Although hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over the world came to America, there were some ethnic groups that comprised a large amount of the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. Here we’ll take a look at Italian, Irish and Polish immigrants.
During the mass emigration from Italy between 1876 and 1976, the U.S. was the largest single recipient of Italian immigrants in the world, with over four and a half Italian immigrants arriving in America. In fact, more Italians have immigrated to the United States than any other group of Europeans. Most of the Italian immigrants came from southern Italy, leaving to escape the economic hardship, natural disasters, high taxes and scarcity of resources in their homeland.
Once they passed through Ellis Island, many Italian immigrants settled right in New York City, bringing with them their culture and beliefs. The new American-Italians clustered into groups that corresponded to their place of origin. For example, people from different parts of Sicily settled on different streets, and the Neapolitans settled on even different streets or neighborhoods. But no matter where they settled, living conditions tended to be crowded and dirty. They were likely to take construction jobs and were contracted out by professional labor brokers known as padrones. Italian immigrants dug tunnels, built bridges and roads, laid railroad tracks and helped build the first skyscrapers. By 1890, nearly 90% or New York City’s public works employees were Italian immigrants.
Many Italian immigrants never intended to make America their permanent home – they migrated to the United States to find work, and either sent money home or tried to save enough money to have a better life in their homeland. Some traveled to America in early spring and worked until late fall, returning then to the warmth of their southern European homes for the winter. It’s estimated that 20 to 30 percent of Italian immigrants returned to Italy permanently. Historians use the term “birds of passage” to describe these types of immigrants.
Ireland’s Potato Blight of 1845 is often seen as the beginning of a huge wave of Irish immigration to the United States. The blight decimated potato crops and created a devastating famine. Starvation became rampant in Ireland and within five years, a million Irish were dead and half a million had come to America to start a new life. However, living conditions in Ireland were dismal long before the Potato Blight of 1845 and resulting famine, and large numbers of Irish came to America as early as the 1820s. The Irish made up over one third of all immigrants to the United States between 1820 and 1860. By the 1840s, the Irish accounted for nearly half of all immigrants to the U.S.
The Irish that immigrated to America as a result of the famine were the most impoverished the United States had ever seen. Some of the poorest lived in the Five Points district of lower Manhattan in New York City, which the English novelist Charles Dickens described as “reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” with “lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee deep.” This neighborhood, Dickens wrote, was filled with “hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder; all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.”
The poor Irish immigrants lived in cellars, basements and one-room apartments that didn’t have natural light or ventilation and often flooded with sewage. As a result, they experienced high incidences of cholera, typhus and pneumonia, as well as mental illness and alcohol abuse. Irish immigrants accounted for a high number of admissions to poorhouses and public hospitals, as well as frequent arrests and imprisonment, mainly for disorderly conduct.
The Irish immigrants worked for very low wages, lacked skills and were often used as strike-break labor. They took the dangerous and menial jobs that other workers shunned. Many worked in coal mines or built railroads and canals. Over time, many Irish immigrants were able to advance in both occupation and social standing thanks to politically appointed positions such as policemen, firemen and teachers.
Many Polish immigrants came to America for economic, political and religious reasons. The majority came from the South and Southeastern parts of Poland, which at the time, were very poor and overpopulated areas. Many immigrants were illiterate and unskilled laborers, even in their own country.
The massive immigration started when a group of farmers left the country in the hopes of finding better economic opportunity. Many of them had lost their land and weren’t able to feed their families, which was a direct conflict of the Polish belief that if you owned land it showed stability, but without it you were in ruin. This belief, combined with political and religious conditions in Poland, was one of the reasons for the large Polish immigration to the United States.
A large number of Polish immigrants came to the United States solely to make money. These people were called “za chlebem” or “for bread” immigrants. It was thought that once they made some money, they would return to Poland and be prosperous. Still other Polish immigrants sold everything to travel to America and start a new life, and once in America, encourage their relatives to make the same trip.
Most Polish immigrants were Roman Catholics and they tended to stick together, forming large groups with other Polish immigrants. They continued with their Roman Catholic religion, and set up huge churches that became the centers of their communities.
In Polish immigrant families, everyone in the household worked, including mothers and children. Men without skills worked in industrial facilities, did menial tasks and dirty jobs, while the women ran the households, took in borders and did laundry for others. But most Polish immigrants did not seem to mind, since they had been unemployed for years in their homeland.