The Tramping Worker: questions on transience and organisation in America, 1880-1920

I have done a good deal of running around in America seeking the best place, but all my sorrow I have lost by it. The American country is gone.

– Letter from Patrick Kearney to John Kearney, 21 December 1890[1]

Migration is often perceived as a two-stage journey: departure and arrival. The letter quoted above from Patrick Kearney to his brother reveals that often a migrant’s journey did not end at the first port of call. His pitiable disappointment at having little to show for all his years of “running around” challenges the myth of the American dream. As one historian notes “the emigration movement…is heroic to look back on… but for the individual emigrant it was often a personal tragedy.”[2] Historians have challenged the assumption of destined success, but many continue to focus on either the negative or positive experiences of migration, neglecting the breadth of possible outcomes and opinions for a more limited binary either/or explanation. Different feelings on this movement can be found within the same ethnic group and social class. Irish-born Seamus Ó Muircheartaigh and Kate Flanagan both moved to several countries and states across America in search of work but their views display a certain dissonance. In “Mo chiach mar a thána” (“Alas that I ever came”) Ó Muircheartaigh wrote  “Sin mar a chaitheas-sa tamall dem shaol,/Ó bhaile go baile gan toinnte ar mo thaobh” (That’s how I spent part of my life,/Going from place to place, with no company at my side).[3] Some held a much more positive opinion, like Kate Flanagan who wrote to Mike, her brother-in-law in Ireland, telling him that “I can’t help but think it would be better for all the family in Ireland to come to this country,” humorously adding “if it was only to get away to a more agreeable climate.”[4]  Remembering that we can move beyond a dichotomy of good or bad, or immigration as from origin to destination, would allow for more novel attempts to explore the varied experiences among different ethnic groups, and more importantly, to highlight and explain the importance of transience among immigrants in the Unites States in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. How frequently did people move from one place to another? What were the impediments or facilitators of this movement? Was transience purely an economic decision? How were communities affected by the changes over time and place? What were the networks that sustained them and how were these networks in turn sustained?

Of course you can question, why should we focus on immigrants and mobility when looking at American workers? The first response to that question is that the late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed a huge movement of people to the American continent enabling the industrialisation of the United States. We should keep in mind a notable recent work documenting this process, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America by Aristide R. Zolberg, which reveals that the popular image of uncontrollable waves of people entering the US is a false one and that the American government was capable, when willing, to limit this movement.[5] Another answer to this question lies in the large numbers of people. While only 13 percent of the population of the United States are classed as foreign-born in 1880, 42 percent of those engaged in manufacturing or extraction industries were immigrants.[6] This number grows into an overwhelming majority if we include the children of foreign-born and African Americans. The importance of immigrants in the development of American industry is hard to overstate.

Simultaneously there are problems with categories, as people are often grouped into broad headings based on religion, nationality or ethnic group that might not be particularly useful. If we scratch the surface of these broad communities and we find further important differences; northern and southern Italians, Corkonians and Fardowners, Cornish and English to name a few. Nationally based fraternities (e.g. the Ancient Order of Hibernians in the case of the Irish) tried to foster ethnic cooperation and promote a hyphenated identity reconciling their Old World origins with their lives in the New World, a somewhat paradoxical effort, and again we should try to bear in mind to local complexities when detailing particular groups. Likewise leaders in trade unions also engaged in contradictory efforts to remain loyal to both their own ethnic group while promoting unity with workers from other backgrounds. Immigrants also exhibited similar diversity in their patterns of movement. ‘New immigrants’ from eastern and southern Europe bucked earlier immigration trends, with larger numbers returning ‘home’. Historians estimate that fifty percent of Italians returned home between 1908 and 1923, compared to single-digit repatriation rates for Russian Jews and the Irish.[7] Contemporaries noted this difference at the time with usage of the label ‘sojourners’ rather than ‘immigrants’, but few historians have addressed the question of how this affected their views of movement and migration.[8] A continuing reexamination of immigrants bearing these problems in mind might reveal that immigrants had a more nuanced sense of self and association than historians have previously ascribed to them.

Sixty-three years ago the historian Eric Hobsbawm opened his article “The Tramping Artisan” with the statement “the story of nineteenth-century labor is one of movement and migration.”[9] While his article represents an attempt to explain the personal and social impact of frequent dislocation on skilled journeymen in Britain, the premise applies equally to immigrant workers in America. The development of transnational history has seen a reevaluation of borders as the defining parameters of historical phenomena and the scholarship related to them. Some of the exciting new work on Irish America includes Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the American West 1860-1910, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race and The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900, and they each forcefully challenge traditional historical assumptions on the Irish in the West, Irish identity and organizations.[10]  Transnationalism in turn has led to the reexamination of people’s movement, formerly through the prism of migration, through the more broad term of mobility.[11]

Many questions are waiting to be answered by future projects. Some questions that can be raised about American studies follow, but many other similar questions could be asked of other sub-fields of nineteenth and twentieth century history. What effect did the staggered migration have on working-class ethnic communities? Did it impede or encourage ethnic, fraternal or union organization? How did the immigrant experience in eastern cities differ from the American West? Were there significant similarities or differences in both the experience and perception of mobility between ethnicities, occupations or classes? Some of these questions have been partly answered in relation to specific groups, for example Liping Zhu and Sue Fawn Chung’s pioneering work on the Chinese communities in the American West.[12]

Simultaneous with the advent of these new approaches has been the comparable decline of the study of labor and trade union history and in response historians should try to reengage with the history of workers, offering fresh perspective and utilizing the new historiographical approaches that have emerged in the intervening decades. Craig Calhoun recently presented an important challenge to labor history in The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements, arguing that not all social movements were inherently progressive and that these groups expressed a much broader spectrum of goals and beliefs, often more conservative, than historians have credited to them. It can be hoped that further research will uncover more stories of people’s lives, with their accompanying perceptions and convictions and help us determine whether these are valid assertions. For my part I fully intend to keep digging for answers.

 

 

[1] Séamus De Búrca (ed.), The Soldier’s Song: The Story of Peadar Ó Cearnaigh (Dublin: P.J. Bourke, 1957), p. 251.

[2] Terry Coleman, Passage to America: A history of emigrants from Great Britain and Ireland to America in the mid-nineteenth century (1972: London: Hutchinson & County), p. 248.

[3] Seán Ó Dubhda, Duanaire duibhneach : i bailiú d’amhránaibh agus de phíosaibh eile filidheachta a ceapadh le tuairim céad bliain i gCorca Dhuibhne, agus atá fór i gcuimhne agus i mbéaloideas na ndaoine ann (Baile Átha Cliath: Oifig Díolta Foillseacháin Rialtais, 1976),132-133. English translation by Dr Bruce D. Boling, Brown University, from Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. xiii.

[4] Kate Flanagan to Mike in Ireland was more positive Napa, California to her brother-in-love, Mike 31 March, 1899. Flanagan Family Letters. Private collection generously shared with me by Professor Kerby A. Miller, University of Missouri, Columbia.

[5] Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[6] U.S. Tenth Census, 1880, Report on the Manufactures of the United States (Washington, D.C, 1882), pp. 17, 36.

[7] Mark Wyman, Round-trip America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 9-12.

[8] Two important exceptions are the collection of essays in Dirk Hoerder (ed.) Labor Migration in the Atlantic Economies. The European and North American Working Classes During the Period of Industrialization (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985) and Donna R Gabaccia, Italy’s many diasporas (Seattle : University of Washington Press, 2000).

[9] E. J. Hobsbawn, “The Tramping Artisan,” The Economic History Review, New Series 3 (1951): pp. 299-320.

[10] David M. Emmons, Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West 1845-1910 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), Bruce Nelson, Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012) and Niall Whelehan, The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[11] Transnationalism does not ignore nationalism or the nation-state rather it prompts historians to simultaneous consider “differing geographic scales – the local, the national, and the transnational.” Ian Tyrell, “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History,” American Historical Review 96 (1991):  p. 1033.

[12]  Liping Zhu, A Chinaman’s Chance: The Chinese on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997); Sue Fawn Chung, In Pursuit of Gold: Chinese American Miners and Merchant in the American West (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011).

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Filed under Historiography, Irish History, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Twentieth Century, Uncategorized

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