I wrote this post two years ago on an older blog. It has received so much attention that I thought I’d post an updated (and better edited) version here. If you know something who might enjoy this, please pass it on.
- They came to escape poverty.
This was probably the BIGGEST reason. For the Irish, famine, particularly the Great Potato Famine–an Gorta Mór– in the 1840s to early 1850s, compelled people to seek their living in another place. Throughout the centuries there have been other seasons of failed crops and/or disastrous weather conditions that drove people to leave their homelands. If you know the year your ancestors left, look for what else may have happened during that time to get a better look at possible motivations.
They came for religious freedom.
We’ve all heard that this is why the pilgrims came to America. Many of our ancestors’ narratives passed down contain this reason. But don’t forget that in centuries past the church ran the government, so in a sense they were coming for liberty. However, religious freedom is one of our rights we cherish in America. Today we refer to this as people being marginalized. When a group of people feel that they are in the minority in terms of something that is of major significance to them, they are likely to seek a more hospitable place to live.
They came to avoid prosecution.
I’m sure that reason does not appear in any family Bibles, but the practice was feared enough at one time that the US government put in place stringent immigration rules in an attempt to avoid harboring all the world’s criminals. This did not appear to be a widespread problem at the turn of the 20th century, however, according to this paper. I’m sure there are some good stories out there, though, about folks who ran from the law.
They came because a relative was already here.
Among certain immigrant groups, like the Italians, men would often come first, get a job, earn money, and then send for their wives and children. Or older children in a family would come first and prepare the way. Many Irish girls went to America and then saved money to bring their siblings over. Some immigrants had uncles waiting to help them get a good start. I’m sure many people have stories in their families about reunions at Ellis Island and other immigrant stations. At Ellis Island, in the room where folks rejoined their families, there was a pillar referred to as “The Kissing Post” because so many loved ones had been reunited there.
They came not to stay.
This was particularly true of some Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. They brought no family, sent for no one, and came over just to work and save enough money to buy their own businesses or farms back in their native country. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution. They built the railroads, worked in mines, built the skyscrapers. America needed workers. These immigrants put up with squalid living conditions so that they could hoard as much as they could to send home to their families and to invest in businesses.
This is not a story you hear very often when you look at those tenement pictures. I’m not saying everyone who came chose that kind of life, but some did. Many used the Land of Opportunity to get a better financial footing back home. However, there were some who had planned to stay temporarily but ended up never going back.
What stories have you heard? Why did your ancestors immigrate?