European immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

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.European immigrantsEuropean immigrants[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;European immigrants[01670][cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;European immigrants[01670]

Historical Origins of Transatlantic Migration

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 Huguenot immigrantsFrench Huguenots who moved to England, and Irish and Scottish Roman Catholics who left the British Isles for the Continent.

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 French and Indian WarFrench and Indian War; 1756-1763), Bernard Bailyn found that one-third of all British immigrantsimmigrants to North America came from London or its surrounding counties and one-quarter directly from London itself. Of these immigrants, many were relatively recent arrivals in the British capital city. Two-thirds of these immigrants were Scottish immigrantsScots, many of whom came as a result of political and economic disruptions in the Highland regions.

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.

Market Economies and Industrialization

The Industrial Revolutionprocess of European immigration to the New World is closely tied to economic and social changes in Europe that were well underway by the eighteenth century. In England, the process of enclosure took open land away from peasant-tenant farmers, often to create pasture land for raising sheep, encouraged by the growth of the profitable wool trade. Although this movement began during the late medieval period, it accelerated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Dispossessed peasants were sometimes compensated with less desirable pieces of land, but many migrated to cities or to rural areas to work as wage laborers. The common saying was that England was a land where sheep eat men. In Ireland, Scotland, and parts of Germany, efforts to modernize farming had a similar effect that, coupled with wars and political upheaval, resulted in the growth of a class of landless or land-poor people in need of wage labor.

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 Ottoman Empire;and Balkans[Balkans]Ottoman control receded.

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.

Those Push-pull factors[push pull factors];and European immigrants[European immigrants]living close to industrial areas in Europe were usually attracted to those regions. Peasants living in more remote areas, however, were more likely to travel overseas, especially to the United States. This was the result of a clear-sighted economic strategy and improving transportation technology, especially railroads and steamships. Over time the speed of travel grew and its costs shrank–not only in the price of tickets but also in the time and other expenses saved. This made the New World more attractive as a destination. Given the higher wages offered in America, the benefits of peasants traveling to America grew accordingly.

Attraction of the New World

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 Women;European immigrantswomen also come as labor-seeking immigrants. However, in most European immigrant streams, with the notable exception of Ireland, men have historically predominated. Labor-seeking immigrants may come for limited periods of time and then return. In the case of European immigrants, this has resulted in Return migration;Europeansvery high return rates from some countries. Among southern Italian immigrants;returneesItalian immigrants, return rates as high as 40 percent were not unknown. The largest groups of labor-seeking immigrants from Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were from eastern and southern Europe.

Refugees Refugees;Europeanor those fleeing some form of religious or political persecution constitute the third type of immigrants. These immigrants–despite their prominence in the public consciousness–have represented by far the least common form of immigration. Political or religious immigrants range from seventeenth century dissenters to victims of Nazi or Soviet terror during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Colonial Immigration

The first significant European immigration to the New World came from the British immigrants;earlyBritish Isles with the first communities formed in New England during the 1620’s. A smaller number of English also settled in Virginia;British immigrantsVirginia and the Chesapeake region. Throughout the seventeenth century and early eighteenth centuries, immigrants arrived in a slow trickle from the British Isles along with some Germans and Swiss immigrants;PennsylvaniaSwiss in Pennsylvania, Dutch and Flemish in New York, and about six hundred Swedes and Finnish immigrants;DelawareFinns in Delaware;Finnish immigrantsDelaware and Pennsylvania. A scattering of Sephardic JewsSephardic Jews, French Protestants, and Poles could also be found. The majority of English settler immigrants came to New England as members of religious dissenter groups. In Virginia and the Chesapeake region, a significant number of Indentured servitude;Virginiaindentured servants from throughoutthe British Isles were transported to serve as labor on tobacco plantations.

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), Scottish immigrantsScots (40,000), and English (30,000). In addition to the transportation of about 85,000 enslaved Africans, the new immigration greatly increased the population of the middle and southern colonies in the years before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

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, 1820-1880

Immigration began to increase once again during the 1820’s in response to the end of the Napoleonic WarsNapoleonic Wars, the western expansion of the United States, and the growth of the American economy. In 1820, 8,385 European immigrants arrived in the United States. Ten years later, arrivals reached 23,322. During the 1840’s and 1850’s, immigration numbers skyrocketed, reaching a peak of 427,833 in 1855 alone. Thereafter, poor economic conditions and the onset of the U.S. Civil War in 1861 again reduced European immigration dramatically. However, it never fell below 100,000 immigrants per year. Immigration grew once more, peaking in 1866 and again in 1873, when arrivals again topped 400,000 per year.

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.

(Library of Congress)

Among immigrants arriving before the Civil War, three groups predominated: Irish immigrantsIrish, Germans, and English. Irish immigrants were the most numerous during the 1840’s and early 1850’s. The Great Irish Famine, repressive English land policies in Ireland, and generally backward economic conditions pushed many Irish to the New World, where they found work as laborers. From the mid-1850’s, German immigrantsGerman immigration dominated arrivals. A high proportion of Germans came as settler immigrants and took up homes and farms in the Midwest and Great Lakes states as well as in cities such as St. Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, Minnesota. Prior to the Civil War, there was also a steadily growing influx of Scandinavians as well as the first significant immigration of Czechs and Poles.

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.

Immigration, 1880-1924

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, Ukrainian immigrantsUkrainians, and Hungarians dominated coal mining and steel making. Polish immigrantPoles were the largest group in auto manufacturing, and Poles and Lithuanians predominated in meatpacking. Finnish immigrantsFinns and southern Slavs were the largest groups in Copper miningcopper and other hard-rock mining. The prominence of these groups made them a significant force in the industrial labor movement of the 1930’s. The success of the Congress of Industrial OrganizationsCongress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the United Auto WorkersUnited Auto Workers (UAW) depended on the support of immigrant workers and their second-generation children.

Post-World War II Immigrants

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 Holocaust;survivorsHolocaust survivors the most prominent among them. There were also significant numbers of Polish immigrantsPoles–victims of Nazi and Soviet genocide and persecution as well as former members of the Polish armed forces in exile who were unable to return home due to communist oppression. Soviet immigrantsRefugees from the Soviet Union who were in Germany were also granted entry–with Balts and Ukrainian immigrantsUkrainians the most numerous. Another often overlooked immigration that resulted from the war was the arrival of War brides;eastern Europeanwar brides of U.S. servicemen. An estimated 100,000 arrived during and after the war. Hungarian immigrantsHungarian freedom fighters were another refugee group from Europe that arrived after the failed Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule.

Immigration Since 1965

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. Irish immigrantsIrish immigrants arrived in the United States during the 1970’s and 1980’s until the dramatic improvement in Ireland’s economic situation during the 1990’s. Dissidents from the Soviet immigrantsSoviet Union and its so-called satellite nations figured prominently in arrivals prior to 1989. Jewish refuseniks from the Soviet Union and Polish Solidarity activists were the best known.

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, Ukrainian immigrantsUkrainians, and Poles, as well as Romanians and Bosnian immigrantsBosnians arrived in the United States. These new immigrants were likely to be better educated than earlier eastern European immigrants. They followed employment trends and could be found throughout the United States where skilled workers were needed. Older patterns of settlement, however, continued to be important. For example, Russian immigrants;JewsRussian Jews settled in New York City in the largest numbers, and by 2000 Polish immigrants;ChicagoChicago;Polish immigrantsPoles had once again become the largest immigrant group in Chicago.

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.European immigrants

Further Reading
  • 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.

Austrian immigrants

Belgian immigrants

British immigrants

Czech and Slovakian immigrants

Dutch immigrants

European revolutions of 1848

Former Soviet Union immigrants

French immigrants

German immigrants

Greek immigrants

Hamburg-Amerika Line

Hungarian immigrants

Irish immigrants

Italian immigrants

Jewish immigrants

Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants

Polish immigrants

Portuguese immigrants

Russian and Soviet immigrants

Scandinavian immigrants

Spanish immigrants

Swiss immigrants

Yugoslav state immigrants

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