Internal migration

The movement of people from rural to urban or suburban communities, as well as racial, age, and other groups moving from one part of the country to another, has significant economic and political consequences. When regions gain or lose workers, consumers, and voting power, their business interests may prosper or decline as a result.

Internal migration began in North America after the earliest immigration of hunters from Siberia across a land bridge into what would become Alaska. Gradually, during the last Ice Age and the centuries that followed it, the peoples who came to be categorized as Native Americans made their way through Alaska and the interior of western Canada or along the Pacific Coast into the middle of North America. Thousands of years later, other peoples, the Aleuts and the Inuit, crossed the Bering Strait and then migrated to make their homes in western and northern Alaska. Even later, about 400 c.e., Polynesians arrived at the Hawaiian Islands and eventually migrated throughout them.Migration, internal

A family head to California from Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1939.

(Library of Congress)

After the European discovery of America, the greatest internal migration of Europeans and their descendants within the present-day United States came with the expansion of settlement in the thirteen British colonies that eventually emerged on the Atlantic Coast. Traveling often up river valleys and eventually through Appalachian passes, European Americans had made homes for themselves in Tennessee and Kentucky by the time the American Revolution started in 1775. When Britain and the United States formally made peace in 1783, the new nation stretched west to the Mississippi River, and settlers soon filled the land.

Early Movement

When European Americans moved west, surviving Native AmericansNative Americans often had to move ahead of them. That pattern continued after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Mexican cession in 1848, and other territorial acquisitions by the United States, until most Native Americans in the forty-eight contiguous states were confined to tribal lands much smaller than and often significantly different from the lands their ancestors had hunted or farmed.

Besides Native Americans, the other big group whose members involuntarily migrated consisted of African Americans. Slavery;migration of slavesAfter the first African slaves arrived at Jamestown in 1619, slavery eventually spread throughout the thirteen British colonies but was most common on plantations from Maryland to Georgia. When cotton replaced tobacco as the biggest cash crop in the South and European Americans moved westward, slavery spread all the way to Texas. The legal importation of enslaved Africans ended in 1808, but until the American Civil War, the domestic market for slaves and their consequent migration continued in the states where slavery was still legal.

Although people born in the United States were migrating westward, even as far as the Pacific Coast, Immigration;ChineseChinese people were crossing the Pacific Ocean eastward to San Francisco. Those who did not remain there moved elsewhere in California and other Western states, often building railroads or working in mines. Other Asian immigrants, including the Japanese, would later arrive in the United States and migrate internally.

The biggest influx of Immigration;Europeanimmigrants at the time, however, was from Europe. Although some stayed in the Northeastern cities where they had disembarked, many others moved west, becoming part of the mainstream of migration in America. By 1890, there was no more frontier in the United States, except for Alaska, but immigrants kept arriving, most notably during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from southern and eastern Europe. If they did not stay in the cities where they landed, they usually migrated to other industrial cities, because by then America was shifting its employment opportunities from agriculture to industry.

Later Movement

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States was becoming heavily Industrial Revolution, Americanindustrialized, and agriculture was becoming more scientific. The lure of jobs in factories drew Americans away from farms and into cities. Great MigrationFor African Americans, opportunities opened during a lull in immigration during World War I, and many of them left the rural South by train for industrial cities, sometimes southern ones but more often ones in the North, where racial segregation was not as solidly embedded in law. European Americans also left farms in the Midwest and the South early in the twentieth century, pushed out by poverty, agricultural efficiency, and the hope of bettering themselves in a city. Although the Great Depression of the 1930’s slowed the movement of Americans from farms to cities, a severe drought in the southern Great Plains combined with unwise farming to create the Dust BowlDust Bowl in the Oklahoma Panhandle and parts of the adjacent states and thus to lead thousands of families to leave their homes in the hope of working in California fields.

With World War II came an end to economic depression, and with peace there came a massive movement of families, mostly European American, from cities proper to their suburbs–a movement made possible by an abundance of automobiles and good roads. There also came eventually, despite notable growth in the population of Alaska, a trend of moving away from areas with cold winters. Thus, for example, partly because of air-conditioning, the populations of Florida and southern Arizona grew enormously. Immigration;MexicanThe national population continued to grow into the twenty-first century, in large measure because of massive immigration from Mexico and Central America, sometimes legal but often illegal. Many of those new residents of the United States moved well beyond the Mexican border, thus contributing their part to the long story of American internal migration.

Further Reading

  • Flanders, Stephen A. Atlas of American Migration. New York: Facts on File, 1998. With numerous visual aids and statistics, Flanders presents for a general audience both immigration and internal migration from the Stone Age to the late twentieth century.
  • Gregory, James N. The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Integrated, thematically organized study of two massive twentieth century migrations from the traditional South and their political, social, and religious effects.
  • Longino, Charles F., Jr. Retirement Migration in America. Houston: Vacation, 1995. Statistically rich study of the movement of elderly Americans after their retirement.
  • Rodriguez, Marc S., ed. Repositioning North American Migration History: New Directions in Modern Continental Migration, Citizenship, and Community. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Migrating, building a community, and forming a nation are the ideas linking these scholarly essays.
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: H. Holt, 1920. The first chapter is a reprint of the classic paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which Turner presented in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.

Automotive industry

Bracero program

California gold rush

Dust Bowl

Farm labor

Great Migration


Land laws


Slave era