Leaving Europe: A New Life in America

The Homeland of Migrating Groups

The 19th century marked a turning point in the concept of European migration to America. Prior to that time, transatlantic migration was only a minor affair, mostly involving merchants, civil servants and soldiers. Within a few decades, it all changed rapidly. Europe was on the brink of a new era, with migration to the U.S. more extensive than ever before and ever to come. From every corner of the European continent, all kinds of people decided to leave their homelands and headed for the young and promising nation on the other side of the Atlantic. In less than a century, over 30 million Europeans, from as far north as Scandinavia and as far south as Sicily, set sail to America.

Ireland and the UK

One of the most well-known immigrant groups in the U.S. came from Ireland. In the first half of the 19th century, many Irish people left from ports like Cork or Dublin, seeking prosperity and escaping the British repression of Catholics. The number of emigrants exploded after the Great Famine (1845-1850), when a potato blight ruined crops for several years in a row. Almost a million Irish people starved to death. Millions of others fled the country with the United States as their major destination. Their numbers were so high that in the 1840s, half of all the immigrants who entered the United States were of Irish origin. In a few decades, Ireland’s population, which was more than 8 million in 1841, dropped to less than 5 million, losing many of their citizens to the United States. While the Irish have always attracted more attention, millions of British emigrants also found their way to the United States. Together, the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, marked as ‘British’ in most of the immigration records, made up around 4 million immigrants. This makes them one of Europe’s largest suppliers of immigrants.

Western Europe

The number of immigrants coming from most Western European countries is rather small compared to other regions. From the Netherlands for example, only an estimated 200,000 emigrants left between 1820-1920. In this case, the small but recognisable groups drew most attention, for example, the dissenting Protestant denominations. They saw their daily life, traditions and religious life hindered by the Dutch government and set up new settlements in Michigan and Iowa. Countries like Belgium and France weren’t major players in the migration streams either, although they did play an important role in the process of mass migration. Their ports, such as Le Havre, Antwerp and Rotterdam, were the departure points for one of the largest groups of European emigrants - Germans. There were so many German emigrants that they made up one-third of the (white) American population in the middle of the 19th century. Around 5 million Germans migrated to the United States, mainly from southern Germany, but later on also from the North.

Eastern Europe

Eastern European migration was the result of a cocktail of economic malaise, political turmoil, and ethnic and religious persecution. The majority of these immigrants were Eastern European Jews. These Jews, living in the Russian Empire - which at that time covered large parts of Eastern Europe like present-day Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and parts of Poland - had been subject to harsh treatment, discrimination and persecution. From the 1880s onward, these persecutions culminated in violent pogroms in which Jewish ghettoes and villages were destroyed, and thousands of Jews were murdered. This led to mass migration, with the U.S. as prime destination. Between 1880 and the early 1920s, between 2 and 3 million Jews arrived in the United States.
As borders regularly moved with the outcomes of wars and conflicts, estimations of migration numbers from Eastern Europe differ widely. Populations could be divided over several states, which was the case with the hundreds of thousands of Polish emigrants who moved to the United States. It’s estimated that around 4 million emigrants from one of the other great Eastern European Empires - Austro-Hungary - left their homelands to seek better and brighter futures overseas.

Southern Europe

From Southern Europe, emigrants came from the Iberian Peninsula, the Greek Isles and the countries of the Balkans. However, by far the greatest number of emigrants came from Italy. The first Italians to arrive in the 19th century were mostly from the northern regions. After the unification of southern and northern Italy in 1861, emigration numbers slowly increased. Mass migration though, started relatively late: prior to 1880, Italian communities in America barely existed. But due to the economic downturn, more and more Italian emigrants, mostly from the rural south, moved to the United States. Within a few decades, millions of Italians arrived, the majority making the journey between 1900-1914. This mass migration was only halted by the outbreak of the First World War. At that time, some 4 million Italians had left their country and made America their home. Most of them were concentrated in the urban areas of the Northeastern United States, forming famous ‘Little Italy’ communities in cities like New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia.


Millions of emigrants left the Scandinavian mainland from the northern regions of the European continent, changing ships in England and crossing the Atlantic. Attracted by the economic perspectives of the United States, Finnish migration really took off in the second half of the 19th century. At the turn of the century, another development resulted in an immigration peak. Finns were subject to repression and discrimination as a result of the harsh ‘Russification’. This was forced upon them by the Russian Tsar in order to convert the empire’s outskirts to Russian culture. When positive stories about America from earlier emigrants reached them, many couldn’t resist the call and emigrated to a country in which it was easier to maintain their own culture than it was back home.
A similar thing happened in Denmark after 1864, when Prussia took over almost a quarter of Danish territory and implemented laws to decimate Danish culture. Most people however, emigrated hoping to become more prosperous. Norwegians and above all, Swedes, made up most of the Scandinavian emigrants. Migration boomed after the 1860s. More and more Norwegians and Swedes were drawn to the cheap farming lands in America’s new states and territories, resulting in a great concentration of Scandinavian immigrants in the upper Midwest.