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Immigrants and Ethnic Diversity in Vermont, 1840-1930

by Elise A. Guyette

The first noticeable increase in post-Revolutionary immigration to the United States began in the 1840s. At that time, Vermont was the slowest growing state in the union, her hills were stripped of most of the old growth timber, and the hill farms were worn out. Between 1840 and 1930, however, millions of people uprooted themselves from their homelands and risked (often) perilous journeys to live in the United States. Many of them came to Vermont to work in nascent industries and rebuild abandoned farms. The first industrial workers were Yankees (the majority were women) who moved into towns from the farms. Later immigrants from Canada or faraway countries traveled to Vermont. The sound of the factory whistles calling them to work were the sounds of a new way of life dawning in Vermont. Centers of industry, pulling immigrants toward them, popped up in every part of the state, including the Connecticut River Valley towns of Guilford, Brattleboro, Springfield, Windsor, Woodstock, and St. Johnsbury. Such activity caused the population of the state to rebound.

The factors that pushed migrants out of their native lands were many: Dwindling economic opportunities in Europe along with catastrophic events, such as wars, famines, epidemics, and pogroms. Two tragedies, in particular, which significantly affected immigration to Vermont, took place on opposite sides of Europe, in Ireland and Russia and illustrate the “push” for many immigrants.

Irish people had been immigrating to the Americas before the Potato Famine of the 1840s, but that disaster drove so many to leave their homeland that it caused a decline in the population of Ireland. From 1845 to 1860 half of all immigrants coming to America were Irish. By 1850, the largest foreign-born group in Vermont was Irish, numbering 15,377. The largest Irish settlements were in the railroad towns of Bellows Falls, Northfield, Rutland, Burlington, and St. Albans. The old British immigrants distrusted the Irish, partly because of their religion, which they saw as giving allegiance to a foreign power, the Pope. By the mid 1850s more than 100 members of the Vermont House represented Know-Nothingism, an anti-foreign sentiment pledged to end the spread of Catholicism. Not seen as fit for most jobs, the Irish men soon took the “monopoly of the pick and shovel” away from African Americans. With that monopoly they built the railroad system in Vermont, while Irish woman peddled goods or found jobs as mill workers, domestic servants and farm help.

The roots of the Russian immigration, seemingly different, are related to religious persecution. The Potato Famine need not have killed or displaced millions of Irish Catholics. The English government chose to allow starvation of the despised group as they exported corn and other edibles from Ireland during the famine. In the later part of the nineteenth century, the Russian government intensified pogroms against a despised religious group, Russian Jews. An Underground Railroad network helped Jews escape the massacres by traveling through Germany to other European and American destinations. Russian Jews started Burlington’s Jewish community in the 1870s. They often worked as peddlers and eventually built many businesses in the area as well as Vermont’s first synagogue.

Immigrants came not only from Europe but also from other North American countries. Many French Canadian migrants, pushed out of Quebec by a poor economy, farming failures and discrimination, streamed into Vermont to work on farms, in mills and in the scale industry in St. Johnsbury. In 1821, Thaddeus Fairbanks patented the platform scale for weighing hemp. People soon discovered that the scale could weigh just about anything, including railroad cars, and the Fairbanks family formed the E&T Fairbanks Company to manufacture the scales. Irish and French Canadian immigrants poured into town to build the industry. By the 1840s, the company was world famous and sold scales from Cuba to China.

Stereotypes

Illustrations of immigrants from this period often depict stereotypical images of poor, helpless aliens huddled together at Ellis Island in New York or Angel Island in California. Research, however, paints quite a different picture. Immigrants (then & today) are far from helpless. They are more often aggressive and ambitious – the ones willing to take chances, relocate themselves, and begin again.

Not all immigrants were poor either. We know the horrible stories of those who traveled in the steerage compartment of ships. However, immigrants also traveled in first and second classes, enjoying quite a different experience from those below decks. Of those who declared occupations between 1850 and 1917, fifty percent were unskilled laborers and domestic servants. The other half, though, had proficiency in agriculture, industry and mining occupations, or (less than 2%) as highly skilled professionals.

Once in the United States, employers hired migrants for specific tasks, often according to ethnicity. Old immigrants of British-Protestant ancestry held eight out of ten professional positions and owned the industries and homes into which they hired immigrants as laborers or domestic servants. In Vermont those of British decent (mostly English and Scottish) owned the first mines, factories and railroads. By the nineteenth century, those old immigrants had forged new identities and new lives as entrepreneurs in the Americas and hired the new immigrant men and women as manual laborers regardless of their skills. Americans, including Vermonters, relegated Irish and African Americans to domestic service and the lowest manual labor regardless of their skills and education.

The experiences of female immigrants varied tremendously. European woman’s role often expanded after migrations, both as decision-makers in the family and as laborers in the workplace. Many immigrant women worked in industries and fields, positions thought unsuitable for Yankee women, many of whom believed in the “cult of domesticity.” Many families, however, would not have survived on the meager wages paid to immigrant men; and single and widowed women obviously needed a means of support. About two thirds of these immigrants, however, were single males who came to farm and work in industries in order to send money home to their families.

One reason that so many people chose emigration to solve their problems at the turn of the century was that they had learned to trust steam travel, and price wars had drastically cut the cost of a ticket. Between 1870 and 1910, Vermont’s foreign-born population swelled to 14%, the highest in the history of the state, only slightly lower than the national average of 15%. The major groups reflected efforts of industrialists to recruit workers from northern Europe, their ancestral home. With many of the old immigrant stock moving west to farm, some states, including Vermont, sent recruiters to entice Northern European immigrants to settle in their region.

Northern European Immigrants

In the 1890s, Gov. Dillingham directed Vermont’s commissioner of agriculture and manufacturing interests, Alonzo Valentine, to recruit northern Europeans to Vermont. Valentine chose Swedes, whom he saw as most likely to become hard-working, rural, Protestant Vermonters. He brought three groups of Swedes who went to Wilmington, Weston, and Vershire to work abandoned farms. Many Swedish stonecutters were hired to work in the granite operations in Beebe. The Estey Organ and the Carpenter Piano Companies in Brattleboro attracted many Swedish men and women, who also worked in the local overall company. By 1893, Brattleboro had a well-established Swedish Lutheran Church. So many Swiss stonecutters immigrated to Barre that the city became known as the “Italian-Swiss Colony.”

Other northern Europeans included copper miners from England who worked the Ely (Vershire) mines in the 1880s. In mid-century, German Jews immigrated to the Poultney area, which became a rendezvous for Jewish peddlers. Famine and forced service in the Russian? army caused many Finns to leave their country. They were attracted to the Chester-Mt.Holly region to farm or the Ludlow region to work in the mills.

After slate was discovered in the Fair Haven-Castleton-Poultney area, Vermont’s “slate belt”, industrialists invited master slate workers from Wales to help build the industry. The old immigrant groups saw them as the “aristocrats” of the labor force and welcomed them into their communities. Even those welcomed still had a difficult journey to the Americas and a difficult transition to their new life. William R. Hughes. A Welsh immigrant remembers his arrival in Fair Haven in 1853. After seven weeks of a stormy voyage in steerage, two days in New York, an all night boat ride to Albany, and a train trip into Fair Haven he finally remembers coming into the…

…small insignificant station at Fair Haven…But I knew that I was in a new world very different from the old Welsh world. The sky was clear blue and the sun in its zenith. The weather was wonderfully warm. I remember how proud I was to tread again on the green grass, to breathe the fresh air, to smell the fragrance of the flowers and see the inexhaustible clover on the sides of the road… [but soon] dark clouds came over us…in six weeks my little brother, about one year old died. He had been ill during the journey from Wales. This caused a great heartache for my mother for a long time.” History of the Welsh Congregational Church – 1850-1911

Immigrants from Southern & Eastern Europe

By the 1890s increasing numbers of immigrants began arriving from southern and eastern Europe. Often, they were not welcomed into the community. Nevertheless, industries in Brattleboro, Burlington, Springfield and Windsor attracted workers who could not find jobs in their homelands. Many left depressed areas in northern Spain and Portugal to settled in central Vermont. Since their languages were similar to Italian, some learned the stone trades from them; others became peddlers and eventually opened grocery stores in the area. Christian immigrants from Turkish dominated lands, such as Greece and Lebanon, also fled to the United States, and many settled in Vermont. Although never large in numbers, these groups had a strong cultural presence in urban areas, especially Burlington, Barre, and St. Albans. Peddling was a popular way for many to make a living, although many Greeks found the restaurant industry a welcoming place for their culinary talents.

Russians and Poles swelled the numbers of eastern Europeans as they escaped Tsarist oppression and settled in Vermont. Poles tended to settle in Bellows Falls, Springfield, Morrisville, Proctor and West Rutland to work in the granite, marble and scale industries, among others. West Rutland had the largest number of Poles who built St. Stanislaus Church, which had Polish-language services.

The first Russians came to Springfield in the 1890s to work in the Slack shoddy mill, where workers reprocessed old woolens into new cloth. They chose Springfield because representatives of the shoddy mill recruited them as they arrived in New York. Other Russians followed (called “chain migration”) to work in the machine tool industry. Born in the Windsor Prison in 1828 to make a revolving hydraulic engine (an improved water pump with interchangeable parts), James Hartness moved it to the banks of the Black River in Springfield in 1888. In the years after the move, Springfield became a major manufacturing center, employing thousands of people to make Hartness’s invention, the turret lathe – a machine used for shaping wood or metal with a rotating block (turret) holding several cutting tools. His invention revolutionized the machine tool industry, and the business employed thousands of immigrant workers to supply the world with the new lathe. Many of these workers were Russian immigrants who belonged mainly to the Russian Orthodox religion. Early on, they built church and orphanage in the city.

In 1880, Redfield Proctor, owner of the marble quarries in Proctor, persuaded five Italian marble carvers to teach their art in Vermont. Chain migration ensued, and Rutland became a center of Italian culture. Later, more Italian immigrants went to Barre to work in the granite industry. Italians were also attracted to White River to work in the railroad industry. In 1850 there were seven Italians in Vermont; by 1910 there were 4,594, the fourth largest group behind French Canadians, English Canadians, and Irish.

Vermont also saw an increase in the numbers of African American at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the 1910s and 1920s, Vermont was .5% African American, the highest percentage in our history.

Backlash

Besides bringing new languages, religions, and cultures to the Americas, immigrants also brought new religions and “radical” ideas about unionization and socialism. A group of Irish railroad workers in Richmond staged the first strike in Vermont in 1846. In 1855, Brattleboro washerwomen went on strike until they were promised seventy-five cents for twelve pieces of laundry. In 1866 women textile workers in Woodstock went on strike for a ten-hour day, instead of the usual 13 or 14 hours a day. With these ideas spreading in the industrial areas of the U.S. and Vermont, many “old immigrants”, the business owners and government officials, called for restrictive policies regarding immigration, and by 1891 the full-scale control of immigrants had begun. In 1892 Ellis Island opened to screen immigrants (Angel Island on the west coast), and requirements for entry became more and more stringent for the next two decades. One of the loudest voices for restrictions was Senator Dillingham from Vermont (the former governor), whose first speech on the Senate floor in 1902 started the debate over restricting Chinese immigration. (See “A Brief History of Immigration and Naturalization in the U.S.”)

Because of new immigration laws, the World Wars, and the Great Depression, immigration ground to halt in the 1930s. During that decade, more people emigrated from the country than entered, and Vermont’s population growth slowed once again. The 1930s also marked another turning point: from that decade to the present the majority of immigrants have been women. During this time of slow emigration from Europe, industries again turned to African Americans and women to bolster the labor force, and the “Great Migration” of blacks from south to north took place. After the World Wars, however, when immigration again stepped up, women and blacks again felt extreme discrimination against them in the labor force. It was no accident that the sixties marked increased activities to gain equal rights for these groups. Today both old and new immigrants continue to close the gap between the ideals of justice and equality in our founding documents and the reality of everyday life.

Adapted from Guyette, E.A. (1992). Behind the white veil: A history of Vermont’s ethnic groups. In Many cultures, one people: A multicultural handbook for teachers. Middlebury: Vermont Folklife Center, 17-27.

 

Resources

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