Travels & Traditions: Immigrating to America, Part 1 - #809

BURT WOLF: Each year the United States grants permanent residency to more immigrants than all the other nations of the world combined. Most people come here believing that with hard work and determination they will end up with a better life---more money and more freedom. In fact, everyone who is in the United States today is either an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: For over 30 years I have been traveling around the world reporting on cultural history.  And usually it’s pretty easy for me to figure out how a wave of immigrants or conquerors effected the place I was in. 

BURT WOLF GREETING FATHER PAUL LAWLOR: How are you; good to see you.

BURT WOLF: I remember a church in Rome where the ground floor was built by a pagan tribe. On top there was a small Roman Temple. Then a hidden Christian shrine.

FATHER PAUL LAWLOR: So now we go up to the level of San Clemente.

BURT WOLF: …and finally a magnificent church. The man in charge of the building was an Irish priest. Each layer represented a different culture. Understanding the culture of each layer below gives you an understanding of what’s on top. The layers in the church are the same layers that produced today’s Rome.

Because of my work, I have spent most of my life as a stranger in a strange land trying to understand what was going on. A few years ago, I decided I needed to have a look at my own country. I wanted to uncover the true story of immigration to the United States.


BURT WOLF: Anthropologists tell us that the first people to immigrate to North America came from Asia between 15,000 and 35,000 years ago. They crossed a land bridge that was about a thousand miles wide and ran between Siberia and Alaska. They were big game hunters following herds that were migrating east. Several genetic studies indicate that our entire Native American population descended from the people of Siberia and they may have descended from a group of only 70 people.

For at least 15,000 years the Western Hemisphere seemed to have developed without any additional immigration. But in 1492, Columbus’ first ship arrived in the Americas and everything changed. For the next hundred years after the voyages of Columbus just about everyone who came through North America was an explorer looking for a way to get rich as fast as he could.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Starting in the early 1600s, however, we began to get a group of people who wanted to settle in and make a new life for themselves. And like every group that immigrated to the United States they came because things were not working out in their old life. If things at home are fine you stay put. It’s when things at home are a problem that you suddenly want to immigrate.

BURT WOLF: That was the case for most of the people who came here from England in the 1600s.  King Charles I, not on my list of nice guys, decided to reestablish the idea that the king ruled by “Divine Right” and could do whatever he wanted, especially when it came to religion.  About 20,000 people, known as the Puritans disagreed, and moved to what we now call New England.

Later in the 1600s, in much the same vein, England’s King Charles II gave William Penn a huge tract of land which eventually became Pennsylvania.  The King, who was a little short of cash at the time, owed 16,000 pounds to Penn. Big Money. The King offered to pay off the debt by giving Penn some land in the American colonies. The land was actually bigger than England but it was still a win-win deal.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Penn was an aristocrat which the king liked. But Penn was also a Quaker, which the king didn’t like. The Quakers had this idea that a government should represent the needs of all of its people. The king thought that was outrageous and apparently some governments still do. So the king took Penn and 10,000 Quakers and threw them into prison.  The idea that he could satisfy the debt and at the same time ship Penn and the 10,000 Quakers off to the colonies was a no-brainer.

BURT WOLF: There was, however, one serious problem that the King did not foresee. The ideas that came to Pennsylvania with the Quakers were the same ideas that formed the basis of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolutionary War which resulted in the King losing his American colonies. Some days you just can’t win. 

The colonies that formed the Untied States began without the rigid class system that was so much a part of life in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Immigrants were attracted to the cheap land, religious freedom and the chance to improve themselves---

SHOP KEEPER ON CAMERA: Good Morning Mrs. Russett.

…a chance to escape from persecution and poverty. In the 150 years before the American Revolution, dozens of different religious and cultural groups managed to find a way of living together in relative harmony. It was a major improvement over the bloody Reformation and Counter-Reformation wars that were ravaging Europe.

But not all the immigration was voluntary. Starting in 1619, millions of Africans were taken from their homes and forced into slavery in North America. In 1808, Congress banned the importation of slaves and that appalling traffic slowly came to an end.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 1800s, almost all population growth in North America was internal. High birth rates and low death rates had shifted the population to almost 98% of it was local born.

But during the 1820’s things began to change that was also the same time that our federal government began to keep track of people who immigrated by boat. And during the twenty year period, from 1820 to 1840, immigration increased every year.

BURT WOLF: During the 1800s, immigration to the United States increased even further. Europe was in mass confusion---crop failures, famine, shortages of land and jobs, increased taxation, and disease. Millions of people where heading to America.

In 1892, the federal government opened a new immigration center on Ellis Island in New York harbor and for the next 50 years, Ellis was the primary immigration center for the United States government. During its peak years, 1900 to 1924, over twelve million people came through Ellis.

There were three classes of service on the steamships that sailed between Europe and New York. If you could afford to travel in first or second class life was easy. Officials from the U.S. Immigration Service would clear you while you were still in your cabin and you were free to begin your new life.

Third class was a different story. Steamship companies saw the immigrants who traveled in third class as profitable cargo…cargo that even loaded itself. They were called steerage passengers because they were kept in the back of the boat, next to the steering equipment. They were packed together in appalling conditions---conditions that were breeding grounds for disease. Thousands of people died during those voyages. And when your ship finally arrived in Manhattan, you were ferried across New York Harbor to Ellis Island.

Barry Moreno has worked in the Museum Services Division at Ellis Island for over a decade and authored a number of books about immigration through Ellis.

BARRY MORENO ON CAMERA: This is where the Immigration and Naturalization Service brought the aliens, the immigrants, to Ellis Island aboard barges.  What they would do is they would bring them from the steamships, and the barges were coming all day long, and they would dock here.  Then the immigrants would come out, and directed by men called groupers, they would form two lines.  One line, for men and boys and the other line for women and girls.  So, then they would continue into this main building at Ellis Island.  This is the registry room.  This is the place in which the fate of the immigrant was decided by an inspector.  And the inspector was assisted by an interpreter in case the load of ... the shipload of immigrants were non-English speakers, and there was always a clerk at the inspector's side.

BURT WOLF: At those desks.

BARRY MORENO ON CAMERA: That’s correct. The inspector was really looking for ways of keeping the immigrant out of the country, weeding out the alien. That was the idea.  You had to find out whether someone violated the laws in advance of entry.  They would find out:  Does the immigrant have enough money?  Is the immigrant a criminal?  Does the immigrant suffer from some contagious disease or immoral disease?  Or is he handicapped in some way that would prevent him making a living?

BURT WOLF: I understand that some people came here with money.

BARRY MORENO: Yes.  Actually, a good many did. 

BURT WOLF: Why?  Why would they come if they had money?

BARRY MORENO: Well, they wanted to invest in this country, to buy land and settle down here, buy shops and go into business, and that was the way to do it.  You were frugal. You'd save your money, and then you came to America.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And if they got through, what happened next?

BARRY MORENO ON CAMERA: Well, if they actually passed through, then the next question was, how soon they could they get off of Ellis Island, because people didn't really like Ellis Island. 

BURT WOLF: In spite of the fact that Ellis was processing twice as many people as it was designed to handle, the staff did a remarkable job. The average immigrant was in and out of Ellis within five hours. Medical exams were completed, stability interviews conducted; there was a place to change your old-country money into U.S. dollars and a spot to buy railroad tickets if you were going on to some other part of the country. If you were staying in the neighborhood, you went through a door marked “Push to New York”. On the other side was a ferry that would take you the last mile of your journey to Manhattan.


BURT WOLF: On New Year’s Day of 1892, a 15-year-old girl named Annie Moore arrived from Ireland’s Cork County and was the first person to pass through Ellis Island.

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL ON CAMERA: The Irish, of course, had been coming since the Colonial period. But their biggest wave was certainly in the 19th century. And their contribution, one of their biggest contributions, was that they arrived in such huge numbers and really shocked America and forced America to really think about what it meant to be an American. By being mostly poor and from Ireland and Catholic for the most part they forced America to rethink what it meant to be American and kind of expanded the definition.  America was not particularly pleased with the arrival of the Irish, gradually over time, it took a couple of generations, accepted them as Americans. I mean you can look at something like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  It’s held all across the country now every year on March 17th, it’s a celebration of Irish identity but it’s copied and replicated by every immigrant group since.  Other contributions by the Irish, probably the most evident one is in the role that they played in building the American economy as laborers.  They came with very few skills and with almost no money, but they did arrive with a need to work and a willingness to work, and if you look across America, the great infrastructure that was built that made America the greatest economy in the world by the early 20th century, the railroads, the canals, the great projects like the Brooklyn Bridge all were built overwhelmingly with Irish labor.

BURT WOLF: Irish immigration also set a pattern for mutual assistance within a community.

Most of the immigrants who came to the United States during the 1800s were single men. But when the Irish potato crop failed in 1845, and hundreds of thousands of Irish men and women fled to America, many came as families. And of the others who did not come as families, there were almost an equal number of men as women, which allowed for the immediate formation of more families.

Patrick and Mary McGivney were typical of the Irish families that arrived during the middle-1800s. Patrick landed with very few skills and with almost no money, but like most of his fellow immigrants he showed up with the need and the willingness to work.

The McGivney’s settled in Waterbury Connecticut and Pat became a molder in a nearby brass mill. The McGivney’s were not faced with the prospect of starvation which had haunted them in Ireland but they did live in the grip of poverty. Their oldest child Michael grew up in a community filled with the sorrow that comes along with scarcity.

When Michael was thirteen years old he went to work in a spoon-making factory so he could contribute a few dollars towards the family’s survival. At sixteen he left the mill and began his studies for the priesthood. On Christmas Day, 1877, Father McGivney began his ministry as Curate of St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut.

It was a time when parish clubs were popular. For the most part, they were social organizations that gave the Irish community a chance to hangout. But Father McGivney saw them as an opportunity to build a fund that would provide for the financial needs of families that were overwhelmed by illness or death.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Father McGivney began working with a group of Civil War Veterans that had come to the United States from Ireland. They wanted to form an organization that would help protect their families during times of stress and they called their group The Knights of Columbus. They wanted to make the point that they themselves were still struggling for equality in our own country, but they were now in the new world.

BURT WOLF: Today, The Knights of Columbus combine fraternalism with an insurance program that meets Father McGivney’s vision of support for families in trouble. There are over one million seven hundred thousand Knights and during the past ten years they have contributed over one billion dollars and four hundred million hours of volunteer service to charitable causes.


BURT WOLF: Though the Irish opened Ellis Island for business they were the second largest group to pass through --- the largest group were the Italians.

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL ON CAMERA: The Italians brought with them first and foremost themselves, by the millions, and one of their most obvious contributions to America were the millions of people that filled the factories, the work sites that built the roads and produced the great abundance of the American economy in the early 20th Century.  These are mostly nameless, faceless people that we don't know anything about; except that they were Italian and that they came to America. But among the millions, there certainly are many very notable ones that do stand out.  Probably, one of the best examples being Marconi, who invented the wireless set and eventually founded the company that becomes RCA, one of the biggest and most important corporations in the 20th century.  Enrico Fermi won the Nobel Prize for his research in nuclear science.  You could shift to the arts and look at people like Enrico Caruso, probably the most popular entertainer in the early 20th century.  Into areas like baseball.  New Yorkers would certainly argue and, I think, a lot of other baseball fans would agree, that Joe DiMaggio is one of the great baseball players of all time, Yogi Berra, certainly, another great one.  You could shift to Hollywood and see that Frank Capra, the man who brought such great movies, like It's a Wonderful Life to the silver screen.  So, you have both lots of nameless, faceless people who made their contribution and then certainly notable ones that stand out.

BURT WOLF: Another major group came from Eastern Europe, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Austria and Romania. As the 1880s came to a close, Eastern Europe found itself in constant turmoil.  Crops were failing.  There was agonizing poverty throughout the population and religious persecution was rampant.  During a 50-year period starting in 1875, over 2 million Russians took passage to New York. By 1914, two and a half million Poles had passed through Ellis. 

EDWARD T. O'DONNELL: The heyday of Eastern European arrival to America, mostly Jewish, was at the turn of the century, and they were the ones most closely associated with Ellis Island. They come by the millions, largely due to factors in Eastern Europe, persecution, war,

EDWARD T. O’DONNELL ON CAMERA: famine and general overpopulation.  And they arrive in America at this time, usually going through Ellis Island and fill American cities.  They're very urban people.  And they  like all the immigrants before them make a tremendous mark.  Think about the Jewish contribution to the arts.  People, like, everything ... from Irving Berlin to the Gershwins.  Go back a little bit earlier.  Late 19th century, early 20th century.  Vaudeville was probably the most popular form of entertainment in America, and it's overwhelmingly, full of Jewish entertainers.  The Marx Brothers were originally a vaudeville routine.

BURT WOLF: Most immigrants settled near their ports of entry but a large number found their way inland. My mother’s mother arrived in New York in 1909 and went straight to Chicago. Some states, especially those with small populations, tried to attract immigrants by offering jobs or free land for farming. There was also a desire to move to communities that had been established by earlier settlers from their homelands.

As soon as the immigrants arrived they started looking for work. There were jobs, but never enough and employers often took advantage of the immigrants. Immigrant men were generally paid less than other workers and women less than men.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We tend to think that the largest number of immigrants to the United States were either Irish or Italian but that’s not the case. The 1990 census indicated that over 60 million Americans are the descendants of German immigrants which makes them the largest ethnic population in the country. In 23 states they actually represent over 20 percent of the population.

BURT WOLF: What we think of as a traditional Christmas celebration is based on German tradition. Most of our great symphony orchestras and glee clubs are based on German societies. They gave us the kindergarten, the hamburger, the frankfurter and the delicatessen.

In rural areas they pioneered scientific farming, crop rotation and soil conservation. They started some of our most important companies in food processing, brewing, steelmaking, railroading, printing and publishing.

The first permanent German settlement in America was founded in 1683 at Germantown, Pennsylvania by a group of thirteen families who had emigrated from Krefeld. Germantown became the center of German immigration to the American colonies. But many families used Pennsylvania as a staging point to move to other areas.

Military units raised from German American communities played a key role in the Revolution. A little known but fascinating fact --- George Washington’s personal body guards during the war ended up being German-Americans. His first set of bodyguards turned out to be English spies. He felt he could only trust German-Americans.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: No wonder you never see a picture of him smiling---poor guy was surrounded by assassins. For Travel’s & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.