How to Navigate in a Field of Ignorance

The following post is written by senior Kyle Jenkins, one of this semester’s interns. It is the first in a series about Kyle’s project to create curriculum around the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project that can be used in the high school classroom. This is an exciting new venture aimed at expanding the audience for the Provenance Project!

Even though the demands of student teaching kept me from enrolling in the 2015 Ramonat Seminar, I am working closely with the same documents and subject matter – Catholic immigrants in nineteenth-century Chicago – as part of my directed study this semester. My mission, as it were, is not to write a massive essay that changes the field of study. I’m not that lucky (see also: I’m actually that lucky). Rather, I will be creating a series of lesson plans around the topic for use in high schools, incorporating a whole host of primary source documents drawn from the JLPP, Newberry Library, and other Chicago institutions. Since much of the curricular instruction for this age group on the nineteenth-century U.S. is devoted to the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Progressive Era (for good reason, I might add), the lesson plans I am designing will serve a dual purpose of introducing students to a too little discussed facet of U.S. history, as well as providing an opportunity for important lessons in library research.

As a double major in History and Education, it stands to reason that I would have at least been exposed to this time period. Well, this is the one case where reason fails us, because much of what I am learning is completely new. My past experience with history projects were with subjects I had just taken a class about (the Civil War) or had a personal connection to (blues music). While it is an uphill climb to stay on track with the other Ramonat Scholars, I am extremely excited to do so. I hope I will be exposed to a host of other disciplines and opportunities through this project, just like the students that will eventually be taught these lessons. But enough about that, let’s get to the good stuff.

I know the first unit will be on immigration, specifically how and why primarily Irish and German Catholic immigrants flooded Chicago in the mid-nineteenth century. In my first trip to the Newberry, I began searching through the Immigration Laws of the United States (State and National) compiled by William C. Endicott, and published in 1887. Not only did it list a variety of reason that made the U.S. a prime destination for immigrants, like the Irish potato famine, the California Gold Rush, and European political upheaval, but, as the title suggests, it broke down the policies of each state. It was done for two reasons: to clear up procedures on Southern states who recently rejoined the Union following the Civil War, and to give due diligence to New York, whose policies “[could] make a volume in itself” (p.1975). Certain states, like New York, go into meticulous detail. Others, like Alabama, list ways that immigration could be encouraged, such as through reports on land availability and quality. And still others, like Nebraska below, have no rules:

Nebraska Immigration Laws SM

That’s it. One paragraph for Nebraska saying “Yep, there’s no rules here, do whatever you want.” This is striking because it shows how vastly different the experience of immigrants could be depending on where they settled. Yes, you can’t sail a ship to Nebraska, but you can move there. Which makes Chicago that much more appealing. As an eventual transit hub to the West, with a connection to the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Mississippi and the Great Lakes canals, and with the appeal of big city life, Chicago must have seemed like prime placement for immigrants of any background. Oddly enough Illinois wasn’t listed in this volume, so I will have to track down its immigration laws, but it’s exciting to start down this road with no preconceived notions as to what I will find. I’ll be going through the same process as future students, which is pretty awesome to think about.


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