Settlement patterns

Immigrants to the United States from all regions of the world have generally tended to settle among communities that already have people from their own homelands, making the United States a land of enclaves, neighborhoods, and districts with both American and foreign flavors. Although such communities may slow the assimilation of immigrants into American culture, they also help newcomers make easier transitions to American life and even become places in which other people can learn about immigrant cultures.

Because all the people who have come to the shores of what is now the United States were immigrants, every place they settled was originally an immigrant settlement. The British North American colonies that would become the first thirteen American states were settled almost exclusively by European immigrants, along with substantial numbers of involuntary immigrants imported from Africa as slaves. After independence, with the states established, American settlements began expanding west beyond the Mississippi River. By this time, the total population of native-born Americans was about four million, including African slaves.Settlement patternsSettlement patterns[cat]LAND;Settlement patterns[cat]ETHNIC ENCLAVES;Settlement patterns[cat]DEMOGRAPHICS;Settlement patterns[cat]TRANSPORTATION;Settlement patterns

European Immigrant Patterns

The vast majority of the Irish, Italian, and British immigrants who came during the early to mid-nineteenth century settled in cities. Most of them came from rural communities, but when they arrived in the United States, few of them had funds with which to buy farmland. In any case, some had been so badly treated by their landlords in their native countries that they wanted nothing more to do with farming. Moreover, their unfamiliarity with American farming practices put them at a disadvantage. At the same time, wage-paying jobs were usually more plentiful in the cities than in the countryside. In urban centers, they met fellow countrymen who had immigrated before them and established lives and communities in cities, to which the newcomers naturally gravitated.

During the 1860’s, two new developments enhanced the attractions of farming for immigrants. In 1862, the U.S. Congress passed the Homestead Act, which made available to both Americans and immigrants plots of land of up to 160 acres in return for residing on and developing the land. The same decade saw the construction of the first transcontinental railroad line, which was completed in 1869. Additional transcontinental lines soon followed. To help the railroad companies finance construction and to spur settlement and development of the relatively empty expanses through which many of the railroad lines passed, the federal government gave the companies vast tracts of land surrounding the tracks. The railroads in turn sold much of the land to settlers–some of whom helped to build the railroad lines–and actively encouraged European immigrants to come to the United States. The available of free and cheap land was a powerful lure to many immigrants.

German immigrants who preferred urban life established large communities in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Milwaukee. Those who wanted to farm went on westward to the Old Northwest Territory or the Great Lakes region, which were still largely unsettled.

Italian immigrants initially settled mostly along the East Coast, but they soon fanned out to the Midwest and eventually all the way to the West Coast. In many large cities, they established enclaves that became known as Little ItaliesLittle Italies. These were close-knit neighborhoods in which familiar foods and customs prevailed. By the twentieth century, however, as Italians became more Americanized, they tended to disperse, often leaving only their restaurants as reminders of the Italian neighborhoods.

Scandinavian immigrants tended to go to unsettled rural areas in the upper Midwest, rather than cities, where the climate and terrain were similar to those of their homelands. Swedes and Danes spread out over especially vast regions. Finnish immigrants tended to settle mostly in Michigan and Minnesota. Danes had little hesitation about intermarrying with non-Danes and consequently nearly disappeared as a recognizable ethnic group. In contrast, Finns were more clannish and stayed pretty much with their own kind. Norwegians and Swedes tended to maintain their distinctively rural character longer than the other Scandinavian immigrant groups, but even they were becoming primarily urban dwellers by the twentieth century. Meanwhile, Scandinavian settlements continued to attract new immigrants from the old countries.

Asian Immigrant Settlements

The first significant numbers of Asians to immigrate to the United States were Chinese who came to California to work in the gold mines opening during the 1850’s and to Hawaii to work on sugar cane plantations. Shunned and ill-treated by the non-Asians who surrounded them, the Chinese soon established strong communities within Northern California and Hawaii. As they spread out across the United States, they established Chinatowns in virtually every city in which they settled in significant numbers. These enclaves featured distinctively Chinese architecture and Chinese shops and restaurants that not only served the communities’ own residents but also attracted tourists.

Ceremony commemorating the completion of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869. Completion of the cross-country line greatly accelerated the settlement of the Far West.

(Getty Images)

The Japanese immigrants who came later followed a similar pattern. “Little Tokyos” and “Japantowns” began appear in cities in Hawaii and California during the 1870’s. As these communities grew in size, they added ethnic shops, restaurants, theaters, hotels, Japanese baths, and sushi bars.

Late Twentieth to Twenty-first Century Patterns

After the great waves of immigration from Europe crested during the first decades of the twentieth century, new immigration slowed considerably for many decades. In some years during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the United States actually experienced net negative immigration, with more immigrants leaving the country than entering it. During the 1940’s, as the U.S. government began relaxing restrictions on immigration, the rates of immigration began climbing again. Passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was a turning point in U.S. immigration history. That law removed restrictions on nationalities that had been effectively blocked from entering the United States since the 1920’s and triggered a huge surge in total immigration. Since the 1960’s, immigrants from all over the world have settled in every American state, but seven states have received disproportionate shares of new immigration: California, New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois.

Thanks to the 1965 immigration law’s removal of national origins quotas, Asians began entering the country in unprecedented numbers, especially Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Asian Indians. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian peoples began immigrating in large numbers. Many of these new Asian immigrants expanded existing enclaves of earlier immigrants or established new ones. Consequently, in addition to existing Chinatowns and Little Tokyos, most large American cities soon had districts known as Koreatowns, Little Manilas, Little Saigons, and Little Indias. By the mid-1980’s, the well-known Chinatown in New York’s Manhattan grew so large that it no longer had room to expand, and new Chinatowns began arising in other parts of New York City, including the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.

Filipinos, most of whom first came to the western United States and Hawaii during the early twentieth century to do agricultural work, also established enclaves in many American cities. However, their largest concentrations have been in Southern California’s Los Angeles and Orange counties. By the early twenty-first century, the city of Los Angeles was home to the largest concentration of Filipinos outside the Philippine Islands. In contrast to the early Filipino immigrants, who were mostly farmworkers, a large proportion of the Filipinos who began immigrating to the United States during the late twentieth century have been professionals, especially in the medical professions. In fact, so many Filipinos with medical training have settled in Illinois that they have established a small Filipino enclave in north Chicago.

Another previously underrepresented part of the world from which immigrants have come since the 1960’s is the predominantly Muslim Middle East, including North Africa, a large region that encompasses Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and many other countries. Immigrants from that part of the world have tended to settle in major American cities, such as New York, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Many Middle Eastern immigrants have come seeking educational opportunities. Consequently, they have established communities in many cities known for their institutions of higher living. African immigrants have also tended to be concentrated in cities with colleges and universities.

One of the largest categories of modern immigrants have been Hispanic peoples from Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Many of these people, especially those from Mexico and Central America, have come to the United States to do farmwork and have tended to go wherever they can find work. Those who have come with the intention of settling permanently in the United States have tended to go to regions close to where they enter the country. For example, Mexicans and Central Americans have tended to settle in American border states, and Cubans in South Florida. However, there has also been a growing trend for Hispanic immigrants to disperse throughout the United States in unprecedented numbers. By the early twenty-first century, sizable Mexican communities could be found not only in western and southwestern border states but also throughout the Southeast and the Midwest and even in such eastern and northern metropolitan centers as New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.Settlement patterns

Further Reading

  • Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. Princeton, N.J.: Visual Education Corporation, 1990. Comprehensive overview of the major immigrant groups who have come to the United States, emphasizing demographic data and socioeconomic settlement patterns.
  • Massey, Douglas S. New Faces in New Places: The Changing Geography of American Immigration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008. Explores relatively recent changes in immigrant settlement sites, from large cities to small towns, and the resulting concerns.
  • Olesker, Michael. Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2001. Stories about Baltimore, Maryland, as a melting pot of generational ethnic enclaves and neighborhoods of Italians, African Americans, and other groups.
  • Pedraza, Silvia, and Rubén G. Rumbaut, eds. Origins and Destinies: Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity in America. New York: Wadsworth, 1996. Collection of stories of European, Latin American, Asian, and African immigrants through the twentieth century.
  • Rodriguez, Gregory. Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds. New York: Random House, 2007. Describes the movement and settlement of various Hispanic groups who immigrated to America, from colonial to modern times.
  • Wheeler, Thomas C., ed. The Immigrant Experience: The Anguish of Becoming American. New York: Dial Press, 1971. Chronicles the stories of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Norway, Puerto Rico, China, England, and Poland, with chapters on African American and Jewish immigrants.

Alien land laws

Asian immigrants



Coal industry


Gentlemen’s Agreement

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Quota systems

Social networks