How did immigrants know to come for land?
June 8, 2010 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Many early 19th century immigrants came to America for the opportunity to own land. How did they learn it was available?

Laborers on the small farms that comprised large Scottish estates in the early 19th century (like my ancestors) had no hope of ever owning their own land. It’s easy to see why they would have been attracted to life in America. I want to know how.

Was it primarily word-of-mouth, perhaps in the form of letters from those who had gone before? Were there published reports on the availability of land? Was there printed advertising from shipping companies seeking passengers? Or, did the idea of going to America in order to have your own land simply become known as “the thing to do”?

Bonus points for links to historical sources.
posted by John Borrowman to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Was there printed advertising from shipping companies seeking passengers?

This was a large part of it. I know I've seen some preserved fliers/inserts on the internet before.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 3:45 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

here is one printed by the Ontario Department of Immigration.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 3:47 PM on June 8, 2010

In the case of my family, one relative had already immigrated to the US from Ireland before the potato famine and had enlisted in the army. Because of his service he was given a large grant of land in Gallatin County, Illinois. He contacted his relatives, and during the famine they all came. So they found out about the opportunity through personal connections.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:49 PM on June 8, 2010

Panna Maria, Texas, was started by Polish immigrants in the 1850s.
posted by mdonley at 3:54 PM on June 8, 2010 is one printed by the Ontario Department of Immigration.

Yes. Be sure to include Canada (especially Nova Scotia) in your definition of "America" when researching "land grants" offered to Scottish emigrants of the 19th. and 18th. centuries.
posted by ericb at 3:56 PM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Canada at least there were printed advertisements for land, especially out west. Also, a lot of it spread through word-of-mouth in specific communities like the Mennonites or Doukhobors which were pretty tight-knit groups.

This article mentions that in some cases the UK government of the day paid to emigrate Highlanders from Scotland to Canada. Also:

"In the late 1810s around 4,000 Scottish handloom weavers, victims of the post-Napoleonic depression and the invention of the powerloom, were assisted to Upper Canada by a combination of government subsidies and the funds raised by 35 emigration societies that sprang up in Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire. (9) Half a century later, the Victorian commitment to evangelical philanthropy spawned a clutch of emigration societies, devoted to the care and relocation of disadvantaged women, unemployed artisans and destitute children. The Aberdeen Ladies' Union (1883-1914) was one of a number of small organisations that attempted to meet Canada's incessant demand for domestic servants, with the objective of redressing the imbalance of the sexes in both locations, offering recruits better employment prospects than were available at home, and providing supervised passages for a category that might otherwise hesitate to cross the transatlantic border into the unknown."

Some examples of ads for Settlers to Canada.

This page shows a booklet which was distributed in Welsh & Gaelic to prospective immigrants. Somewhat obviously, these were distributed in Wales and Scotland, respectively.

The site has a number of ads from the 1920's as well, but these are more generically British and not specifically English vs Scottish vs Welsh. But here's an example from 1926 that lists specific offices recruiting women for household work that includes Aberdeen.

In the USA it was probably a very different story.
posted by GuyZero at 3:57 PM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Was there printed advertising from shipping companies seeking passengers?

posted by GuyZero at 3:58 PM on June 8, 2010

In addition to posters and pamphlets from the Canadian government there were also books published such as the ones by Catherine parr trail and Susanna Moodie (and their brother whose name escapes me) in the early 1800s. From my reading though, yes a lot of it was personal word of mouth - just like today. Also, individual people like Peter Robinson arranged groups. In Quebec, there were the filles de Roi. Canada also got a lot of soldiers after their tenure in the colonies and loyalists to settle too by offering them a lot more free land. Wasn't there also one man named Penn that pretty much arranged the settlement of Pennsylania by Quakers?

I assume by "America" you mean the continent.
posted by saucysault at 4:05 PM on June 8, 2010

In the book The Worst Hard Time the author talks about flyers being sent to Russia for immigrants to move to the Kansas plains. The Russians were targeted because the climate was supposed to be similar and in fact they did bring hard winter wheat that now grows in much of Kansas. I don't have the book now or I would give you more information, but I remember there was at least one chapter on how the immigrants found out and subsequently moved to America.
posted by aetg at 4:37 PM on June 8, 2010

The book The Children's Blizzard talks about how German & Scandinavian immigrants found their way to the Dakotas, and there was definitely an advertising component to it. It's been a bit since I read the book, but I seem to remember there being fake "letters home" that were printed as ads. (Fake, btw, even so far as to radically exaggerate the livability/farmability of the Great Plains.) I want to say that it was less the shipping companies than it was "chamber of commerce" type groups trying to encourage settlement of specific states, counties or cities. (I also seem to remember there being some pressure to downplay the severity of the weather in actual printed weather reports, but I might just being inventing that bit.)

Then also once one person from a town or family had come over, they were likely to write back to family still in Europe. There were several instances in the book of a single family's emigration leading to a whole extended family -- or even village -- picking up and moving over.
posted by epersonae at 5:01 PM on June 8, 2010

Depending what part of Scotland your ancestors were from, and when they came across, they may not have had an choice in their emigration. Read up on The Highland Clearances.

My favourite historian on the subject is Dr. James Hunter. Though most of his books devote large parts to emigration to North America and beyond, A Dance Called America, is dedicated to the subject
posted by IanMorr at 6:20 PM on June 8, 2010

Best answer: This website from the Balch Institute has several "immigrant guides," which were published guides to America written for potential immigrants.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:08 PM on June 8, 2010

My ancestors came over in the late 1600s from Waterford, Ireland. They were Scots-Irish, having fled persecution in Scotland (where they had been Highlanders). William Penn converted them to Quakerism ("Society of Friends") when he visited Ireland in 1678.

Four years later, they were encouraged by Penn to set sail for the New World and become part of his Penn colony in what is now Delaware. In the 1740s, their progenitors moved down to Loudon County, VA, where they later fought in the Revolutionary War (and sadly, owned slaves).

So my ancestors were specifically recruited in person to come to live here by a religious mentor who also needed strong and eager settlers for his new colony.
posted by darkstar at 7:09 PM on June 8, 2010

*progenitors descendants
posted by darkstar at 7:11 PM on June 8, 2010

"Neither the state nor the railroads was willing to simply wait for the settlers to arrive. Each company and the state itself (often working in concert) set up immigration bureaus and published pamphlets and placed newspaper ads to attract settlers. These circulated not only in the United States but also in Canada and throughout Europe."
From Minnesota by John Radzilowski (2006)
Here is an example of such an ad from 1876.
posted by exphysicist345 at 9:15 PM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: All sorts of information about the migration publicity business, for the US (different areas at different times) as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and even (later, and to different audiences) Siberia and Manchuria is scattered through James Belich's excellent new book Replenishing the Earth. Belich argues that this kind of publicity--boosterism, basically--was part of a major cultural shift that turned permanent long-distance emigration and settlement from something that was done by force to convicts and slaves, or done voluntarily by the desperate, to something that the ambitious go-getter did by choice. Though he also argues that for it to take hold, such publicity needed to build on 'trustworthy' private correspondence. That is, boosters could make as many extravagant claims as they liked about the availability and productivity of land in Iowa/California/New South Wales/the North Island, but it was only when the trickle of early settlers started writing letters home confirming that it really was a better life that a settlement boom could take off. (He then explains what happens when those successive booms inevitably busted, but that's another story.)

If you're interested in this kind of stuff, you should find this book fascinating. It's big, its themes are big, and it's an impressively good read. And you'll find copious references in it to other works and to primary sources.

Brief word with the author at the Page 99 Test; 'book of the week' in the Times Higher Education a while back.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:21 PM on June 8, 2010

Durr, I see you're specifically asking about early 19th Century settlers. Sorry.
posted by darkstar at 9:28 PM on June 8, 2010

Or, did the idea of going to America in order to have your own land simply become known as “the thing to do”?

Don't discount the popular consciousness here. In many ways European demographics were in crisis, and America's frontier was effectively Europe's frontier. It was the internet of its day. My patrilineal line comes from Hesse, and there was a broad migration from Hesse in the early 19th century, spurred along by local enthusiasm such as the dream of Johannes Neeb.

encountered a long trek of emigrant families passing through his village. This scene moved him so much that in the following night he dreamt that he was relocated to an unknown land. Neeb wandered around and finally came to a signpost with names of places he knew well: Mannheim, Oppenheim, Mainz, Darmstadt, and Alzey.... Soon afterwards he met a man who introduced himself as the Justice of the Peace of Oppenheim on the Ohio River. In fluent German he told Neeb that many immigrants from Rheinhessen had settled in the area and that they were living happily....

Neeb's story, which was published in 1821 under the title Neu-Deutschland in Amerika, had a basis in fact. Since the late 1600s, people from his area in the northern part of the old Palatinate, later known as Rheinhessen, had emigrated to Eastern Europe and North America.... Neeb's dream also makes clear that people in Rheinhessen knew that there were settlements overseas where people from their immediate area clustered and which were a magnet for later emigrants....

As in most parts of Central Europe, population growth had been immense within the previous 25 years. The number of Rheinhessians had increased by one-quarter, which posed severe problems to an agrarian area where it was common practice among peasants to divide up their land in equal shares among their heirs (Realteilung). Emigration was regarded by many middle class families as the only remedy against impoverishment, especially after a series of crop failures in the 1840s.

America, and the Americas generally, had thus been part of widespread knowledge for at least two centuries -- and by the time of peak emigration, many people were aware of personal connections already there or at least of culturally compatible communities they could go to.

In my own family's case, the first to go was (said to be) a younger brother who could not hope to inherit land, and whose profession of carpenter faced stiff competition and "closed shop" tactics by local carpentry guilds. Crossing the ocean was almost his only choice.
posted by dhartung at 9:53 PM on June 8, 2010

Response by poster: Some terrific stuff. Thanks, MeFites.

Am familiar with the clearances; though that was primarily Highlanders. My ancestors were from south of Edinburgh, nearer the Borders. Research continues, though detail is sketchy and anecdotal in nature. Absent specifics about them, I am interest in the context of the times.

Thanks, again.
posted by John Borrowman at 2:52 PM on June 9, 2010

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