Downtown View:Immigrants 1850

Recently I researched and wrote a book about a group of immigrants who came to America in the 1840s and 1850s. Getting to Grand Prairie: One Hundred Londoners and Their Quest for Land in Frontier Illinois will appear this summer. It tells a true story of the farming community I grew up in. I’m preparing the book’s index now.

Although I have published three books with commercial publishers, I could not find one for this book. I can understand—where is the market? These immigrants were not fleeing poverty or religious persecution as were many 19th-century arrivals. It was not the high drama publishers want.

At some point, though, I realized I had a ready-made audience. Those hundred Londoners now have hundreds of descendants and, in doing the research, I acquired many emails. Why share proceeds from this book with a publisher when I already have buyers? I’m not David McCullough. Most lesser known authors have little negotiating power and realize little profit from their works. I decided to publish it myself.

But that’s not what this column is about. It’s about what I learned about views toward immigrants in researching this book.

Today, some Americans heap vitriol on hapless children fleeing deadly gangs in Central America. Some Americans, especially those elected to Congress, want to send back the offspring of illegal immigrants to a homeland they left as children. Some Republican presidential candidates draw support by stimulating nativist bigotry and fanning fears of immigrants stealing jobs and wreaking havoc. Donald Trump’s statements are inflammatory, but other presidential candidates seem to agree with him even if they won’t express it in his terms. Meanness all around.

The research for my book showed the attitude toward immigrants was different in America in the mid-1800s, especially in the Middle West. There was land to be sold, business to be done and a population to build. Only 20 years after Illinois became a state, its citizens clamored for everybody to come. It was mostly European immigrants who were arriving. Germans, Scandinavians, Poles, Irish—all were welcome. The skin color was the same as the American-born, but they were nevertheless exotic.

I learned the most about the Londoners, since they came together and had a great impact on their new community. They chose Illinois’ Grand Prairie because they were invited.

A land speculator, Isaac Sandusky, sponsored a lecture in London, extolling the virtues of the Grand Prairie, which stretched south from a growing Chicago along the Indiana border. It was one of about 100 named Illinois prairies, separated by rivers or forests. Abraham Lincoln’s family moved from Indiana and settled on Goose Nest Prairie, just west of the Grand Prairie, when he was a young man. The prairie names were used because the civil boundaries had either not been established or were in flux. Sandusky, whose original family name was Sodowsky, was said to have noble antecedents in Poland. Maybe that is true.

Isaac and his family had bought thousands of acres from the federal government in the 1830s and early 1840s, paying  $1.25 an acre. They sold parcels for $4 or $5 an acre during the 1840s and ‘50s, so they prospered from the immigrants they had invited. They also sold the newcomers equipment and livestock.

It wasn’t just the Sandusky/Sodowsky family welcoming the immigrants. Immigrants were a profit center everywhere, so those with an eye on making money welcomed them.

New York (and presumably Boston) was prospering from the dozens of ships owned mostly by American investors that sailed from Europe, bringing 300 to 500 immigrants per crossing. A shipboard letter one of the Grand Prairie immigrants wrote described the customs agents as polite and welcoming as they boarded the Hendrik Hudson, with no restrictions on what immigrants could bring with them. The agents examined the passengers for signs of illness, but they allowed all to enter.

Immigrants paid for passage on the ships, enriching the owners and crew. Even the poorest bought supplies from local merchants when they arrived. They paid for trains, stagecoaches and boats that took them inland. It wasn’t hard to start a business or find a job. Such a welcome made me rethink some rejection stories of Irish immigrants in Boston. Some probably had a hard time. But it is also likely that many entrepreneurial Yankees saw the Irish as potential customers who would soon be buying what they had to sell.

The immigrants whose stories I unearthed were luckier than many. They spoke the same language as Americans. They shared an ancestry with many of them. The ships’ manifests show they often came with families. That was not true of the Irish and Germans on the same ships. They usually came alone.

Even though the immigrants were welcomed, they must have had mixed feelings. In most cases, they would never again see family or friends left behind. Finding a job, starting a business, learning the language and culture, even if they had commonalities, must have been both frightening and exciting. And then there was looming that awful war.

What comes through strongest is that in the mid-19th century, Americans realized they needed the immigrants. Today, except for economists, university research labs and large-scale farmers and business owners, most folks don’t see the connection. It’s true in Europe too. A couple of years ago, when visiting in Oxford, England, I heard people say, “We have enough people here.” I realized it was code for “No more immigrants.”

            I don’t know how to solve the immigrant problems that appear to be worldwide. I do know we must pay tribute to our history of welcoming immigrants, and we must find a humane way to do it.

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