Baltimore thrived as a shipping port in its early years, and many unskilled Irish workers were drawn to the Fell's Point area of the city, where jobs were readily available in the support industries along the waterfront. Ships were built, outfitted, loaded, unloaded and maintained by thousands of workers. This first mega-industry in Baltimore drew many Irish, free Blacks and those who were enslaved to perform challenging physical work. It is estimated that 200,000 Irish arrived in America between 1820-1840, and a good number came to Baltimore and neighboring Fell’s Point. They rented modest homes within the St. Patrick Catholic Church parish (pictured).
The parish itself tended to the many needs of families who lived nearby, and established its own Free School by 1815. It was founded for the benefit of the local poor, and could be attended by children from white Catholic or Protestant families. Immigrant fathers and mothers, likely illiterate, saw to it that their children would not be.
The community was a diverse one, as different ethnicities and races provided workers to do the hard labor found along the docks and shipyards of Fell’s Point (image above). Sailors and workers arrived from around the world via hundreds of merchant ships that arrived, as greater Baltimore was the largest port in the mid-Atlantic. The diversity of men who lived there, or made short visits while their ships were loaded and unloaded, provided high adventure for the boys of the neighborhood who intermingled with arrivals from multiple foreign ports.
Among those who arrived was a young Frederick Bailey, who sailed to Baltimore on a barge loaded with Eastern Shore sheep headed to market. He was coming to Fells Point’s Smith’s Wharf to serve as a companion for young Thomas Auld, son of shipbuilder Hugh Auld and his pious wife Sophie. Not that he had much say in the matter; he was a slave, and was being “lent” to the Aulds by relatives in Maryland’s Talbot County.
Frederick had his own work to do, but Mrs. Auld just couldn’t help herself. Her Methodist faith told her that young Frederick had a soul that needed saving, and she began the dangerous work of teaching the young slave to read the Bible: illegal at the time. Some progress was made in Frederick’s path to literacy, but the two of them got caught by Mr. Auld, who put a stop to such efforts. He and the greater community knew that literacy was a gateway to despondency and escape for the slaves they owned, and it had to end. Mrs. Auld was eventually convinced of the risk herself, and the lessons that opened a door to literacy for young Frederick stopped entirely.
That’s when the danger began for young Frederick. Nothing could have been more frustrating for him than being able to read just a little bit. He found risky ways to get reading material through different means, and looked to the Irish boys of Fell’s Point as crude tutors of sorts. Baltimore had the largest free African American population in America, and it was not unusual to see a Black tradesman reading or deciphering drawings as part of their work along the waterfront. Frederick, however had to duck into alleys with white boys who were gaining their literacy in the classroom, and after a bit of negotiation they would help him read a newspaper he had gotten a hold of, or perhaps a pamphlet or discarded book. He exchanged a bit of knowledge for perhaps a roll or biscuit he tucked into a pocket during a meal with the Aulds, and the neighborhood boys were happy to wax professorial for a treat.
The Irish boys of the neighborhood had a good time with Frederick, in a matter of speaking. He was teased as “Eastern Shore man” by the others, and burned his shoeless feet on the sunbaked bricks that lined the streets of Fell’s Point. Boys do tend to pick on the new kid, and he got his share of that when he first arrived. A deeper relationship must have developed between him and the Irish boys as the years passed, and came to the point that Frederick confided with them about the horrors of slavery, and his desire to escape.
That’s just what happened in future years, and once marrying and taking Miss Douglas’ name, Frederick Douglas (pictured) became one of our nation’s greatest men, and a leader in the abolition movement in America.
Imagine that… a Catholic Church opened up a parish school for the poorest white children in the area. Those poor Irish boys end up teaching, as it were, one of America’s great African American orators.
Baltimore’s shipping industry was under threat by other regions of America in the 1820’s. People had begun moving westward, and canals became the next big idea to ship people and supplies. Several canals were begun, and considerable industry and community development happened along these manmade waterways, including New York’s Erie Canal. The Mid-Atlantic region joined in, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was dedicated on July 4, 1828 by President John Quincy Adams (pictured). Work began in Georgetown, and Irish laborers began a big dig that eventually ended 184 miles later in Cumberland, Maryland.
Workers were what you might expect during those early years in America. Statistics from just a few years later tell us that 91% of those at a canal work camp were Irish, and the women who were part of the settlement were 85% Irish. These were likely wives and/or cooks for the community.
Those Irish men were comprised of 97% unskilled workers, as the digging of canals required men with strong backs, rather than an education. Sadly, many were injured or perished as a result of the difficult and dangerous work, and then replaced by other unskilled Irish. These men were easily replaced, and no upfront investment was required by contractors who saw the Irish, rather than slaves, as the practical choice among the options available.
Poor Irish canal laborers in the 1820’s and onward (pictured below) received the most indifferent of treatment by their employers. They lived in simple shanties; alcohol was the lubrication of choice and generously supplied, keeping bodies pain-free during the day and bringing sleep at night. Doctoring of any sort was just another expense for employers, and those who fell were buried unceremoniously nearby, often without family in attendance.
These early Irish arrivals are easy to forget. So many more came to America during famine years, and are remembered in various ways, but the earliest Irish paved the way for future generations who continued the hard work of taming a continent.
Canals (see marker from C & O Canal) and railroads that we can visit or ride on today are their legacy, and we are thankful for so many: nameless perhaps, but still mighty.
How many thousands of towns and cities are the result of those who made a way westward, in the most difficult of circumstances?
Sources for this writing include:
Douglas, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.
Library of Congress: E. Sachse, & Co.'s bird's eye view of the city of Baltimore, 1869.
Trollope, Frances Milton. Domestic Manners of the Americans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.
Wray, Peter. Common Labor: Workers and Digging of the North American Canals. Baltimore: JHU Press, 1993.