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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Farm, Field and Fireside: Immigrant Labor

A subject guide that examines the history of immigrants as farm and rural industry laborers from approximately 1890 to 1920.


"As we have said before, the immigrants that we are receiving do not belong entirely to the desirable class." (1)

Throughout U.S. history, immigrants have often been the target of fear and suspicion, especially during periods of economic stagnation. In the mid-1800's, these fears were principally founded on the belief that immigrant attitudes and customs would wear away the distinctive features of the dominant -- and presumably homogenous -- culture. (2) For example, the arrival of more than 250,000 Irish immigrants between 1820 and 1840, most of them Catholic, caused many in the largely Protestant population to become convinced of "papal schemes" to control American society. Samuel F.B. Morse's Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (1834) and Lyman Beecher's A Plea from the West (1835) were two such attempts to link Catholicism, about which Americans were already suspicious, to immigration, which they had previously thought beneficial. (3)

In the 1850s, during just such a period, a coalition of "nativists" calling themselves the Know-Nothing Party took over many political offices in the United States, and tried to restrict immigration, delay naturalization, and limit the political rights of foreign-born (especially Catholic) Americans. Although these tensions died down during and after the Civil War, they flared up again in the 1870s, when the economy was in yet another slump and there was a rapid increase in immigration from China and southern and eastern Europe. (4) Nativist thought then changed in a fundamental way, veering away from anti-Catholic suspicion and towards racism. (5)

In the Farm, Field, and Fireside collection you will sometimes find direct references to these movements, but, much more frequently, you will encounter expressions of the fears that underlay them.

Ethnicity and Nationalism from Farm, Field, and Fireside

"Present Status of the Immigrant Question", Illinois Farmer, June 1, 1862.

"America for Americans," Farm, Field, and Stockman, August 27, 1887.

"That American Party," Farm, Field, and Stockman, September 3, 1887.

"Undesirable Immigrants," Farmers' Review, May 6, 1896.

"Work for Idle Aliens", Prairie Farmer, August 22, 1907

Search Strategies

Begin by using terms related to the nativist movements, such as Know Nothing, American Party, or America for Americans.

Very often in the Farm, Field, and Fireside collection, you will find concern about the "type" or "class" of immigrant arriving in the country.  Although the majority of people were open to immigration, especially farmers eager for cheap labor, they also believed that only a certain kind of immigrant should be allowed to emigrate: the hard worker eager to become an American.  So, first, try combining some of the terms for immigrant mentioned in the previous section with words like idle, undesireable, illiterate, or pauper, and then try Americaniz*.  You might also want to search for particular immigrant groups.  For example, there were especially large concentrations of Germans, Irish, and eastern European immigrants in Illinois. (6)


(1) "Farmers and Immigration", Prairie Farmer, February 2, 1905.

(2) John Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North American Immigration (Facts on File, 2005), s.v. "nativism."

(3) Todd Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know-Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 9.

(4) Encyclopedia of North American Immigration, s.v. "nativism."

(5) John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1955), 131.

(6) Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 209.