To an extent greater than in most other states, Pennsylvania’s tradition of immigration in colonial times continued to influence its development for a long period thereafter. During the nineteenth century, the state’s iron and steel and coal industries attracted large numbers of immigrants from Europe. The twentieth century saw a slowing of immigration, and at the turn of the twenty-first century, the percentage of the state’s residents who were foreign born was much less than one-half the national average.

Founded by Penn, WilliamWilliam Penn during the late seventeenth century, as a haven for religious freedom and economic self-betterment, Pennsylvania continued to attract immigrants with similar views into the nineteenth century. In 1803, for example, the pietist Rapp, GeorgeGeorge Rapp established in Pennsylvania the Harmony Society, whose ideals resembled those of the earlier New England Puritans. These people’s mode of living was essentially farm life. Another group, the Sylvania SocietySylvania Society, practiced the regimen prescribed by the utopian Fourierist movement. German immigrants;PennsylvaniaAmish communities;PennsylvaniaGerman Amish and Mennonites;PennsylvaniaMennonite settlers also entered Pennsylvania during the early nineteenth century. Not all these religious communities remained in the state, but those who did continued to keep their cultures alive for remarkably long periods. Many of the Amish who began entering the state around 1817 sought the advice of earlier settlers, thereby retaining the
wisdom of their sect’s past. The Amish have continued to live by their traditional standards into the twenty-first century.PennsylvaniaPennsylvania[cat]STATES;Pennsylvania[04130]

Fanciful late nineteenth century depiction of William Penn negotiating a land purchase with local Native American leaders.

(Gay Brothers)

In contrast to the Amish, most of Pennsylvania’s many other German immigrants entered the mainstream of society, as did the state’s Irish immigrants;PennsylvaniaIrish immigrants. As Coal industry;Pennsylvaniacoal fields were developed, Pennsylvania offered many jobs to immigrants, though often of a very difficult kind. Irish immigrants tended to gravitate to the Scranton area to labor in anthracite mines. Other settlers moved to the western part of the state. As early as 1800, boat-building was an important industry where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers joined in Pittsburgh to form the Ohio RiverOhio River. As a tributary of the Mississippi, the Ohio River provided a major route for shipping goods to the outside world.

Immigration, 1830-1914

Immigration to Pennsylvania centered on the industrial area in the western part of the state, the anthracite region in the northeast, and the great city of Philadelphia in the southeast. As Iron and steel industry;Pennsylvaniasteel manufacturing became a major industry in Pittsburgh, Polish immigrants;PennsylvaniaPoles, Croatian immigrantsSerbian immigrantsCroatians, Serbian immigrants;PennsylvaniaSerbians, Slovak immigrants;PennsylvaniaSlovaks, and other eastern European immigrants found work in the city’s mills and the region’s Coal industry;Pennsylvaniabituminous coal mines. By the 1870’s, Pittsburgh was producing 40 percent of the nation’s iron output and about 50 percent its glass. As the state’s bituminous coal industry expanded in the counties of Allegheny, Fayette, and Westmoreland, Polish and Slovak immigrants played increasingly important roles in its labor force. Until after World War II, most of them lived in ethnic enclaves and associated in their
ethnic churches and fraternal societies. Eventually, Pennsylvania would be home to the fourth-largest Polish population in the United States.

Irish Irish immigrants;Pennsylvaniaimmigrants who were driven from their homeland by the potato famine of the late 1840’s found work in Pennsylvania as laborers and farmers, as in other states. However, many of them worked in the state’s anthracite coal mines at jobs that were extremely dangerous and for which no provisions were made for the health and safety of miners. In a long struggle to build effective trade unions, they retaliated against owners by creating a Secret societies;Irishsecret society known as the Molly MaguiresMolly Maguires that conducted a campaign of violence until it was broken up in 1875 by an Irish Pinkerton detective who infiltrated the organization. Other immigrant groups whose members worked in the coal mines included Slavs, Hungarians, and Poles. After 1880, they were joined by Russian immigrants;PennsylvaniaRussians. Meanwhile, about 200,000 Italian immigrants;PennsylvaniaTextile industry;Italian immigrantsItalians immigrated to Pennsylvania between 1880 and 1914. Many of them worked in
the textile industry, construction trades, and railroad line maintenance.

Post World War II Immigration

Between the two great world wars of the twentieth century, immigration into Pennsylvania declined sharply. After World War II, and especially during the last decades of the century and the first decade of the next, the pattern of immigration into the state differed considerably from that of the rest of the United States. The 2000 U.S. Census found that only 5.1 percent of Pennsylvania residents were foreign born–much less than one-half the national average of 12.5 percent. Likewise, the percentage of state residents of Asian ancestry was only a little more than one-half the national average, and the portion of Hispanic residents was only 4.5 percent–less than one-third the national average of 15.7 percent. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, India, and Vietnam were the most numerous among the state’s foreign born.Pennsylvania

Further Reading

  • Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Growing Up in Coal Country. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Social history of Pennsylvania’s coal industry from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries. Discusses the role of immigrants in the social structure of coal camps and in early labor movements.
  • Bell, Thomas. Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976. Originally published in 1941, this historical novel is set in the steel mills and communities of Braddock, Pennsylvania, drawing on three generations of the author’s own Slovak family history.
  • Miller, Randall M., and William Pencak. Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. Authoritative general history of the state.
  • Nolt, Steven M., and Thomas J. Meyers. Plain Diversity: Amish Cultures and Identities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Scholarly study of the unique culture and traditions of the Amish, who settled primarily in Pennsylvania.
  • Parsons, William T. The Pennsylvania Dutch: A Persistent Minority. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Survey of the history of German immigrants in Pennsylvania.
  • Salinger, Sharon V. “To Serve Well and Faithfully”: Labor and Indentured Servants in Pennsylvania, 1682-1800. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Study of labor through Pennsylvania’s colonial era, with special attention to the indentured servant system through which many immigrants came to America.


Coal industry

German immigrants

Irish immigrants

Iron and steel industry


Philadelphia anti-Irish riots

Polish immigrants

Religions of immigrants

Vietnamese immigrants