Coming to America: U.S. Immigration at the Turn of the 20th Century
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The late 1800s and early 1900s were a period of significant immigration to the U.S., as millions sailed from Europe in search of a better life.
Between 1900 and 1915, more than 15 million immigrants, largely from Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe, arrived on American shores. Most endured crowded conditions in the steerage compartments of large steamships, driven by hope for a brighter future.
Where exactly did all of these immigrants come from? Where did they land? And how do you find your immigrant story? Ancestry® can help.
Turn-of-the-Century Immigration: Who Came?
In the 1800s and 1900s U.S. immigration varied by decade and country of origin. The majority of immigrants coming to the U.S. in the earlier part of the 1800s were from Germany and Ireland. But at the turn of the century, the numbers of Irish and German immigrants decreased and a new immigrants from Southern, Eastern, and Central European began arriving on American shores.
Among this new wave of European immigrants were many who were dubbed "birds of passage". They came to America seeking work but left their families behind in the old country. Birds of passage were typically men, sometimes traveling with teenage sons. They would go home seasonally or for extended visits before returning to the U.S. to earn more money for their families. Sometimes they were separated from their families for years. Many eventually sent for their families and typically settled in ethnic communities near others with the same background.
Between 1910 and 1920, America also saw an influx of Mexicans fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution. By 1930 the number of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. had tripled from the 200,000+ enumerated in the 1910 Census to more than 600,000. They were meeting the growing need for industrial workers, miners, construction laborers, and seasonal agricultural laborers. They often did dangerous work for little pay.
European Jews were also coming to America in large numbers, many to escape anti-Semitism and the rioting, violence, and massacres of pogroms, particularly in Eastern Europe and Russia.
Top Ports for Turn-of-the-Century Immigration
Poor economic conditions and violence in Europe were significant factors in driving turn-of-the-century immigration. But there were also advances in steamship technology which made the journey to America faster and more affordable than ever before (albeit in crowded steerage compartments).
From the more than 2.5 million Jewish people fleeing persecution, to Sicilians escaping dire, rural poverty, these brave men and women found themselves along with all of their worldly possessions on the shores of a new country.
The ports were their first experience of America. At times, they influenced where the immigrants would settle, impacting the country's demographics for generations. Here are some of the major ports for immigrants coming to America at the turn of the 20th century.
New York: New York was by far the most popular destination for turn-of-the-century immigrants, with more than 12 million immigrants processed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. During its peak years between 1900 and 1914, as many as five thousand immigrants were processed at Ellis Island every day.
Ellis Island is the most well-known port of entry, but plenty of immigrants were arriving in other ports around the country. Here are other noteworthy U.S. ports for turn-of-the-century immigration.
Philadelphia: The port in Philadelphia was located more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Despite this, about 1.3 million immigrants passed through the port of Philadelphia between the early 1800s and 1985, with the bulk of arrivals to Philadelphia taking place between 1880 and 1915.
Baltimore: In 1867, immigration through the port of Baltimore, Maryland jumped, when immigrants were able to purchase one ticket that would take them across the ocean from Germany to Baltimore and then continue inland by train.
Galveston: Between 1907 and 1914, Jews escaping the Russian pogroms were encouraged to immigrate through Galveston, Texas. It is estimated that 10,000 Jewish immigrants passed through Galveston during this period.
New Orleans: Because of the lucrative nature of the port in New Orleans, Louisiana, the business community wanted an open, deregulated port. This made it an attractive port of entry for those who might be detained at stricter ports.
Angel Island: An immigration station on Angel Island opened its doors in January 1910 in an effort to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and subsequent legislation restricting Asian and non-Northern European immigration. It's estimated that more than one million persons were processed through Angel Island on their way in or out of the U.S. Most of the immigrants—including 175,000 Chinese and 150,000 Japanese immigrants—were from Asia, but it's estimated immigrants from over 80 countries were detained by island officials. Many were processed and released the day of their arrival, but some were held there for weeks or even months in terrible conditions.
U.S. Immigration Records on Ancestry®
For those looking for historical records related to U.S. immigration, Ancestry® has a number of valuable collections.
Citizenship & Naturalization Records: Citizenship records are the result of the process of becoming an American citizen, known as naturalization. Citizenship and naturalization records on Ancestry for this period can reveal rich details such as the date of immigration and the name of the ship, details about family members like names, ages, and addresses, and birth information (where your ancestor was born and when). You could even find your ancestor's signature.
Border Crossings: Throughout U.S. history, many immigrants have made their way to the U.S. via land border crossings from Canada and Mexico. Ancestry has records showing border crossings from Canada to the U.S. from 1895 to 1960, as well as from the U.S. to Canada from 1908 to 1935 and from Mexico to the U.S. from 1895 to 1964.
Passport Applications: Depending on when they were issued, passports vary in the level of detail they contain. But for this period you can generally find details like the applicant's birth date (or age), birth place, date and place of immigration to the U.S., years of residence in the U.S., occupation, and even physical characteristics. For men, you might find the wife's name and for women details about their husbands or fathers like name, age or birth date, and place of residence. Later passports can even include a photograph of the applicants. Ancestry has a collection of U.S. passport applications from 1795 to 1925.
Passenger Lists: Passenger lists became a requirement for ship captains after the Steerage Act of 1819 and can give some unique insights into the lives of your turn-of-the-century immigrant ancestors. While earlier records only recorded the basics, beginning in the 1890s, passenger lists started including wonderful details like birthplaces and residences in the old country—plus names of friends and relatives in America and in the old country. The Ancestry collection of passenger lists includes lists from all major U.S. ports, as well as many smaller ports.
Ships Pictures & Descriptions: Ever wonder what the ship that brought your ancestor to America at the turn of the century looked like? You may be able to find out: the Ship Pictures and Descriptions collection on Ancestry has images and descriptions of many of the steamships arriving in the U.S.
Tips for Finding Family Stories in U.S. Immigration Records
Immigration hit a peak in 1907 with more than 1.2 million arrivals that year alone. With so many people coming to America's shores, there are many people in the U.S. today who have ancestors who came to this country just a few generations ago. Here are some tips for finding your family stories in U.S. immigration records.
Look for alternate spellings. Many people's ancestors didn't know how to spell their name or perhaps didn't feel strongly about how it was recorded. In addition, immigrants from non-English speaking countries may have used an ethnic spelling that is different from the name they used once they settled in the U.S., for both surnames and given names.
Just because the whole family isn't listed on a passenger list, it doesn't mean you have the wrong family. Many families, like the so-called "birds of passage", may have traveled separately, with one or two family members coming over earlier to earn money, and settle in, then sending for the rest of the family later. This was historically known as chain migration.
Narrow the date of arrival. There are many records that can help you narrow the date of arrival, including census records. For example, the U.S. censuses from 1900 through 1930 asked for the year of immigration, as did some state censuses. Passports and naturalization records from this era also typically include the arrival date, port of entry, and ship name. Create a timeline of your immigrant ancestor's life to get even closer to that arrival date. Using even an estimated date in your search will help weed out irrelevant results.
Check multiple ports. If your ancestor made more than one trip, you may find them arriving at different ports, depending on the shipping line they chose to travel on and the deal they got on the ticket.
Explore oral histories. Ancestry has a New York City, Ellis Island oral histories collection, featuring about 2,000 oral histories from 1892 to 1976. The collection of first-hand accounts about immigrant experiences was collected by the Ellis Island Oral History Program through the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. This means you can find out in an immigrant's own words what it was like to come to America on a ship, arrive and be processed at Ellis Island, and the adjustment to life in the U.S.
Start Your Next Journey Into Your Family History
For the millions who passed through ports like Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century, arriving in America represented a fresh start, the beginning of their family's history in the U.S. Could your family have been among them? Search for your family's immigration story, from the turn-of-the-century and other eras, on Ancestry today.
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