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The History of New York
From early Native American cultures through WWII
© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini
Page 2

Historical Review 1.8   
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Post Revolution New York

       The American Revolution took a severe toll on New York, but the new state recovered quickly. Many loyalists left New York for England or Canada. Boundary disputes in western New York continued to cause problems until Vermont broke off and became a state in 1791. Industry and commerce increased in the 1780s and continued to grow as the century closed. The state began to wean itself away from the traditional agricultural economy and focused more on industrial production, such as textiles.

     New York was also very involved in the War of 1812, America's second victorious war with Great Britain. New York's border with Canada was a major theatre of the war. Battles took place near Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain, and in the upper Saint Lawrence Valley. Also, the towns of Lewiston, Black Rock, and Buffalo were all burned. New York farmers and merchants received a boost when the war increased the demands for goods. Battles near the border of Canada highlighted the state and country's need for a better transportation system. It became increasingly difficult and expensive to transport troops and goods overland. Also, the lack of a cheap and reliable transportation hurt the farmers in western New York because they couldn't reach the larger markets. It was soon realized that it was much easier and cheaper to haul soldiers and goods over water. The War of 1812 was paramount in stressing the importance of increased transportation and helped lead to the funding that was needed to build the Erie Canal.

     Ideas for the Erie Canal began as early as 1810, but funding was not available until 1817. Construction began on the canal in 1817 and was completed by 1825. It was regarded as a huge engineering feat and changed the dynamics of transportation in New York and all of the surrounding areas. The canals enabled rural farmers to market their goods, which increased overall commerce in the state. Before the completion of the canal, the cost of hauling one ton of freight from Buffalo to New York City was $120; on the canal it only cost $14. The canal created an economic relationship between the east and western New York, and furthered the development of the Great Lakes regions, especially Ohio. Internal migration became much easier, and with increased commerce, turned small towns into fully functioning cities.

      Soon after the completion of the Erie Canal, the railroad industry began to emerge. At first, railroads were proposed only as supplements to the canals, and until 1851, were prohibited from carrying freight. The first track in New York connected Albany and Schenectady in 1831. Soon, railroad tracks were constructed throughout the state. By mid-century, over thirty railroad companies were active in the state, over 1,600 miles of track had been laid, and over 1,000 more were under construction.(7) Like the canals, the railroads increased commerce dramatically, especially for farmers. It also changed the dynamics of farming. Agriculture, which was traditionally done for subsistence and minor profits, became a way to make a great deal of money. This transportation revolution was a direct factor in making New York a rich commercial state.

     After the revolution, the population of New York continued to grow. The growth was due in part by natural increase as well as internal migration. European immigration was not yet a major factor in the growth of the state. The domestic migration included families from Pennsylvania and New Jersey who settled in the Susquehanna Valley. Another aspect of the internal migration included many New Englanders who poured into the state after the Phelps-Gorham Purchase of 1787. This purchase of land from the Iroquois opened the northwestern part of the state for settlement by the New Englanders. The ethnicity of the New Yorkers was still heavily northern European after the revolution. Albany remained mostly Dutch. People of Dutch heritage could also be found in Kings, Queens, and Richmond Counties. Long Island's inhabitants were mainly New England in origin. Scots-Irish, German, and Swiss immigrants could be found in Orange and Ulster. New York City was very cosmopolitan for its time, but the majority of the citizens had either English or Dutch roots.

Antebellum New York

     In the decades leading to the Civil War, New Yorkers were influenced by a number of social and political movements including the Great Awakening, the temperance movement, and abolition. The strength of the temperance and abolition movements was directly related to the ideals generated by the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was a religious revival of evangelical Christians that swept through the new nation during the first thirty to forty years of the 19th century. Starting on the Tennessee and Kentucky frontiers, this emotional, optimistic revival offered converts the reassurance that all sinners could be saved by simply accepting God. This evangelicalism was most influential in New York between 1825 and 1835 when Charles Grandison Finney led revivals throughout the state. He preached in Rome, Utica, Auburn and Troy, but the height of his New York tour was the six month revival held in Rochester over the winter of 1830-1831. This revivalism was popular in manufacturing towns, among the middle class, and most importantly, among women. The Great Awakening brought increased religion into the lives of many women, who in turn used their newfound morals to call for reform. Benevolent societies became common, more people were sent around the world on religious missions, and the temperance movement begun. During the 19th century, men consumed massive amounts of alcohol. By 1830, the average American man fourteen years of age and older consumed the equivalent of 7.1 gallons of absolute alcohol each year.(8) The first temperance society in New York was organized in Saratoga County in 1808 and by 1829, there were 78 branches.

The Formation and Politics of New Netherland

          The Dutch interest in an American colony focused entirely on the fur trade. Dutch merchants financed several voyages to the Hudson River area between 1611 and 1614 to trade for furs with the Indians. The market for furs in Europe was so strong that competition forced the creation of a council that gave charters to traders that allowed them four voyages to the Hudson. A trading post was constructed by the New Netherland Company near Albany shortly after. This company was the first to refer to the area as New Netherland. The Dutch West India Company was formed in 1621, and created a trading colony in 1624. Their main forts were in Albany and New Amsterdam (present-day Manhattan). The first colonists arrived in the spring of 1624. The colony grew slowly because the majority of money and effort was invested in trade, not development. Farmers struggled as they saw the funding for the colony go to trading, instead of agriculture. Also, wars at Fort Orange (Albany) forced colonists to congregate near New Amsterdam, which lessened their influence on the frontier. To help stimulate colonization in New Netherland, the patroon system was introduced. The patroons were private agricultural fiefdoms managed by the owners and farmed by tenants. The patroons helped build a landholding aristocracy and increased colonization of non-fur traders.

     The temperance movement and other evangelical missions set the tone and created the organization necessary for the abolition movement to grow. Many of the people affected by the Great Awakening and involved in temperance embraced the abolition movement. The first state abolition society was organized in New York City in 1785. The American Colonization Society, which advocated the transport of African-Americans to Africa, gained some support in New York, but that movement deteriorated as the abolition movement accelerated during the 1830s. In 1831, an abolitionist named William Lloyd Garrison started an anti-slavery newspaper that became immensely popular and crucial to the anti-slavery cause. Garrison's newspaper, the Liberator, won over many converts in New York and led to the creation of the New York City Abolition Society in 1833. New York also served as the headquarters for the American Anti-Slavery Society. By 1834, there were over 200 local chapters in New York alone. Two schools of thought arose from the abolitionist movement; some abolitionists believed that the strategy of "moral suasion," the act of convincing slaveholders that it was morally wrong to hold slaves, was the way to end the institution. Others believed that direct political action was the only way to bring about abolition. Both abolitionist strategies furthered the progress of the movement and was very influential in the years leading up to the Civil War.

     Antebellum New York also saw the dramatic increase in European immigration as scores of Irish and German immigrants flooded into the county. New York was the major port of entry for these immigrants, and many decided to settle in New York City. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s prompted the emigration of millions to America, creating a large enclave in New York. By 1850, 26% of New York City's population was Irish. The majority of these Irish immigrants were poor and unskilled. They were forced to live in slums and took whatever jobs they could find. The sheer volume of Irish immigrants made them an integral part of the city and many became very active in politics. The Irish immigration during the years preceding the Civil War foreshadowed the mass European immigration that was to take place in the late 19th century.

The Effects of the Civil War on New York

           The Civil War affected New York in drastic ways. Although no fighting took place in the state, it was home to political and social divisions that ultimately led to the Draft Riots of 1863. There was a strong abolitionist movement in the state; however, there was an equally strong pro-slavery movement as well. Many of the pro-slavery advocates in New York feared what the end of slavery would do to them economically. Merchants who had strong ties to the south worried that war would ruin their business. Many poor working-class New Yorkers, mainly the Irish, feared that the end of slavery would flood the job market with former slaves and increase labor competition. Although there was some internal dissention, such as Major Fernando Wood who wanted the state to secede, the majority of New Yorkers sided with Lincoln when the southern states began to secede in 1861, believing that secession was illegal and the preservation of the Union was most important. New York was among the first to send militia when the war started. Over the course of the war, 465,000 New Yorkers fought for the Union Army, which was the most of any state. Also, three African American regiments were raised. Over 4,000 black New Yorkers fought for the Union; 14% of them died.

     As the war progressed, support for Lincoln fell. Voluntary enlistments failed to supply enough soldiers for the war, so a draft was called by the federal government in 1863. The draft was supported by New York Republicans who saw it as necessary, but New York Democrats fought it, believing that it was unnecessary, unconstitutional, and unfair. Democrats were also outraged by the loopholes that allowed men in certain jobs to be exempt and allowed any draftee to buy a substitute for $300. The draft went ahead in New York City without incident on July 11, 1863, but protest arose on the following Monday when factory, shop, and construction workers marched to the 9th District Provost Marshal's Office. Along the way the protestors gained more supporters, cut telegraph lines, uprooted railroad tracks, and fought policemen. Firefighters, angry that they were not exempt from the draft, set fire to the Marshal's office. The government suspended the draft in New York, but the rioting continued for a week. What started as a protest by laborers, quickly turned into a riot of unskilled workers and Irish immigrants. Targets of destruction became less associated with the war, such as brothels and German, Chinese, and Jewish property. African Americans were attacked and murdered. There were also instances of drowning, lynches, and beatings. In addition, there was over $1.5 million in property damage and 119 deaths. Nearly 450 people were arrested, 81 were tried, and 67 were convicted. The events of the Civil War intensified the hostilities of the working class and revealed the differing political opinions between New Yorkers.

Population and Immigration during New York's Gilded Age

         Between the years of 1870 and 1900, the population of New York grew forty percent. During this time, European immigration increased, especially from southern and eastern European countries. Italians, Russians, Poles, and those from the Austro-Hungarian Empire formed the bulk of the eastern European immigration to New York. Increased immigration and advanced industrialization transformed New York into a predominantly urban state. By 1900, 56% of New York's population lived in a city of at least 100,000 people. Only 27% of the population lived in rural areas.(9)

      The increase in eastern European immigration to New York was met with disdain from many native New Yorkers. These immigrants were largely Catholic or Jewish and did not speak English. Their religion and language made them seem more foreign than Protestant immigrants from northern Europe. Most of the new immigrants lived in poor enclaves and worked low-paying and labor intensive jobs. For example, most of the early Italian immigrants lived in the West Side of the city, but as immigration increased, Italians began to move into the old Irish enclave of Five Points and in the Eighth Ward.(10) Many Italians, who planned on returning to their mother country, found work as laborers, often times in the construction business. Many Polish immigrants had some industrial experience so they often found work in factories. In Buffalo, many Poles could be found working in the steel industry. In New York City, Italian and Jewish immigrants dominated the labor jobs in the clothing industry.

      The reasons eastern European immigration increased in the late 19th century varied, but in general, the immigrants had been struggling economically in Europe and wanted to take advantage of the large job market in America. For example, southern Italian immigrants fled after the unification of Italy brought higher taxes and tenant farming failed to support their families. Crop failures and competition from the United States worked against the southern Italian farmers and drove them to look for work in the cities or in America. In Russia, Jewish residents immigrated to America to flee persecution. Pogroms in 1880 through 1881 and the restriction of land ownership to Christians drove large numbers of Jews to America. This vehement anti-Semitism prompted one-third of all the Jews in the Russian Empire to emigrate between the years of 1881-1914. The mass immigration of immigrants to America created a large foreign population in New York and helped increase the state's cosmopolitan image.

The Legacy of Ellis Island

     It is difficult to imagine New York and mass immigration without the image of Ellis Island. Between the peak immigration years of 1901 and 1914, three-quarters of all immigrants to America passed through Ellis Island. Over 40% of the American population can trace an ancestor who came through Ellis Island. The immigration station is so closely associated with late 19th century and early 20th century immigration that it important to examine its history in order to understand its legacy.

     Generally, Ellis Island was known for processing, detaining, and inspecting immigrants. Reports of brutality and uncomfortable medical examinations on Ellis Island were not uncommon. The immigrants were generally asked 32 questions regarding their name, place of origin, occupation, literacy skills, and amount of money they carried. Immigrants recounted their experience on the island differently, some positive, some negative. One immigrant reported his experience at Ellis Island as follows:

     Immigration officials slammed a tag on you with your name, address, country of origin, etc. Everybody was tagged. They didn't Ask you whether you spoke English or not. They took your papers, and they tagged you. They checked your bag. Then they pushed you and they'd point, because they didn't know whether you spoke English or not. Understaffed. Overcrowded. Jammed. And the place was the noisiest, the languages, and the smell. Foul, you know what I mean? But I was nineteen. You can stand a lot at nineteen. Then we had to go through the physical. I think, frankly, the worst memory I have of Ellis Island was the physical because the doctors were seated at a long table with a basin full of potassium chloride, and you had to stand in front of them, and they'd ask you to reveal yourself…Right there in front of everyone.(11)

Another immigrant recounted her experience in a more positive way:

     When we reach New York, I thank the good Lord. It was early morning, the Fourth of July…Everybody had a suitcase, dragging their suitcase, and I remember the first meal they gave to us at Ellis Island. They give us a sandwich, white bread with a piece of ham and it tasted so good. It tasted like a nice piece of cake. That was something new for me. I never seen sandwiches in Sicily. They examined if you had lice on your head. If they did they shaved your hair. I remember that. There was a lot of bald people.(12)

     Ellis Island was the first federal immigration station. It was built to replace the state-operated Castle Garden. A new facility was needed to enforce the growing amount of immigration laws. Between 1875 and 1885, laws were passed that excluded the immigration of criminals, prostitutes, Chinese people, and contract laborers. Later, anarchists were excluded (1903), and illiterates in 1917. Ellis Island, originally built of wood, opened in the beginning of 1892. Immigrants were processed on the island until the facility burned down in 1897. While the new fireproof structure was under construction, immigrants were processed at the Barge Office. The brutality and corruption that was common at the Barge Office was carried over to the new Ellis Island facility that was opened in 1900. The designers of the station did not anticipate the massive amount of immigration America received at the turn of the century, so Ellis Island was often overcrowded. Some immigrants were detained there and some were turned away. These actions, combined with the reports of maltreatment of the immigrants, brought the attention of muckrakers and reformers. Numerous investigations of Ellis Island took place and prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to enact reforms protecting the immigrants in 1902.

     World War I brought a dramatic decrease in immigration to America, slowing down the processing rate at Ellis Island. As hysteria swept the county, suspicious immigrants were sent to Ellis Island to be detained or deported. Also, the military used some of the facility's buildings as barracks and hospitals, which caused the deterioration of many buildings. The end of World War I brought the increase in refugee immigration to Ellis Island, but restrictive immigration laws soon decreased the flow again. In 1921 and 1924, laws placed quotas on the amount of immigrants allowed from each country. These quotas lessened immigration so dramatically that Ellis Island nearly became unnecessary. During the peak of immigration in 1907, the station received 1.2 million immigrants, but by 1932, that number had been reduced to 25,000. The island became primarily a center for deportees, immigrants with problems with their documents, or immigrants in need of medical attention. Ellis Island remained the federal Immigration and Naturalization (INS) headquarters until it moved to Manhattan in 1943. Ellis Island soon became too expensive to maintain and was closed in 1954. In 1965, the immigration station became part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument run by the National Park Service.


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(7) Klein, 312.
(8) Klein, 333.
(9) Klein, 461.

(10) Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City, 1825-1863, (Port Washington, New York: Ira J. Friedman, Inc., 1965) 45.

(11) Peter Morton Coan, Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words, (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1997), 124.

(12) Coan, 45.

By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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