Why did Irish Immigrants settle on the East Coast (and Germans didn`t)?

A few years ago I learned that a relative of mine had emigrated to the US from Germany around the year 1900. That got me thinking about European immigration into the US. And I realized something.

While the East coast has a predominantly Irish and Italian heritage large parts of the Mid-West has german origins. That got me thinking why that was the case.

Irish (& Italian) immigrants, who often came from the lower class, settled on the East coast because they didn`t have the funds to travel further west. The economy of the East Coast with its factories also offered them work. German immigrants often had a middle-class background and some wealth enabling them to immediately travel west and either buy land or start their own business.

In order to find out why Irish and Italian immigrants settled on the East Coast and German immigrants mostly settled further west, I would like to start with the development of the US-Population from 1790-1860 first before I then go into the reasons for the differences in where different groups of Immigrants settled.

Development of the US-Population from 1790 to 1860

Immigration from Europe had significant impacts on the US-population. But in order to better see these impacts, we first have to take a look at the different aspects of the development of the US population.

The number of US-inhabitants rose from 4 Million (in 1790) to 31.5 Million (in 1860). While in 1820 75% of Americans lived on the East Coast and only 25% west of the Appalachians that number became close to 50-50 in 1860. In 1800 the population was evenly distributed over the North and South, in 1860 2/3 of the population lived in the North, only 1/3 in the South.

So it`s safe to say that there were changes. Let`s find out more about these changes before we find out how immigration was a massive reason for that kind of change in the distribution of the US population.

Growth of the US-Population from 1790 to 1860

Between the years 1790 and 1860, the population of the US grew rapidly. That had several reasons. A combination of a low mortality rate and a high birth rate were the main reasons for the growth of the US population.

Although the average number of children a woman had declined from 7 children/woman in 1810 to 5 children/woman in 1860 that decline was more than balanced by immigration from Europe. That resulted in the US population almost doubling every 23 years between 1790 and 1860.

Let`s take a look at what that means in actual numbers.

YearUS-Population (roughly)
17904 Million
18107.2 Million
182010 Million
184017 Million (overtaking the population of Great Britain)
186031.5 Million (Including approximately 4 million slaves and 400.000 free POC; not accounting for the number of Natives)
Development of the US-Population between 1790 and 1860

Changes to the Distribution of the US-population over the US between 1790 and 1860

In the year 1820 the majority of US-Inhabitants, 75%, lived east of the Appalachians, only 25% lived west of the Appalachians. That changed during the following 40 years and in the year 1860, the distribution was already almost 50-50 with around 2% of the population living in the Pacific region.

The main driver for settling west of the Appalachians was the Railroad. After 1853 railroad tracks crossed the Appalachians at 4 different points making the settlement of the land to the west of these mountains much easier.

Distribution of the US-Population over the North and the South

At the beginning of the 19th century, the US population was somewhat evenly distributed over the North and the South. But in 1860 that distribution had changed to 2/3 of the population living in the North and only 1/3 of the population living in the South.

One major reason for that kind of uneven distribution was the immigration from Europe into the US.

So let`s now look at immigration to the US.

European Immigration into the US from 1790 into the 1850s

In order to understand why different groups of immigrants settled in different areas we first have to look at European immigration as a whole. Including the number of immigrants, their motivations, and their land of origin.

Generally, it is safe to say that the immigration of Europeans into the US became a mass phenomenon in the 1850s. The reason for that can be found in the political and economical situation in Europe.

Both the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-1852) and the German revolutions of 1848 & 1849 motivated large groups to look for a better life in the US.   

But these two very different backgrounds and motivations to emigrate into the US will be dealt with in the next paragraph.

For now, I would like to give a quick overview of the numbers of European immigrants and why the South of the US was less popular as an immigration destination.

Overview over the European immigration into the US (1800 to 1850s)

YearRough number of European immigrants
1790 – 1800250.000
1820 – 1840750.000
1840s1.75 Million
1850s2.6 Million
Overview over the European immigration into the US (1800 to 1850s)

Let`s now look at the country of origin that these immigrants had.

Until 1860 approximately 4.5 Million Europeans had immigrated to the US. Around 350.000 of them were English or Scottish, 1.5 Million were Irish (and mostly forced by poverty to leave Ireland), around 1.5 Million were German (mostly from the southwest of Germany), the rest were swiss, Swedish, and others.

Depending on their land of origin the motivations for leaving their countries behind and immigrating into the US were quite different.

While the Irish immigrants mostly tried to escape poverty and famine the German immigrants, especially the so-called Forty-Eighters leaving Germany after 1848, were looking to escape political persecution and were often part of the middle class.

The different types of motivations and backgrounds will be important in the next paragraph when we finally find out why the Irish and Italian mostly settled on the East Coast while German immigrants often settled further west!

Why did Irish immigrants settle on the East coast (and Germans didn`t)?

Irish & Italian immigrants were often members of the lower class and did not have the money to travel further west. They would stay in the port cities where they had arrived and found work in the factories that dominated the economy of New England. German immigrants were often members of the middle class and had enough money to not only buy a train ticket west but also to buy land or open up a business.

Because of that, the East Coast still has a strong Irish and Italian heritage while the midwest and the cities of Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, and others have a strong German heritage.

Why did Irish and Italian immigrants settle on the East Coast?

Most of the Irish and Italian immigrants were craftsmen and laborers fleeing poverty and famine in their countries of origin.

Especially the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849 that was caused by the potato blight and that killed almost 12% of the Irish population (up to 1 Million) people was a reason for 2 Million Irish to leave their country behind and search for a better future in the US.

Because of that background, they usually didn`t have a lot of money. And the money they had was spent on paying for the passage to America.

And while the railroad, as mentioned above, provided easy access into the lands west of the Appalachians, the tickets were still rather expensive. And building a new life in the midwest where there were no factories offering low-skilled workers jobs also made it necessary to have at least some money to buy land or open up a business.

Because of a lack of money to pay for a railroad ticket into the west, most Irish (and Italian) immigrants stayed in the port cities where they had arrived and worked jobs in factories or as street sweepers.

That by the way would also result in the rapid growth of the port cities.

New Yorks` population rose from 120.000 inhabitants in 1820 to over 1 million in 1860 making New York the third-largest city in the western hemisphere.

Apart from the lack of money to continue traveling further west the economy of New England and the North offered countless opportunities for low-skilled workers. More on the industry of the North and why it wasn`t centered around farming (like in the South) in my article here.

While especially the Irish immigrants were living in slums and working low-paying jobs they or at least their children were usually able to get out of these conditions by their own hard work.

Since that kind of social ascent was almost impossible in Europe it was one of the big attractions the US had for these Irish & Italian immigrants fleeing poverty.

Why did German immigrants mostly settle in the Midwest rather than on the East coast?

So we just found out that it was mostly due to limited funds, here you can find out more about the costs of crossing the Atlantic on board the Titanic, that the Irish and Italian immigrants did not travel further west.

But while the Irish and Italian immigrants were often members of the lower class the german immigrants, especially the ones fleeing Europe after the failed German revolutions of 1848 and 1849 were members of the middle class and were usually able to bring at least some of their fortune to the US.

Because of their social background as middle class, the level of education that came along with that, as well as the fortune they brought with them to the US, the German immigrants were able to travel further west and either buy land or set up their own business.

Now you might ask why members of the German middle class would have to flee their country when they had enough money to start a business or a farm in the US.

I mean poverty and famine like in Ireland during the Great Famine from 1845 to 1849 with 12% of the population dying is an obvious motivation for emigration. But what happened in 1848/49 in Germany that would motivate large numbers of members of the Middle Class to leave their country of origin?

In 1848/49 the working class and the liberal middle class in many german states started rebelling. Their goal was driven by the ideas of Liberalism and included democratic reforms and unifying the different german principalities in one german state.

While the revolution had temporary success, liberal governments were installed in some of the German states and the Frankfurt assembly met, it failed in the end. That failure was in part a result of the use of the military. And in the aftermath men like Otto von Bismarck came to power with the goal to battle the influence of the liberal parliaments. More on that here.

As a result of the failed revolution in 1848/1849 many disappointed german patriots and members of the liberal middle class emigrated into the US where they would become known as the Forthy-Eighters.

These German immigrants would travel west and mostly settle in the midwest where the cities of Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Chicago would be heavily influenced by both German language and culture.

So now we just found out why Irish and Italian immigrants mostly settled on the East Coast and German immigrants often settled in the midwest.

And since the expansion into the west wasn`t even close to finished in 1860 it also makes sense why neither of the two groups travels further west. The American expansion into the west of the continent is also a fascinating story. But that will be the topic of a future article.

So after establishing why Irish immigrants often stayed at the East Coast and German immigrants settling in the Midwest there is one question left.

What about the South? Why was the South less popular as a destination among European immigrants?

Let`s find out more.

Why was the South not a popular destination for European immigrants?

Generally, it is important to state that when we talk about why the South was less popular among European immigrants we have to exclude Texas.

Now when it comes to the South (except for Texas) there were multiple reasons why European immigrants rarely settled there.

The most obvious reason is the climate. The hot and humid climate in combination with the mosquitos that thrived in the swamps and plantations made the south a health hazard for newly arrived European immigrants.

Another major reason was slavery. Many European immigrants despised the institution of slavery. But slavery also had a direct negative impact on the newly arrived European immigrants, especially the Irish and Italian looking for low-skilled work.

While the East Coast with its factories offered more than enough low-skilled work for European immigrants the vast majority of the low-skilled labor in the South was done by slaves limiting the job opportunities for low-skilled immigrants.

Do you want to find out more on why there were differences in the prevalence of Slavery between the North and the South and how these differences are a result of the different economies of the early American colonies? You can find the answer in my article here.

So it was a combination of the exhausting climate, the institution of slavery that caused disgust among newly immigrated Europeans, and the fact that low-skill work was mostly done by slaves, that resulted in the South (except for Texas) being a less popular destination for European immigrants.

And that by the way resulted in the shift of the distribution of the US-Population that was already mentioned in the paragraph at the top of the article.

Now after looking at the extend of European immigration into the US and the results it had one might ask how the American public thought of that kind of immigration.

How was European immigration seen by the American public?

In general, immigration was welcomed by the American public. Especially since the land was only thinly settled, the culture of the Americans and the newly arrived immigrants was quite similar (not surprising when we realize that around 1850 most of the US-Population could only look back on a few generations of living in America), and the culture that especially German immigrants brought with them was quite popular.

So in general integrating the newly arrived immigrants into American society was easy. The only exception was areas like New York where the number of immigrants was almost as high as the number of Americans.

But over the cause of the 19th century, 3 events are especially noteworthy when we talk about immigration into the US.

Naturalization act (1802)

As mentioned, the American public during the 18th and 19th centuries, in general, was in favor of immigration.

The naturalization act of 1802 made it easier for immigrants to become US citizens. An immigrant could get US citizenship after 5 years if he confessed to the constitution and discarded eventual titles of nobility.

The Naturalization act was met by the resistance of a small group of Americans fearing the foreign infiltration by these European immigrants. That group wanted to make it more difficult for immigrants to achieve the US-citizenship.

And that resulted in the Nativist movement.

The Nativist Movement (first half of the 19th century)

After the Naturalization act of 1802 had simplified the process of gaining US citizenship the Nativist Movement emerged during the first half of the 19th century.

The Nativist Movement promoted strict anti-immigration politics claiming that immigration would result in the reduction of wages and that the immigrants were a group whose vote could be sold to the highest bidder. Especially the Catholic Irish immigrants were also accused of being agents of the pope and preparing a political & social upheaval within the mostly protestant US.

Since about 1/3 of the German immigrants were also catholic that accusation could easily be expanded on all groups of immigrants. Another problem that especially strict Puritans and Protestants had with the Catholics was that the catholic immigrants often spent their spare time in beerhalls.

These beerhalls were not centered around the limitless consumption of alcohol but more around the bonding within the community. But many strict puritans still saw that practice as a desecration of the Holy Sunday.

During the 1840s a debate about the right school bible in Philadelphia even escalated between Nativists and Irish to such a level that martial law had to be used to end the violence.

The Order of the Star-spangled banner (1849/1850)

Around 1849/1850 the different nativistic organizations focused came together to gain more influence.

The Order of the star-spangled banner was a merger of several nativistic (secret) societies. Due to their strict confidentiality, their members were called „know-nothings“. Following 1850 the order of the star-spangled banner allowed the Nativists to gain political influence using the American Party.

While the American Party could only temporarily dominate politics in New England it developed into the party of opposition in the South and was even able to replace the Whigs party that had previously occupied the position of opposition in the South. Later the American Party would lose its position in the South to the Democrats.

But as the conflict around slavery intensified in the apron of the Civil War the Nativist movement rapidly lost significance.

Now, these mentioned conflicts around slavery that happened in the apron of the Civil War are a story for another time. Please feel free to check out my article here if you are interested in the events leading up to the secession of the South and the Civil War.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


W. L. Barney (Hrsg.): A Companion to 19th-Century America, Malden, Mass./Oxford 2001.

W. P. Adams: Die USA vor 1900 (OGG,28), München 2009.