History Detectives: Following the Lives of Potato Famine Immigrants

For a decade, the History Department’s Tyler Anbinder and his student researchers dug through 100 years of long-lost bank records from Irish immigrants. What they found rewrote a historical tale.

May 6, 2024

1850s back & white illustration of a overcrowded ship on the ocean

An 1850 illustration depicts Irish immigrants sailing to the U.S. on an overcrowded ship during the potato famine. (Illustrations courtesy Tyler Anbinder)

There were thousands of names—scores of Kellys, Murphys and Sullivans. They were scribbled on bank slips, stamped on ship manifests and printed on marriage records.

Each stood for one of the 1.3 million Irish immigrants who fled to the United States when the potato famine of the 1840s and ’50s hit their homeland. George Washington University Emeritus Professor of History Tyler Anbinder called it “one of the biggest refugee exoduses ever.”

Like history detectives, Anbinder and a small army of student research assistants spent more than 10 years following 15,000 immigrant names through troves of official records—through bank account balances, census data and birth and death certificates.

And in his book “Plentiful Country: The Great Potato Famine and the Making of Irish New York” (Little, Brown and Company, 2024), Anbinder frames that decade of meticulous research into a new immigrant story, one that traces their journey from the fields of Ireland to the streets of New York City while telling a wider tale that dispels long-standing myths.

Two photos: Left, book cover for Plentiful Country, greeen background. Right, Tyler Snbinder, glasses, blue shirt, dark jacket
Emeritus Professor of History Tyler Anbinder is the author of “Plentiful Country: The Great Potato Famine and the Making of Irish New York.”

Historians lacked the resources to tell that full story—until now. Building on richly detailed records from the vaults of the Emigrant Savings Bank of New York—a gold mine of historical documents that were inaccessible to the public for 150 years—Anbinder and his team of more than 30 student researchers uncovered extensive biographical information for individual Irish immigrants. He traced the ships that brought them to America, their often-rising household incomes and their job paths from ragpickers to saloonkeepers. While they often began their American lives facing poverty and discrimination, the team found that many prospered over time.

“The famine immigrants were the first to cement the idea of the American Dream as we understand it today,” Anbinder said. “They climbed the socioeconomic ladder relatively swiftly. From that point on, Americans couldn’t say only certain people can succeed.”

Piecing those bank ledgers into generations of life stories was a decade-long process. It involved deciphering handwritten records, chasing ancestry leads and managing massive databases with thousands of immigrant names. The research team often hit dead ends—like names that suddenly disappeared from historical records. Others left behind a trail of growing families and economic success that reframed the picture of Irish immigrants in America.

“This is what I love about being a historian—finding these data points and figuring out what these lives might have been like,” said Hope McCaffrey, B.A. ’13, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Northwestern University who worked on the project for 10 years, beginning as a first-year student assistant.

Historic lives

Looking at history through the lens of individual lives has long been a hallmark of Anbinder’s books, including his award-winning “City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), which was named a “New York Times” Notable Book of 2016.

More than 20 years ago, while researching a book on the Five Points neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, Anbinder first came across the bank records which had only recently been made available at the New York Public Library. Despite their detail, the skeletal biographies weren’t enough to sustain a compelling narrative. But his research dovetailed with another historical sea change: the digital revolution. Suddenly genealogy records were easily accessible online through sites like Ancestry.com.

1850s black & white illustration of several well dressed men & women on line at bank teller windows
In an illustration from Anbinder’s book, customers of the Emigrant Savings Bank send money to their families in 1880.

“Those two things—the genealogical records online combined with the Emigrant Savings Bank records—let us trace the lives of the famine immigrants in a way that no one had ever thought possible,” he said.

The task was still daunting. With a nearly $300,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant, Anbinder hired researchers across the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences—from English majors who transcribed handwritten notes to economics majors who tallied bank account balances. Still, of the 15,000 New Yorkers in the bank records, the team found book-worthy material for just one in 20. “It could be frustrating [for students] to finish a day of work and not trace a single immigrant,” he said. “They didn’t realize how laborious it can be to strike gold.”

Rise and fall

McCaffrey joined Anbinder’s team after taking his American Civil War class. As a research assistant, she discovered a hidden talent for deciphering old handwriting. “That’s how my grandma wrote. And my mom, who’s a doctor, has scribbly handwriting,” she said. “It turned out I had this niche skill that was valuable.”

A history major, McCaffrey painstakingly transcribed biographical information from the bank ledgers to giant Excel documents—thousands of rows of names, occupations and account numbers. During intense hours of computer research —“There’s no comfortable position when you’re sitting for 10 hours straight,” she laughed—McCaffrey became deeply invested, obsessively tracking information like the names of tiny Irish villages. “Nothing matches the attention to detail [Anbinder] puts into his work,” she said. “I felt very lucky to be part of this process.”

2 headshots: Lef, Linda Chervinsky, dark shoulder length hair, purple suit. Right, Hope McCafrey, curly brown hair.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky, B.A. ’10, (left) and Hope McCaffrey, B.A. ’13, worked as Anbinder’s student researchers.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, B.A. ’10, now a senior fellow with the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, attended the same Anbinder class as McCaffrey—“To this day, the hardest class I’ve ever taken,” she said—during her senior year at GW. As a researcher for Anbinder, she scoured census data and online ancestry sites. Often, she tracked families’ fortunes rising. But sometimes the data told a different story, like children’s names vanishing from records after epidemics. “I started seeing them as people, not data points,” Chervinsky said. “I’d cheer them on when they did well. And it would be heartbreaking when they suffered loss.”

For Anbinder, “Plentiful Country” adds a new chapter to immigration history. An impressive 40% of the names his team tracked eventually rose from unskilled positions like day laborers and domestic workers to become clerks, civil servants and business owners including saloonkeepers, the pinnacle of Irish immigrant success at the time. “Like immigrants today, those Irish immigrants were ambitious, driven people who wanted to work to make their way in America,” he said.

And for his students, their apprenticeships opened doors to their own careers. Anbinder helped McCaffrey obtain a research grant and collaborated on her first peer-reviewed publication. Chervinsky recently completed her second book, “Making the Presidency: John Adams and the Precedents That Forged the Republic,” which will be published in September by Oxford University Press.

Anbinder “taught me how to be a historian,” she said. “He encouraged me to think big and dream big.”