For centuries, people of all ages and ethnicities have left their mother countries in order to begin a new life in America. Discovering your ancestors' immigration experiences can be one of the most rewarding parts of genealogy, enabling you to appreciate your role in the American melting pot.
Since the first new settlers arrived in America several centuries ago, people have been coming to the United States for a variety of reasons: to find land to farm, to get an education or better job, to earn money to send home, to practice their religion freely, or to escape famine or war, just to name a few. Others came by force. Whatever the cause or reasons, this immigration is what made America the melting pot that it is today.
It wasn't until the later part of the 1820's that the number of immigrants per year was over 10,000, and from that time on, the numbers kept growing. The first real bursts in immigration came in the 1840's and 1850's, when poor harvests forced people to leave Great Britain and Northern Europe. Most of them came to the United States in order to survive -- there simply wasn't enough food to support the population. So, between 1845 and 1860, more than 3.5 million people arrived in the United States in search of a better life.
In the early years, the influx of immigrants was tolerated, if not altogether welcomed. Immigrants helped populate the growing country, and a majority of them were English-speaking Protestants, so they blended in well with the rest of the population. However, as more and more Irish and European Catholics entered the United States, previous immigrant Americans began to protest. They feared both cheap labor and the possibility that a large Catholic population would increase the influence of the Pope in the United States. This fear spawned the "Know-Nothing" movement, a group of individuals who wanted stricter controls on immigration and naturalization.
By 1870, roughly one-eighth of the population was foreign-born, and the opposition to free immigration continued. In answer to the protests, the U.S. government passed laws to regulate immigration. For example, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act disallowed entry of all working-class Chinese. Later laws also barred people who had no money, individuals with certain diseases, anarchists, and individuals who were deemed insane.
The United States government set up quota systems with the National Origins Acts in the 1920's. These quotas heavily favored British and Northern European immigrants over those from Southern and Eastern Europe. At the time, Americans were more accepting of the British and Northern Europeans, while the cultures and cheap labor offered by Slavs, Greeks, Italians, and other Southern and Eastern Europeans seemed more threatening.
The quotas remained in effect until 1965, when the government adjusted them to allow for even more immigration from all countries into the United States. Now, even those quotas are slightly more relaxed. In the post-World War II era, the U.S. government has made exceptions to the quota rules when political situations in other countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Cuba have made it necessary.
Where Does Your Family Fit in the Immigration Timeline?
To learn more about immigration and your family's part in this movement to America, try the following:
- Check into your family's history, finding out when they arrived and where they came from. This information may hint at why they decided to come to America.
- Read more about the whys and wherefores of immigration movements -- especially the ones that your ancestors may have taken part in. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life by Roger Daniels (Princeton, NJ: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1990) and Migration, Emigration, and Immigration by Olga K. Miller (Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, Inc., 1981) are good places to start. Check your local library for other books about immigration into the United States.
Migration Patterns in the United States
The earliest European settlements in the United States were concentrated on the East Coast. However, as the country and population have grown, people have slowly migrated towards the West Coast. In the beginning, people moved west because that's where some of the best and cheapest farm land was. At the time of the Revolutionary War, soldiers were offered free land as payment for their services. Then in the mid-19th century, the government offered free land to homesteaders who would live and make improvements on a piece of prairie land. The government also offered subsidies to railroad builders, who spurred the growth of towns across the United States.
Aside from the desire for land, however, there were other reasons that led people to migrate west. For example, the gold rush on the West Coast enticed many to pick up their belongings and move across the country. Natural and economic disasters also encouraged people to move west and find a place to start over. Others just wanted to see the frontier.
Later, as the importance of agriculture died out, people moved where they could find jobs in the booming industries. Whether it was oil in Texas, cars in Detroit, or movies in California, when an industry died out, families moved to the next booming area.
One notable wave of migration began in the 1920's. As the National Origins Acts effectively reduced the number of foreign immigrants, more labor was needed in Northern factories. Thus, many African-Americans from the South took advantage of these job opportunities and began a new life in the North.
Since the 1960's the main migrations have been towards the West and the South. People have continued moving west for the climate and quality of life. The southerly movement was spawned by retirees who also prefer the more temperate climates, as well as the lower cost of living.