The basic structure of Tennessee’s population was set during the colonial era, when most of its residents were British settlers and African slaves. Other Europeans immigrated then and during the nineteenth century, but their numbers were never great. During the last decades of the twentieth century, the state began undergoing a transformation, as substantial numbers of Asians and Hispanics began entering the state.

The earliest European settlers of Tennessee were primarily of Scotch-Irish immigrants[Scotch Irish immigrants];TennesseeScotch-Irish and English ancestry. However, German immigrants;TennesseeGermans and other Europeans were also among the early settlers, along with substantial numbers of African slaves. Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, however, Tennessee attracted few new foreign immigrants. Many of those who did come during this period were drawn to urban developments in the state. During the 1850’s, for example, Memphis was one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. Standing on the Mississippi River, it was well positioned to attract both immigrants and commerce moving up the river. Not surprisingly, Memphis drew many of the Irish and German immigrants who were fleeing famine and political turmoil in Europe.TennesseeTennessee[cat]STATES;Tennessee

Other immigrants sought more bucolic attractions. During the 1840’s, dozens of German and Swiss immigrants;TennesseeSwiss families settled in Wartburg, an east Tennessee community developed by out-of-state businessmen. The settlement did not prosper, however, so most of its settlers eventually moved on to other towns, such as nearby Knoxville. During the post-Civil War era, several colonization companies and immigration societies–including one spearheaded by Germans already living in Nashville–attempted to encourage Swiss and German settlement in Tennessee. Their efforts met with mixed success, but several small but enduring immigrant communities did result.

Modern Immigration

Substantial foreign immigration to Tennessee has been largely a late twentieth century development. Indeed, much occurred during the 1990’s and first decade of the twenty-first century, particularly during the economic boom of the 1990’s. In contrast to earlier eras, many of the new immigrants have been nonwhite–a trend that has challenged Tennessee’s image as a predominately white and black society.

A large portion of Tennessee’s most recent immigrants have been Asians. Skilled and well-educated Vietnamese immigrants;TennesseeVietnamese immigrants, for example, have found high-tech employment in the state’s Oak Ridge area. Between 1990 and 2000, Tennessee’s Korean immigrants;TennesseeKorean population increased by 64 percent–one of the South’s largest proportional gains for that Asian group. However, many of these arrivals came not from Asia but from West Coast states.

An increasingly diverse city, Nashville has become noted for its Kurdish immigrantsKurdish refugee population from the Middle East. The city’s 10,000-resident “Little Kurdistan” district is home to the largest Kurdish community in the United States.

As in earlier times, most of the growth in immigrant populations has been in Tennessee’s large cities. However, there have been exceptions to this pattern. For example, Hmong immigrants;TennesseeHmong immigrants from Southeast Asia have preferred to settle in smaller communities. These people originated in remote rural areas of Laos and its neighboring countries. Many of them settled in big northern cities when they came to the United States and later relocated to smaller towns in southern states after having had their fill of inner-city life in the North. By 2008, Tennessee had the fifth-largest Hmong population among the southern states.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, Tennessee also had one of the nation’s fastest-growing Hispanic populations. Indeed, between 1990 and 2000, the state’s 278 percent increase in Hispanic residents ranked it fourth in the South in the rate of increase. Most of Tennessee’s Hispanic immigrants have been Mexicans, but representatives of other Latin American nationalities have also come to the state. Most Hispanic residents have been employed in agriculture, the construction trades, and in the distribution and service sectors. The increase in the Hispanic population has been especially evident in some rural areas, in which the immigrants have found agricultural work. For example, Hamblen County in east Tennessee saw its Hispanic population triple between 1990 and 2000. By 2008, Hispanic residents constituted 5.7 percent of the country’s total population. The largest concentration of Hispanics, however, has been in Middle Tennessee, around the Nashville-Davidson County Metropolitan Area. A large but unknown number of these immigrants are undocumented.Tennessee

Further Reading

  • Berkeley, Kathleen C. “Ethnicity and Its Implications for Southern Urban History: The Saga of Memphis, Tennessee, 1850-1880.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50 (1991): 193-202.
  • Dykeman, Wilma. Tennessee: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.
  • Ray, Celeste, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Vol. 6. Ethnicity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Van West, Carol, ed. The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Nashville: Tennessee Historical Society, 1998.

Asian immigrants

British immigrants

Economic opportunities

European immigrants

German immigrants

Irish immigrants

Korean immigrants

Mexican immigrants

Vietnamese immigrants