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Immigration to the United States


Growth, Cities, and Immigration: Crash Course US History

Film by Edison Studios showing immigrants disembarking from the steam ferryboat William Myers onto Ellis Island on July 9, 1903.

220px-Ellis_Island_video.oggThe history of immigration to the United States deals with the movement of people to the United States since the first European settlements in about 1600. Starting around 1600 British and other Europeans settled primarily on the east coast. Later Africans were brought as slaves. The United States experienced successive waves of immigration which rose and fell over time, particularly from Europe, with the cost of transoceanic transportation sometimes paid by travelers becoming indentured servants after their arrival in the New World. At other times, immigration rules became more restrictive. With the ending of numerical restrictions in 1965 and the advent of cheap air travel immigration has increased from Asia and Latin America.

Attitudes toward new immigrants have cycled between favorable and hostile since the 1790’s.

Colonial Era – 1600-1775

imagesMain articles: Colonial history of the United States, British colonization of the Americas, Thirteen Colonies, European colonization of the Americas, Indentured servant and Nationality law in the American Colonies The first successful English colony started in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Once tobacco was found to be a profitable crop, many plantations were established along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland.

This began the first and longest era of immigration, lasting until the revolution in 1775; during this time settlements grew from initial English toe-holds in the New World to the British America. It brought northern European immigrants primarily of British, German and Dutch extraction. From the mid-17th century the British ruled and were by far the largest group of arrivals. They were not exactly “immigrants” for they remained within the British Empire. Over 90% became farmers.

great-migration-chicago-300x256Large numbers of young men and women came alone, as indentured servants. Their passage was paid by employers in the colonies who needed help on the farms, or shops. They were provided food, housing, clothing and training but did not receive wages. At the end of the indenture (usually around age 21) they were free to marry and start their own farm.

New England

A few hundred English Pilgrims, seeking their religious freedom in the New World, established a small settlement near Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. Tens of thousands of English Puritans came to Boston, Massachusetts and adjacent areas from about 1629 to 1640 to create a land dedicated to their religion . The earliest New England colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire were established along the northeast coast. Large scale immigration to this region ended before 1700, but a small steady trickle of later arrivals continued.

The peak New England settlement occurred from about 1629 to about 1641 when about 20,000 Puritan settlers arrived mostly from the East Anglian parts of England (Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, and East Sussex). In the next 150 years, their “Yankee” descendants largely filled in the New England states and parts of upstate New York.

Fig03-LandingImmigrantsAtCastleGarden-253x300The New England colonists were the most urban and educated of all the colonists and had many skilled farmers as well as tradesmen and skilled craftsmen among them. They started the first college, Harvard, in 1635 to train their ministers. They mostly settled in small villages for mutual support (nearly all had their own militias) and common religious activity. Shipbuilding, commerce, agriculture and fisheries were their main income sources. New England’s healthy climate (the cold winters killed the mosquitoes and other disease-bearing insects), small widespread villages (minimizing spread of disease) and abundant food supply resulted in the lowest death rate and highest birth rate (marriage was expected and birth control was not, and a much higher than average number of children and mothers survived) of any of the colonies. The eastern and northern frontier around the initial New England settlements was mainly settled by the descendants of the original New Englanders. Immigration to the New England colonies after 1640 and the start of the English Civil War decreased to less than 1% (about equal to the death rate) in nearly all years prior to 1845. The rapid growth of the New England colonies (~900,000 by 1790) was almost entirely due to the high birth rate (>3%) and low death rate (<1%) per year.


The Dutch established settlements along the Hudson River in New York starting about 1626. Wealthy Dutch patroons set up large landed estates along the Hudson River and brought in farmers who became renters. Others established rich trading posts for trading with the Indians and started cities such as New Amsterdam (now New York City) and Albany, New York. After the British took over and renamed the colony New York, Germans (from the Palatine) and Yankees (from New England) began arriving.

Middle Colonies

Ellis_island_1902-300x203Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware formed the middle colonies. Pennsylvania was settled by Quakers from Britain, followed by Ulster Scots (Northern Ireland) on the frontier and numerous German Protestant sects, including the German Palatines. The earlier colony of New Sweden had small settlements on the lower Delaware River, with immigrants of Swedes and Finns. These colonies were absorbed by 1676.

The middle colonies’ settlements were scattered west of New York City (established 1626; taken over by the English in 1664) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (established 1682). The Dutch-started colony of New York had the most eclectic collection of residents from many different nations and prospered as a major trading and commercial center after about 1700. The Pennsylvania colonial center was dominated by the Quakers for decades after they emigrated, mainly from the North Midlands of England, from about 1680 to 1725. The main commercial center of Philadelphia was run mostly by prosperous Quakers, supplemented by many small farming and trading communities with a strong German contingent located in several small towns in the Delaware River valley.

Starting in about 1680, when Pennsylvania was founded, many more settlers arrived in the middle colonies. Many Protestant sects were encouraged to settle there by freedom of religion and good, cheap land. Their point of origin was about 60% British and 33% German. By 1780, in New York, about 27% of the population were descendants of Dutch settlers, about 6% were black and the rest were mostly English with a wide mixture of other Europeans. New Jersey and Delaware had a majority of British with 7-11% German-descended colonists, about 6% black population, and a small contingent of Swedish descendants of New Sweden. Nearly all were at least third-generation natives.[citation needed]


Germans-emigrate-1874-300x194The colonial frontier was mainly settled from about 1717 to 1775 by mostly Presbyterian settlers from northern England border lands, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, fleeing bad times and persecution in those areas. The fourth main colonial center of settlement is the western frontier in the western parts of Pennsylvania and the South which was settled in the early-to-late 18th century by mostly Scots-Irish, Scots and others mostly from northern England border lands. Between 250,000 and 400,000 Scots-Irish migrated to America in the 18th century. The Scotch-Irish soon became the dominant culture of the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Areas where people reported ‘American’ ancestry were the places where, historically, northern English, Scottish and Scots-Irish Protestants settled in America: in the interior of the South, and the Appalachian region.


imagesCAVF1N1CThe mostly agricultural Southern English colonies initially had very high death rates for new settlers from malaria, yellow fever and other diseases as well as Indian wars. Despite this, a steady flow of new settlers, mostly from central England and the London area, kept the population growing. The large plantations were mostly owned by friends (mostly minor aristocrats) of the British-appointed governors initially. Many settlers arrived as indentured servants who had to work off their passage with five to seven years of work for room and board, clothing and training, but no cash wages. After their terms of indentures expired, most of the indentures settled small farms on the frontier. The Southern colonies were about 55% British, 38% Black and roughly 7% German. The international slave trade mostly ended after 1775 and was outlawed in 1808, although some slaves were smuggled in.

The initial areas of settlement had been largely cleared of Indians by major outbreaks of measles, smallpox, and plague starting decades before the settlers began arriving in large numbers after 1630. The leading killer was smallpox, which arrived in the New World around 1510-1530.


Irish-Immigrants-Ellis-Island-300x187While the 13 colonies had differences in detail on how they were settled and by whom, they had many things in common. Nearly all were settled and financed by privately organized groups of British settlers or families using private free enterprise without any significant English Royal or Parliamentary government support or input. Nearly all commercial activity in the colonies was run in small privately owned businesses with good credit both at home and in England being essential since they were often cash poor. Most settlements were nearly independent of trade with Britain as most grew or made nearly everything they needed—the average cost of imports per most households was only about 5-15 English pounds per year or less. Most settlements were done by complete family groups with several generations often present in each settlement. The population was typically rural with close to 80% of the families owned the land they lived and farmed on. As the Industrial Revolution progressed after 1700 more of the population started to move to the cities—just like what happened in Britain. Initially, the Dutch and German Americans, spoke their dialects brought over from Europe as their primary languages with English used as the main “trading” language. The governments at all levels were primarily copied after English governments and laws. The only British institution that was not copied was the aristocracy—noted by its nearly universal absence. The settlers generally established their own popularly elected governments and courts on as many levels as they could and were nearly all, within a few years, self-governing, self-supporting and self replicating. This self ruling pattern became so ingrained that almost all new settlements by one or more groups of settlers would have their own government up and running shortly after they settled down for the next 200 years.

Scots Irish American immigrants, were Scots from Scotland that had initially settled in Ireland. They were heavily Presbyterian, largely self-sufficient, and generally hostile to Indians and Catholics. They had little interaction with the mostly Catholic native born Irish culture before they immigrated. The Scots Irish came in large numbers in the early 18th century and they often preferred to settle in the back country and the frontier from Pennsylvania to Georgia where they mingled with “native” second generation or later born English settlers. They liked the very cheap land and independence from established governments common to frontier settlements.

17th to mid-19th century – Irish Catholics

immigrantsOnShip-300x239According to the Dictionary of American History, approximately “50,000 to 100,000 Irishmen, over 75 percent of them Catholic, came to United States in the 1600s, while 100,000 more Irish Catholics arrived in the 1700s.” Indentured servitude was an especially common way of affording migration, and in the 1740’s the Irish made up nine out of ten indentured servants in some colonial regions

After the colonies were initially settled, they grew larger in population almost entirely by natural growth with foreign born immigrant populations rarely exceeding 10% (except in isolated instances). The last significant colonies to be settled mainly by immigrants were Pennsylvania (1680s+), the Carolinas (1663+) and Georgia (1732+). Even here the immigrants came mostly from England and Scotland with the exception of a large Germanic immigration contingent to Pennsylvania. Elsewhere internal American migration from other colonies (not immigration from Europe) provide nearly all of the settlers for each new colony or state. Colonial population growth is primarily by natural increase of the earlier immigrants and their descendants. Populations grow by about 80% at a 3% “natural” annual growth rate sustained over a 20 year interval.

immigrationtousaOver half of all new British immigrants in the South initially arrived as indentured servants. They were mostly poor young people who couldn’t find work in England and couldn’t afford passage to America and repaid their passage costs by work contracts (indentures) from 5–7 years. In addition about 60,000 British convicts were transported to the new British colonies in Georgia in the 18th century. Most of these so-called convicts were mostly guilty of being very poor and out of work. “Serious” criminals were generally executed. Ironically, these “convicts” are often the only immigrants with nearly complete immigration records. The other immigrants typically showed up with few or no records.

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