Migration from Rural to Urban Settings in Europe and the U.S.: History and Effects

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  • 0:05 Migration
  • 1:24 England's Industrial…
  • 4:34 America's Industrial…
  • 6:23 Urbanization
  • 8:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Valerie Houghton, Ph.D.

Valerie holds a Ph.D. in Health Psychology.

In this lesson, we will discuss some of the causes for people to migrate from a rural setting to an urban setting in Europe and in America. We will also learn the difference between immigration and emigration.


Thousands of workers migrated to Central and Northern England during the Industrial Revolution.
Manchester England Map

Have you ever researched your family tree? Do you know what country your great grandparents come from? Many people living in the United States today had relatives who lived in Europe and migrated to America. But, do you know why people migrated here? In this lesson, we will discuss migration from rural to urban settings in Europe and the U.S.

Migration is the physical movement from one area to another. People migrate for various reasons. Some positive reasons people migrate are to obtain a better job, obtain personal freedoms and acquire a better way of life. Some not so positive reasons people migrate are because of war, famine, poverty and oppression.

Prior to the mid-1780s, most of Europe lived in a rural area. A rural area is an area that has a population less than 2,500 people. Life in the rural area consisted of growing crops, such as grain, and raising animals, such as sheep, for wool and meat. Being a farmer is hard work, and the pay is extremely low. In addition, all of the work had to be done by hand as they did not have any machines to aid in their labor. Farmers were also at the mercy of nature. For example, a good weather season meant a bountiful crop and prosperous times. However, an inhospitable weather season meant an anemic crop, which could lead to starvation.

England's Industrial Revolution

Around 1780 England was undergoing an Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution refers to a period of economic, technological and social change. The Industrial Revolution eventually spread across Europe to America. The reason it started in England is because they had the natural resources, such as iron and coal; they had obtained cotton from their colonies, such as India; and they had just invented many labor saving machines. They also had enough people willing to work in the new industries. When people had a chance to leave the farm in hopes of a better life as a factory worker or coal miner, they jumped at the opportunity. Entire families left the farm and all members of the family - including young boys and girls - went to work in the new industries. As a laborer of industry, a person who worked hard could be promoted to better jobs, earn more money and thus, pull themselves out of poverty. All of these opportunities would never have been granted to them if they had stayed on the farm.

Inventions like the refrigerated railroad car created new U.S. industries.
Refrigerated Railroad Car

During this period of time, people migrated to wherever the jobs were. For example, coal and iron were in Central and Northern England, which created a job market in this area for people to come and mine these resources. In this example, thousands of people migrated from Southern England to Central and Northern England, which caused Northern cities, like Manchester, to grow.

So, over time, the rural population migrated into the urban areas. An urban area, otherwise known as a city, is an area that has a population of greater than 2,500 people. However, it wasn't just English people migrating to the urban areas - it was people from all over Europe. These people who were migrating into England from a different country are known as immigrants. An immigrant is a person who comes to live in a foreign country, while the act of going to live in a foreign country is called immigration. So, your great grandparents could have immigrated from Europe to America. When they settled in America they were known as immigrants. Now, here is where the terms can get tricky; if your great grandparents, for example, left their birthplace to come to America, the act of leaving the place where you were born is called emigration. The term emigration specifically refers to the act of leaving one's birthplace to settle in another country. The two terms are similar in that they both refer to migrating people from one place to another. However, emigration is the act of leaving, and immigration is the act of entering another country. An easy way to distinguish the two terms is to think of the 'e' in emigration as exiting one's place of birth and think of the 'i' in immigration as going into a place. So, now let's say your great-grandparents who were born in Scotland exited (emigrated) Scotland and went into (immigrated) England in hopes of finding a better job. Once in England, they were immigrants of that country.

The Industrial Revolution had such an impact on the population that it literally changed where the majority of people lived. For example, in the 1700s most of England's population lived in a rural area; however, by the 1800s most of England's population lived in an urban area. Thus, it can be said that the Industrial Revolution eventually transformed England from a primarily agrarian society to an industrial one.

America's Industrial Revolution

A million Irish immigrants entered the U.S. during the potato famine.
Irish Immigrants

Between 1830 and 1890, the United States was undergoing its own Industrial Revolution. There are several factors that enabled the United States to transform itself from a primarily agrarian society to an industrial one. These factors include having natural resources, such as lumber and coal; the right weather conditions for growing textile crops, such as cotton; and the government issuing 440,000 patents for new inventions. Some of the inventions include the refrigerated railroad car (1860), the typewriter (1867), the adding machine (1888), the telephone (1876), the gasoline engine (1878) and the light bulb (1879). With each new invention, a new industry was created. New industry meant new jobs, and new jobs meant that people migrated from where they were to where the jobs are.

As industry grew, so did the demand for the labor force. Many of the industrial workers came from American farms. The Americans left farm life for the same reasons the Europeans did - in hopes of a better life and earning more money.

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