How Our Ancestors Got Here

by Bob Brooke

For 350 years, 39 million people have chosen to come to America. Although many had compelling religious, political or economic reasons, they chose the difficult course of leaving their homes on the other side of the ocean. And just as the ocean tide sweeps onto the beach, waves of immigrants swept into American ports.

The first of 5 million English immigrants arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and managed to gain a foothold on the swampy land. In 1620, an even more famous group landed at Plymouth Rock after enduring a voyage of 12 weeks on the Mayflower. Over the next 30 years, over 20,000 more arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The average family of eight with a ton of freight paid a small fortune--over $1,000 in today's money--to make the trip.

In 1700, Germans and Scotch-Irish began to emigrate. Before the Revolutionary War, more than 200,000 Germans congregated in New York and Pennsylvania back country. Many, descendants of today's Pennsylvania Dutch, emigrated from the German Rhineland to practice several dissenting religions. Later, German Lutherans came.

But the traffic wasn't just one way. In the 1780s, over 100,000 Americans loyal to the English King fled back to England, Canada and Nova Scotia. After the Revolutionary War, there were just under five million people in the United States, and, except for 750,000 black African slaves, most were descended from these three original groups.

During the next 50 years, a million more immigrants arrived, mostly from England and Germany. By the middle of the 19th century, the tide of immigration became a flood. Between 1841 and 1860, nearly 3.5 million came from Germany and Ireland, the latter to escape the potato famine. Many were so weak they didn't survive the trip--15,000 died aboard ship. Nevertheless, over two million Irish Catholics came in 30 years. In all, 4.4 million Irish have come to these shores. Another million came from Scandinavia, France and Switzerland, as well as England.

Beginning in 1850, thousands of Chinese arrived in California to work at reshifting the dirt at worked-over gold-mining camps. Later, many moved on to jobs building railroads. After they finished the railroads, trade unions protested their importation, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 stopped large-scale immigration. Over 400,000 Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and California followed after 1890.

From 1880 to World War I, more than 15 million eastern and southern Europeans--Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Italians--attracted by industry arrived in New York and other eastern ports. Though the bulk of Russian immigrants were Jews from western Russia, there were also Ukranians and Lithuanians. More than two million Poles flocked to America's expanding industrial cities after 1880, with most settling in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit.

More than 5.3 million Italians have come to America since Nicolas Biferi, billing himself as the "Musician of Naples," arrived in Georgia in 1774. Many who came in the late 19th century headed for California and eventually developed the wine industry there. While many were from northern Italy, the majority emigrated from southern Italy and Sicily after 1900. In many eastern cities, barbering was an Italian monopoly.

Most European immigrants, not matter what their country of origin, left from one of two German ports, Hamburg or Bremen. And while waiting to board ship, they ususally stayed in an inn especially built to house them. Though they were told not to wander around these port cities, many did and lost what little money they had to hustlers. This is one reason why many immigrants arrived in America with less than $20.

Each immigrant often rode out the ocean voyage in a 6-by-6 -foot cabin, which he or she shared with five other passengers who were sick all the way. After 1855, the federal government processed those who made the Atlantic crossing through Castle Garden, a converted amusement park on the tip of Manhattan. Ellis Island replaced it in 1892. Originally, the government processed Asian immigrants at the Pacific Mail Steamship Company warehouse in San Francisco, but after 1910, it quarantined them on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay--sometimes for weeks or months--because of the fear of cholera.

Since 1920, despite a quota system, Germany, Mexico, Canada, England, and the nations of the Caribbean have helped keep the immigration tradition alive. On average, nearly 400,000 immigrants enter the U.S. each year.

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