Census: Canal Boat Residents, 1850
Much of the work on the Illinois & Michigan Canal between 1837 and 1848 was done by hand. While canal laborers included Yankees, southerners, Native Americans, African Americans, Germans, English, and French Canadians, most were Irish immigrants. Hundreds of poor Irish men journeyed to the region to take up this backbreaking, low-wage work. Their poverty, foreignness, and Catholicism isolated them, as did the remote and often isolated construction sites. In 1838, canal workers rioted over wages, and local property holders such as James Brooks expressed their concern:
Since the Commission of the outrages by the Irish at my work on the canal on the 19th and 20th inst. and the course that has been pursued in relation to the matter, I conceive that it would be unsafe for me at this time to go upon my work. And if it were safe for me to go upon my work I am unable at present to do so, on account of the injury received from the Irish. I have a large amount of property on and about my works, which is exposed to the rapacity of the Irish, and I have no men who can, or who dare to take measures to preserve my property.
“Letter from James Brooks to the Canal Commissioners Concerning Irish Rioters.” In
The Illinois and Michigan Canal, 1827–1911: A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives,
ed. Robert E. Bailey and Elaine Shemoney Evans, 1998, 37.