A mighty river whose watershed forms the continent’s heartland, the Mississippi provided inexpensive transit for immigrants bound for the Midwest and the western frontier. Many settled in the riverfront cities or on nearby lands. Their work increased the output of the region’s fields and factories, whose products were then shipped out via river transit. Unique cultural features evolved from the mix of immigrant settlers in major riverfront cities such as New Orleans.
The Mississippi River functioned as a magnet for immigrants even before becoming part of the United States. Discovered by the sixteenth century Spanish explorer
In the surrounding Delta country,
One early aspect of the
French immigrants also predominated at this time in the river’s upper reaches.
Early during the nineteenth century, the wilderness was partially cleared and states were established in the former Northwest Territory. Their settlers often came via the Mississippi’s eastern tributaries such as the
Like the French migrants to the Mississippi Delta, many other immigrants came as refugees from disasters in their homeland. The Irish faced starvation at home from the potato blight of the mid-nineteenth century. France and Germany churned with political turbulence and the uprooting of a centuries-old social order. If the Mississippi Valley was “untamed” in comparison, it still offered the chance to build a new life without being caught up in civic unrest.
With prospective statehood on the horizon during the early 1850’s, Kansas and Missouri were caught in the struggle over slave- versus free-state status. During the ensuing Civil War (1861-1865), it was clear that control of the Mississippi was vitally important to both sides. The war endangered ordinary river traffic, and immigration slowed drastically. There was a fair amount of immigrant participation in the war, however, supporting both sides.
In the post-Civil War North, industry expanded to become the driving engine of the U.S. economy. The West was transformed from frontier to an integral part of the nation. The
Most of the first wave of post-Civil War immigrants, like their predecessors, came from northern and western Europe and assimilated fairly well into the existing river towns. The raw materials they produced–hardwood lumber, ore, grain, and other
By 1890, the midwestern and Great Lakes states were becoming industrial powerhouses, and the composition of the immigrant flow changed. More than 18 million migrants were to enter the United States in the next thirty years, a rate double that of earlier times. These immigrants came largely from eastern and southern Europe: from Italy, Slavic areas and other parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, and the Baltic region. They immigrated to find work in factories and mines, and their mores and culture were different enough from those of established inhabitants to arouse suspicion. For example, a low-lying district called Bohemian Flats sprang up in Minneapolis. While it was inhabited by hardworking families, the fact that most residents were Czechs or Slovaks was nearly as suspect as the shantylike houses and frequent floods that predominated there.
During this period too, some unexpected immigrant enclaves developed. In Mississippi, immigrant Italians set up fishing and canning enterprises; others became wholesalers of seafood and imported food items. Into the same area moved
World War I drastically slowed the inflow of migrants. Although a certain number of Europeans still came as refugees from the war and its aftermath, its net effect put a lid on mass migration to the Mississippi Valley as well as the rest of the nation. During the early 1920’s, there was a rebound in immigration from the war-torn European countries, but this was cut off by legislation in 1924 that established national quotas and for the first time limited the total number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States. It is notable that the only strong opposition to these measures was in the northeastern states, not the Mississippi Valley, which had also benefited much from immigrants’ contributions. In fact, anti-German sentiment that accompanied the war was intense in the Middle West. It probably sped up the assimilation process in this region for the many residents of German or middle European origin. Because it was no longer acceptable to speak the German language, much less express any solidarity with their (or their ancestors’) homeland, such residents redoubled their efforts to blend into the “melting pot.”
With the Great Depression of the 1930’s, World War II, and the quota system all contributing, the region experienced a dearth of new immigrants for several decades. Those who did come were often the beneficiaries of special provisions based on world events:
Immigration possibilities changed drastically with passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This law repealed the existing quota system and based most immigration decisions, in theory, on family-related or skills-related considerations. Air travel and the automobile had replaced riverboats as a way for immigrants to reach their destination. For the first time, large numbers of migrants came to America’s heartland from Asia and Latin America. These new migrants had a wide variety of work and educational backgrounds. Like native-born Americans, they went where the jobs were.
Ambrose, Stephen E., and Douglas G. Brinkley. The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2002. Lavishly illustrated volume written by two distinguished historians. Shows the river as both a channel for commerce and a natural resource. Biographical sketches of many famous immigrants. McDermott, John Francis, ed. Frenchmen and French Ways in the Mississippi Valley. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1969. Studies of the contributions of French explorers and immigrants to the Mississippi region. _______. The Spanish in the Mississippi Valley, 1762-1804. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Papers on the era of Spanish ownership and maximum influence. Massey, Douglas S., ed. New Faces in New Places: The Changing Geography of American Immigration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008. Symposium articles showing how non-Western and Latino immigrants have brought a new diversity to American life since the 1960’s. Includes studies of midwestern and southern destinations. Thornell, John. “Struggle for Identity in the Most Southern Place on Earth: The Chinese in the Mississippi Delta.” Chinese America: History and Perspectives (January, 2003): 63. Scholarly but lively article tracing the survival strategies of the Chinese community from 1870 on.
Natural disasters as push-pull factors
Transportation of immigrants