During the Great Wave of immigration to the United States from the 1840s to 1924, tens of thousands of immigrants came to New Hampshire from Europe and French Canada. They came largely for economic reasons, but other push-and-pull factors influenced immigration as well. As immigrants adapted to life in New Hampshire, they formed close communities with family, friends, and neighbors from the same country. Immigrants were largely met with fear and hostility, although relations between immigrants and American-born residents were smoother in New Hampshire than many other places. Immigrants have had a significant cultural impact on New Hampshire.
New Hampshire has experienced three major periods of immigration:
Early Settlement: The early settlers, mostly from England and Scotland, who migrated from the early 1600s to about 1790.
Great Wave: The period from the mid-1840s to 1924, with immigrants entering New Hampshire mainly from Europe and Canada. This period ended when the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration by instituting a quota for each European nation and prohibiting immigration from Asia.
Modern Immigration: The period from 1965 to the present, with immigrants mainly from Asia, Africa, and South and Central America. This period began with the reform of U.S. immigration law in 1965, which abandoned the quota system in favor of criteria such as family reunification and job skills.
This unit focuses on the middle period, or the “Great Wave.” Other units in this curriculum cover the Early Settlement and Modern Immigration periods.
It may be helpful to think of the Great Wave in two blocks. At about the mid-point of the Great Wave, the sources of immigration to the United States shifted, and migration to New Hampshire followed this broader national pattern. The two blocks are:
- 1840 to 1890, with immigrants mainly coming from Ireland, Sweden, and Germany; and
- 1890 to 1924, with immigrants mainly coming from Poland, Russia, Italy, and Greece.
Immigration from Canada to New Hampshire spans both of these periods.
The Great Wave of Immigration, 1840 to 1924
The rise of industrialization fueled the Great Wave. During the first half of the 19th century, the industrial revolution spread across the Atlantic from Great Britain to the United States, and specifically to New England. Soon New Hampshire was developing these new forms of technology, along with related improvements in transportation and communication. Initially, local farm girls worked in the textile mills, but as the economy expanded, the need for labor grew, and there were not enough farm girls to fill the factories. The rising demand for labor encouraged immigration.
In the first few decades of the Great Wave, between 1840 and 1860, over 4 million people—a greater number than the entire national population in 1790—immigrated to the United States. The majority of these immigrants were from Ireland and Germany, with a significant number from Scandinavia. Immigration to New Hampshire followed these national trends. For example, by 1860 more than 25% of Manchester’s population was foreign-born, and 73% of those immigrants were Irish.
French Canadians began to arrive in New Hampshire in large numbers in the 1850s, with 340,000 French Canadians immigrating between 1850 and 1900. By 1900, French Canadians represented 16% of the state's population, and one-fourth the population of Manchester.
During the second block of the Great Wave, immigration peaked around the turn of the 20th century. Between 1890 and 1920, 22.3 million immigrants arrived in the United States, propelled by poverty and unrest at home as well as plentiful jobs in new booming industries in the United States, such as coal and steel. Over 80% of these immigrants were from southern and eastern Europe, especially the Russian empire, Italy, and Greece.
Motives Behind Immigration: Push-and-Pull Factors
What would inspire someone to uproot themselves and their family, undertake a difficult journey, and start over in a new country with an unfamiliar language, customs, and laws? Historians and geographers use the terms push factors and pull factors to explain why people migrate. Push factors drive people away from their native country. Pull factors attract people to live in a particular country or region.
Push factors varied by time and place, but in general fall into two categories: economic factors and political factors.
Economic push factors include poverty, food scarcity, unemployment, and lack of educational opportunities.
For example, in the early 19th century, textile production in Germany shifted from home-based production to factory production. The new factories pushed German textile workers out of their traditional jobs. Many who did not want to take lower-paying jobs at home relocated to the United States. They took relatively high-paying positions as weavers, machinists, or loom fixers in textile mills in Manchester or Nashua. Immigrant workers with these specialized skills were highly valued, like Augustus Canis, a German immigrant, who was in charge of all the weaving departments at the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company for almost 40 years until his retirement in 1895.
Perhaps the best-known example of an economic push factor is the Great Famine in Ireland. Between 1845 and 1851, a blight destroyed the potato crop on which the Irish diet depended. One million people starved to death in Ireland during the Great Famine, and another million Irish emigrated, most to the United States.
Political push factors include political repression, lack of political freedoms, war, and religious intolerance.
For example, Jews in the Russian empire—including modern-day Poland—were harshly oppressed by the government. They were prohibited from owning land, there were restrictions on their educational and job opportunities, and most were required to live in a certain area of western Russia. Beginning in the 1880s, violence against Jews intensified, and waves of pogroms—violent mass uprisings against Jewish people—swept the countryside, leaving thousands dead and tens of thousands financially ruined. Between 1880 and 1920, 2 million Jews fled the Russian empire, with most going to the United Kingdom or the United States.
Pull factors were mainly economic, technological, and social, and can be summed up by the idea of the “American Dream”—the ideal of the United States as a place of political and religious freedom, economic opportunity, and social mobility.
Many immigrants were drawn to New Hampshire by the promise of plentiful jobs and better wages. Starting in the late 1830s, Irish-born workers began settling in Manchester and gradually replaced local farm girls in the mill yards. They were soon joined by Germans and later Greeks, Italians, Russians, and eastern European Jews. By 1916, over 25 different languages were spoken by workers in the Amoskeag mills. Textile mills in Dover, Nashua, and Rochester also attracted immigrants in search of job opportunities. Facing a labor shortage, mill owners actively recruited immigrant workers, placing ads in Quebec newspapers and sending agents to European port cities.
Other New Hampshire regions and industries also provided job opportunities for immigrants.
In the north country, immigrants from Scandinavia were drawn to the logging industry, while Russians, French Canadians, and Irish found employment in paper mills.
The town of Claremont in the Dartmouth/Sunapee region also had paper mills, as well as factories that manufactured machinery and shoes, which drew Russians and Poles.
The seacoast region had textile mills (Dover, Rochester) and shipbuilding (Portsmouth), where immigrants, especially Russian and eastern European Jews and the Irish, found employment. Greek immigrants were also drawn to the seacoast region, working in restaurants, coffee houses, and candy shops.
In addition to its textile mills, which employed immigrants from all across Europe, the Merrimack Valley’s shoe factories and granite quarries drew Swedes, Russians, and Greeks.
Improvements in transportation also pulled immigrants to the United States during the Great Wave by making travel over long distances faster and cheaper. The growth of railroads in both Europe and the United States meant that immigrants could get to port cities easier and move inland once they had arrived. In North America, the Boston-to-Montreal railroad opened in 1851, facilitating the migration of French Canadians to northern New England. Clipper ships, introduced in the 1830s, were the fastest ocean-going ships from the 1840s to the 1860s and transported many Irish and German immigrants to the United States in voyages that took around three months. By the late 19th century, the introduction of ocean-going steamships cut the transatlantic journey from three months to two weeks. The faster ocean transportation, coupled with increased railroad access, enabled immigrants from eastern Europe and Russia to travel more easily to the United States.
The Immigrant Experience in New Hampshire
Immigrants often found themselves trying to strike a delicate balance. They looked forward, trying to become American, and they looked back, trying to maintain some traditions from their homeland. To adjust to their new lives and preserve parts of their culture, immigrants clustered in their own neighborhoods and created their own institutions and organizations.
The journey to America was expensive and difficult. French Canadians traveled by horse and wagon, and later, by train. Immigrants from Europe sailed across the ocean. Immigrants who arrived by ship usually entered the United States at New York and then took another ship or a train to New England, or entered directly at the port of Boston. Those who got sick on the journey were quarantined at Deer Island in Boston harbor, where many died before they could enter the United States.
Most immigrants had to start over in America with very little. Because space was at a premium on ships, immigrants arrived with only what they could carry, leaving family heirlooms, clothing, furniture, and other prized possessions behind. Many even had to sell most of their possessions to afford the passage. Until they saved enough for their own apartments, they had to live in crowded conditions with extended family or in boardinghouses. For those who had been farmers in their home country, living in New Hampshire cities and working in industrial jobs was a completely new lifestyle.
This difficult transition was eased by recreating community and family ties in their new homes. Immigrants found comfort by living, working, and socializing with people from the same country, or even the same town or village. Often, the head of household immigrated first to establish himself and then sent for his immediate family. The extended family then followed, as well as neighbors and friends, because a support network in America was already present. Sometimes nearly entire villages would relocate to the same neighborhood in the United States.
An example is Portsmouth’s Jewish community, which was made up largely of immigrants from eastern Europe who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1910s, the Puddle Dock neighborhood, now Strawbery Banke, was the center of Jewish life in Portsmouth. This community included the extended Shapiro family. Samuel Shapiro had emigrated from Russia in 1898 and sent for his wife, Ida, three years later, around the same time that his brother Abraham also joined him in Portsmouth. Abraham later married one of Ida Shapiro’s sisters. As Portsmouth’s Jewish population increased, the Puddle Dock neighborhood included kosher butchers, Jewish grocery stores, and a Jewish bakery.
In mill towns, like Nashua, Manchester, Dover, Keene, Berlin, or Laconia, immigrants typically lived together with large extended family and others from their home country. Many also worked together in specific workrooms in the mills.
In Manchester, Park Common (renamed Kalivas Park in 1940) became the cultural center of Greek life. Many Greek immigrant families lived in the neighborhood around the park, which functioned as a town square for the Greek community, with traditional taverns, coffeehouses, and other important institutions located on streets bordering the park.
Immigrant communities also formed formal religious organizations and houses of worship, social clubs, and mutual aid societies, where they could go to speak their native language, maintain important cultural traditions, and provide charity to neighbors in need.
Mutual aid societies were member-based organizations that provided a social as well as charitable function. Members paid dues and received assistance in the case of an illness or death in the family. These organizations also granted scholarships, provided language classes for children, and hosted social functions. Some examples include L’Union St. Jean Baptiste for French Canadians in Manchester, the Polish American Citizens Club in Nashua, or the Pericles Club for Greeks in Manchester.
Perhaps the most famous organization in New Hampshire created by and for an immigrant community is La Caisse Populaire, Ste-Marie, or “the people’s bank,” now known as St. Mary’s Bank. The first credit union in the United States, La Caisse Populaire opened its doors in Manchester in 1908. It was organized by a French-Canadian Catholic priest to provide his parishioners with wider access to credit. The other banks discriminated against French-Canadian immigrants and did not extend credit to them. For just $5, the price of one share of capital stock, anyone could become a member of St. Mary’s Bank and deposit their savings or be eligible for a loan to buy a home or establish a business. Membership grew rapidly, and St. Mary’s moved from operating out of one room in the home of its first president to its own large, three-story building by 1930, when it had over $1 million in assets and several thousand members. By then, the credit union movement had spread to underserved populations in other towns and cities across the nation.
Immigrant groups often preferred to attend religious services where the priest, minister, or rabbi spoke their language. For example, Father William McDonald, born in Ireland, founded St. Anne’s parish in 1848 for Manchester’s growing Irish Catholic community. Two decades later, this pattern repeated with the creation of St. Augustin’s parish to serve the rising French-Canadian population in Manchester. St. Augustin’s was led by Quebec-born Father Joseph Chevalier.
Portsmouth’s Jewish community initially held religious services in private homes. The community organized Temple Israel, which is recognized as the first permanent Jewish house of worship in the state, in 1905. The congregation became the center of religious, cultural, and social life for its members, from Hebrew school for children to ladies’ societies that did fundraising and charity work.
For Catholic and Jewish immigrants who found themselves transplanted to overwhelmingly Protestant New Hampshire, these religious institutions not only allowed them to worship in their native language with their native traditions but ensured that they could provide religious education to their children. These faith communities were also a source of support in the face of discrimination and hostility.
Immigrants to New Hampshire created groups to preserve cultural traditions as well, such as the German Turnverein, or gymnastics clubs. The first Turnverein in New Hampshire was founded in Manchester in 1870. Its members traveled to compete with Turners in other cities and made connections in the United States beyond Manchester.
Immigrants from the same country forged these close ties even in small towns where there were not enough people or funds to create a formal organization. For example, Epping, in the seacoast region, had a relatively small Italian community in the early 1900s; just 100 to 150 people out of a population of 1,600. Most Italians in Epping came to work in the brickyards. The area around Epping’s Star Brick Yard was known as “Little Italy.” One Italian family rode the train to Portsmouth each month to purchase a large amount of Italian foods at the markets there and then returned to Epping and dispersed it among several other families.
Many immigrant groups also published newspapers in their native language, including L’Avenir Canadien (French, 1889 to 1949), Anzeiger und Post (German, 1896 to 1942), and Ergatis (Greek, 1920s and 1930s), which provided news from the old country and advice to new arrivals.
Immigrant neighborhoods—whether in large cities like Manchester or small towns like Epping—provided comfort and security. The familiar languages, customs, and foods helped new arrivals adapt to their often disorienting, crowded, and unfamiliar surroundings, while mutual aid societies helped protect members of their community in case of emergency. These networks of support, both formal and informal, also helped immigrant communities cope with the backlash from native-born Americans.
Responses to Immigration
The American melting pot was an idealized vision, not the everyday reality. While some social reformers and activists welcomed new arrivals, in general the Great Wave of immigration was met with fear and hostility from native-born Americans, although some groups fared better than others.
During the first block of the Great Wave, the primary conflict was between Irish Catholic immigrants and American-born Protestants, who stereotyped the Irish as lazy, childlike, and beholden to a foreign power, the pope, rather than American republican ideals. The Irish faced discrimination in jobs, housing, and education. Those who feared the impact of immigration on American political and social life were called “nativists,” and they blamed immigrants for urban crime, political corruption, and public drunkenness, as well as accusing them of lowering wages by being willing to work for less money. Nativists argued that the increased power of the Catholic Church and the growth of parochial schools threatened American democracy. Nativism became a national political movement in the decade before the Civil War, marked by the creation of a third political party—the Know Nothings—in 1854. Nativist politicians represented New Hampshire at national, statewide, and local levels. During the 1850s, there were also violent anti-immigrant riots in urban centers like New York and Philadelphia, as well as Manchester.
During the summer of 1854, tensions ran high in Manchester between Irish Catholic immigrants and Protestant American-born residents. At the end of June, John S. Orr, a nativist who traveled throughout the region speaking out against Catholics, paid a visit to Manchester. Orr was better known as the “Angel Gabriel” because he usually wore a long white robe and used a brass horn to attract attention. His public anti-Catholic pronouncements raised tensions in the city substantially, particularly as earlier that month, a former state representative had killed a young Irishman in the course of a street fight. Then, on the night of July 3, 1854, some Irish youths started a bonfire in their neighborhood, throwing stones and yelling at passers-by. They vandalized a building owned by a Protestant and assaulted two American-born men, prompting a false rumor to circulate throughout the city that they had killed someone. At dawn the following day a mob of mostly young, American-born men, looking for vengeance, attacked the Irish community in their homes, then marched on St. Anne’s, the only Catholic church in the city, and smashed all the windows. A Protestant neighbor of the church, John H. Maynard, persuaded the mob to disband and prevented further damage. A prominent resident known around Manchester as “Uncle John,” Maynard was the head carpenter at Amoskeag Manufacturing Company and chief engineer of the city’s Fire Department. He ran across the street from his house to the church, stood on the church steps, and quieted the crowd. Later that evening, July 4, the mob reappeared and threatened the Irish community again, but the crowd was prevented from causing too much damage by the intervention of Maynard, the police department, and the mayor.
This episode was the most violent of the anti-Irish attacks in New Hampshire during this period, but it was not an isolated incident. As early as 1831, there were attempts to burn down the first Catholic parish in New Hampshire, St. Aloysius (later St. Mary) in Dover. Three years later, a Protestant mob attacked and burned a Catholic convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Unlike anti-immigrant riots in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other large cities, however, there were no incidences of mass violence against immigrants in New Hampshire. As the Irish community grew and prospered, anti-Irish sentiment declined, and by 1879 Manchester had elected an Irish-born mayor, Civil War veteran John L. Kelley.
Still, as each new group arrived, tensions flared. In the early 20th century, Greek immigrants faced discrimination when attempting to buy property or get business loans. French-Canadians were insulted as “frogs” or “pea-soupers,” after a popular Quebecois dish, and resented for lowering factory wages, as their Irish counterparts had been a generation earlier. Many White Mountain resorts refused to allow Jewish guests until the 1940s. And today, the arrival of new Americans from Africa, Iraq, and Nepal has been controversial in some communities.
How Immigration Shaped New Hampshire
Immigrants had, and continue to have, a significant cultural impact on the Granite State. Traditions from different groups have been incorporated into New Hampshire’s culture, adding to and enriching it. Look around your town—does it have street names like Cartier, Pinard, or Laurier, which are all French surnames? Does it have a Market Basket, a regional grocery chain founded by a Greek immigrant family in 1917? Have you ever eaten poutine or baklava or a bagel?
Immigration influenced higher education in New Hampshire as well. Manchester’s Saint Anselm College, founded in 1889, was the first Catholic college in New Hampshire and is the third-oldest in New England. It was established under the auspices of Manchester’s first Catholic bishop, Denis Bradley, who had been instrumental in the creation of a separate Catholic diocese in New Hampshire. Bradley saw the need for a local Catholic college to educate his growing flock and prepare young men for the priesthood. He called upon German-speaking monks from the Benedictine order to establish the college and educate German Catholic immigrants in Manchester.
Finally, one of the Granite State’s most beloved leisure activities, skiing, was introduced by immigrants from Norway and Sweden who settled in northern New Hampshire to work in paper mills and the logging industry. Scandinavian immigrants formed the first ski club in the United States in Berlin in the 1870s, and thanks to their enthusiasm for both Nordic and downhill skiing, New Hampshire became a winter sports hub in the early 20th century.
After the Great Wave
Immigration to the United States declined after the 1924 Immigration Act, which created a quota system that limited the numbers of immigrants who could enter America from southern and eastern Europe. But the 1924 law did not place limits on immigration from Canada, so French-Canadians continued to migrate to New Hampshire throughout the 20th century. As a result, New Hampshire’s share of foreign-born population rose at a time when it was declining in the rest of the country. In 1950 foreign-born persons were 6.9% of the total U.S. population, but 10.9% of New Hampshire’s population, due to French-Canadian immigration.
Like the rest of the United States, beginning in the 1960s, immigration to New Hampshire started to increase and more and more immigrants came from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This later wave of immigration will be covered in Unit 18: Modern New Hampshire.