19th Century Immigration

Immigration and mortality in cities of Massachusetts in the 19th century

John Nah, December 2014


The nineteenth century was the time of massive population growth in the American history. More people immigrated to this country from different places during the 19th century, increasing the population twice as much as it was. The greatest problem that immigrant faced was that of mortality. As these new immigrants moved in, they experienced a high rate of mortality in their new land. Up to this date we still do not understand why these immigrants were hit by such a high mortality rate. In this paper we will be looking at and answering the question why was mortality rate high among the new immigrants and why these rates were high in Massachusetts especially. What were the problems that led to high mortality rate? Was this because of poor health or the climate condition? How did the immigrants handle these problems and when and to what extent did the mortality rate decrease?


The industrial revolution began to develop in more cities in the area around Massachusetts and urban towns around. These towns grew into cities as industrialization sparked and urban dwellers migrated from rural areas to these large cities to work and support their families. The large migration of these rural dwellers to these urban cities, caused the increase and demand for cheap housing in some cities and towns as industrialization sparked. In turn this led to poorly built homes that were inadequately prepared to provide facilities for personal hygiene. Therefore immigrant workers lived in very poor tenement housing that regularly lacked basic amenities such as running water, ventilation and toilets. These conditions were the cause of the spread of bacteria and infectious diseases. Without organized sanitation systems, bacteria can easily be passed from one person to the other. As a result of this many cities in Massachusetts, like for example Northampton and Holyoke, were affected during the mid and late nineteenth century.

Wealth and mortality in the cities of Massachusetts in the 19th century have remained higher than it was expected, especially in the urban areas, according to researchers. Researchers believe that the theory of uniform mortality transition has given people the view that the decline rate of mortality will depend on the complex set of local conditions and experiences. This essay examines the population growth and ecological conditions by assessing how these can cause an impact on family’s wealth, mortality risk and the immigration pattern on an individual level, especially in cities like Northampton and Holyoke. The populations of immigrants in the industrial cities like Northampton and Holyoke have tried to lower mortality because of the healthy immigrants and healthy workers effects. It is sometimes believed that immigrant populations flooding into urban communities bring with them ill health and poverty. These conditions might have been thought to be responsible for high mortality conditions in the cities and towns. The level of wealth inequality and the poor conditions of immigrants have contributed to the impoverished conditions of the lower economic class of immigrants. Cities like Holyoke and Northampton exhibited a pattern of initial increase in the poverty level and this is followed by some other cities in Massachusetts.

Mortality Complexity

There has been a decline of mortality in the United States since the 1870s, followed by a very dramatic change. Life expectancy improved from 47 to 51.5 percent from 1880 to 1900, as the infant mortality rate dropped from about 225 deaths per 1,000 live births in the 1880s to 114 in the 1910s. According to Maris Vinovskis, a decline in urban mortality played a major role in the transition. Mortality increased by 20 percent in the United States cities with about 5,000 to 24,999 inhabitants and also increased by 30 percent in urban cities of 25,000 inhabitants compared to smaller cities. This trench has changed the impact in different age groups, sex groups and immigrant groups. Nineteenth century researchers on mortality have recently clarified some of the effects of mortality and the importance of standard of living within this mortality transition. A key issue to many of these major studies were the estimations that are associated with household/family, socioeconomic and the public health variables and rates of infants or childhood mortality. The efforts to understand the relationship of wealth and health in the United States are hampered because the census bureau has stopped collecting data during the critical years of the nineteenth century mortality transition period. This resulted in what is called the “Dark Age of America”. However, more studies have linked specific individual wealth assessments in Massachusetts to individual mortality during the critical period or assess these relationships in the context of urban industrial growth and immigration. We know that Northampton and Holyoke population changed between the 1850s and the 1910s due to industrial growth, as the economy transitioned from a rural market to a more mixed industrial, agricultural and commerce and governmental. These cities’ population grew from 3,249 in 1850 to 59,732 in 1910 due to the influx of new immigrants. The wave of immigration was transnational and it affected the composition of these two cities in Massachusetts over time. Unskilled immigrants fueled by the transitional movement of this population helped to sustain a remarkable level of inequality in these two urban cities in Massachusetts. Northampton had a higher mortality rate initially at 15 deaths per 1, 000 inhabitants with a peak around 35 per 1,000 in the early 1860s and mid-1870s.

According to the data source from computerized linkage of sample from census records from each of these two cities, show us that between 1850 and 1910, the death record were very high. After the linkage, the data file contains 50.137 linked census rates.

During the nineteenth century, population and mortality data were relatively easy to come because of the setting that is compared with data of wealth. Income was one of the widely used data on socio-economic status and income based measurement.

There is a similar pattern in the early 21st century. According to statistics, the overpopulation of the America’s annual population was blamed on the immigrants and their population growth which increased from 1 percent to 14.7 percent in early 2000. The immigrant population helped to increased our demographic diversity and made us what we are today.

If we are blaming our immigrants on the increase on mortality that will not be fair and very unjust. The 1900 was a challenge for immigrants as they migrated to the new land, this was the main cause of the high mortality rate during the early days. Today immigrants are faced with the issues of documents and citizenship. It has become a challenge as more Americans think that it will be better to close our borders and stop immigrants from coming here. If we as a nation are a part of the global community, how can we do this? Border control can be possible for a better outcome.


[1] Susan Hautaniemi Leonard, Jeffrey K. Beemer, and Douglas A. Anderton, “Immigration, Wealth and the ‘Mortality Plateau’ in Emergent Urban-Industrial Towns of Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts,” National Institutes of Health Author Manuscripts, published 5 December 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3650859/.

[2] Daniel Griswold, “Immigrants Have Enriched American Culture and Enhanced Our Influence in the World,” orig. pub. Insight, 18 February 2002. http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/immigrants-have-enriched-american-culture-enhanced-our-influence-world.

[3] Ted Brackemmyre, “Immigrants, Cities and Disease: Immigration and Health Concerns in Late Nineteenth Century America,” US History Scene, 13 August 2012. http://www.ushistoryscene.com/uncategorized/immigrantscitiesdisease/.

Further Reading

For recent statistics, see the “Massachusetts Immigrants by the Numbers,” 2nd. ed., 2009 American Community Survey

Worcester State University Fall 2022