Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Brief History of Immigration Before 1920

How America closed the "Open Door"

I recently bought an old civics textbook (Community Life and Civic Problems, written by Howard Copeland Hill, and published in 1922 by Ginn and Company). I have enjoyed its several chapters about immigration; it was obviously a hot issue, and  it remains so, today, as much as ever.

As I read the text, I saw that some of  my and my husband's ancestors fit very neatly into the general immigration patterns from colonial days to 1920. Perhaps you'll see where your ancestors fit, too. 

According to the textbook, the vast majority of immigrants to America before 1820 came from England. Certainly some immigrants did come from other countries, and plenty of slaves were brought in from Africa, but even if all of these people were added together, they were still a  minority in comparison to the English.

From 1820 to 1855, immigration from Ireland and Germany increased greatly. Most of these immigrants came to America to escape hard times, religious oppression, and tyranny. One of the events that spurred Irish immigration was the potato famine of 1846.

Immigration slowed down during the Civil War, but afterward, the flood of foreigners resumed. Now, the immigrants were largely German, Irish, and Scandinavian. Many of them were poor, but most were not refugees. They immigrated because they were interested in the free land of the West and the freedom and opportunity of America.

Many Chinese also came to America during the gold rush of the 1840s and the periods of intensive railroad construction before and after the Civil War. This was the era in which the Transcontinental Railroad was built.

Unemployment soared when railroad and mine work dwindled. Resentment simmered against the hard-working, frugal "China-man", who in many cases seemed to be prospering. Lynchings and riots occurred on the West Coast. To ease tension and stem the inflow of Chinese workers, an immigration treaty with China was renegotiated.  In 1882, immigration from China was formally suspended for a decade.

The ban on Chinese immigrants followed an 1876 ban on criminal immigrants. For the first time, America's "Open Door" was closed to some people.

After 1885, America saw a sharp increase in "new immigrants." These people came from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia, whereas the "old immigrants" had been mostly from northwestern Europe. Many of the new immigrants, illiterate and unskilled but eager to work, settled in ethnic communities within cities where they found employment in factories. For the first time, some immigrants had no interest in acquiring American citizenship. They wanted to work, save money, and return to their homelands.

In the late 19th century, many Japanese immigrated to work in West Coast farms and factories. They faced the same hostilities that Chinese workers endured. America viewed these workers as a  problem and pursuaded Japan to prohibit immigration to the United States. Some western states passed laws prohibiting Japanese residents from owning land.

By 1910, laws had been passed to exclude convicts, lunatics, idiots, paupers, diseased people, anarchists, laborers under contract, and all those who were likely to become dependents of the state.

In 1917, a law was passed that excluded any "aliens over sixteen years of age, physically capable of reading, who cannot read the English language, or some other language or dialect." In other words, illiterate immigrants were no longer welcome in America. The bill did provide exemptions for some illiterate people if they could prove they were religious or political refugees, or if they already had relatives in the United States.

I scanned the photos of immigrants that accompany this brief history from the 1922 book I mentioned above. (Community Life and Civic Problems, written by Howard Copeland Hill, and published in 1922 by Ginn and Company).   In my personal timeline, these photos were taken just a few years before my mom and dad were born in 1923.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.