North America and Immigration

North America and Immigration
North America and Immigration

North American immigration led to the gradual unfolding of settlements throughout the continent. Spain settled St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565 and New Mexico in 1598. France settled Acadia in 1604 and Québec in 1608.

New Orleans dates from 1718. New Spain and New France grew slowly, if at all, as did also New Sweden, New Netherlands, and other European efforts. From 1607 on, only England had success in attracting large enough numbers of immigrants to take control of the continent.

In 1688 the total population of the English colonies was 200,000, mostly British. In the next century the population doubled approximately every 25 years. Between 1700 and 1770, 260,000 Africans, 50,000 white convicts, and 210,000 white voluntary immigrants came from Europe to British North America, as did about 80,000 Scots-Irish and about 70,000 Germans.

The British allowed into their colonies anyone who wanted to immigrate. Mostly, the migrants to British North America were English, but from the beginning there were representatives of virtually all western European countries. Europeans came for adventure and to escape harsh conditions at home—war, pestilence, and famine.

Africans came as slaves. Some of the Scots-Irish left northern Ireland because of the negative economic effects of the Navigation Acts of the 1650s and 1660s. Getting to North America was arduous because of the nature of transportation, but the indenture system made emigrants of those who could not otherwise afford it.

After Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principles of Population argued that the British population was growing faster than food production and that inevitably a large number of the British would starve, the government performed a census, counting over 10 million people and estimating that this was double the population of 1750.

The shift of British agriculture to scientific farming made many farm-workers unnecessary. To survive, many British farmers moved to the cities, where they became surplus city dwellers. Then they emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and North America.

At the time of the American Revolution, there were 2.5 million people in the colonies, 22 percent slaves. Another quarter million were Scotch-Irish, and 200,000 were German. There were about 25,000 Roman Catholics and 1,000 Jews in an overwhelmingly Protestant population.

Several thousand French opponents of their revolution came to the United States in the 1790s. In the years just before and after the Revolution, 15,000 Scots settled in North America.

Restrictions on immigration began as early as the 1790s, with the enactment of the 1790 act requiring a two-year residency for citizenship and the 1795 increase of the residency requirement to five years.

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 included a Naturalization Act that changed the waiting period to 14 years and an Alien Act that authorized the president to deport any foreigner he deemed a threat to American interests. The Alien Act expired in 1800, and the Naturalization Act was repealed in 1802.

Between 1812 and 1920, about 30 million Europeans came to the United States. Another 700,000 came from Asia, and about 900,000 from Latin America. In 1820 the U.S. population of 9.6 million was predominantly English and Protestant, with about 2 million enslaved African-Americans. By the 1830s another 150,000 northern Irish and English immigrants had come to the United States.

The migration from England increased markedly after 1830, as a farm depression hit. Displaced farmers headed for Liverpool, which became the number-one European debarkation point in the 1830s. In 1830 about 15,000 people left from Liverpool; by 1842 the number was 200,000, a figure equal to half the European emigrant population.

Immigrant totals from the 1840s to the 1920s included 6 million Germans, 4.5 million Irish, 4.75 million Italians, 4.2 million British (English, Scottish, Welsh), 4.2 million Austro-Hungarians, 2.3 million Scandinavians, and 3.3 million Russians and Balts.

The Mexican-American War’s aftermath incorporated 75,000–100,000 Mexicans into the United States in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Immigrants came for free or cheap land. After the frontier closed in 1890, they came for jobs in America’s industrial sector that promised higher wages than at home.

They came due to the availability of cheap passage—such as the 17th-century indentured servitude system and the credit-ticket system of the 18th century. Late in the 19th century, the switch from sail to steam allowed faster voyages by larger vessels, reducing the cost and hardship of passage.

Immigrants came for promises and hopes—after the American Civil War, states and railroads began sending agents to Europe to attract settlers to their vacant territories. And labor recruiters as well as immigrants told the folks back home of the American land of milk and honey.

Between the 1840s and 1870s Germans and Irish predominated, and between 1854 and 1892 Germans were number one every year except three, when Irish predominated. Between 1810 and 1855 about 2.5 million Irish came, and more than 3 million Germans migrated between 1820 and 1880.

The Irish

The Irish migration was ongoing through the 18th and 19th centuries, but it accelerated after the potato blight of 1845 destroyed about 75 percent of the Irish potato crop. The loss of the potato meant hard times for the 4 million Irish who depended on it for their primary source of food.

The blight returned in 1846, and 350,000 people died of starvation and typhus that year. Although the crops for the next four years were good, death continued its toll on the Irish. The Irish Famine killed 1 million people.

Blaming it on the British government and absentee property owners, the Irish began to migrate. In 1846, 92,000 came to the United States. That number rose to 196,000 in 1847, 174,000 in 1848, 204,000 in 1849, and 206,000 in 1850. By 1854 about a fourth of the Irish population—2 million people—had come to the United States in 10 years.

The 1850 census reported 961,719 Irish-born Americans living in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, and New Jersey. Despite the efforts of the Irish Emigrant Society, most Irish immigrants lacked the money for transportation, land, or tools in the interior, so most Irish remained close to their ports of arrival.

Irish Americans used the political machine to dominate many eastern and midwestern cities. From a means to protect the ethnic community, the machines became a mechanism for Americanizing.

In Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and New York, Irish accounted for up to 30 percent of city workers, and they were overrepresented in construction, particularly in skilled union trades. Only 10 percent of the Irish returned to Ireland.

Germans and Eastern Europeans

While the Irish were coming in droves in the 1840s, political turbulence in Germany led to a major influx from that country. Germans had been in North America from colonial times, but the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 led to a major migration of more than 1 million people in a decade.

The revolution’s leaders were among the migrants, but most emigrants were ordinary people leaving a country in economic and political disarray. By 1860 over 100,000 German immigrants lived in New York City.

They had 20 churches, 50 schools, 10 bookstores, and two German-language newspapers. Chicago had about 130,000 Germans and enjoyed German bands, orchestras, and a German-language theater. Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati also had large numbers of Germans.

German Jews began arriving in the 1850s. They were successful as both large and small entrepreneurs. In 1890 about half the German Jews in the United States workforce were businessmen.

French migration resumed in the 19th century. Like the Germans, many fled the failed 1848 revolution. In 1851, the French influx exceeded 20,000, and a French-language paper opened in New York.

Other French-language papers were published in Charleston and Philadelphia. The Franco-Prussian War cost France Alsace-Lorraine and increased French migration, particularly to the cities of New York, Chicago, and New Orleans but also to the Middle West.

Between the gold rush of 1848 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, about 300,000 Chinese came to the United States. Chinese push factors included increased taxes, social dislocation, a restrictive economy, and poverty.

Southern and Eastern Europeans began to dominate in 1896. Russian immigration began after the 1881 pogroms against southern Jews after the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Intermittent pogroms continued through the end of the century.

Immigrants who believed that the path to success involved hard work and loyalty tended to acculturate. By modeling themselves after American entrepreneurs, they would find acceptance.

Those who intended to remain for a long time built collective institutions—communities within the greater American community. They emphasized strong families and built churches, lodges, unions, businesses, political organizations, and other institutions.

The immigrants were Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, and those of no particular faith. Immigrant churches maintained their ethnic identities, and each group had its own, where they worshipped in their own language and customs.

The Roman Catholic Church accommodated to the desire of eastern and central Europeans for parishes reflecting their national languages and practices—including saints, schools, hospitals, and festivals—not those of the Irish-dominated American Church.

Lutherans from central Europe and Scandinavia built their own churches, schools, and hospitals. They resisted Americanization, ecumenism, and American-inspired revivalism. The Orthodox from Greece, Russia, and the Balkans began arriving in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Although the Russian Orthodox mission in Alaska dated to 1794, the late 19th-century migrations made the church significant in most large American cities, as it attracted particularly Ukrainians who lacked churches of their own.


While some immigrants acculturated, others maintained their ethnicity. Italian immigration began after 1870. Low wages, high taxes, and overcrowding pushed rural Italians with little education to migrate. Between 1890 and 1900, 655,888 arrived, two-thirds men, most intending to work until they could afford to return to Italy.

Because they intended to return home, their incentive was to retain their home cultures, not become Americanized. Other sojourners included the Chinese and Japanese—over half of the Chinese in California and Japanese in Hawaii before 1930 returned home.

The Italian return rate was 60 percent. Not all groups gained access to the political system, but all found economic roles. Denied political access, the Chinese found their niche in service sectors; the Japanese were fruit and vegetable farmers, and the Jews dominated the garment industry.

As in colonial days, Canada remained population poor, whether in the French or the English provinces. Canada finally began to attract immigrants in significant numbers in the 1890s—simultaneous with the European population explosion and the closing of the frontier with its free or cheap land in the United States.

Strong leadership by Wilfred Laurier and Clifford Sifton in the 1890s led to an aggressive campaign promoting western Canada in Europe, Britain, and the United States, modeled on the advertising of the railroads and states of the United States that helped to populate the Midwest and Great Plains areas. Sifton also forced the railroads to surrender their land grants that they had refused to open for settlement.

The program began to be effective after the turn of the century, with over 750,000 immigrants from the United States between 1900 and 1914, including newcomers as well as settled citizens. Canadians began to worry about U.S. domination of western Canada’s culture, economy, and politics.

An estimated 30,000 escaped slaves migrated to Canada via the Underground Railroad. While Canada had no slavery, many escapees found discrimination similar to that of northern American cities. Many settled in southern Ontario, creating many African-Canadian communities.

Canadian authorities generally found reason to reject the late 19th-century and early 20th-century black applicants, who were few in number because black Americans were too poor to emigrate, unlike the white settlers from the Great Plains, who came to Canada experienced and well-financed.