Trans-Atlantic Migration

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Numerically the greatest and probably the most consequential population movement in modern history has been the transatlantic migration from Europe to the Western Hemisphere. It is estimated that more than 60 million Europeans emigrated to the Americas from the beginning of the period of colonization (approximately 1500) to 1940. Subsequent to 1940, about 5.8 million persons left Europe for the United States as immigrants, much of this before 1960. Canada received over 2 million migrants from Europe between 1945 and 1981. Latin America was the destination of about 600,000–700,000 Europeans between 1945 and 1960.

Most of this migration was to North America (the United States and Canada), but significant numbers of migrants went to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, and other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition, there was a large coerced migration of black Africans as slaves, almost entirely before 1820, when Britain began to use its naval power to suppress the slave trade. It is estimated that about 9.4 million slaves were taken to the Western Hemisphere, but only about 400,000 to British North America. The largest single recipient was Brazil (3.6 million). The mortality rate of slaves outside North America was very high, so that by about 1825 North America had 36 percent of the slaves in the Western Hemisphere even though it had received only 4.2 percent of the imported slaves.

Early Migration

Information on migration for the colonial and early national periods in British North America and the United States is scarce because regular collection of immigration statistics began only in 1819 at major ports in the United States. Estimates of European emigration to British North America and the United States for the period 1700–1820 range between 765,000 and 1.3 million. Most of the migrants originated in Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Ireland, but some came from the Rhineland area of Germany and the Netherlands, and a number of Huguenots (French Protestants) sought refuge in British North America. Although there was a gross flow of about 25,000 migrants from France to the Saint Lawrence Valley and other areas of New France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most of


the population growth in that region after about 1680 (from about 9,400 to about 70,000 in 1770) came from natural increase. Spain and Portugal did not encourage immigration into their Western Hemisphere colonies, and so the migration from Europe to those areas was relatively low. Most of the relatively small numbers of French, British, and Dutch persons who went to West Indian colonies migrated to work in the civil administration or military or to seek wealth from sugar cultivation. Many of them died there; some returned to Europe.

In the period after 1820 increasingly large numbers of migrants began to move from Europe to North America. Table 1 shows the overall flows and emigration rates from various European countries, and Table 2 gives the flows and immigration rates to Canada, the United States, Cuba, Argentina, and Brazil in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Table 2 indicates that North America received about three-quarters of the migrants recorded for those five countries for the period 1821–1924. Even for the decade 1901–1910 North America was still


the destination of over three-quarters (78%) of those migrants.

In the century 1820–1920, when the United States had relatively few restrictions on immigration, about 33.7 million persons were recorded as having entered the country, of whom 29.8 million (over 88%) were from Europe; this does not include some migrants who entered as first-class passengers, through minor ports, or across land borders (mostly from Canada earlier in the century). This is a gross flow because immigrant returns were not recorded until 1908. Even allowing for substantial return migration, these are huge numbers. In that period net immigration represented about a quarter of American population growth, up to a third in some decades (1850–1860 and 1900–1910).

During that century a dramatic shift took place in the composition of migrants by area of origin within Europe. In the first half (1820–1890) 82 percent of all migrants and 91 percent of European migrants came from Northern and Western Europe (Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, France, the Low Countries, and Germany). However, a major change began in the 1880s. In the period 1891–1920 only 25 percent of all migrants (and 28% of European migrants) originated in northwestern Europe, whereas about 64 percent of all migrants (and some 72% of European migrants) were from regions in southern, central, and eastern Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria-Hungary, and Russia and regions in the Balkans). The course of these changes is shown in Table 3, which provides decade-by-decade numbers of migrants entering the United States by region of origin.

Migration in the Twentieth Century

This was the first great shift in migration to the United States, while the second was in and after the 1960s. Earlier in the twentieth century migration was restricted by the passage of the Literacy Test Act (1917), the Emergency Immigration Act (1921), and the Immigration and National Origins Act (1924), which established annual quotas of 2 percent of the share of a nationality group in the census of 1890. In 1929 the basis for the quotas was changed to the census of 1920, but the total number of immigrants was set not to exceed 150,000 per year, in contrast to the levels in excess of a million per year in the years just before World War I.

These quotas remained more or less the rule until 1965, when the passage of immigration reform legislation included liberal rules on family reunification and modified quotas for areas outside Europe. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 further modified the rules. Whereas total gross immigration to the United States was 8 million over the period from 1921 to 1960, of which 58 percent was from Europe, the inflow over the years 1961–1997 was 22 million, of which only 17 percent was from Europe. Flows from Asia, Africa, and especially Latin


America came to dominate migration into the United States.


The situation for Canada was somewhat different. Canada had experienced immigration rates comparable to or even higher than those for the United States from the middle of the nineteenth century to the 1920s (see Table 2). Regular and consistent data are not available before the 1850s. Although the gross flows were substantial, many of the migrants went on to the United States. For the four decades between 1861 and 1901 net immigration to Canada was actually negative as outflows to the United States outpaced gross inflows. Since that time the net inflow has been positive with the exception of the 1930s, which was also a decade of net outflow from the United States.

Since 1901 net migration has contributed between a quarter and a third of Canada's population growth. Regular statistics on migrants' countries of origin were not reported until 1956. Before that year, however, census data on population by country of birth reveal that most of the foreign born originated in the British Isles: 60 percent in 1871, 55 percent in 1921, and 48 percent in 1951. The remainder came mostly from other European countries: 48 percent in 1871, 42 percent in 1921, and 49 percent in 1951. More recently, however, immigration in Canada shifted away from persons of European origin. In 1989, for example, only 31 percent of migrants were from Europe, the former Soviet Union, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Overall, about 13 million persons migrated into Canada between 1852 and 1990.

Among the sending countries, Table 1 indicates that the highest emigration rates out of Europe were in Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Britain until about 1900, when Italy began to emerge as a major country of origin. In 1913 the highest emigration rates were from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Britain, and Ireland.

Motivation for and Composition of Migration

Most migrants were motivated by expectations of better wages and greater lifetime economic opportunities. Also, over the nineteenth century transportation costs fell with the advent of the railroad, better canal and river transportation, and iron-and steel-hulled propeller-driven steamships. In general cycles in migration over time to the United States were more closely attuned to economic conditions in the United States (a "pull") rather than to poor conditions in Europe (a "push"). Exceptions were the late 1840s with the potato famines and serious political unrest and the two world wars of the twentieth century.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries migration tended to be selective for young single men. For example, the sex ratio of the foreign-born population in the United States was 124 males per 100 females in 1850 in contrast to 103 for the native white population; the corresponding sex ratios in 1910 were 129 and 103. Migration from Europe between 1820 and 1920 also tended to be weighted more toward unskilled and semiskilled workers.

There has been a substantial return migration back to Europe, especially after trans-atlantic travel became less costly. For example, in the 1908–1912 period it is estimated that the return rate was about 50 percent. Nonetheless, the effect of transatlantic migration on the population growth and ethnic composition of the United States and Canada has remained strong. In answering the ancestry question in the 1990 U.S. census, 73.1 percent of the population responding claimed European ancestry and another 8.2 percent claimed African-American ancestry.

See also: African-American Population History; Famine in Ireland; Immigration Trends; Peopling of the Continents; Slavery, Demography of.


Ferenczi, Imre, and Walter F. Willcox. 1929. International Migrations. Vol. 1: Statistics. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

——. 1931. International Migrations. Vol. 2: Interpretations. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Gemery, Henry A. 1984. "European Emigration to North America, 1700–1820: Numbers and Quasi-Numbers." Perspectives in American History (New Series) 1: 283–342.

Haines, Michael R., and Richard H. Steckel, eds. 2000. A Population History of North America. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hatton, Timothy J., and Jeffrey G. Williamson. 1998. The Age of Mass Migration: Causes and Economic Impact. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Maldwyn Allen. 1992. American Immigration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nugent, Walter. 1992. The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870–1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Michael R. Haines