All the immigrants whose lives are documented in the historical records reproduced on this website had one thing in common: they were customers of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank (EISB). All banks in the 1850s collected some personal information from customers when they opened accounts, but the EISB collected much more than most, perhaps due to its founding as a bank meant to serve Irish immigrants. In addition to recording the name, address, and occupation of each depositor, the Emigrant’s secretaries also asked customers to provide their exact place of birth, the names of their parents (including mother’s maiden name) and their whereabouts, the depositors’ date of arrival in the United States, the name of the ship that carried them to America, their port of departure and arrival, the name of their spouse (including wife’s maiden name), and the names and whereabouts of their siblings, and the names of their children. This information was originally recorded in huge leather-bound ledgers that the bank called “test books,” apparently because bank employees used them to test the identity of people who came to the bank to withdraw money. Those ledger books are now housed in Manuscripts Division of the New York Public Library, though scans of the test books’ contents are available online via Ancestry.com.
This wealth of information on each EISB depositor is important for two reasons. First, it allows us to know much more about the EISB’s customers than we know about most Civil War-era immigrants. Second, these family histories in the bank records enable us to more readily track the lives of these Irish immigrants over several decades.
Let’s say we want to discover what became of laborer Patrick Kelly and his wife Bridget, who arrived in New York in 1850. There were hundreds of Patrick Kellys living in New York in the 1850s, and dozens of them were married to women named Bridget. There is usually no way of knowing whether the Patrick and Bridget Kelly one finds in a census document are the ones for whom we are looking. But the EISB records often make tracing Patrick and Bridget possible. The bank records might say that Patrick and Bridget have children named Michael, Patrick, Catherine and Thady, that Patrick has a sister named Margaret living in New York, and that Bridget’s mother’s name is Ellen Healy. If we then find a Patrick and Bridget Kelly in the 1855 New York State census with children named Michael, Patrick, Catherine and Thady, and a sister named Margaret Kelly and a mother-in-law named Ellen Healy living with them too, then we can be fairly certain we have found the right Patrick and Bridget Kelly. We can then look for these same family members in subsequent censuses, and if we find enough of them, we can know we have located Patrick and Bridget yet again. This was the method we used to determine if the immigrants we found in the 1860, 1870, or 1880 censuses were the same immigrants who had opened EISB accounts in the 1850s. That ability to trace so many of these immigrants over many years is what inspired us to collect the data that underpins the Moving Beyond "Rags to Riches" project.