The Year Was 1850

The year was 1850 and the U.S. Federal Census counted 23,191,876 residents. Of this number, 2,244,602 were enumerated as being of foreign birth. Not surprisingly, due to the Irish Potato famine of the 1840s, 961,719 people claimed Irish origins–or 42%, making it the largest single country of origin cited. These numbers did not go unnoticed in urban areas and resentment of the Irish Catholic immigrants gave birth to a period of nativism. Irish immigrants found themselves discriminated against during this period as cartoons portrayed them with simian features, and newspaper help wanted ads sometimes specified that “Irish need not apply.”

In California, immigrants were also being shunned as people from all over the world converged on the soon-to-be-state in search of gold. To help stem this tide the California legislature passed a Foreign Miners License Tax of $20 per month.

More women were beginning to arrive on the west coast, but they were still greatly outnumbered at a rate of over ten to one and 73% of the population was between the ages of 20 and 40.

With the flow of gold seekers in 1850, disease followed in Sacramento when Asiatic cholera was brought in and killed between 800-1000 residents of that city. Most had to be buried in a mass grave in the Old City Cemetery.

The growth of California because of the gold rush led to statehood in September of 1850. The state’s admission was part of “The Compromise of 1850,” presented by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. The compromise was an effort to keep the U.S. united as southern states threatened to secede. At issue was whether the new state of California, Washington, D.C., and the new territory acquired in the war with Mexico would allow slavery, and over a land dispute with Texas.

The compromise also covered the Fugitive Slave Act, which legally required the return of fugitive slaves who had fled to the north from slave states.  The law also held citizens who refused to cooperate with the apprehension of fugitive slaves subject to legal action. It pushed the fugitives who had begun new lives in the north, even further north — to Canada. Rather than stem the tide of fugitives though, the activities of the Underground Railroad increased following 1850 and it increased northern determination to end slavery.

Women‘s rights activists gathered in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850 for the first Women’s Rights Convention.  Newspaper coverage of the convention varied based on the point of view of the papers and their editors and some of the articles can be found online at the website of Assumption College in Worcester.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article. 

8 thoughts on “The Year Was 1850

  1. The info about slave acts was interesting. My ancestors left Maine and came to Cleveland, OH sometime between the 1850 census and about 1856. The head of household changed his first and last name and the last names of the children and they show up in Cleveland city directories and the 1860 census with those new names. I have wondered why he would do that and have suspected he may have been involved in the Underground Railrod or assisted slaves and then suddenly had to leave Maine. Good article.

  2. Very informative and interesing article…. I would like some statistics about German immigration in mid-1850…. arriving in New York and in New Orleans New Orleans…


  3. The mention of the Asiatic cholera epdemic of 1850 interests me very much. My French Canadian g-grandfather died of it in Beauharnois, Canada, while tending his patients.
    A local history of Door County (Old Peninsula Days) , Wisconsin, mentions that immigrants from Belgium “brought with them the deadly germs of the Asiatic Cholera ” a few years after 1853.

  4. The thumbnail feature of various years is just great. In my study of Geneology I love to discover what my ancestors were doing during certain periods. It permits me to better weave my family history into what was going on in their world at the time. Thanks a bunch!!!

  5. The history snapshots are my favorite part of your newsletter. We often forget what times were like long before we came along. Your “The year was–” helps me better appreciate what my ancestors lived through in the world around them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *