Understanding Your ...

Understanding Your Immigrant Ancestors:
Who Came and Why

Throughout the nineteenth century, waves of immigrants continued landing on the American shores. Three million people arrived in the 1870s, for example. The next decade saw a jump to over five million.

The background of emigrants varied greatly. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, 95% of the immigrants came from northwestern Europe. By the end of that century, immigration had undergone significant changes, with the largest group actually coming from southern and southeastern Europe. The composition of the groups of emigrants changed in other ways. Most emigrants came in groups and families at the beginning and middle of the century. As time progressed, more young people, particularly young males, came to America. Motivations also varied. Some emigrants were fleeing from poor conditions at home. Others desired land and economic opportunity. A few were searching for religious tolerance.

Some brief information about the major emigrant ethnicities provides a cursory picture of who came to America in the nineteenth century. From 1820 until 1860, the Irish composed at least a third of all immigrants. Most immigrated through English ports. For them, desperate conditions at home, such as the infamous potato famine, were a major source of motivation for emigrating. In the U.S., a significant proportion of Irish chose cities for their homes.

Germans, another major group, made up a quarter of the arrivals from 1830 until 1880. The percentage peaked in the 1850s when nearly thirty-seven percent of immigrants came from Germany. Most Germans came for economic reasons. Once here, they worked as skilled laborers and farmers. At the beginning of the century, Germans emigrated through Holland and the French port of Le Havre. In the second half of the century, the ports of Bremen and Hamburg were common points of departure. For detailed information on the German movement, read the page German Immigration.

Although less significant than the Germans and Irish, Scandinavians also came in large numbers. Although some, particularly in the earlier years, came for religious freedom, in general, it was the prospect of economic opportunities, particularly available land, that brought Scandinavians here. They utilized ports in their home countries such as Copenhagen and Stockholm, and later often used Hamburg, and occasionally Liverpool. Other Western Europeans came in smaller numbers.

At the end of the 1800s, Italians became a dominant emigrant group. However, unlike the previously mentioned countries, at first, the majority did not go to the U.S. Also, return migration from Italy was very high. Naples was the dominant port of departure for this group.

Poles, Eastern European Jews, Greeks, Hungarians, and other ethnic groups came in larger numbers toward the turn of the century. Many came through Hamburg and Bremen. They often came from poor rural areas and villages, but settled in cities in America.

For more information on the following topics, click on that link:

 German Immigration
   The First Germans
   The Palatines of 1709
   Later Eighteenth Century Arrivals
   The First Flood, 1816-1817
   Mid-Century Influx
   Shifting East
   Immigration in the Twentieth Century
 Setting Sail to New England
   The Situation in England
   Who Made the Trip
   Deciding to Leave
   Setting Sail
   Their Legacy