Make no mistake – Lawrence Township is a diverse community, thanks to the waves of immigration that brought newcomers to the United States and to Lawrence Township.
That was the message delivered by Lawrence Township Historian Brooke Hunter at the Lawrence Historical Society’s annual meeting, held in the Lawrence High School Commons last month.
Hunter, who is a history professor at Rider University, outlined the history of immigration to the United States, Mercer County and Lawrence Township.
“Migration has defined the American experience – from the arrival of native peoples to European colonizers to the mass involuntary migrations of enslaved Africans and the voluntary migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries,” Hunter said. Immigration continues to this day, she added.
Formal records on immigration were not kept until 1820, which coincided with the first of three waves of immigration.
That first wave of immigration – from 1820 to 1880 – brought 3 million immigrants from Germany, 2.8 million immigrants from Ireland and 2 million immigrants from England to the United States, she said.
But where did they land, once they arrived?
At least some of them landed in Lawrence Township. The 1850 U.S. Census showed that Lawrence Township had a population of 1,838 people – including 200 immigrants, most of them Irish but with a handful of Germans, too, Hunter said.
The factors that drove German immigration were political upheaval, crop failures and industrialization, she said. The Irish left because of the potato famine, which left 1.5 million Irish dead and caused as many to flee to the United States.
The influx of the Irish to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s led to anti-immigrant sentiments among some American citizens, Hunter said, adding that “it is a recurring pattern in the United States.”
Out of that anti-immigration sentiment grew the Know-Nothing Party, whose members targeted the Irish and the Germans. Some of the opposition was religion-based. The Know-Nothing party did not like the Catholicism that the Irish brought with them in the what they viewed as a Protestant country, Hunter said.
Those who opposed immigration – then as now – claimed the immigrants were taking “American jobs,” Hunter said. That feeling was especially prevalent during the economic panics of 1837 and 1857. There was less opposition to immigrants when the economy was good.
Lawrence Township farmer George Phillips was among those who were prejudiced against the Irish immigrants, calling them “bogtrotters.” In his diary, Phillips wrote that immigrants were lazy, Hunter said.
And yet Phillips employed German and Irish immigrants as servants.
Phillips’ diary notes that he and his son traveled to New York City and hired three German men. He paid them $5 per month in 1855. The next year, he hired an Irish servant boy for $10 per month, and a servant girl for his son for $5 per month.
The second wave of immigration – between 1880 and 1920 – brought newcomers from southern and eastern Europe, Hunter said. By 1907, 75 percent of immigrants were Catholics and Jews who left their homeland in search of economic opportunity or to escape religious persecution.
Italians made up the largest number of immigrants to the United States during the second wave of immigration, followed by Austrian/Hungarians, Russians and the English, she said.
In Lawrence Township, the largest number of immigrants were the English, followed by Germans and Italians, Hunter said.
The English were drawn to Lawrence Township because of the proximity to the pottery factories in Trenton, she said. Trenton was one of two major pottery centers in the United States and drew many immigrants to the area. It grew from one pottery in 1850 to more than 50 potteries by 1920.
“Many English immigrants filled the jobs needed by these pottery producers because of the skills they acquired at home,” Hunter said. England was known for its pottery factories.
Most of the immigrants settled in the southern part of Lawrence Township, closer to Trenton. The 1880 U.S. Census showed 554 immigrants living in southern Lawrence Township and only 94 immigrants in northern Lawrence Township, she said.
The Eldridge Park neighborhood in southern Lawrence Township was popular with the immigrants, Hunter said, adding that “it was the ‘Lower East Side’ of Lawrence Township.”
Eldridge Park was the most diverse neighborhood in the township as two-thirds of the heads-of-households were immigrants – Italians, Austrians, Hungarians and Russians, she said.
But between 1920 and 1960, there was a drop in immigration into the United States, Hunter said. The combination of World War I and a quota for immigrants resulted in a decline in immigration. And during the Great Depression, more people left the United States than entered it, she said.
The third wave of immigration – between 1965 and 2000 – was dominated by Asians, Africans and Latinos because of a new immigration law that dropped preferences for admitting Europeans, she said.
The new law favored foreigners who had American relatives and those requested by American employers because of their specialized skills, she said. But the motives for immigrants did not change – economic opportunity and the desire to escape conflict in their homeland.
A snapshot of immigration in Lawrence Township showed that the number of Latinos increased from 265 in 1980 to 666 in 1990, she said. There are significantly more Latinos living in Lawrence today.
Migration has defined the American experience and it has made Lawrence Township more diverse than ever before, Hunter said as she pointed to the flags of many nations displayed in the Lawrence High School Commons.