History of immigration, 1783-1891

Significance: The first century of American independence saw great population growth, particularly from the new immigration of Germans and Irish, as the federal government gradually developed a coherent national immigration policy.

During the nineteenth century, the U.S. government began collecting statistical information on immigration and took its first steps toward formulating a national immigration policy. Although immigration did not attain the levels it would reach toward the end of that century, economic opportunities in the new nation and problems in other countries attracted many immigrants who settled new regions and helped build the country’s infrastructure.

Evolution of Federal Immigration Policy

Until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the new federal government was content to leave control over immigration policy to the individual states. The first major federal law to deal specifically with immigration—and not naturalization— was the Steerage Act of 1819. This statute gave the federal government information on immigration by requiring that all vessels reaching American shores deliver passenger lists to customs officials, who were required to send copies to the U.S. State Department, which, in turn, submitted the lists to Congress. The Steerage Act also limited the numbers of passengers on arriving and departing ships.

Congress did not move to impose federal controls over entry into the country until the second half of the nineteenth century. Several of the earliest federal immigration laws were directed against Chinese immigrants, who had begun arriving in the United States in significant numbers during the 1850’s. These Asian immigrants came to be seen as undesirable because their culture differed fromthat of the predominantly white majority population and because of the competition they offered other workers. An 1862 federal law prohibited the transportation of Chinese “coolies,” or manual laborers, by American ships. Twenty years later, that anti-Chinese law was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The latter law suspended all immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years, barred Chinese immigrants from naturalizing as American citizens, and established provisions for their deportation. The principle of excluding Chinese immigrants was later indefinitely extended and not repealed until 1943.

Meanwhile, the first attempt to centralize control of immigration in general in the hands of the federal government came in 1864 with a law that authorized the president to appoint an immigration commissioner under the secretary of state. That law established provisions for contracts in which immigrants could be bound to use their wages to pay off the cost of their transportation to the United States. That law was repealed in 1868.

In 1875, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws regulating immigration were unconstitutional because they were inconsistent with the exclusive power of the U.S. Congress to regulate foreign commerce. In March of that same year, Congress passed a law prohibiting the entry of classes of undesirable immigrants. Congress also made it illegal to transport Asian workers to the United States without their free consent, forbade contracts to supply Chinese “coolies,” and gave customs officials the duty of inspecting immigrants. This was followed by the Immigration Act of 1882, which set up state boards under the U.S. secretary of the Treasury as a way of controlling immigration. This law also added new categories of excluded undesirable immigrants and set a tax on new arrivals in the United States. The creation of the Office of the Superintendent of Immigration in the Department of the Treasury in 1891 and the designation of New York Harbor’s Ellis Island as the location for the first national immigrant reception center in 1890 began the modern, federally controlled period in American immigration history.

Early Nineteenth Century Immigrants

The earliest decades of the new nation saw relatively little new immigration. During the 1780’s, while the nation was governed under the Articles of Confederation, the loosely joined states went through difficult economic times, and the future of the independent country seemed too insecure to encourage new immigration. However, even as the nation began settling into a more stable form after adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, immigration was still well below the levels it would later reach. Europe’s NapoleonicWars, which lasted until 1815, and theWar of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States made it difficult for emigrants to leave Europe. During the three-decade period between 1789—when the United States adopted its new Constitution and form of government— and 1820, fewer than 500,000 new immigrants arrived in the United States.

During that same period, the same political conditions that made leaving European more difficult also motivated some Europeans to emigrate. For example, during the 1790’s, English radicals and Irish opposed to English rule fled their homelands to America. The Revolution in France brought new French arrivals at the end of the eighteenth century. Other French-speaking immigrants fled slave uprisings in Haiti and other West Indies colonies around the same time. These French-speaking newcomers settled mainly in coastal cities, notably in Charleston, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, as well as in New Orleans, which became part of the United States in 1803 as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.

The most numerous non-English-speaking immigrants in the United States at the time of independence were Germans. Germans also constituted one of the significant immigrant groups at the opening of the nineteenth century. Many of those Germans came from what is now the southwestern part of Germany, which was then a poor area. Bad German harvests in 1816-1817 set in motion a flood of emigration out of that region. Although many of the emigrants moved east, to Russia, about 20,000 people from southwestern Germany came to America to escape famine.

Immigration After the Steerage Act

The year 1820 is the first year for which detailed immigration statistics for the United States are available, thanks to the Steerage Act of the previous year. During 1820, 8,385 immigrants arrived in the United States. Most, 43 percent, came fromIreland. The second-largest group, 29 percent, came from Great Britain. Hence, almost three-quarters of all immigrants who arrived in the United States during that year came from the British Isles alone. The next-largest groups came from the German states, France, and Canada. During the 1820’s, French immigrants moved ahead of Germans as the second-largest group after people from the British Isles. The second half of that decade also saw a steep rise in overall immigration, with the numbers of arrivals rising from slightly fewer than 8,000 in 1824 to more than 22,500 in 1829.

People from Ireland, who already constituted the greatest single immigrant group during the 1820’s, were drawn to the United States by both continuing poverty in their original homeland and the growing demand for labor in America. For example, New York State’s Erie Canal, which was under construction from 1818 to 1825, drew heavily on immigrant Irish labor. That project began a long history of Irish immigrant labor helping to build the American transportation infrastructure. The rapid commercial success of the Erie Canal stimulated the building of more canals in other parts of the country, increasing the need for immigrant labor.

Total Recorded Immigration to the United States, 1820-1899


Total Recorded Immigration to the United States, 1820-1899
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.


The rate of immigration quadrupled during the 1830’s, from a total of 143,439 arrivals between 1821 and 1830 to 599,125 between 1831 and 1840. New immigrants came from a wide variety of European countries, but most of the 1830’s expansion was driven by a dramatic growth in arrivals from Ireland (207,381) and Germany (152,454). New arrivals jumped suddenly from 22,633 in 1831 to 60,482 in 1832 and continued at levels roughly equal to that of 1832 through the rest of the decade.

The 1840’s saw yet another surge in the tide from Europe, with 1,713,251 newcomers reaching U.S. shores from 1841 to 1850. This figure was almost triple that of the 1830’s and twelve times that of the 1820’s. Once again, the most important sources of new immigrants were Ireland (780,719 people) and Germany (434,626). Next highest was the United Kingdom, with 267,044 immigrants. This wave of the 1840’s occurred mostly toward the end of the decade, with overall numbers rising from 78,615 in 1844 to 114,371 the following year, and reaching 297,024 in 1849.

At the approach of the mid-nineteenth century, some immigrants were drawn by the availability of land in the vast reaches of North America. Economic development also offered opportunities beyond agriculture for newcomers. Industrialization created jobs in mills and as manual laborers in cities. The expansion of railroads was another major force attracting immigrant labor. In 1830, the United States had a total of only 23 miles of railroad tracks. Only one decade later, this figure had grown to 2,818 miles. It rose to 9,021 miles in 1850 and 30,626 miles in 1860. Immigrants fromIreland played a particularly significant role in laying new railroad tracks.

Economic hardships and political disorders in the sending countries also helped stimulate emigration to the United States. The most significant event was the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1851, which was caused by a devastating potato blight. Irish were already the most numerous immigrants, and the famine drove even more of them to leave their homeland in the hope of finding relief in North America. In the various German states—which would not be united under a single government until 1871—a wave of failed revolutions in 1848 created a flood of political refugees who swelled the ranks of German Americans.

Immigrant Population at Midcentury

By the middle of the nineteenth century, firstgeneration immigrants made up one-tenth of the total population of the United States. The 1850 U.S. Census showed that the United States— including Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah, which were not yet states—was home to 2,240,581 foreign-born people. This figure constituted 10 percent of the total U.S. population, including persons held in slavery. Among the states and territories, New York had the largest immigrant population at midcentury, with 655,224 foreign born, who constituted more than 21 percent of the state’s total population. Fifty-five percent of New York’s immigrant residents were Irish; Germans constituted another 17 percent, and immigrants from England, Scotland, and Wales made up an additional 17 percent. The vast majority of all these immigrants were concentrated in the New York City area.

New York State had the largest number of immigrants in 1850, but it also had the largest total population, and there were other states with higher proportions of immigrants. The highest percentages of immigrants lived in the state of Wisconsin (36 percent of the white population) and the territory of Minnesota (33 percent). Other states with high proportions of immigrants included California (24 percent) and Louisiana. The latter was a slave state in which 26 percent of white residents and 13 percent of all residents were foreign born in 1850.

Wisconsin was home to a large number of German- speaking immigrants, who made up about one-third of all the state’s immigrants. Some of these Germans, especially those from the southern German state of Bavaria, had settled in Milwaukee. Aside from the Bavarians, Wisconsin’s Germans tended to be farmers who settled in rural areas. Minnesota was about to draw large numbers of immigrants from Scandinavia in the years after the U.S. Civil War. However, in 1850, a majority of the foreign-born residents of the territory came from Canada, with smaller proportions of Irish (18 percent of immigrants) and Germans (12 percent).

California’s large immigrant population in 1850 consisted mainly of people from Mexico. In the 1850 U.S. Census, Mexicans made up about 36 percent of the state’s foreign born. This was a heritage of California’s historic connection with Mexico. Other California immigrants came mainly from Ireland (15 percent of foreign born) and Germany (10 percent). California also had smaller percentages of immigrants from all over the world. Many immigrants were drawn to the state by the discovery of gold in 1849, but most people who flocked there at the beginning of the gold rush came from other parts of the United States. However, the state’s gold rush was about to stimulate a great wave of international immigration that would increase California’s foreign-born residents to 39 percent of the total population in 1860.

Louisiana held the largest concentration of immigrants in the South in 1850. New Orleans, as the largest port in the South and the second largest in the nation after New York, was a natural place of entry for people from other countries. As elsewhere, the Irish made up the largest immigrant group in Louisiana. An estimated 26,580 Louisianans, or nearly 38 percent of immigrants, were Irish-born in 1850. The Irish who arrived after 1830 were most often poor peasants who settled in the area known as the City of Lafayette, which was later incorporated into New Orleans and is still identified as the Irish Channel, and provided much of the labor for digging the city’s system of canals.

Many of the immigrants in both Louisiana and neighboring Texas in 1850 were Germans, who had entered the United States through New Orleans. Of the one in ten Texans who were foreign born at midcentury, over two-thirds came from Germany. These German Texans settled chiefly in the southeastern part of the state.

Most of the southern slave-holding states had low rates of immigration during the first half of the nineteenth century. The slave economy did not hold out the opportunities of the other, industrializing parts of the country. However, Maryland, one of the northernmost southern slave states, was home to an estimated 59,500 immigrants in 1850. This was the largest number of foreign-born people in any southern state except Louisiana, and it accounted for nearly 12 percent of Maryland’s entire free population. As in Louisiana, Maryland’s early foreign-born population was primarily the consequence of mid-nineteenth century immigration from Germany and Ireland, since Germans made up the majority (55 percent) of immigrants in the border state in 1850 and the Irish made up one-third. These immigrants were heavily concentrated in the port city of Baltimore, where Germans had begun to arrive during the eighteenth century. Irish immigration was stimulated by the potato famine of the 1840’s and supported by railroad work on the Baltimore-based B&O Railroad. Southwest Baltimore, in particular, became an Irish community during the nineteenth century. The B&O Railroad also opened piers for immigration at Locust Point in 1868, making Baltimore a primary point of entry for immigrants to the United States.


Editorial cartoon from a late nineteenth century California newspaper expressing the fear that the United States

Editorial cartoon from a late nineteenth century California newspaper expressing the fear that the United States would be overwhelmed by foreign immigrants—particularly the Irish and Chinese immigrants caricatured in the cartoon. (Library of Congress)


Late Ninteenth Century

Immigration continued to climb through much of the third quarter of the century, with people from Germany and Ireland making up most of the new arrivals. For the first time, though, immigrants from China, pushed by political and economic problems in the home country and by opportunities created by the California gold rush and jobs on a railroad that was expanding across the country, began to enter the United States in significant numbers. From 1841 to 1850, only thirty-five newcomers to the United States came fromChina. During the 1850’s, this figure shot up to 41,397. The numbers of Chinese immigrants reached 64,301 between 1861 to 1870 and then almost doubled to 123,201 between 1871 and 1880. Chinese immigration began to drop following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, decreasing to 61,711 between 1881 and 1890 and continuing to drop in the following decades.

As the nation faced and entered Civil War, overall immigration dipped, reaching low points of fewer than 92,000 immigrants in both 1861 and 1862. Even during the war, however, immigration began to rise again. Immigrants served on both sides during the war, but far more served in the Union army than the Confederate because the North had a much greater immigrant population. The image of the Irish, who had long been subject to suspicion and prejudice in the United States, suffered when poor immigrant workers from Ireland were the most active and violent participants in riots that broke out in cities such as New York and Boston in July, 1863, in reaction to the military draft.

The Civil War was enormously destructive, but it also helped to stimulate the national economy and to push the nation toward more industrialization. In 1869, the railroad tracks connecting the East andWest Coasts were finally completed, helping to create a single nation-wide economy. The mining of coal, the primary fuel of the late nineteenth century, drew more workers, as total output of coal in the United States grew from 8.4 million short tons in 1850 to 40 million in 1870. Pennsylvania and Ohio, important areas for coal mining, increased their immigrant communities, notably attracting people fromWales, an area of the United Kingdom with a long mining tradition. By 1870, Ohio had 12,939 inhabitants born inWales and Pennsylvania had 27,633, so that these two states were home to over half the nation’s Welsh immigrants.

The railroads encouraged settlement of the farmlands of the Midwest and made possible the shipment of crops to the spreading cities. Scandinavians were among the immigrant groups that arrived to plow the newly accessible lands. Minnesota held 35,940 people born in Norway, or close to onethird of America’s Norwegian immigrants by 1870. Minnesota was also home to the second-largest population of Swedes in America, with 20,987. Another midwestern state, Illinois, had attracted 29,979 Swedes by 1870. Another 10,796 Swedes had settled in Iowa, adjoining Illinois on the northwest and just south of Minnesota. About two-thirds of America’s Swedish-born population could be found in Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa.

As the nation entered the 1880’s, it entered into a remarkable period of economic expansion that would make the United States into one of the world’s greatest industrial powers by the time of World War I (1914-1918). It also began a dramatic rise in immigration as part of this economic expansion. Numbers of immigrants increased from 2,812,191 in the decade 1871 to 1880 to 5,246,613 from 1881 to 1890, in spite of the exclusion of Chinese immigrants following 1882. Sources of immigration also began to shift, from the northern and western European countries to southern and eastern European countries, so that immigration from Italy grew from11,725 during the 1860’s to 307,309 during the 1880’s and immigration from Russian and Poland grew from4,539 to 265,088. The United States was beginning the great immigration wave of the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.

Carl L. Bankston III

Further Reading

  • Brancaforte, Charlotte L., ed. The German Fortyeighters in the United States. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Eighteen essays covering a wide range of topics, including a reappraisal that many of the immigrants were not radicals or revolutionaries. 
  • Gleeson, David T. The Irish in the South, 1815-1877. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. One of the few modern studies of southern immigrants. 
  • Laxton, Edward. The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. Drawing on research in Ireland and compilations of stories passed down to descendants of Irish immigrants in America, the author tells the histories of Irish immigrants during the years of the great potato famine. 
  • Mahin, Dean B. The Blessed Place of Freedom: Europeans in CivilWar America.Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2003. Comprehensive examination of the views of European immigrants and visitors on America during the U.S. Civil War and of their participation on both sides in the fighting. 
  • Silverman, Jason H., and Susan R. Silverman. Immigration in the American South, 1864-1895. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006. Account of southern efforts to market the region to prospective immigrants. 
  • Van Vugt, William E. Britain to America: Mid-Nineteenth Century Immigrants to America. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Offers a portrait of immigration from the islands of Great Britain to the United States from 1820 to 1860. 
  • Weaver, John C. The Great Land Rush and the Making of the ModernWorld, 1650-1900. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s University Press, 2003. General work on how European colonization of other lands transformed the world economy and society. 

See also: California gold rush; Canals; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; German immigrants; Great Irish Famine; History of immigration, 1620-1783; Immigration Act of 1882; Irish immigrants; Know- Nothing Party; Philadelphia anti-Irish riots; Railroads.

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