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Background Essay on Life in Mid-19th Century Five Points

This essay introduces Manhattan's Five Points neighborhood and the people who lived there.

The potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s spurred the migration of thousands of impoverished Irish to the United States. The new immigrants—rural, Catholic, and starving—settled in the poorest districts of large cities in the East, including in New York’s Five Points neighborhood in downtown Manhattan.

The story of Five Points sheds light on a number of important themes in nineteenth-century U.S. history. It is a window into a period—the 1850s—that marked the start of rapid change in American society, as the country became more urban, more industrialized, and, because of changes in transportation and communication technologies, more connected. Immigration is an important part of this story, both because immigrants contributed to the growing urban population and because their cheap labor fueled the factories and built the roads, canals, tunnels, and rail lines of the emerging industrial order.

Immigrant groups employed a number of strategies to survive in new homes and to challenge discrimination. Five Pointers were destitute when they arrived and settled in one of New York’s poorest and most run-down neighborhoods. On top of this, Irish Five Pointers worked for some of the lowest wages in the most dangerous and unstable jobs in the city. Statistics attest to the dire and exceptional conditions of the neighborhood: 66% of patients being treated for bone fractures in one downtown hospital were Irish, a third of children in the neighborhood did not live past their fifth birthday, and, because Irish men worked in such dangerous occupations, nearly one out of every five households in Five Points was headed by a woman. Irish immigrants arrived in the United States in an era before formal governmental aid, when private charities provided the primary—and inadequate—relief funds, meals, and training. Yet Five Pointers built strong community institutions, such as churches, saloons, and fire companies, to support each other, gain some say in local government, and shield themselves from prejudice and poverty. They created a vibrant working-class culture that helped them survive and eventually helped shape American culture as a whole.

A recurrent theme in U.S. history is the tension between Americans’ need for labor and their anxiety about new immigrant groups. Nativists in the 1840s and 1850s feared that Irish Catholics could not be assimilated. They believed immigrant culture, religion, and social customs degraded “real” American society and feared immigrants’ growing political power. Political cartoonists often expressed this fear by depicting the Irish in demeaning, stereotypical, and sub-human caricatures, similar to those that portrayed African Americans. While the Irish had more political power than other poor ethnic groups in the 1850s (African Americans were subject to property requirements in order to vote in New York) they were victims of discrimination, prejudice, and violence.

Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Life in Mid-19th Century Five Points,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/2341.

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