Tuesday, November 22, 2016

An Immigrant Story

Thanksgiving, the most American holiday, is, at its root, a celebration of immigrants making it in the new world. The story of the first Thanksgiving is a romanticized history of a past that so many people would love to hold as true: a group of immigrants come to a new world seeking a better life; they are helped by the established residents; and a feast is thrown to celebrate survival and the promise of future prosperity.

So, for this Thanksgiving, we turn to more promises: some of which turned out well, and some that did not. In the mid-nineteenth century, hundreds of books and flyers were produced to lure new immigrants to America. Areas in the Plains and the West wanted to boost population, and the industrial Midwest was hungry for cheap labor. In our collection are three guides to help the immigrant settle in America, all offering the enticement of economic prosperity. The 1848 Emigrant's Hand-Book for the United States opens with the U.S. Constitution, then systematically outlines all of the regions of the United States. Iowa as it is in 1856 is a "gazetteer for citizens, and a hand-book for emigrants." It contains extended descriptions of each town in Iowa, the qualities of the soils throughout the state, and is dedicated to those abolitionists committed to keeping Iowa free soil.
But the little pamphlet produced by a Dubuque, Iowa, real estate office best captures the spirit and the hyperbole of the time: Iowa, the "Great Hunting Ground" of the Indian; and the "Beautiful Land" of the White Man": Information for Immigrants (Dubuque: John Taylor, 1860). It boasts that "the quantity of good land entered in Iowa is so much greater than is required by the resident population" and can be obtained for as low as a dollar per half acre but will increase by "ten to twenty percent" annually. The climate is conducive to good health, there is timber land, plenty of water, excellent soil, good schools, and easy access to the markets via six railroads. Buy now, settle the great land, and become prosperous and free in "The Queen State of the West." Despite the motives of the publisher, you can see him playing into some of the same tropes of the original Thanksgiving story: it elides the troubled relationship between the "Indian" and the "White Man" to envision a land of opportunity where community is built and individual freedom is valued for everyone. Not always the truth, but a story retold each year as we feast.

To see Iowa from 1860, ask for McGregor 175. The Emigrant's Hand-Book is Rare E161.E5 1848, and Iowa as it is in 1856 is Rare F621.P23 1856.

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