Immigrant Experience

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Immigrant Experience

Immigration was a consistent theme and formative force in the creation of the British colonies and the new American Republic. Streams of people from different nations left their homelands at different times and for various reasons, carrying their distinct cultures, beliefs, and institutions to the shores of a new land. They first came in small numbers, populating the colonies and helping to build the transatlantic trade. As the reputation of America spread, the flow of immigrants swelled, though economic and political conditions affected the actual periods and rates of migration. British officials and colonial leaders, ship and land companies, merchants, and others had to address the means of transporting, receiving, and accommodating this new population. Following the creation of the United States, American leaders addressed immigration policy, usually to ensure the ongoing flow of people that had helped to create the Republic and to guarantee the rights of those who sought asylum and freedom. During the Quasi-War with France (1798–1800), however, Congress in 1798 passed three Alien Acts that limited naturalization and provided for the deportation of immigrants.

reasons for coming to america

Immigration was a complex process that required an individual, family, or group to assess conditions in their homelands, decide whether relocating would be advantageous for them, and ultimately take the risk of packing up and moving to an unfamiliar location. In the late nineteenth century, British social scientist E. G. Ravenstein sought to explain this process through his "laws of migration." He posited that migration was a selective process whereby "push factors" impelled individuals to migrate and "pull factors" attracted immigrants to specific locations. Ravenstein concluded that each nation, region, and time period ultimately had its own distinct "push-pull factors" which shaped the streams and rates of migration.

Throughout the colonial and early national periods, there were numerous push factors that led to emigration from Europe. Between 1750 and 1850 the European population doubled in size, which contributed to significant economic and social changes across the continent. Skilled handworkers in the English textile industry were replaced by power looms. Farmers faced the enclosure of lands and the reorganization of the rural economy. High taxes and land rents along with increased poverty inspired individuals to migrate. Political circumstances, wars, and even the desire to escape military service led others to leave their homes, while persecution of religious minorities caused others to depart.

There were also many pull factors that fostered emigration to America. Most common was the belief that America was "the promised land," a "land of liberty," and an asylum for the persecuted or the less fortunate. The colonies and eventually the new states attracted people by touting their flourishing settlements through pamphlets and newspapers. Ship companies, land companies, and labor brokers announced the many employment opportunities abroad. Clearly, the pursuit of economic opportunity was key for many as German and Scots-Irish farmers sought land and displaced English and Irish textile workers pursued employment in the developing textile industry in Philadelphia and New England. The American states, as they embarked upon internal improvements programs, recruited immigrant laborers to assist in the construction of roads and canals that would bind the new nation together. Likewise, the presence of distinct ethnic communities established by earlier immigrants encouraged individuals and families, often from the same region, hometown, or parish, to emigrate. There were even occasional instances of Americanized immigrants who returned home (known as Newlanders among the Germans) to promote the benefits of emigration.

One of the strongest motivating forces were written accounts, often called "America letters," sent back home by immigrants. These accounts brought families separated by the Atlantic together with news about economic conditions, cultural life, descriptions of daily life, and comparisons with previous conditions in the homeland. The letters often encouraged the recipients to relocate to America; some even included prepaid passage. Several foreigners also wrote travel accounts about their experiences in America, which were published in their homelands. Book-length works such as Englishman Morris Birkbeck's Letters from Illinois (1818) and German Gottfried Duden's Bericht über eine Reise nach den westlichen Staaten Nord Amerika's (1829, Report on the Journey to the Western States of North America) not only provided detailed information about life in the new nation but offered additional reasons and inspiration for migration. These letters and narratives provided potential immigrants with the rationales for leaving their homes and created images of expectations that shaped their visions of America well before they had departed home.

Observing the growing popularity of independent America, England imposed restrictions on emigration. In 1788, fearing the loss of workers to the growing American employment market, England banned the emigration of skilled artisans. The British Passenger Act of 1803 reduced the number of passengers that ships could carry, thus making it unprofitable for ship companies to seek immigrants as westbound cargo and hampering the flow of immigrants.

financing and transportation

Immigrants generally financed their own trips to America from savings or sale of property. Some, however, received prepaid passages from family members or were recruited by American businesses. Another way of covering passage was becoming a redemptioner. Unlike thousands of early immigrants who were forced into indentured servitude, whose service contracts were at the disposal of the ships' captains or the owners' agents, a redemptioner voluntarily entered into a labor agreement, probably as a means of escaping undesirable conditions at home. Individuals actually executed two agreements, either before departure or after arriving—one with the ship captain, guaranteeing payment for passage upon arrival, and the other with the purchaser in America, specifying the terms of service.

Those departing Europe traveled from their hometowns by road or river to reach the principal ports of London, Belfast, and Londonderry, where they secured passage for America. As immigration increased and attracted a diversity of groups, the ports of Le Havre, Bremen, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Liverpool became more important in handling the Continent's immigrant flow. Sailing ships transported the immigrants to the principal American ports of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, and later New Orleans.

Ships participating in the regular transatlantic trade were critical to the emerging immigration trade. Departing the colonies, the ships carried assorted goods to England and the European Continent; on the return trip, unoccupied space was made available to immigrants, thus allowing merchants and shipowners to gain from the return trip. Following the War of 1812 (1812–1815), ship companies introduced packet ships with regular sailings between New York and Liverpool, Le Havre, and other European ports. Steerage rates dropped from ten to twelve pounds in 1816 to five pounds in 1832, making travel more affordable for the common person.

Upon arriving in the port cities, the immigrants faced the challenges of getting situated in America. They might have been greeted by family members or encountered recruiters seeking laborers for local businesses. If the immigrants were redemptioners, they faced the scrutiny of individuals, often Americanized immigrants, who would buy their services. For some groups there were benevolent associations, such as the German Society of Maryland, that addressed the needs of distressed Germans arriving in the country.


Immigrants responded to their new environments generally by settling in distinct ethnic enclaves, which allowed them to maintain their sense of community and cultural identity. Most transplanted the familiar institutions and cultural surroundings of the homeland—building houses and farms like the ones at home; adopting similar agricultural techniques; and establishing churches, schools, and social organizations. While British immigrants easily blended into the English-based society, other groups like Germans and Scots-Irish carved out distinct areas of settlement in Pennsylvania, the North and South Carolina Piedmont, and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, for example, where their cultural influences were clearly evident. Though many immigrants found a new life in America's growing cities, most acquired some of the abundant agricultural lands and established farms, thereby distinguishing themselves from the next major migration of immigrants, which would be heavily urban in residential concentration.

assimilation and resistance to assimilation

All immigrants, regardless of origin and period of migration, had to come to terms with life in America as well as with their separation and isolation from home. Their ability and willingness to adapt or assimilate varied, depending much upon their socioeconomic status, the extent to which their group's traditional cultural had been transplanted in the regions where they settled, and the number of people within their communities.

The transition of immigrants from the British Isles was generally easier, given the predominance of English culture and institutions within the American colonies (though the Scots-Irish continued to maintain hostility toward all things English and sought to maintain a separate existence). There were, however, reservations among many English people about the increasing diversity of the American population, which, they believed, could undermine the colonies. Some feared the threat of Catholicism to the American experiment. Others, like Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), expressed a concern that Pennsylvania would become "a Colony of Aliens" and that the growing German population would eventually "Germanize us." Germans tended to cluster and were consequently more visible than other non-English immigrant groups as an "unassimilable bloc." As a result, according to the historian John Higham, fear of Germans represented the first ethnic crisis in American history. With the slowing of immigration due to world events in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many of the earlier non-English immigrant groups—Dutch, Germans, Swedes—were not reinforced by regular arrivals of new immigrants to maintain the strength of their cultures. The first generation traditionally retained much of its ethnic identity; intermarriage, education, and contact with American society, however, led the second generation to become increasingly assimilated, which often strained the ethnic community. Frenchman Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecouer, writing in the 1780s, argued for assimilation and called upon immigrants to "cast off the European skin, never to resume it. They must look forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors."

Following the American Revolution and the creation of the American nation, immigrants, in their letters and books about life in the United States, affirmed America as a land of opportunity and a sanctuary for the oppressed. Not only did these attitudes intensify the desire to emigrate, but they also elicited a growing sentiment among the resident immigrant population to associate more strongly with the American nation.


The British Parliament enacted a naturalization law in 1740 that permitted foreigners in America to acquire "subjectship" in their colonies of residence, provided they proved residence in any colony continuously for seven years, professed Christianity, had taken the sacrament in a Protestant congregation, and swore allegiance to the king. In 1761 Parliament permitted the British army to naturalize those foreign Protestants who had served in the military for two years in the colonies. Americans, however, believing that the colonies should exercise their own control, passed their own naturalization laws until the king nullified them in 1773 and prohibited colonial governors from approving such laws. Writing in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson charged the king with obstructing immigration and the naturalization process of foreigners.

With independence won, the new American states took control of naturalization policies, which essentially required a public oath of allegiance to the state government, a period of residency, and a disavowal of allegiance to foreign sovereigns. The first Congress of the United States adopted a naturalization statute in 1790 that allowed any "free white person" who had resided in the country for two years to be naturalized. Fearing the growing political power of the Jeffersonian Republicans and the strength of ethnic voters as well as responding to the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and a military crisis with France, the Federalists raised the residency requirement to five years in 1795 and to fourteen years in 1798 as part of the Alien and Sedition Acts. After Jefferson's election as president in 1800, the Republican-controlled Congress, opposing his proposal to grant immediate citizenship to all newcomers, returned the residency requirement in 1802 to five years.

As immigration resumed following the War of 1812, the Naturalization Law of 1802 governed the process of becoming a citizen. It required individuals to submit their applications at local courts, declare their intention three years prior to naturalization, reside for five years in the United States, and renounce allegiance to foreign rulers. All naturalization laws in this period restricted citizenship to white aliens. Despite these guidelines, there were some native-born Americans and Americanized immigrants who called upon Congress to simplify the citizenship process, seeking to encourage greater immigration to the United States.

See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Work: Indentured Servants .


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David G. Vanderstel

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Immigrant Experience

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