Immigration in Iowa
Who were the first people to live in what is now Iowa? No one knows for sure. We do know that the story of North America, the United States, Iowa, and your community is a story of immigration.
Coming to America
An immigrant is a person who comes into a country to make it a permanent home. Historians believe the first people who immigrated to the North American continent came from Asia. Their descendants, the many tribes of Native Americans, were here when the first European explorers arrived. Europeans began to colonize North America during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Many Native Americans were forced to move, or were killed in battles over land that the newcomers wanted for settlement. Although France, Spain and the Netherlands planted colonies in what is now the United States, the English came in the largest numbers. Eventually, Spain, France and the Netherlands lost control of their lands. English law, customs and language became the basis for American culture.
In the early 18th century, a great migration of non-English people began to arrive on America's eastern shores. Because most of the eastern seaboard was occupied by the earlier settlers, these newcomers moved inland and down the Appalachian Mountain valleys where unsettled land was still available. This westward migration slowed in the 1750s when war with France over the control of the Ohio River threatened these settlers. Westward migration began again after the American Revolution ended in 1783.
During the 19th century, immigrants arrived at American shores at an increasing rate. The United States, with what seemed to be an endless supply of land, became a haven of new hope just as it had been for the first colonists. People from England's crowded industrial cities migrated to escape wretched working conditions. From the many small countries located in what is today Germany, people who would have been jailed because of their religious or political beliefs fled to America. Expansion of American transportation systems brought Irish immigrants to work on canals and railroads and even more left their homeland following the potato crop failures of the 1840s. Scandinavians seeking land ownership saw the hope for a better life in America where farmland was both plentiful and fertile.
On the West Coast thousands of Chinese poured into the country to work on the rapidly expanding railroad system. From the south came Mexican workers to labor in the fields.
By the late 1800s the new immigrants in America tended to come from northern and western Europe and included people from Great Britain, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The largest immigrant groups to settle in Iowa were from the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland).
Why would a family leave their homeland and travel thousands of miles to a new home in Iowa?
There are many reasons including wars, a bad economy or famines that made life difficult in the home country. Many immigrants came to Iowa because life was hard or dangerous in their homeland. Historians call these a "push factor." In a way, the families were "pushed" from their homeland.
Immigrants left their homes to live in the United States because they knew there was a lot of land available. They heard about freedom of speech and religion. Sometimes other family members had moved to America earlier and wrote back home to tell of life in America. It sounded good to many people living in Europe and Asia. So they decided to move to America too. Many came to Iowa. Historians call these a "pull factor." In a way, the families were "pulled" to a new, better way of life in America.
Coming to Iowa
Iowa was still a young, growing state during the years when millions of foreign-born immigrants arrived on America's shores. It was a time when immigrants needed new homes, and Iowa needed to attract new citizens.
To attract immigrants railroad and land companies advertised in eastern newspapers describing the rich, productive farmland and the beauty of the state. After immigrants settled in Iowa, they often wrote glowing letters to relatives and friends in their homelands. These "America Letters" often influenced others to immigrate to this state. By 1870 about 18 percent of the people living in Iowa were foreign-born.
Except for those from Canada or the British Isles, most of the immigrants did not speak English. Also, they had grown up in countries with customs different from those in the United States. To make the adjustment to living in a new land where language, customs, values and government were different, newcomers often traveled and settled in groups. This led to large ethnic areas or neighborhoods where the immigrant families often remained through the first and second generation. As children of immigrants attended Iowa schools and learned American customs and language, the most obvious differences between the cultures disappeared.
Until the late 1800s the new immigrants in America tended to come from northern and western Europe and included people from Great Britain, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The largest immigrant groups to settle in Iowa were from the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland). In the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, there was an increase in immigrants coming from eastern and southern Europe. Italians, Bohemians, Czechs, Poles, Greeks and Russians began finding their way to the Midwest. Some worked in the coal mines or found factory jobs in large cities. Not as many became farmers because most of the cheap farm land had been purchased by earlier arrivals. Because their religion, language and customs were different from those of northern European groups who had arrived earlier, these later immigrants sometimes faced different forms of discrimination.
Iowa descendants of 19th century immigrants consider themselves Americans. Some have kept or revived special cultural traditions, while others have forgotten most of their European heritage.
People from other countries continue to move to Iowa to live. The state has become home to thousands of refugees from Europe, Asia and Africa. A large number of new Iowans came from Mexico and South and Central America, becoming the largest immigrant group in Iowa.
- Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “Immigrants,” The Goldfinch 3, no. 2 (November 1981): 2-4.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.