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Short History of European Immigration to North America




Before the 17th century, North America was only populated sparsely by some Native American groups, which clustered mostly along the Gulf Coast, the Pacific Coast, and in Alaska, although there were some other groups elsewhere inside the continent that were more loosely scattered, and less clustered together. Starting with the 17th century, the period of European migration took place, with different European groups migrating to the North American continent, primarily the United States. Here you will find which European groups migrated to North America the most, from the 1600's to the present. You will also find each group's dominant time periods of immigration, and their reasons for their migration to the new continent.

English – This was the largest immigrant group coming to North America prior to the American Revolution, although immigration continued on a much slower level afterwards. Immigration of this group to Upper Canada, or Ontario remained steady even after our Revolution. Many followed Protestant Christian sects that broke away from the Roman Catholic church after the period known as the Reformation, including the Anglican, Puritan, Lutheran, and Baptist sects. It was this group of people that started the first colonies and cities in North America, including Boston, Providence, Hartford, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, among the many others. It seems that many of these people who originally came over, came to escape religious persecution, and perhaps to a lesser extent political oppression, although as the original colonies became established, there started to be more immigration for the purpose of economic opportunity. You’ll also notice that in the latter part of the nineteenth century, there was an economic depression in Canada that coincided with increasing economic prosperity in the States, causing an internal North American migration from Canada to the United States, of people whose forefathers originally came from England or France to U.S. cities and farmland in the midwest. Immigration from the United Kingdom continued in smaller numbers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and continues on today in very small numbers, primarily to the metropolitan areas of North America.

French – Immigrants from this group settled the area now known as Quebec, but originally known as Lower Canada, and a part of Nova Scotia, originally known as Acadia. Three-fourths of the French in Acadia were eventually dispersed elsewhere by the British, some going to the still-France-owned islands of Miquelon and Saint-Pierre, and many going to Quebec. Like stated above, there was a net migration out of French Canada to the cities of the United States during the late 1800’s during economic hardships in Canada. There are also French-Canadian settlements in eastern Ontario and northern New Brunswick, and many French-Canadians live in other provinces as well, comprising about 10%-15% of each province’s populations. In other words, there are many French-Canadians that don't even live in Quebec, but who live elsewhere in Canada, with a growing number of them coming to the United States to work. The French in Canada make up about 8 million people, although 3 million of those people don’t even live in Quebec. You’ll also find that since Louisiana, and it’s territory, was originally French-owned before being purchased by the U.S., there are a large number of people within the southeastern parts of the state of Louisiana, particularly around New Orleans, that has a French background, whose French forefathers came over in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Irish – This group, along with the Scotch, were the largest immigrant group into the United States from the 1790’s, right after the American Revolution, to about the 1810’s, at the time of the war of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars. This group contributed the highest number of immigrants in the early 1800’s, coming over to escape famine, and were principally Roman Catholic. The Irish continued to come over in large numbers until the twentieth century. There were also about 1.5 million Irish that emigrated to Canada, most in the mid-1800’s, half of which settled in Ontario, making them the fourth-largest ethnic group in Canada today. Many of the people who came to the U.S. from Ireland settled in the area of the Appalachian mountains, including the hill country in proximity with those mountains, such as are found in Kentucky, Tennessee, and southeast Ohio. Many of these earlier Irish came as indentured servants, as that seemed to be the only way to afford passage over to North America among the poorer folk that came – after they paid off their travel debts by so many years of servitude, they could then go to the hill country that was similar to their landscape back home, and start their new life. They also settled in the south, in areas such as North and South Carolina, and many were among the pioneers that continued to settle farther and farther west, as the American frontier moved in that direction. Later Irish immigrants seemed to settle in the larger cities, with many, such as Boston and New York City still able to boast a large Irish-American population.

German – Immigrants from Germany started migrating to the United States during the colonial period, and the flow of immigration increased and remained quite high during the early part of the 1800’s, being second only to the Irish in numbers. This group also seemed to be primarily Roman Catholic, although there were a large number of Lutherans who came also. After the American Civil War in the 1860’s, the Germans became the largest immigrant group coming to North America – having a higher rate of immigration than even the early part of the nineteenth century. Many of these people came over to escape famine and a harsh government, and were attracted to farmland, particularly in the Midwest, and to our religious and political freedoms. You saw many of these people settling in places like Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and similar locations. Canada also saw Germans settling along the south shore of Nova Scotia, southern Ontario, and later the Canadian prairie provinces, including Mennonites trying to free forced conscription into the Russian military even though war was against their culture and belief system.

Scandinavians – These people came over in steady numbers during the early part of the 1800’s, although in less numbers than the Irish and Germans. Like the many other nationalities that came over in record numbers in the latter half of the nineteenth century, they also came over in record numbers, outpacing the number of immigrants in the earlier part of that century. It should also be noted that Scandinavians helped strongly to settle the prairie provinces of Canada – Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba – during the end of the nineteenth century, as well as the northern Midwest states – Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana, etc. – in the U.S. Many of these people also came over for religious freedom, and were responsible for the General Baptist, Evangelical Covenant, and Evangelical Free (originally the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Free Church and the Swedish Evangelical Free Church, having merged in 1950 – another example of ethnic sect origins) Christian sects.

Dutch – The Dutch started coming over to North America at about the same time the English and French started coming over – back in the early 1600’s. They were the founders of New York City, as seen in its original name before it became part of the English colonies – New Amsterdam. After the Napoleonic Wars ended, the Dutch started coming over in larger numbers, although still in smaller numbers than, say, Germany or Ireland, probably since the Netherlands is a smaller, less populous nation from which to send immigrants. After our Civil War, however, they came in even larger numbers than they did before the Civil War. You’ll find that, like the Scandinavians, the Dutch seemed to settle in pockets in the upper Midwest, being seen in place names such as Holland, Michigan, and South Holland, Illinois, where you still find large numbers of people with Dutch names. One of the reasons these people came over is for religious freedom, as many of them were Protestant, as seen in the sect originally known as the Dutch Reformed Church, now known as the Christian Reformed Church, showing the Americanization of this group of people.

Russians – It was during the 1890’s that immigration patterns started to change to include more people from Eastern Europe, including Russian immigrants, and it was at this time that we started to see a large number of people from Russia come to the United States and Canada. Since it was about this time that the immigration laws in the United States and Canada changed to include people from not just western Europe, but eastern Europe as well, we don’t see hardly any immigration to North America from this group before this time period. Many of these immigrants came because of political freedom and a better life. Also, by the 1930’s, immigration had slowed considerably because of our Great Depression. After World War II there was a modest increase in Russian migration, but within the last forty years, it seems that their migration has dropped off like most of the other nations of Europe.

Austria, Hungary, and Eastern Europe – Like the great number of Russians migrating to North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there were also large numbers of people coming from Austria-Hungary, which was an empire encompassing most of central-eastern Europe at this time. In fact, there were more immigrants coming to North America from Austria-Hungary than from Russia during the first two decades of this last century (1901-1920). After World War II, during the period when the Iron Curtain was in place, and Communism ruled the eastern European nations that came into existence with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with what seemed to be an iron fist, we did see a increased number of people coming from those countries, mainly as refugees or asylum-seekers seeking to escape political oppression, and perhaps the religious persecution that also came with that political system.

Italians – Also about the same time, that is, from the 1890’s to about 1930, there was also a large number of immigrants coming from Italy. It was during this time that the largest number of this group came over. There were very few immigrants from the Italian peninsula before the U.S. and Canada changed their laws to allow for more immigration from other parts of Europe, including Italy, and the immigration pattern changed considerably within the last forty years or so, so that most immigrants seem to come from Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, and very little coming from Europe. You’ll find that many Italian-Americans live in the east, such as the New York City area, Philadelphia area, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.

Since World War II, we have seen an increase in the number of immigrants that have come over to North America from other parts of the world, all while the amount of immigration that has taken place from European countries has dropped off, for the most part. This is partly due to changes in the immigration policies of the United States and Canada, which started to be much more open to allowing these other immigrants to come to North America, but is also due to the fact that the amount of freedoms, the level of security, and the standards of living and quality of life, have been on the rise in Europe.

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