Networks and Opportunities: A Digital History of Ireland's Great Famine Refugees in New York

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For decades, historians portrayed the immigrants who arrived in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century fleeing the great Irish Famine as a permanent proletariat, doomed to live out their lives in America in poverty due to illiteracy, nativism, and a lack of vocational skills. Recent research, however, primarily by economic historians, has demonstrated that large numbers of Famine refugees actually fared rather well in the United States, saving surprising sums in bank accounts and making strides up the American socioeconomic ladder. These scholars, however, have never attempted to explain why some Famine immigrants thrived in the U.S. while others struggled merely to scrape by. Utilizing the unusually detailed records of New York's Emigrant Savings Bank in conjunction with the methods of the digital humanities, this article seeks to understand what characteristics separated those Irish Famine immigrants who fared well financially from those who did not. Analysis of a database of more than 15,000 depositors suggests that networking was the key to economic advancement for the Famine immigrants. Those who lived in residential enclaves with other immigrants born in the same Irish parish saved significantly more than other immigrants, and those who created employment niches based on an Irish birthplace also amassed more wealth than those who did not. The electronic version of the article provides easy access to the database and interactive maps, allowing readers to ask their own questions of the data. The article also fleshes out the life stories of many of the immigrants found in the database, using documents found on genealogy websites such as These handwritten census records, ship manifests, and bank ledgers are hyperlinked to the electronic version of the article. That makes this essay ideal for classroom use - students can move effortlessly to the documents that underpin each paragraph and see clearly how historians use archival evidence to formulate arguments and shape historical narratives.




Anbinder, T., Gráda, C., & Wegge, S. A. (2019, December 1). Networks and Opportunities: A Digital History of Ireland’s Great Famine Refugees in New York. American Historical Review. Oxford University Press.

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