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Timeline of American Immigration

Knowing when your ancestors arrived in America could shine some light on the reasons why they left their home country to come to America. If you don't know where they came from, immigration data may offer some clues. What was happening around the time they arrived? Which groups were arriving and why? My year-checker tool was created to help with this but this summary of American immigration periods contains details that are good to know when you're researching your family's history:

1600s - The Dutch arrived in New York, the Swedes arrived in Delaware, the Spanish arrived in Florida, the British arrived in New England and in Virginia. Immigration during this period has been detailed in my previous blog, The Great Migration - Colonial America.

1790s - Following the American Revolution and our independence from Britain, The Naturalization Act of 1790 was passed by Congress, allowing free persons of good character and who have been in the country for at least two years to apply for citizenship. Citizenship gave citizens the right to vote, own property, and to testify in court. Later that year, the first U.S. census was taken.

1810s - Immigration from western Europe increased greatly after peace was made with Britain, following the War of 1812. Port cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston were overwhelmed with arriving passengers, many of them sick from the long journey. The Steerage Act of 1819 was passed, calling for safer conditions on ships and more detailed passenger lists including ethnic composition.

1820s - Five million German immigrants arrived between 1820 and 1860 as well as thousands of Irish immigrants. It is said that one out of every three immigrants were from Ireland during this period, mostly in the 1840s. Some people began opposing immigration, due to the large number of German and Irish immigrants.

1840s - The Great Irish Famine, which began in 1845 and ended in 1852, led to the immigration of over a million Irish immigrants. Also, it was during this period that the Gold Rush began. It started in 1848, when gold was discovered in the Sacramento Valley of California. Immigrants from China begin to arrive seeking new opportunities after the Opium Wars between China and Great Britain left China struggling. In 1851, it is recorded that 2,716 Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco.

1850s - Beginning in the 1850s, thousands more Chinese immigrants flocked to America. Periods of drought and flooding led to a crop failure in China in 1852. That year alone, over 20,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in San Francisco. They came to work in gold mines, on farms, in factories, and building the railroads. This went on until The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, the first policy to place restrictions on immigration in America. Castle Garden immigration depot opened at The Battery in Lower Manhattan in 1855. See the video of my visit to Battery Park here.

1860s - The Homestead Act of 1862 attracted many Europeans to America. Political and economic unrest in Germany made the offer irresistible and large numbers of Germans sailed to America.

1875 - The Federal Government was given the responsibility of enforcing immigration laws, by the Supreme Court. People who had criminal records or were considered "lunatics" or "idiots" were banned from entering the country.

1880s - The second immigration boom, during which over 20 million immigrants arrived in America, occurred in the 1880s. Over 4 million Italians and 2 million Jews arrived, with the remainder being primarily from Southern, Eastern and Central Europe. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 put a ten year ban on Chinese immigration and declared them ineligible for naturalization. This ban was not lifted until 1943, with the passage of the Magnuson Act.

1890s - The Immigration Act of 1891 placed further restrictions on immigration. People with criminal records, sickness, or disease, were banned from entry. Inspection stations were placed at the principle ports of entry to enforce the new rules. Ellis Island opened in the New York Harbor in January of 1892. The day it opened, 700 immigrants were processed, and in the first year, almost 450,000 more immigrants were received there. In its 62 years of operation, over 12 million immigrants would enter the United States through Ellis Island. In the 1890s, the larger portion of immigrants were arriving from southern and eastern Europe - the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks and Greeks. Non-Europeans from Syria, Turkey and Armenia also began to arrive.

IMPORTANT NOTE FOR RESEARCHERS: Records from Castle Garden were transferred to Ellis Island, where they were destroyed by fire on June 15, 1897. Therefore, the records of all arrivals at the Port of New York from about 1840 to 1897 were lost.

1900s - During Ellis Island's peak years of 1900 to 1914, an average of 1,900 people were being processed each day. From there, they could reach their destinations by train or boat. The record number of arrivals was made in 1907, when just over a million arrivals were processed. As of 1903, anarchists were denied admittance.

1910s - In 1915 there were 178,416 immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island. In 1918, after the U.S. entered World War I, only 28,867 arrived. German citizens attempting to land on American soil were deported. Ellis Island was used as a detention center for enemy aliens and a makeshift hospital for injured or ill servicemen during this time. A literacy test was also put in place. Immigrants over the age of 16 who could not read 30-40 words in their native language were refused entry.

1920s - The Immigrant Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924, put additional restrictions on immigration, bringing the eras of mass immigration to an end. With this policy, annual immigration from any country could not exceed 3% of the total number of immigrants from that country.

Between 1925 and 1954, more than half the immigrants arriving in the U.S. arrived through the port at New York. During that period, 2.3 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island.

1930s - The Great Depression brought extreme hardship to many in America. For the first time ever, more people were leaving America than were arriving.

1950s - The Internal Security Act of 1950 screened arrivals to ensure they had no previous links to communist and fascist organizations. Detainees were held at Ellis Island. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952, however, greatly reduced the number of detainees, leaving the island of little use. Immigration processing at Ellis Island completely ended in 1954. It became a tourist attraction in 1976. It is said that 40% of the people in America today can trace at least one of their ancestor's arrival to Ellis Island.

1965 - President Johnson abolished the original quota system and transformed U.S. immigration law when he signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, laying the foundations of our current immigration policy. It allowed a separate quota for refugees and allowed more immigrants from third world countries to enter the United States.

Explore immigration data using this useful resource found at Scholastic's website.


Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts [Link]

Ellis Island [Link]

Immigration Timeline [Link]


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