Although the territory of the United States was originally settled in ancient times by the Asian ancestors of modern Native Americans, European immigrants of the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries dominated the landscape and brought with them the culture and institutions to which other modern immigrants have had to adapt.
European immigration to the New World of the Western Hemisphere had its origins in the Age of Exploration that began with Spanish and Portuguese voyages of discovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The creation of European colonies in the Americas, as expressions of political power and as business opportunities, stimulated both forced and free migration from Europe. European immigration has been almost constant since the early seventeenth century, but it has waxed and waned with changing economic, social, demographic, and political conditions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Transatlantic migration can be seen as an extension of long-standing patterns of movement within Europe that stretch back to the Middle Ages. Due to better technology, improved farming practices, and a warming of the climate, medieval populations expanded, putting pressure on existing arable land. Encouraged by rulers, nobles, and kings, who would often remit certain feudal duties, peasant populations migrated to virgin lands. This occurred within the core regions of western Europe, but there were significant movements of population from Germany and Flanders into less populated areas of central and eastern Europe. Due to persecutions that stemmed from the onset of the bubonic plague during the mid-fourteenth century, Jewish populations migrated to Poland and Lithuania, where they received improved treatment and a measure of religious freedom.
As urban areas across the continent grew during the early modern period, they increasingly drew populations from the countryside. During the early modern period populations displaced by war or religious persecution also migrated throughout Europe. These included
Migration within Europe was a necessary precursor to transatlantic migration. Studies of immigrants from the colonial period onward have indicated that a majority of individual European immigrants had some previous migration experience, either regionally or within Europe, prior to coming to North America. In a study of the British colonies in North America after the Seven Years’ War (also known as the
Internal migrations within Europe increased the likelihood of individuals making longer and more permanent journeys for several reasons. First, it gave them access to new economic opportunities and altered their economic worldviews. Most local peasant and subsistence economies in Europe prior to migration were perceived as zero-sum games in which those who attained greater material wealth did so only at the expense of their neighbors. Migration changed this view and opened up the possibility of expanding one’s material universe and realizing economic possibilities that were previously unattainable.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the growth of European industrialization drew many out of the countryside and into factories, mills, and mines. This process affected western Europe most directly, but its indirect effects were felt throughout the Continent. By the nineteenth century, industrialization was evident throughout central Europe and even in Russia and the Balkans by the end of the century. This movement drew large numbers of peasants out of rural villages and into cities, but the new industrial jobs provided by this economic change could not keep pace with the expanding size of the rural population or with the number being displaced from the land. Rural populations continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century because of the cessation of major war, the introduction of new crops such as the potato, and improved health and sanitary conditions. This put additional land pressure on the rural populations, something that was exacerbated in some areas by inheritance patterns in which land was divided evenly among peasants’ heirs.
In central and eastern Europe, the movement of peasants was kept in check throughout the seventeenth century by quasi-feudal laws that bound the peasants to the land. Throughout the nineteenth century, however, these laws were gradually done away with in an effort to modernize agriculture. The peasants were emancipated in Prussia in 1807, Austria-Hungary in 1848, Russia in 1863, Romania in 1864, and the Balkans after 1878 as
The usual method of peasant emancipation was to convert labor duties into cash rents and–much like the earlier enclosure movement in England–to restrict peasant access to pastures, woodlands, or other resources once used in common. As one Polish scholar put it, “peasant emancipation took the shackles off the peasants’ feet–and took the shoes as well.” The result was a sudden need for money in village economies where cash had rarely been used. This impelled peasants to migrate in search of work, and as they did so they found not only the ability to pay rents but the possibility of bettering their economic status.
North America’s abundance of resources and its relatively smaller and less densely concentrated population began attracting immigrants during the early seventeenth century. By the time of the American Revolution (1775-1783), the average American had more personal freedom and a better standard of living than counterparts in Europe, even in the better-off countries of western Europe. Throughout its history, average wages in the United States have always been higher than in Europe. Moreover, due to Indian removal policies and westward expansion during the nineteenth century, the United States offered an abundance of farm and grazing land that was both relatively inexpensive and highly productive.
America attracted three main types of immigrants. The first are “settler immigrants,” who come with the intention of settling permanently in the New World. They usually bring all or most of their immediate and extended family members and thus cut their strongest ties to their home villages. Historically this pattern was often associated with those who came to America with the specific intention of taking up farms. Bringing additional family members was beneficial as an additional source of farm labor. The majority of settler immigrants from Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were from northern and western Europe.
Labor seekers are the second type of immigrants–those who come to find jobs that pay good wages. Labor-seeking immigrants have made up and continue to make up the largest numbers of immigrants to the United States. Typical labor-seeking immigrants are men aged between sixteen and forty-five who come for unskilled or semiskilled work. A significant number of
The first significant European immigration to the New World came from the
Between the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution, immigration to the British colonies grew dramatically, rising to approximately 15,000 per year. Germans and Swiss made up the largest single group, numbering about 125,000, followed by Protestant Irish (55,000),
During the Revolutionary War and in the decades of economic readjustment and wars in Europe that followed American Independence, immigration decreased dramatically, especially from its traditional sources in the British Isles, though some German immigrants continued to arrive. During the conflict, a significant number of Europeans with military experience arrived to provide critical assistance to the American colonists, with French, Germans, Poles, and Hungarians the most prominent among them.
Immigration began to increase once again during the 1820’s in response to the end of the
European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1902. Located in New York Harbor, Ellis Island was the primary port of entry for European immigrants between 1892 and 1954.
Among immigrants arriving before the Civil War, three groups predominated:
Following the Civil War, Germans and Irish continued to arrive in large numbers, but new nationalities also began to appear on American shores as well: Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles. Immigration after the war represented the last great wave of settler immigrants who arrived to look for farms in the Midwest and Great Plains. Thereafter, good land became increasingly difficult to acquire, though agricultural colonization continued in the arid lands of the west and cut-over regions of the Great Lakes.
Beginning in the 1880’s and continuing through the passage of restrictive immigration laws in 1924, the largest wave of immigration in history arrived on North America’s shores. The largest number of arrivals came in the period from 1900 to 1914. Arrivals fell off sharply during World War I. The largest number of immigrants came in 1907, when approximately 1.3 million arrived during that year alone.
Although immigrants continued to arrive from western Europe and Scandinavia, this wave of immigration was dominated by east-central and southern European. Beginning in the eastern marches of the German Empire, “immigration fever” spread eastward into Austria-Hungary, Romania, and the western regions of Russia. Italy also sent massive numbers of immigrants, and while many came from northern Italy, southern Italians and Sicilians dominated Italian arrivals. From east-central Europe, Poles were the largest single group, arriving from the German, Russian, and Austrian empire. Jews were a close second–although many came from Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Romania, Russian Jews formed the largest contingent. A host of smaller groups also came–Hungarians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Carpatho-Rusins, Slovaks, Czechs, Romanians, Slovenes, Croatians, Serbs, Macedonians, Bulgarians, and Greeks.
In contrast to earlier waves of immigrants, the Europeans who came between 1880 and 1924 were predominantly labor-seeking immigrants. However, some did come within family units and some did settle on farms. It was primarily industrial work that drew them to the United States, and they settled in the areas of heaviest industrial activity–New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Midwest and Great Lakes states.
Wage labor immigrants from east-central and southern Europe provided the workforce for America’s industry, and by the turn of the century dominated both heavy and light industry in most sectors. Jews and Italians were prominent in the needle trades. Poles, Italians, Slovaks,
Between World War II and the reform of U.S. immigration laws in 1965, the United States admitted between two and three million European immigrants. Many were political refugees, with Jewish
Following the major reform of U.S. immigration laws in 1965, a steady flow of immigration from Europe developed. Family reunifications, the need for work, political oppression, and the collapse of communism during the 1980’s and 1990’s have been some of the major factors in this continuing stream. Some traditional sending countries continued to provide large numbers of immigrants.
Following the fall of Eastern Europe’s communist governments during the last decade of the twentieth century and the wars and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, a large number of Russians, Jews,
European immigration has continued into the first decade of the twenty-first century, when Europeans were still making up between 15 and 20 percent of the immigrants admitted to the United States. This pattern appeared likely to continue into the foreseeable future.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1986. Useful study of early British immigration to North America. Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. Princeton, N.J.: Visual Education Corporation, 1990. Comprehensive survey of the major immigrant groups in the United States, emphasizing numbers of immigrants, their settlement patterns, and socioeconomic issues. Erickson, Charlotte. American Industry and the European Immigrant, 1860-1885. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957. Excellent study of the employment of European immigrants during the Civil War and postwar eras. _______. Invincible Immigrants: The Adaptation of English and Scottish Immigrants in Nineteenth Century America. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1972. Important survey of the second peak period of British immigration, with useful data and appendixes. Greene, Victor R. A Singing Ambivalence: American Immigrants Between Old World and New, 1830-1930. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2004. Comparative study of the different challenges faced by members of eight major immigrant groups–Irish, Germans, Scandinavians and Finns, eastern European Jews, Italians, Poles and Hungarians, Chinese, and Mexicans–through one of the longest peak periods of immigration. Meltzer, Milton. Bound for America: The Story of the European Immigrants. New York: Benchmark Books, 2001. Very readable history of European immigration to the United States, written for young-adult readers.
Czech and Slovakian immigrants
European revolutions of 1848
Former Soviet Union immigrants
Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants
Russian and Soviet immigrants
Yugoslav state immigrants