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Exploring Immigration to Vermont through Death Records: How Immigration Changed a Vermont Town

By Beth on January 8, 2014 in Flow of History
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Author: Jerry Desmarais, Spaulding High School, Barre, VT
Grade Level: 9-12
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Historical Context

  • Theme: Gathering and Interactions of Peoples, Cultures, and Ideas: Immigration 1875-1920
  • Era: The Development of Modern America (1865 to 1920)
  • Freedom and Unity Link: Arrivals and Departures

Essential Questions: How did immigration affect the lives of Vermonters in the late 1800s?

Background Information:
Immigration to Vermont: 1840 to 1930
Barre, Vermont was chartered in 1780 and first settled in 1788. Its first white residents were frontier farmers and in most respects it became a typical Vermont farming town. The population soon grew to about 2,000, slightly larger than average, mainly because of its location on a junction of an ancient Indian trail and some of Vermont’s earliest roads. The granite business began in Barre in the early 1800s, but was not a major factor in the town’s economy until the railroad arrived in 1875. In the following years the industry and the town’s population took off, growing to 10,000 within ten years, and peaking at over 15,000. Vital statistics, particularly death records, are excellent tools with which to study the effects of this population growth, allowing students to use a primary source to answer such questions as these:

  • What immigrant groups were moving to Barre?
  • Where did they live?
  • Who was dying, and what were the most common causes of death?
  • Does the death record indicate any unusual trends for
    • ethnic groups
    • age groups
    • geographic areas (wards)?
  • What might be the causes of these trends?

Materials/Primary Sources:
Vital statistics such as death records can be found and copied at your Town Clerk’s Office or City Hall. I included scans of the Barre Death Records I used, along with Excel database file copies of the records:

  • deathrecord-1.jpg
  • deathrecord-2.jpg
  • deathrecord-3.jpg
  • deathrecord-4.jpg
  • Barre 1875Excel.xls
  • Barre 1895Excel.xls
  • A worksheet to accompany the 1895 spreadsheet data (BarreWorksheet.doc)
  • Data Entry Form (Barre Data Entry.doc)
    (To print the spreadsheets, you will need access to the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program.)

Activity Plan:
Print and distribute several copies of original death records, along with copies of the Data Entry Form.

Have students work in pairs and divide the entries among the class. Have them transcribe the record onto the spreadsheet data entry form. This will give them a feel for the work of historians. The names are unfamiliar, the handwriting sometimes illegible, and the copies may be unclear, but it is not impossible to extract information from these records.

Lead a discussion on the contents of the record to this point. What is unusual, noteworthy, or interesting? There are a few unusual causes of death, but most likely students will pick up on the large number of children on the list. There are 16 school districts in Barre. I had my students count the total number of deaths and make a guess as to the average age of death.

Pass out the spreadsheet version of the 1875 death record (Jerry D 1875Excel.xls). This may clear up some questions about the handwritten version. At this point, distribute the 1895 spreadsheet along with the worksheet provided and have students examine the complete record for 1895. Ask them to look for significant changes that may have occurred over this 20 year period.

The worksheet for the 1895 death register directs students’ attention to a number of factors which may be used to judge the quality of life in Barre in 1895 and the changes that had taken place since 1875 as the population grew from 2,000 to 10,000. Some of the tasks can be divided and the results shared with the class, such as the death rate, the average age of death, and the figures for the individual wards.

Teacher Notes:
The death record of 1895 reveals many of the growing pains experienced by Barre as the granite industry developed and its population rose. And while it makes a legitimate point about the effects of industrialization and immigration on a community, I would suggest that teachers adapt the lesson using records from their own towns. Regarding this document, most students are shocked at the number of children who died in 1895. By calculating the rate of infant mortality, students may then compare the health of Barre with the national average. (The Statistical History of the United States is an excellent source.) Surprisingly, while they appear to be dreadful, the infant mortality rate, the death rate, and the average age of death are all better than the national average.

Causes of death reveal a variety of bacterial and viral illnesses, many of which are easily cured today. Note that five children fell victim to cholera. Barre, it appears, shared a problem with most cities of this era: inadequate water supply and sewage disposal. Several private companies provided water to different areas of the city in 1895—apparently water of varying quality. There was no municipal sewage disposal at this time. Barre divided and reorganized as a city in 1895 in large part out of the need to provide these and other municipal services.

Some of the calculations on the worksheet will be somewhat time-consuming. The average age of death might be the work of one ambitious student, while small groups might tackle each of the wards. The differences between wards are striking. The record shows 10 deaths in Ward 1 at an average age of over 40, and 16 deaths in Ward 5 at an average age of only 10. Clearly, in 1895, Ward 5 was the least healthy in the city. Students often conclude that Ward 5 must be where the immigrant granite workers lived. Indeed, a number of these names are Scottish or Italian, but there are a number of Anglo-Saxon names as well. In fact, Ward 5 was home to almost all of the Italian immigrants in the early years of the granite boom, and their health suffered for Barre’s rapid growth, as did the health of their native born neighbors.

I have pursued this study with several classes and to date we have collected and analyzed the records for 1875, 1885, 1895, 1902, 1905, and 1915. We have found that the average age of death did drop significantly as Barre grew, from 36 in 1875 to 24 in 1895. Ward 5’s distinction was not to last. In 1902, the numbers were much more equitable throughout the city. A typhoid epidemic in 1916 and the influenza epidemic in 1919 found more victims in Wards 1, 2, and 3 than in Ward 5. These later records begin to show improved health for children while the effects of occupational illnesses and accidents claim more and more adult workers