When one recalls that families were large at that time, and that it has always been customary for wage earners to spend their daily wage and to accumulate little "capital," one can estimate the difficulties in the way of leaving city life for the frontier. Danhof states explicitly in summary of his heavily documented study on farm-making costs and the "safety-valve" that eastern "mechanics themselves participated in the migration only on a small scale." 49 The labor battalions which characterized the development of transportation and city building in the West were the exploited Irish and southeastern immigrants whose fate was not a happy one.Next Page
Of course, a certain number of regular laborers shared in the development of the earlier West. In the cattle country they were cow-hands, called cowboys in later fiction. In the Cotton Belt they were black slaves. In the lumber industry there were many woodsmen and mill-hands. And there were silver, gold, and coal miners in the hills. But no mention of these groups reminds one of equality in social relations in the West, or of advancement into high places. Only in the smaller towns, so long as plumbers and carpenters were few and building materials were cheap, was it quite common to see these types of workers living in some of the better houses, a phenomenon that excited great enthusiasm among those who described the passing events.
It is one thing to see a situation in which there are no "disgusting army of paupers, not even beggars," as one observer put it; it is quite another thing to find those who do the work of the world sitting in the seats of dignity and respectability. In fact, since social distinctions are both ubiquitous and relative, it is impossible that any large percentage of persons rose to significantly higher social status. From and institutional point of view they did not.
The Scotch-Irish. The so-called proof of excellent opportunity in America frequently hinges upon the success of persons of "obscure" backgrounds, especially the Scotch-Irish. Who were these commoners who had made up the bulk of the north Irish population? Did they come to America as indentured servants? Did these people who filtered down into the mountains of East Tennessee and later emigrated westward, carrying their Presbyterianism with them, furnishing much religious, political, and economic leadership wherever they went, come from the servant classes? Or were they the same types of people as the Pilgrims and Puritans? Did they have educational backgrounds? Was it their nationality or their class that enabled them to "rise?"
Ford, who made an extensive study of the Scotch-Irish, shows that they did not come over as servants. He quotes the correspondence between two prominent Connecticut citizens in 1718 to this effect: " . . . and likewise pray tell him he is much out of the way to think that these Irish are servants. They are generally men of estates, and come over hither for no reason but upon encouragement sent from hence upon notice given that they should have so many acres of land given them gratis and settle our frontiers as a barrier against the Indians." 50 This same writer, in another place says: "There are none to be sold; have all paid their passages sterling in Ireland." In leaving Ulster they had "brought testimonials of their good standing in the places where they lived." 51
49. Danhof, op. cit., p. 358.
50. Henry James Ford, The Scotch-Irish in America (Princeton, 1915) pp. 222 - 223.
51. Loc. cit.