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 Extended  American agricultural history bibliography
 Extended  European agricultural history bibliography
We extend a warm thank you to the Iowa State University Center for On-Line Learning and the Iowa State University Department of History for their support of this project.
European Immigrants in Rural America in the Nineteenth Century
In the first half-century of American independence, relatively few immigrants from Europe arrived in the United States. After 1830, however, large numbers began to arrive from Germany and Ireland, the beginning of a mass migration on a vast scale. Some immigrants associated agriculture with the oppression, poverty, and drudgery they sought to escape, and chose to settle in cities. Others, however, saw farming as an integral part of a way of life that they could best preserve in America. Many immigrants also identified the availability of inexpensive land and ready markets as an economic opportunity. By 1900, large areas in rural America (especially the Midwest and the Great Plains) had been settled by European immigrants and their children.
In the nineteenth century, Europe underwent social and economic transformations which encouraged many displaced or discouraged rural dwellers to emigrate.

Developments such as enclosure, mechanization, improvements in transportation, and the abolition of serfdom involved more people in a more purely capitalist agriculture, often disrupting communal patterns of living while combining with population growth to reduce the possibility of landownership. Before the Civil War, many peasants of middling status abandoned their marginal holdings in fear of downward mobility, hoping that the abundant land in America would secure the prosperity, status, and way of life they wanted for themselves and their descendants. After the Civil War, when the transatlantic journey became far cheaper, immigrants to the United States were increasingly drawn from the ranks of Europe's rural poor; destitute peasants, tenants, farm laborers, and servants. With the passage of the 1862 Homestead Act, frontier land was virtually free, although considerable skill, perseverance and resourcefulness was needed to create a frontier farm.

Some immigrants were far more likely to settle on the land than others. In general, the nationality groups of the "old" immigration from northern and western Europe were more likely to seek out agricultural opportunities than the "new" immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who began to arrive after 1880, although there were exceptions to this rule (most notably the Irish, who were predominantly urban). It was rare for Italian and Jewish immigrants to become farmers, but very common for Norwegian and German-Russian immigrants to do so. Due to their great numbers, German immigrants probably had the greatest impact on rural America.

Immigrants who settled in rural areas were commonly part of a chain migration which brought several related or otherwise connected families from one area in Europe together in a new location in the United States. Thus many rural communities had a majority of immigrants from one particular region, usually sharing the same religion and language. These were "ethnic islands" where many (especially women, the elderly, and small children) knew little or no English, and where some consciously fought to preserve old-world traditions. They built their own churches and (less commonly) schools, read foreign-language newspapers, and maintained correspondence with friends and family in the old country. Although many appreciated the political liberty, economic opportunity, and social equality they associated with America, they often felt ambivalent about modern American notions of morality and roles within the family. There were elements of distrust and hostility in relations between the different ethnic and religious groups, and between the immigrants and old-stock Americans, but for the most part ethnic relations in nineteenth-century rural America were peaceful, if not harmonious. Politically, immigrants were divided by ethnic and religious lines. After the Civil War, British and Scandinavian Protestants were usually Republican while Catholics from Ireland and Central Europe were Democrats.

Although the question of social mobility in nineteenth-century America remains controversial, most researchers have found that upward mobility was common, even typical, among immigrants from rural Europe who settled in the American countryside. Letters to the old country, too, often emphasized that in the United States, hard work was rewarded with comfortable living, although there were also many who succumbed to disease, accidents, bad harvests, pests, debt, law suits, and price fluctuations.

The assimilation of immigrants in rural America remained incomplete at the end of the nineteenth century. Although generally accepting of the American political creed, immigrants did not see the adoption of all "Yankee" cultural forms as a necessary component of American residence and citizenship. Most immigrants negotiated dual identities in a pluralist setting, embracing new customs and roles in a pragmatic fashion rather than consciously adopting or rejecting the whole of American culture.

Knut Oyangen


Curti, Merle, et al. The Making of an American Community. A Case Study of Democracy in a Frontier Country. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959.

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America. A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: Perennial, 2002.

Gjerde, Jon. From Peasants to Farmers. The Migration from Balestrand, Norway, to the Upper Middle West. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Gjerde, Jon. The Minds of the West. Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830 - 1917. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted. The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, and Co., 1951.

Further reading

Hansen, Marcus Lee. The Immigrant in American History. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Highham, John. Strangers in the Land. Patterns of American Nativism, 1860 - 1925. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1955.

Iseminger, Gordon. "The McIntosh County German-Russians: The First Fifty Years," North Dakota History, 1984 51 (3): 4-23.

Jordan, Terry. German Seed in Texas Soil: Immigrant Farmers in Nineteenth-Century Texas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966.

Kamphoefner, Walter. The Westfalians. From Germany to Missouri. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Kamphoefner, Walter, et al., eds. News from the Land of Liberty. German Immigrants Write Home. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Kleppner, Paul. The Cross of Culture. A Social Analysis of Midwestern Politics, 1850 - 1900. New York: Free Press, 1970.

Loewen, Royden. Hidden Worlds: Revisiting the Mennonite Immigrants of the 1870s. North Newton, Kan.: Bethel College, 2001.

Luebke, Frederick, ed. Ethnicity on the Great Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

Luebke, Frederick. Germans in the New World. Essays in the History of Immigration. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

McQuillan, Aidan. Prevailing over Time. Ethnic Adjustment on the Kansas Prairies, 1875 - 1925. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Ostergren, Robert C. A Community Transplanted. The Trans-Atlantic Experience of a Swedish Immigrant Settlement in the Upper Middle West, 1835 - 1915. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Ostergren, Robert C. "European Settlement and Ethnicity Patterns on the Agricultural Frontiers of South Dakota." South Dakota History 1983 13 (1-2): 49 - 82.

Pederson, Jane Marie. Between Memory and Reality. Family and Community in Rural Wisconsin, 1870 - 1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Pickle, Linda Schelbitzki. Contented among Strangers. Rural German-Speaking Women and Their Families in the Nineteenth-Century Midwest. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Pozzetta, George, ed. Immigrants on the Land: Agriculture, Rural Life, and Small Towns. New York: Garland, 1991.

Swierenga, Robert. Faith and Family. Dutch Immigration and Settlement in the United States, 1820 - 1920. New York: Holmes & Meier, 2000.

Vecoli, Rudolph, ed. Italian Immigrants in Rural and Small Town America. Staten Island, N. Y.: American Italian Historical Society, 1987.