Except during the colonial period, foreign immigrants did not constitute a majority of those settling the western fringes of the expanding United States. Still, many did arrive during the nineteenth century, bringing unique traditions and aiding in the economic development of the regions they pioneered.
In settling western lands, immigrants added their numbers and energies to the cause of American nation building, but they also sought their own dreams and interests in the American hinterlands. More often than not, their goals were economic–whether desire for wealth or, more commonly, sufficient land or income to ensure a family competency and economic security for children. Others sought an escape from religious, ethnic, and political oppression, and a few saw the “virgin” West as the perfect place for building the world anew and realizing lofty social and spiritual visions. These sundry goals were not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Appropriately, the history of American westward expansion and American immigration begin together. The westward expansion of Europe across the Atlantic necessarily involved immigration, for all who came were strangers to the New World.
By the mid-sixteenth century, several countries had established claims as well as a physical presence in North America. The colonial populations of the non-English colonies were never large, but some of them were surprisingly diverse. That of
The British North American colonies and their peoples proved numerically superior and ultimately prevailed over their competitors. The majority of their inhabitants were English. About 60.9 percent of those living in the future United States on the eve of the American Revolution were of English origin. They came for different reasons. During the seventeenth century, the average English immigrant to this “New West” was poor, single, and male. They responded more to the push factors at home than to the pull factors of an uncertain existence in the United States.
Economic woes and a growing population in England meant that many desperately poor men preferred to risk the life of an
As economic conditions in England improved during the eighteenth century, fewer English people thought the journey to the colonies worthwhile. Their place was mostly taken by large numbers of
Most late colonial and early national migration into the lands beyond the Appalachians was international in character. The descendants of colonial America’s first immigrants–and these included many slaves of African descent–were the rank and file of American westering. There were exceptions to this rule. Some exceptions were relatively small, such as those French immigrants who chose homes in
During the 1840’s, Europeans began flooding into the Old Northwest. Norwegians, Irish, and others came, but Germans were the most numerous.
Postwar migration beyond the
Not all newcomers to the West were tillers of the soil. After the U.S. Civil War,
Nonwhite immigration to America occurred for the first time on a large scale during the settlement of the Far West. About 300,000 Chinese came to the United States between 1848 and 1882, where they labored in western cities, mined for western minerals, and built western railroads. By the mid-1890’s, Japanese immigrants were entering the western United States in significant numbers. Most worked as agricultural laborers–especially in California–but some also worked on the railroads and in other occupations. Because of their race and their perceived threat to free, white labor, both Chinese and Japanese immigrants faced bitter nativist opposition and, finally, official federal policies of discrimination.
Pioneer family working their way west during the mid-1880’s.
As was the case with the colonial and trans-Appalachian frontiers, most people came to the trans-Mississippi West in the name of socioeconomic betterment. Promotional literature–sometimes distributed by purely speculative government or private concerns, and at other times by companies of immigrants eager to draw their countrymen to the New World–circulated widely and praised the manifold opportunities in the United States. Agents sometimes recruited abroad, and news from friends and family already in the United States continued to be a potent factor. Some immigrants–including many Chinese–did not come to stay, but to work toward “nest eggs” and eventually return home. Others wished to construct ideal religious or social communities. In one such (failed) experiment in 1870’s
In the far western United States, immigrants eventually made up only about 5.6 percent of the white population. As was the case with the trans-Appalachian West, the foreign-born (with certain exceptions, as in the above-mentioned cases of
Billington, Ray Allen. Land of Savagery, Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981. Offers insights into what immigrants expected to find on the American frontier. Griffin, Patrick. The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Thorough examination of an important eighteenth century immigrant-pioneer group, examining their history on both sides of the Atlantic. Korytova-Magstadt, Stepanka. To Reap a Bountiful Harvest: Czech Immigration Beyond the Mississippi, 1850-1900. Iowa City, Iowa: Rudi, 1993. Standard account of one of the largest Slavic ethnicities to settle the American West. Milner, Clyde A. II, Carol A. O’Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss, eds. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Standard survey covering immigration and much more. Noble, Allen G., ed. To Build in a New Land: Ethnic Landscapes in North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Covers westering immigrants’ cultural impact upon the American landscape. Stellingwerff, Johan. Iowa Letters: Dutch Immigrants on the American Frontier. Translated by Walter Lagerwey. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004. This large collection of primary documents allows a fascinating glimpse into immigrant life on the nineteenth century midwestern frontier.
California gold rush
Homestead Act of 1862