Who Were the Immigrants?

Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island as in Bessie's PillowEuropean Immigration from the 1830s to 1924 changed the Face of America.

During two great waves of European immigration, 71 million people would leave their homes to settle in America.

Bessie Markman, her husband, two brothers, and many of her friends were among those who came during the immigration of Jews escaping czarist Russia.

With the exception of Mr. Green whom she worked for in New York for a short time, all of  Bessie’s friends and neighbors were immigrants including Irish, Italians and Germans.

Economic hardship and religious persecution were common themes. Emigrants, whether Russian Jews, German Protestants, or Irish and Italian Catholics all came for a better life and economic opportunity. Several groups for religious freedom.

Many would settle in neighborhoods and communities in America with others from their villages or neighborhoods in their cities in the “old country.”

However, each group of immigrants would have specific reasons for immigrating depending on what country they were leaving.

Irish Immigration: 1845-1865

  • Between 1845 and 1851 approximately a million Irish people died from the potato famine. To escape the poverty, disease and hunger, Irish families and single women and men would leave Ireland.
  • By 1854 more than a quarter of the population of Ireland came to the United States.
  • Although most would settle in large Eastern cities, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and as far west as Chicago, many men would work on the railroads and in coal mines.
  • When the Civil War ended, enough Irish lived in New York, Boston, and Chicago to elect Irish men to important political offices.

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German Immigration: 1850s-1880s

  • German immigrants came to America in three waves during the 1850s, 1870s and 1880s.
  • Farmers, artisans and manufacturers,  day laborers, agricultural workers, Jews, Catholics and Protestants would all come to America.
  • Farmers and agricultural workers would settle in Pennsylvania and states as far away as Minnesota and Nebraska–where they formed German communities
  • German Jews would settle in New York
  • Jews and Catholics would come to escape social and economic discrimination
  • Single men would come to escape conscription in the Prussian military
  • Many would come to escape poverty from increasing economic

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Russian Jewish Immigration: 1880 to 1924

  • Beginning in 1881, two million Eastern European Jews would come to America, the largest number from the Russian Pale of Settlement (Lithuania, Belarus, Moldavia, the Ukraine, and parts of Poland)
  • In 1906 alone, 215,665 Russian Jewish immigrants passed through Ellis Island on their way to New York City.
  • Five out of six Russian Jewish immigrants would remain in New York.
  • By 1910 almost half a million Russian immigrants lived in the City.
  • Russian Jewish families (an single people like Bessie) would come to escape the vicious porgroms against Jews by Russian gangs and the military.
  • Young Jewish men would come to escape conscription into the Russian army where they would be put on the front line with filthy uniforms, bad equipment, and certain death.

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Southern Italian Immigration: 1880-1924

  • By the 1920s, 2 million Italians had emigrated to America, mostly from Southern Italy
  • As poor and and as susceptible to disease as immigrants from other countries, many were also refugees left homeless by earthquakes and eruptions from volcanoes.
  • Single men unable to buy land for farming would take jobs as laborers
  • Unlike other groups, between 30 to 50 percent of these single men, known as ritornati,  would stay a few years and then return to Italy.
  • Italian immigrants would send or take back with them as much as $30 million. The money earned in America would help bring parts of Southern Italy out of extreme poverty.

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End of the Great Waves of Immigration

The numbers of immigrants, especially Russian Jews and southern Italians, startled Congress. With the fear of “foreign elements” taking over the country, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924. Although limiting immigrants from most countries, Eastern Europe would suffer the greatest loss.