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Immigration History & the U.S, Part 1 - Historical Influences on U.S. Immigrants

If you are one of the fortunate genealogists to have found out the name of the ship which was used to carry an ancestor over a body of water to enter America, consider such data a diamond in the rough.


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This is a discussion of immigration to be covered in four parts.

Historical Influences on U.S. Immigrants

If you are one of the fortunate genealogists to have found out the name of the ship which was used to carry an ancestor over a body of water to enter America, consider such data a diamond in the rough in the family history pile of data. Of my two sets of grandparents, only my mother's mother's family, the Millers, have recorded the name of the ship on which they arrived. They arrived by the Moon-de-Grass in 1839.

Having the ship's name and when and where an ancestor came from is a very important piece of information. It can make all the difference in your family history line being landlocked in America or stretching across to another continent. Without that data, a researcher can never be sure when the first individuals of a family tree arrived, or even if there were more branches that arrived independently in America. DNA research can help, and once both Europe and other governments expand their DNA databases in unison with United States, finding your ancestor from Europe may improve. I wanted to have a clearer understanding of the history of immigration and which ports my ancestors could have used to come on shore. I soon discovered that my quest was not a simple one, and my research began to grow until I decided I needed to divide this article into several parts.

The subject of immigration is complex due to the social, economic and political issues associated with the topic. I researched a lot of material, and found myself immersed in a great deal of charts and graphs. Two sources I found interesting were in the history section at, and in the article, Immigration to the United States at

The United States has accepted more immigrants as permanent residents than any other country. The history of immigration is often broken down into four periods which include: The Colonial period, prior to 1820; the mid-ninetieth century; the turn of the twentieth century; and the last period, post-1965. The migration of your family ancestors most definitely would be influenced by four phenomenon:

  1. Immigrants are likely to live and travel through areas populated by people with similar backgrounds, which include racial, ethnic and religious beliefs.
  2. The arrivals of immigrants are regulated by how certain nationalities are regarded at certain times such as Germans and Japanese during post-World War II, and other groups regarded with opposition at different times in history.
  3. The creation or changes in immigration policies and viewpoints concerning immigration, in general, has shaped the places immigrants came from and the qualifications of immigrants.
  4. What was the driving force which pressed the immigrants to take such a risk to travel to America in the first place.
I found it useful to read up on the history of immigration and I recommend researchers get an overview of the subject. Answering how the four above phenomenon are associated with your particular ancestors will give you an idea of where to begin and in what obstacles your ancestors encountered while entering the U.S.

First, simply knowing the nationality of your ancestors will often be a key to informing you where they may have settled. There is a lot of information to be researched about particular ethnic groups. Swedes, Dutch, Germans, Chinese, Africans, Irish and Welsh etc., all came across in waves at certain times and established settlements in certain geographical locations.

Second, you can further breakdown how immigrants were regarded by three changing viewpoints over the 250 years of our nation. Up until the mid- and late-1800s policies such as Headrights and the Homestead Act reflect how America was trying to make moving here attractive. Large numbers of laborers, slaves, farmers, etc., were needed to expand across a landscape which was thought to be limitless and abundant with resources. Indeed, some countries emptied their jails and dumped them in America.

Third, immigration policies such as the asylum declaration and quota regulations, are a few of many examples which impacted immigrants. Regulations began restricting immigrants, qualifying how many could come from where, etc. Immigrants were allowed by some kind of contract. In the modern periods, immigrants needed working histories, sponsors, and familial ties, and strict quotas were set in place. Even today, certain countries today are limited as to how many immigrants are allowed to migrate to the U.S., and depending on who is friendly or not, these quotas change on a yearly basis.

Fourth, the driving force which caused your ancestor to cross the dangerous Atlantic may also be very important. Germans rushed out of the Rhine Valley after the Rhine River froze over in 1708-09. They had lost entire crops and recalled the time when William Penn disseminated information about Pennsylvania. They migrated across the Atlantic Ocean by the thousands. Germans whom lived in Europe between 1748 to 1751, where every third German was slain during a thirty-year war with France, headed to the new world to escape the violence. The Puritans came due to religious or ethnic persecution and the Irish flocked to America after the potato famine of 1845-1852. It would be a good idea to read the history concerning the country your ancestor came from and the time period in which you suspect they crossed the Atlantic. This first part of my four part article was designed to give you an overview of the immigration process and some of the factors which influenced our ancestors as they stepped ashore. It can also help in directing a researcher toward materials which may reveal more history about your family tree.

Other Articles in This Series

Immigration History & the U.S, Part 1 - Historical Influences on U.S. Immigrants

Immigration History & the U.S., Part 2 - The Colonial Period of Immigration

Immigration History & the U.S, Part Part 3 - History of Early American Ports

Immigration History & the U.S, Part 4 - Immigration after 1820

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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