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
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
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