sole beneficiary of the process: of the nearly 60 million people who abandoned Europe in the century after 1840, about 25 million went somewhere other than the United States.


[5] Yet America still beckoned most strongly to the struggling masses of Europe, and the majority of migrants headed for the “land of freedom and opportunity.’’ There was freedom from aristocratic caste and state church; there was abundant opportunity to secure broad acres and better one’s condition. Much-read letters sent home by immigrants— “America letters’’—often described in glowing terms the richer life: low taxes, no compulsory military service, and “three meat meals a day.’’ The introduction of transoceanic steamships also meant that the immigrants could come speedily, in a matter of ten or twelve days instead of ten or twelve weeks. On board, they were still jammed into unsanitary quarters, thus suffering an appalling death rate from infectious diseases, but the nightmare was more endurable because it was shorter.


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