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Telling the Whole Story: Irish Americans in Five Points

In this activity students gather and analyze data from the 1855 census of the Five Points neighborhood. Students compare stereotypes of Irish immigrants with evidence from the census. Then students compare their census research with other primary sources describing life in Five Points to conclude how accurate different types of sources about urban immigrant life are. Students will need access to the internet to complete this activity.

Objectives

  • Students will be able to describe different aspects of immigrant life Antebellum America, including labor, family, and politics.   

  • Students will determine the accuracy of 19th century stereotypes about Irish immigrants by analyzing census data and primary sources.  

  • Students will analyze different types of primary sources, including newspaper reports, letters, and quantitative data.

  • Students will differentiate among the types of evidence offered by various primary sources and be able to describe the potential biases in the sources.  

Instructions

Step 1: (Optional) Introduce students to the Five Points census database website. (See Understanding the 1855 Census Database activity for instructions and handouts explaining the categories in the census.) Review with students what a census is and what a stereotype is.  

Step 2:  Divide the students into groups of four and assign each group one stereotype to investigate: labor, family, and politics. (It is okay to have more than one group working on each stereotype.) Give students in each group the correct worksheet and the "Explanation of 1855 Census Categories" handout. In their groups, students should read through the stereotype about Irish immigrants described at the top and review the questions.  

Step 3:  Working with the online census database, students should answer the questions on the worksheet. In their groups or individually, students should consider how the evidence confirms or contradicts the stereotype and write a paragraph about their conclusions. Students should cite evidence from the census to support their conclusions.  

Step 4:  After the groups have reviewed the census data, hand out the four documents to each group. In their groups, students review the documents to further test their conclusions. Students should examine each primary source, answering the questions on the graphic organizer.  

Step 5:  Each group member should choose one document and individually write a paragraph comparing it with conclusions gathered from the census data. After writing the group should discuss what each member wrote and decide which piece of evidence best supports their census conclusions.  

Step 6:  Reconvene the whole class. Ask members from each stereotype group to report to the whole class about what the stereotype they investigated was, how they used the census to investigate its accuracy, their conclusions from the stereotype, and the primary source document that best helps support their conclusions. Possible discussion questions include:

  • What does the census data tell us about life in the Five Points? If we did not have the census records, what would we know (or not know) about the Five Points?  

  • How does the source of the primary sources affect their reliability?  

  • Were some sources better for gathering facts and some sources better for making inferences? If so, which ones? What conclusions can you draw about using quantitative data (like the bank records or the census) versus written records (like the letters or the newspaper reports)? 

Historical Context

Antebellum New York City had several neighborhoods that struggled with poverty and crime, but the Five Points district was something new in urban America: a slum that lay in the very center of a city. And so the community readily attracted attention, much of it unfavorable. By the early 1830s, the city's papers vied with each other to portray the district in sensational tones. The New York Mirror, for example, called the neighborhood a "loathsome den of murders, thieves, abandoned women, ruined children, filth, misery, drunkenness and broils" (May 18, 1833). Likewise, another reporter attributed the "vice and crime" he perceived in the neighborhood to the residents' inherited "wickedness" (Sunday, May 29, 1834). 

The lives and history of those at the bottom of American society, such as the mostly immigrant residents of the Five Points, are rarely told. And when historians or journalists do address the poor, the discussions have too often reflected the views of those at the top of society. But to understand America and how it has grown and changed, we need to see our society from all points of view. Because working people seldom leave behind the kinds of records that the wealthy generate (speeches, sermons and memoirs, for example), their stories must sometimes be told through other kinds of sources. Careful use of quantitative information, such as the census, can frequently allow us to reconstruct the lives of those whose voices might otherwise not be heard. 

To paint a more comprehensive picture, this activity asks students to investigate social conditions in Five Points by examining the 1855 New York State census and other pieces of evidence. Students will use census data, bank records, emigrant letters and newspaper articles to assess the accuracy of a number of then-current notions about Five Points.

It may be helpful for students (or the instructor) to become familiar with the Five Points census database first.  See the short lesson Understanding the 1855 Census Database to familiarize participants with the database.  

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Telling the Whole Story: Irish Americans in Five Points,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1497.

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