From its earliest days, New Amsterdam, the precursor to New York City, was one of the most heterogeneous places on earth. By 1660, the Dutch governor, William Kieft, observed that 18 languages could be heard in and around Fort Amsterdam. New York has been a multinational city of immigrants ever since. Since 1816, more than 70 percent of all immigrants arriving by sea landed first in New York. The immigrant depot of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are visible testimonies to the fundamental role of immigration to New York City’s history in a way that is not true of any other city in North America. In 2000, the heritage of both old and new immigration was evident. Almost 23 percent of the New York metropolitan area’s population of 21.2 million was foreign born, with 1.25 million coming from Asia and 1.24 million coming from the Caribbean. The largest ethnic groups in New York include the largely assimilated Italians (3.4 million), Irish (2.6 million), Germans (1.8 million), and Poles (1.1 million) and the more recently arrived Dominicans (572,915), Chinese (536,966), Asian Indians (450,142), Mexicans (331,212), and Jamaicans (321,745). Puerto Ricans number 1.3 million, though as citizens of an American commonwealth, they are not formally immigrants.
Henry Hudson claimed the area for the Dutch in 1609. In 1625, settlers for the Dutch East India Company established the first permanent settlement on Manhattan Island, establishing Fort Amsterdam and purchasing the island from the native peoples. The settlement of New Amsterdam grew around the fort and, by the 1650s, was thriving, with additional settlements in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. As the result of three Anglo-Dutch Wars fought between 1652 and 1674, the colony of New Netherland, along with its capital city, were transferred to England. By 1700, the city, renamed New York, had a population of almost 7,000. Though initially smaller than either Boston or Philadelphia, New York offered an excellent harbor that encouraged trade and commerce, and by 1800, the city had grown to 60,000 and become the largest city in the new republic. For the next two centuries, New York was the premier destination in the world for immigrants. In 1898, Manhattan and most of the communities of the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island were formally united to create an unparalleled metropolis of more than 3 million people. Rapid population growth contributed to many environmental, transportation, and housing problems through the 20th century.
Although immigrants came continuously from the time of New York’s founding, there were three characteristic phases of the process, each altering the nature of the immigrant community. Before 1880, the vast majority of immigrants came from western Europe. The earliest of these immigrants, prior to 1855, were processed at a variety of New York docks. As hundreds of thousands of immigrants, largely from Ireland, Germany, England, and Scandinavia, poured into the city every year after the mid-1840s, New York State commissioners realized that a better system was needed for tracking immigrant entry, guarding against disease, and protecting newly arrived immigrants from exploitation. After 1855, immigrants were ferried from their ships to Castle Garden, an old entertainment hall, where immigration officers counted them and obtained information regarding age, religion, occupation, and value of personal property. By the 1850s, more than 40 percent of New York’s population was foreign born. It has been estimated that the percentage in Manhattan was more than 50 percent and that more than half of these were Irish. While German immigrants tended to use New York as a departure point for resettlement in rural areas of the Midwest and West, the Irish usually stayed in the city. The main tension in this period was between the old-line British and Dutch culture and the newly arrived, slum-dwelling Irish. Fleeing from the terrors of the Great Irish Famine (1845–51), the Irish usually arrived poor, hating the English, and committed to their Catholic faith (see Irish immigration). By the late 19th century, however, Irish New Yorkers were beginning to gain access to important positions of political and financial power.
After 1880, the immigrant source countries shifted from northern and western Europe to eastern and southern Europe, significantly altering the character of the city. The peoples of the new immigration, drawn from dozens of ethnic groups from Italy and the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, were generally poor and by American standards of the day dressed oddly and practiced strange customs. As Italians, Poles, Jews, and others flooded into New York in record numbers, states receiving large numbers of immigrants petitioned the federal government for a revision of immigration policies. After years of appeals, New York State officials threatened to close Castle Garden unless the federal government agreed to fund its operations. As a result, in 1882, a head tax of 50¢ was assessed on every immigrant in order to meet the initial costs of reception. New federal guidelines in 1890 requiring more extensive physical and mental examinations, along with the massive influx of immigrants—almost 5 million coming through New York alone during the 1880s—led the federal government to establish a new immigrant depot at ELLIS ISLAND in New York Harbor.
Named for its last private owner, Ellis Island had formerly housed a naval arsenal. It was designed to process up to 5,000 immigrants per day. The building of the facilities was accompanied by the creation of the office of superintendent of immigration, the first formal bureaucracy designed to deal with immigration. When an immigrant ship arrived in New York Harbor, first- and second-class passengers were given a cursory examination on board and were then transferred to shore. Most of them only saw the Ellis Island facilities from a distance, unless some question had been raised on board. “Steerage,” or third-class, passengers were examined more carefully, though the rejection rate was generally only 1 percent. Most immigrants were given a cursory medical examination—the “six-second physical,” as it came to be called—and had their papers checked against shipping manifests. They were then briefly interviewed by immigration officials working from the ship’s manifest log, which contained the answers to 29 questions, previously completed by the immigrant. The whole process typically took three to five hours. Those admitted typically purchased tickets by rail or coastal steamer to their final destinations and were then ferried to either Manhattan or the New Jersey shore. The small number refused entry were detained pending an appeal or deportation.
In 1897, a fire destroyed the Ellis Island processing facilities, including many immigration records dating back to 1855. The permanent reception center familiar now as the National Immigration Museum was opened in 1900. During its first year of operation, about 446,000 immigrants landed in New York, but numbers declined significantly through the 1890s, averaging about 231,000 per year between 1893 and 1897. Surprising many officials, immigration increased dramatically after 1898. From about 179,000 arrivals in 1898, the immigrant flow peaked in 1906–07, when almost 1.9 million landed in New York. In 1913–14, another almost 1.8 million immigrants were processed. As a result, new dormitories, hospitals, kitchens, and other structures were built or expanded on the island between 1900 and 1915. By 1910, the foreign-born population of the city was again above 40 percent. Italians alone—more than 700,000 and mostly poor—composed 15 percent of the population. Although tens of thousands returned to Italy every year prior to World War I (1914–18), the majority stayed and more came besides. After decades of struggle and loyal service in the military in World War I and World War II (1941–45), Italians, Jews, and most other new immigrant groups moved into the mainstream of American cultural life.
This street scene was typical of New York City’s Lower East Side ca. 1910. In 1910, immigrants and their children—most from eastern and southern Europe—composed about threequarters of the city’s population. Note the varieties of dress. (National Archives)
After World War I, U.S. consulates were established around the world and were responsible for issuing visas and checking credentials, thus lessening the work at the port of entry in the United States. Passage of the restrictive quota legislation of 1921 (Emergency Quota Act) and 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act) also significantly reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the United States and marked the beginning of Ellis Island’s decline as a processing center. Whereas annual immigration averaged about 740,000 between 1903 and 1914, it dropped to about 152,000 between 1925 and 1930, and 30,000 during the Great Depression years of the 1930s. By that time, Ellis Island had become better known for detention than for entry and in 1932, finally stopped receiving steerage-class immigrants.
The third defining phase of immigration to New York City came following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which led to a massive and partially unexpected influx of Asian and Hispanic peoples. Italians still represented the largest ethnic group in New York City in 1980, but Dominicans and Jamaicans, ranked only 26th and 24th, respectively, in 1960, were the city’s second and third largest ethnic groups 20 years later. Some European groups also grew as a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese took advantage of its provisions to reunite extended families. African Americans had migrated to New York in large numbers after World War I, but after 1965, the black population had become increasingly immigrant. By 1990, perhaps onequarter or more black New Yorkers were foreign born, creating some tension between the various African-American communities. The post–World War II era provided many challenges for America’s largest urban area, and the state and federal governments had to provide economic assistance to the city in the 1970s. City finances and conditions improved significantly during the 1980s and 1990s, though ethnic tensions were often strained. Two events during the late 1990s focused national attention on alleged civil rights abuses against blacks and immigrants. In 1997, New York police officers were accused of torturing a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, and one was eventually convicted. In 1999, a West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was killed when police officers mistook him for a rape suspect and shot him. Although four officers were indicted for murder, they were later acquitted. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan dramatically affected the city’s economy, with the federal government eventually pledging more than $24 billion for the reconstruction of the area of the attack. Although New York Muslims and Arabs were concerned about backlash in the wake of the attacks, the city remained peaceful as it pulled together in support of more than 320 firefighters and police officers who lost their lives, in addition to the almost 3,000 civilians who died in the attack. As if to highlight the international character of New York City, people of 80 nationalities died in the attack on the World Trade Center.