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Family Histories
The Peopling of America
The Peopling of America
A timeline showing forces behind immigration and their impact on the immigrant experience.
Click the time period you'd like to explore.
Pre-1790 1790 1820 1880 1930 1965 2000
By the 1880's, steam power had shortened the journey to America dramatically. Immigrants poured in from around the world: from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Southern and Eastern Europe, and down from Canada.

The door was wide open for Europeans - In the 1880s alone, 9% of the total population of Norway emigrated to America. After 1892 nearly all immigrants came in through the newly opened Ellis Island.

One immigrant recalled arriving at Ellis Island: "The boat anchored at mid-bay and then they tendered us on the ship to Ellis Island… We got off the boat…you got your bag in your hand and went right into the building Ah, that day must have been about five to six thousand people. Jammed, I remember it was August. Hot as a pistol, and I'm wearing my long johns, and my heavy Irish tweed suit."

Families often immigrated together during this era, although young men frequently came first to find work. Some of these then sent for their wives, children, and siblings; others returned to their families in Europe with their saved wages.

The experience for Asian immigrants in this period was quite different. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, severely restricting immigration from China. Since earlier laws made it difficult for those Chinese immigrants who were already here to bring over their wives and families, most Chinese communities remained "bachelor societies."

The 1907 "Gentlemen's Agreement" with Japan extended the government's hostility towards Asian workers and families. For thousands, the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay would be as close as they would ever get to the American mainland.

For Mexicans victimized by the Revolution, Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia, and Armenians escaping the massacres in Turkey, America provided refuge.

And for millions of immigrants, New York provided opportunity. In Lower New York, one could find the whole world in a single neighborhood.

Between 1880 and 1930 over 27 million people entered the United States - about 20 million through Ellis Island. But after outbreak of World War I in 1914, American attitudes toward immigration began to shift. Nationalism and suspicion of foreigners were on the rise, and immigrants' loyalties were often called into question. Through the early 20s, a series of laws was passed to limit the flow of immigrants.


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