By Glenn Leach
Aside from the slave trade, immigrants of the past came to this country for the same reasons today’s immigrants do: political and religious tolerance, conditions at home and economic opportunity. Of these, economic opportunity remains the main reason for immigration.
From 1830 to 1890, land was plentiful and cheap and jobs exceeded supply due to a declining birth rate and increasing urbanization. In 1830 land was $1.25 an acre, and by 1840 farmers were 69 percent of the work force. The Irish potato famine of 1845, caused by a blight, became a disaster under British rule because Irish Catholics could not own land, creating large numbers of rented farms of only a few acres. The largely single-crop small farms could not feed their tenants. Irish fleeing starvation and the German revolution in 1848 contributed to heavy immigration in 1845-1855. By 1890 frontier settlement was essentially over and farmers were only 43 percent of the labor force.
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