What is your cultural heritage? Do you know how you came to be an American? Almost all of us are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants. While the nation can trace her immigrant roots all the way back to the settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, most of us are relative newcomers. A large number of Irish immigrants came during the 1850s to escape the Potato Famine, while Chinese immigrants came in droves to help build the Transcontinental Railroad. However, many Americans can trace their roots to the “Great American Migration” that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century.
During the depression of the 1890s, immigration plummeted to a low of 3.5 million immigrants, but rebounded to a high of 9 million in the first decade of the new century! In the past, the majority of newcomers were from northern and western Europe, but most of these new immigrants came from Eastern and Southern European countries, as well as Canada and Latin America. By 1910, Eastern and Southern Europeans made up 70 percent of the immigrants entering the country. Why did these people leave their native countries? The reasons these new immigrants made the journey to America differed little from those of their predecessors. Many came escaping religious, racial, and political persecution. Other were seeking relief from economic hardships, such as a lack of opportunity or famine. Many, especially Italian and Greek immigrants, came with contract labor agreements offered by recruiting agents, while railroad companies distributed pamphlets in many languages and countries, advertizing the availability of free or cheap farmland in America.
Being deemed well enough for admittance was not the end of the new American’s troubles; often, it was only the beginning. Once approved for entry, immigrants looked for work. There never seemed to be enough jobs, and employers often took advantage of the immigrants. While the railroads’ pamphlets did bring a handful of agricultural workers to western farmlands, most did not go west. By and large, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks, Bohemians, and Italians flocked to the coal mines or steel mills, while Greeks preferred the textile mills. Many Russian and Polish Jews worked in the needle trades or pushcart markets of New York. While different cultures took up different occupations, the vast majority of immigrants crowded into the growing cities, searching for their chance to make a better life for themselves. Men were generally paid less than other workers, and women less than men. In order to survive, many settled together, creating the ethnic pockets like “Little Italy” or “Chinatown” etc. that still exist today in many cities.
|Irish Brigade Memorial at Antietam National Battlefield|
|"The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus|
Cover Image: The Apotheosis of Washington, Constiantine Brumidi, US Capitol Building
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