Irish Immigrants Earning a Living

How did the Irish immigrants in the South earn a living? They did work similar to what their compatriots in the North were doing. Many Irish males performed unskilled labor. One review of the1850 census records shows the following numbers:

%
Unskilled
Semi-
Skilled
SkilledLow
White
Collar
High
White
Collar
Planter/
Farmer
Mobile43.616.623.712.15.3.3
Natchez18.14.336.220.212.81.1
New Orleans51.317.117.110.11.70
Richmond43.25.226.412.18.5o

Richmond was one of the few Southern cities with any manufacturing. That city had a larger percentage of skilled labor. Most of the Irish workers were machinists and blacksmiths. New Orleans had a very large canal digging project through the 1840’s, so that city has a large unskilled labor population in 1850. Mobile and New Orleans had large ports, so they had larger numbers of semi-skilled Irish labor. Some Irish managed to get into low wage white collar positions, such as clerks or small proprietors. Some Irish immigrants became successful merchants. In New Orleans, J.C. Prendergast owned and ran the Orleanian newspaper in New Orleans. Maunsel White and John Burnside were successful commission merchants in New Orleans. They both owned homes in the wealthiest section of New Orleans. They would later purchase plantations and become planters.

Thomas Ruddy of Natchez, John McGonagle of Mobile and Timothy Burns of Richmond all operated substantial merchant businesses. There were also many Irish druggists, doctors and lawyers who fell into the high white collar category. In the 1855 City Directory of New Orleans, about 20% of the lawyers listed were Irish. Most of them received their training before they arrived in the U.S. The commission merchant business was a lucrative one. The commission merchant would accept a crop from a planter and then re-sell it- for a commission. The commission merchant was paid with a percentage of the profits. Somewhat less than ten percent of the commission merchants in New Orleans were Irish in the 1850’s.

By the 1860 census, the numbers changed a bit:

%
Unskilled
Semi-
Skilled
SkilledLow
White
Collar
High
White Collar
Planter/
Farmer
Mobile45.813.721.68.45.91
Natchez45.86.630.75.08.20
New Orleans41.717.517.89.05.20
Richmond44.89.122.99.75.70

The large increase in unskilled labor in Natchez reflects the fact that in 1850, Natchez did not yet have that famine influx. By 1860, they had received many famine immigrants. Looking at the birth places of their children, one can see that the Irish who arrived in Natchez generally came from other parts of the U.S.

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 26, 30

David T. Gleeson, The Irish in the South, 1815-1877 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Univ. of North Carolina Press 1995), p. 38-40

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