Moving Beyond Rags to Riches: Using Digital History to Uncover the Lost Stories of New York’s Famine Immigrants

June 9, 2018
By: Tyler Anbinder

A new website, “Moving Beyond ‘Rags to Riches’: Using Digital History to Uncover the Lost Stories of New York’s Irish Famine Immigrants,” provides students and scholars at every level with easy access to thousands of primary source documents on the Famine emigrants’ lives in New York. It can be accessed at beyondragstoriches.orgThis is a terrific new digital history resource for scholars and students interested in American immigration history, Irish-American history, and Irish Studies.

For all of the nearly 500 immigrants whose lives are documented on the site, we begin by providing their precise birthplace in Ireland, their date of arrival in the U.S. and the name of the ship that brought them, their addresses, occupations, the names and whereabouts of their parents and siblings, and even how much money they saved (everyone documented on the site had an account at New York’s Emigrant Savings Bank). Then we also provide census records, other government documents, the bank records, and news accounts that document their lives.  Almost all the immigrants featured on the site were tracked for fifteen or twenty years after their arrival in America, and many were traced to 1880 or later, even if they moved to different parts of the United States (or, in a few cases, back to Ireland). Images of each government document we found, and transcriptions of news accounts and obituaries, are included for each immigrant.

To make the site easy for students to use, we created twenty-nine “curated document sets,” each of which leads the user to the documents for twenty or more  immigrants. Students can choose from among choices like “Immigrants from County Donegal,” “Irish Immigrant Saloonkeepers,” “Irish Immigrant Domestic Servants,” or immigrants living in “New York’s Five Points.” They will also enjoy our library of maps and photographs relating to Irish immigrant life in New York. We even suggest paper topics (both short and long) that can be addressed through use of the documents, though we recognize that you may come up with your own to best suit your students and your courses. Written and video tutorials on how to use the documents to better understand immigrant life will be posted to the site.

More ambitious researchers, of course, can skip past the curated document sets and comb through any or all of the 500 featured immigrants. We make that easy by providing a spreadsheet listing each one and their various attributes so that users can create their own subset of immigrants  based on their own interests. The possibilities are almost limitless. And the most determined researchers can use the site to access our Excel databases containing all our findings on the nearly 11,000 Irish immigrants who opened accounts at the Emigrant Bank from 1850 to 1858.

“Moving Beyond ‘Rags to Riches'” is the result of a collaboration of myself, economic historians Cormac Ó Gráda  and Simone Wegge, genealogist Janet Wilkinson Schwartz, and several dozen student researchers at George Washington University. I hope you will take a look at the site and recommend it to your students and colleagues.

Tyler Anbinder

Tyler Anbinder is a professor of history at the George Washington University. His most recent book, City of Dreams (2016), is a history of immigrant life in New York City from the early 1600s to the present.

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