Prepared by Alan Singer, Department of Curriculum and Teaching
Hofstra University School of Education
The United States is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants and their descendants. While there are similarities in the experiences of each new group, there are also important differences. Every group experienced both a push and a pull - something that drove them to leave their original homeland and something that brought them to the United States. Sometimes the push and pull were economic. Sometimes people fled political or religious persecution.
Many immigrants saw their initial move to the new world as temporary. They hoped to find work, build a financial stake, and then return to their homeland. While many people did go back, most became Americans.
While every group experienced hardship when they arrived, the original African migration to the Americas was unique. People from Africa were forced migrants who were brought to the
United States and the Caribbean against their will.
Human life and culture originated in East Africa and spread across the entire planet. Between
50,000 and 20,000 years ago, nomadic Asian hunters became the first people to settle in the
Americas. As they searched for food, they followed herds of game animals across a temporary land bridge that stretched from Siberia to Alaska. These people became the Native Americans or
Europeans and Africans, 1500-1840
After the arrival of Columbus in 1492, European people settled in and conquered the
Americas. During this period they built new independent nations in North and South America and the Caribbean. The major European groups that settled in the future United States included people from the British Isles, Spain, France, and Holland.
Most of these immigrants were poor people who came looking for work and land. Many came as indentured servants or forced prison laborers. Some fled wars in Europe and hoped that in a new world they would find peace or be able to follow their own religious practices.
During this period, the Europeans forced millions of West Africans to come to the United
States as slave labor to work on the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations. In 1793, a successful
African slave rebellion created the first independent Caribbean nation of Haiti.
From 1840 until 1880, new European groups migrated to the United States. The Irish fled starvation and persecution by the British. In the United States they became factory workers and helped build the canals, railroads, and the labor movement. Scandinavians were farming people who largely settled in the midwest.
The Germans migrated in large numbers because of war and failed revolutions. Many Germans were skilled workers and they settled in new cities. During this period there were so many German immigrants that Chicago schools taught students in German. People of German decent remain the largest ethnic group in the United States today.
During this period large numbers of Chinese also migrated to the United States. They settled on the west coast where they helped to build the railroads.
When the economy was strong, these new people were generally accepted. However, economic hard times brought strong anti-immigrant feelings including the spread of racist ideas. Immigrant workers were attacked, their unions were broken, and laws were passed to keep out new immigrants. In 1882 the first exclusion laws banned immigrants from China and other
"undesirables." In 1908, the United States also blocked immigration from Japan.
Between 1880 and 1921 millions of new immigrants poured into the United States from
Eastern and Southern Europe and from Mexico. They included Slavic people like Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians, Mediterranean groups like Italians, Sicilians, Greeks, Turks and Armenians, and religious groups like the Eastern European Jews. Most of these new immigrants arrived by boat in
New York City through