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History & Role of Immigration & Migration in New York

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Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

The story of immigration and migration in the United States is one that can be told through the history of New York City. Learn more about why people chose New York City as their final destination in this lesson. Updated: 01/08/2021

New Amsterdam

Did you know that 40 percent of today's American population had an ancestor walk through the immigration office at Ellis Island in New York City? Why such a high number? Well, let's take a look at the history of immigration in New York.

If you take a stroll down Beaver and Broad Streets in modern day New York City, you would be walking along what was once New Amsterdam. Unlike the other original 13 colonies (mainly British), New York was settled by the Dutch of the Netherlands.

In 1625, the Dutch West India Company established the settlement of New Amsterdam, and the first fort they built, called Fort Orange, was established a year later. The Indian Wars didn't curb the increasing Dutch immigration, and by 1645, peace had been made with Native American groups that once populated the area. The Algonquin Indians sold the island of Manhattan to the Dutch for the modern day equivalent of $24.

By 1656 a census showed that there were 1,000 people in New Amsterdam. Trade disputes between the Dutch and Great Britain in the late 1600s would see the area transferred to the control of the British in 1674, when the name was changed to New York.

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  • 0:04 New Amsterdam
  • 1:19 Colony of New York
  • 2:15 New York Immigration
  • 4:22 Domestic Migration to…
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Colony of New York

Many different European groups began to immigrate to New York in the 1700s. Among the largest groups were the Germans and Africans.

In 1626 the first Africans arrived, brought by the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch East India Company was the biggest importer of slaves through the 1600s, and mainly Africans from Angola were brought into New Amsterdam. There they built roads, cleared the forests of Manhattan, and grew crops. By 1756 there were over 13,000 slaves, making New York the most populous slave-importing colony in the North.

The Germans began immigrating to New York in the 1700s. Most of them were from the Palatine area of Germany and were of the Protestant faith. After relocating to Holland and then England, they made the trek to New York. In 1710 alone a little over 2,000 Germans arrived in New York.

New York Immigration

When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, New York became a state. The Dutch, British, Germans, and newly freed Africans (freed between 1799 and 1817) began to welcome new groups of immigrants by the 1840s.

Because the Great Famine (aka potato famine) had decimated Ireland, by 1847 over 50,000 Irish converged on New York City. That year over 50,000 new Germans also moved into New York, causing widespread panic among the 300,000 New Yorkers already living there. These immigrants were forced into the worst jobs and worst homes the island had to offer.

Germans were met with hostility, but they had established community in New York and so fared better than the Irish. The Irish faced angry mobs and extreme hostility even into the Civil War years where they were drafted into the army at alarming rates.

The 1880s saw the beginning of new immigration, where droves of Europeans came to the U.S., arriving at Ellis Island in the New York Harbor. Their first sight was the newly built Statue of Liberty. This new wave of immigrants came to look for jobs or to escape religious persecution or war, among many other reasons. European Jews, Russians, Greeks, and Italians came into Ellis Island and settled in ethnic neighborhoods around New York City.

The Industrial Revolution in New York City offered unskilled laborers work for low pay and in dangerous conditions. Immigrants lived in rat-infested, multi-family apartments—tenement buildings riddled with disease. Immigrants also faced nativism, where older more established Americans (who were immigrants as well) disliked the new immigrants.

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