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[ Credits ][ Anthony F.C Wallace and Paul A. W. Wallace ]

Immigrants in the coal region

Colliery payday, Girardville, PA, 1894
During the mid-nineteenth century, immigrants flooded into the Pennsylvania coal regions from Ireland, England, Wales, and the German states, with southern and eastern Europeans adding to the mix after the late 1870s. Although there was considerable diversity among these immigrants, some clear patterns emerge to describe the relationship between their past lives and their fate in the coal regions. Not all jobs in the mines were equally well paid, and for a variety of reasons, not all immigrants were able to take full advantage of the opportunities for self-betterment that may have existed.

Most of the Welsh and English emigrants to Saint Clair came from the richest coal districts of the British Isles, and many had already obtained valuable skills working in and around the mines. Drawing upon these experiences, Welshmen and Englishmen were able to move into the most highly-paid, highly-skilled work in the mines and to maneuver rapidly into supervisory positions. The fates of Irish immigrants, on the other hand, were more varied, depending largely on the timing and circumstances of their arrival and their background in Ireland.

Of the thousands who fled Ireland during the great famine of 1845-1849, most were financially and physically devastated, and coming from backgrounds as laborers or farmers, were ill equipped for work in the mines. Hailing largely from Counties Donegal and Mayo, the famine-era Irish were more likely to live in the patches than towns, and more likely to work as laborers than skilled miners.

Pine Forest Shaft Colliery
In contrast, the majority of those who arrived prior to the famine came from the less-impoverished southern and eastern counties, particularly Laois (Queens County) and Kilkenny. Like the Welsh and English, many Kilkennians were already experienced at working in coal mines on which they could draw in America. The famine in these counties, when it struck, was less severe than in northern and western Ireland, and even at the height of famine in the winter of 1846-47, Kilkennians benefited from outdoor relief provided by the Guardians of the Kilkenny Poor Law Union. Unlike in other counties, and in defiance of the Relief Commissioners, the resident gentry in Kilkenny actively promoted relief efforts.

As a result, many Kilkennians arrived in Saint Clair in better financial and physical condition than their compatriots and were able to build on previous experience to improve their lots. Like their Welsh and English counterparts, many Kilkennians were able to obtain work in the most highly-paid skilled and supervisory positions. This parity with the English and Welsh extended to socializing outside of work: "Kilkenny miners" associated less frequently with other Irish emigrants and more with Welsh, English, and Germans. More tellingly, during the ethnic conflicts of the Molly Maguire era, Kilkenny men joined with Welshmen in the "Chain Gang," known for its violent conflicts with Irish from western Irish counties such as Donegal, Mayo, and Galway.

John Siney, founder of the
Workingmen's Benevolent Association
Adding to the disparities between the laboring Irish and the English and Welsh were their different experiences in industrial labor settings. In particular, the Welsh and English miners brought with them a tradition of organized labor learned in the coal regions at home. The first reasonably effective miners' union, the Workmen's Benevolent Association (WBA), was founded in 1868 by John Siney, an emigrant who had cut his mining teeth in Lancaster, England. From its inception, the WBA attempted to represent all ethnic groups working in the mines: in fact, Siney himself had been born in Ireland. Ultimately, however, the attempts to organize across ethnic lines failed. Ethnic tensions exacerbated by the machinations of mine owners proved the undoing of the WBA. The preferential treatment extended to some English and Welsh employees drove a wedge among the workers, sparking discord that was ignited into flame by the Molly Maguire crimes, an with public opinion running strongly against the WBA, the union folded in the 1870s. Not until the establishment of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1890 would a union organize successfully in the Pennsylvania coal fields.

The majority of German immigrants had roots in village life with its distinctions of social rank, and most tended to settle in town. There Germans entered into familiar lines of work, becoming artisans, craftsmen, and shopkeepers.

The experiences of women in the coal region - women of any ethnic background - diverged sharply from that of the men. Prior to the establishment of silk mills in the early 1900s, women found few legitimate employment opportunities in the coal region. While Irish women who settled in the major cities might find work as domestics or in mills, thus enabling single women to fend for themselves, in the coal regions women tended to emigrate with husbands or families and most listed their occupations as "keeping house." Although most native-born American women were less well educated than their male counterparts during the nineteenth century, women in the coal regions were often better educated than their husbands, fathers, and brothers. The greater (external) work opportunities for males led them to drop out of school at younger ages than their female siblings. One often finds examples in the census of wives who could read and write while their husbands could not -- the reverse of the pattern commonly seen in urban areas and rural farming areas.