Massachusetts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Before New York Harbor’s Ellis Island became the major East Coast immigration reception center in 1892, many European immigrants entered the United States through Boston, Massachusetts. Irish immigrants predominated during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, with large numbers of Italians arriving during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. Later immigration became much more diverse, with large influxes of Jamaicans, Portuguese-speaking peoples, and Chinese entering the state during the late twentieth century.

Populated British immigrants;Massachusettschiefly by English settlers during its century-and-a-half existence as a British colony, Massachusetts attracted more immigrants from England, British North America, and Ireland during the early decades of the nineteenth century. By the 1840’s, famine conditions in Ireland were provoking tens of thousands of Irish people to cross the Atlantic Ocean; most of them entered the United States through New York and Boston;Irish immigrantsBoston. These immigrants were mostly poor and had no means of traveling beyond the American cities in which they first arrived, but most of them had farmed small plots of land and had no experience working in an urban environment. In 1845, nearly one-third of all people living in Boston were either foreign born or children of foreign-born immigrants; many of these were from English backgrounds. By 1850, a large Irish influx had helped raise this figure to 45.7 percent in 1850. By 1855, more than one-half the people in Boston were immigrants and their children. Through most of that period, Irish immigrants outnumbered all other ethnic groups combined.MassachusettsBoston;as port ofentry[port of entry]Irish immigrants;MassachusettsItalian immigrants;MassachusettsJamaican immigrants;MassachusettsPortuguese immigrants;MassachusettsChinese immigrants;MassachusettsMassachusetts[cat]STATES;Massachusetts[03430]Boston;as port of entry[port of entry]Irish immigrants;MassachusettsItalian immigrants;MassachusettsJamaican immigrants;MassachusettsPortuguese immigrants;MassachusettsChinese immigrants;Massachusetts

Later Immigrants

Irish Americans gradually moved out of Boston into rural Massachusetts as men found work as farmhands and Day laborers;Irish immigrantsday laborers, but others became smiths, hostlers, stablers, carpenters, and waiters. Because these newcomers trusted and understood one another, many of them found work serving their neighbors as butchers, grocers, and tailors. One field of endeavor particularly open to Irish women was Domestic workers;Irishdomestic help. In contrast to many other immigrants, Irish immigrants arrived in the United States already speaking English, and many young single women were satisfied to work for little more than their board and lodging.

The Irish who remained in poor and overcrowded conditions in Massachusetts cities increased disease and crime. Within the predominantly Protestant state, the Roman Catholics;Irishimmigrants’ Roman Catholics;MassachusettsRoman Catholic religion was viewed with suspicion. In 1834, an Ursuline convent in Charlestown was attacked by a Protestant mob and burned to the ground. During the 1850’s, a nativist movement known as the Know-Nothing Party[Know Nothing Party];in Massachusetts[Massachusetts]Know-Nothing Party raised fears that the devotion of Catholics to the pope would challenge American democracy. This movement was short-lived, but the fear of Catholics that it engendered persisted until 1960, when Kennedy, John F.[p]Kennedy, John F.;Irish ancestryJohn F. Kennedy, of the Irish Catholic descent, ran for the presidency.

Catholic immigrants in Massachusetts generally maintained their religious affiliations, but Protestant immigrants often did not. Swedish immigrants;MassachusettsSwedish immigrants, for example, were mostly Lutherans when they arrived, but when they could not easily find Lutheran congregations, they were inclined to turn to more convenient churches of other Protestant denominations. Other features of immigrants’ culture reshaped and became part of the mainstream, but immigrants also shed features of culture that did not fit into the pattern of life in Massachusetts. Immigrants generally adopted mainstream clothing, food, music, and games, even when these differed considerably from those of their homelands.

The Textile industry;Massachusettsgrowth of large fabric mills throughout the nineteenth century brought many French Canadian immigrants;MassachusettsFrench Canadians into Massachusetts. Their form of Roman Catholicism was less unpopular in Massachusetts than that of the Irish, but their French-speaking children exerted a strain on an educational system with little experience of absorbing non-English-speaking children.

Early Twentieth Century Developments

During the years immediately preceding and following 1900, new waves of immigrants began entering Massachusetts: Jewish immigrants;MassachusettsJews from Russia, and non-English-speaking newcomers from southern and eastern Europe. The largest number came from Italian immigrants;MassachusettsItaly, and most of these came from southern Italy. Italians tended to live in ethnic enclaves in big cities, such as Boston;ethnic enclavesBoston’s North End. They did not readily mix with established communities–either native-born residents or other immigrants. The Italians’ darker skins set them apart from the Irish and German immigrants whom Massachusetts natives had already encountered.

Many first-generation Italian immigrant men worked at pick-and-shovel jobs in various locations. The women generally did not work outside their homes but often did piecework and sewing at home to supplement their husbands’ incomes. Children were sent out to work as soon as they were old enough to take jobs. Some were taken out of school so they could go to work as early as possible.

Many immigrant workers determined that the Industrial Workers of the World;and Italian immigrants[Italian immigrants]Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) served their needs better than the American Federation of Labor;and Italian immigrants[Italian immigrants]American Federation of Labor. After the mostly unskilled immigrant workers received a pay cut in mills along the Merrimack River in Lawrence, the IWW organized a general strike on their behalf. The strike lasted two months during the winter of 1912 and led to violence and prosecution of workers. Before it ended, hundreds of Russian, Italian, and French Canadian laborers went back to their homelands.

French Canadian immigrants working at a Winchendon, Massachusetts, mill in 1911.

(Library of Congress)

Prospective immigrants, many of whom were family members and relatives of those who had come earlier, found new federal laws blocking them during the 1920’s, particularly the Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the number of admissible immigrants to 2 percent of the population from any country already living in the United States in 1890. This law virtually excluded new immigrants from southern and eastern European countries. The law also included an act specifically banning Asian populations entirely. Thus immigration for the next few decades consisted mainly of northern and western Europeans.

Late Twentieth Century Developments

In 1965, the U.S. Congress replaced the 1924 immigration law with one that based immigration standards not on race or nationality but on skills. This allowed many more southern and eastern Europeans to enter the country, as well as educated Asians who would make important contributions to the nation.

After 1965, immigration from the Caribbean increased, particularly from the English-speaking island nation of Jamaican immigrants;MassachusettsJamaica. Many Jamaican professionals and skilled workers settled in Massachusetts. By the year 2000, most of the state’s immigrants were coming from the Caribbean, Portuguese immigrants;MassachusettsPortugal, and Canadian immigrants;MassachusettsCanada. A Northeastern University study covering 1999-2001 found that 47 percent of Massachusetts’s immigrants possessed some post-secondary education, and 25 percent engaged in professional services. Among all skilled and semiskilled blue-collar workers in Massachusetts. 45 percent were foreign born.

A Census Bureau community survey in 2006 established Brazilian immigrants;MassachusettsBrazil, Chinese immigrants;MassachusettsChina, and Portugal (including Portuguese islands) as the top sources of Massachusetts immigration. Early during the twenty-first century only Florida attracted more Brazilians than Massachusetts. Brazilian immigrants found many jobs in food services, but a large portion of them were in professional services.Massachusetts

Further Reading
  • Handlin, Oscar. Boston’s Immigrants. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1969. Study of Boston’s immigrants up to the time of the Civil War by one of the leading scholars of American immigration history.
  • Puleo, Stephen. The Boston Italians. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007. Well-researched book on the history of one ethnic group settling in one large city.
  • Rivard, Paul E. A New Order of Things: How the Textile Industry Transformed New England. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2002. Detailed study of immigrant textile workers in Massachusetts by a former official of the American Textile History Museum in Lowell.
  • Solomon, Barbara Miller. Ancestors and Immigrants: A Changing New England Tradition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956. Exploration of the development of restrictions on New England immigration between the 1850’s and 1920’s.
  • Ueda, Reed, and Conrad Edick Wright, eds. Faces of Community: Immigrant Massachusetts, 1860-2000. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003. Collection of essays demonstrating how several immigrant groups adapted to their Massachusetts environment during the later nineteenth century.
  • Watson, Bruce. Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream. New York: Viking Press, 2005. Detailed look at the situation that confronted immigrant textile workers in Lowell during the early twentieth century.



Brazilian immigrants


German immigrants

Industrial Workers of the World

Mexican immigrants

Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants

Religions of immigrants

Women immigrants

Categories: History