Waves of immigrants shaped Kingston’s diverse culture

Lower Broadway, back in ye olden days.

Lower Broadway, back in ye olden days.

First in trickles, then in droves, the Dutch (obviously), Germans and Irish first, then the Italians, Poles and many others, came to Kingston. Different people from different places with different cultures and religions settled in ethnic enclaves with their own churches and schools. Bitterly resisted by nativists who had arrived centuries previous, by sheer force of numbers and dint of will immigrants to Kingston came to dominate the city, its politics, commerce and education.

Former city alderman Tom Hoffay talked about a century of immigration (roughly between 1825 to 1920) in the 22nd edition of the Kingston Buried Treasures lecture series at the Senate House in Kingston May 16.

In 1820, the last census before the initial wave of immigrants, what later became the City of Kingston had a population of about 3,000 souls, about equally divided between the villages of Kingston and Rondout. Over the next 40 years, that population increased to about 16,000, about two-thirds of it in Rondout.


“There were ships and trains arriving every day from the port of New York,” Hoffay said. Railroads constructed after the Civil War carried immigrants to the interior and points west, north and south.

As Hoffay described it, life in 1820 in Kingston’s rebuilt stockade was “settled, secure and predictable.” There was one church, the Old Dutch on Main Street. “You knew everybody and probably were related to everybody,” said Hoffay. “The governor had lived here. The village had enormous political power.”

Then came the immigrants. The first wave worked on the construction of the D&H Canal, which opened for a 60-year run in 1828. Others became engaged in constructing Rondout’s tenement-style buildings housing the flood of immigrants and their growing families. Bars and brothels abounded. So did Protestant churches. The first Catholic Church in Kingston, St. Mary’s on Broadway, opened in 1835. St. Joseph’s in uptown Kingston was founded in 1868.

The second wave of immigrants was driven by political unrest, if not revolution, on the European continent and by the Irish famine in the 1840s. A Celtic cross, erected by the Hibernian Society a few years ago on the lawn of St. Mary’s, commemorates “the great hunger,” listing the names of local Irish families who settled here. The German immigration also included Jews from Germany and Poland, fleeing to America for religious freedom like the earliest Dutch settlers of Kingston. The city’s first synagogue, Temple Emanuel, traces its history to the Rondout of that era.

The formation of German and Italian states in the latter part of the 19th century led to another wave of immigration, as did unrest in the Polish provinces.

Hoffay told his audience that wars, which often unite people of different backgrounds in common cause, were great levelers. Young immigrant males, many with military experience from the European conflicts of the 1840s, rose to leadership positions during the Civil War. Those who survived came home to assume similar positions in the community.

“By 1900, immigrants had transformed Kingston,” Hoffay said.

The life of O’Reilly

Central Broadway landowner and businessman John O’Reilly was one immigrant who prospered in post-Civil-War Kingston. O’Reilly, who immigrated in 1860, at one time owned the land on which was situated the present Kingston City Hall, Kingston High School, the Carnegie Library and the American Legion, “the very core of the city,” Hoffay said.

At the time, the census recorded 19 houses of worship in Kingston and Rondout.

The African-American population peaked at about 10 percent in 1820 (including Sojourner Truth) when slavery was still legal in New York State. While there was an influx of Southern immigrants after World War II, many local African-American families can trace their roots to the Civil War or even the Colonial era.

The anti-immigrant nativist movement in the 1850s, as represented by the Know Nothing Party, was active in Kingston, at one time holding a majority on the village board. Bias lingered in the forms of tension, hatred and vilification, Hoffay said. But a transformation took place after the American entry in World War I in 1917, Hoffay said.

“You see it on the plaque erected in front of City Hall just after the war,” Hoffay said, displaying a photo of the celebration. “It’s still there. Read the names. Those are the sons and daughters of immigrants.”

A patriotic celebration at City Hall.

A patriotic celebration at City Hall.

While marriage between nationalities was unusual in the early years, these days Kingston is a melting pot from many places. A recent wave of Hispanic immigrants has added a different element to the city collage.

The remnants of the immigrant era, social organizations like the Polish White Eagle Society, St. Mary’s Benevolent Society, Germania Hall and the Knights of Columbus, endure but are generally in decline, something Hoffay finds unfortunate, given the rich heritage these organizations represent. Of late, a rejuvenated Irish-Hibernian Society has been busy creating a cultural center on Abeel Street, high on a hill overlooking the Rondout Creek where the ancestors of many of its members arrived here many generations ago. The recently restored Reher Bakery on lower Broadway, envisioned as a cultural center for Jewish and other immigrants’ history, gives visitors a view of life downtown in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Next: The early stockade and its settlers will be the subject of a lecture by Ted Dietz on Friday, June 20 at 5:30 at the Senate House Museum off Fair Street. There is no charge for admission, and the public is invited.

There are 3 comments

  1. keith white

    I think it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of immigrants referenced above entered this country through a legal process. They were people who entered through places like Ellis Island. I’m sure it was not a fun process and many were held from entering until they were able to pass health and other requirements. Some were sent back. I don’t know anyone who does not recognize the wonderful contribution of immigrants. It’s a no brainer. Having a process for entering immigrants is necessary for the safety of everyone just as it was a 100 years ago. Today it is also for security against those that would do harm to US population. Supporting an immigration process is not about hate, as some proclaim, but safety for all. Support legal immigration.

    1. Hannah Ramirez

      Unfortunately, that is not the case today. Where there are illegals and “sanctuary cities,” there is also high crime. I’m aghast that my hometown had kowtowed to this when I came for a visit in 2013. Witnessing illegals that I’ve been used to seeing in California and noticing signage in Mexican – Spanish made me sensing another sign of dumbing down our society.

      In California, over 70% of hospitals had closed, LaRaza pushes for a Mexican – style country which is very anti-American. I’m for keeping our immigration laws strong and illegals need to be sent back. Not given the keys to the city. Don’t destroy Kingston due to feeling sorry for illegals. The term means they broke our laws.

      1. Keith White


        Although we agree on maintaining strong immigration laws I’m concerned on how you “witness illegals”. How did you determine who was legal versus illegal? Did you interview people and ask for credentials? We must not use generalizations. It is prejudicial. There are great things being done in my neighborhood by many Spanish speaking neighbors. I’ve seen homes being renovated, churches open, and lots of hard labor being performed. Americans have created a vacuum for hard workers with strong family values. They are not taking our jobs, we are giving them away by being lazy and resting on entitlement. Illegals hurt their future too. We must apply Christian values to all. Those values and strong immigration laws are not opposites unless we incorporate prejudice into the process.

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