America the Melting Pot: The People and Culture


America is often called a nation of immigrants, as immigrants from many countries have played a monumental role in the formation of the United States since the early colonies. Immigration to the United States is commonly divided into four periods: the 1600s to 1775, the 1820s to the early 1870s, the “great wave” of immigrants from the 1880s to the early 1920s, and the present-day influx of immigrants that began with the liberalization of immigration laws in 1965.

The First Wave (1600s-1775)

The first settlers of the United States illustrate the diversity of U.S. immigration. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, the Spanish established settlements in the southwest, and what is now California and Florida. These include the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the United States, Saint Augustine, Florida, and the oldest continuously inhabited state capital, Santa Fe, New Mexico. British colonists established their first successful settlements in Virginia in the early 17th century, including Jamestown, Hampton, Newport News, and the Dutch established New Amsterdam, what is today New York City. West Africans began to be imported as slaves, and indentured servants provided agricultural labor in the newly formed colonies. Approximately 700,000 immigrants arrived before the Revolutionary War began, with the number of English immigrants declining and German, Irish, and Scottish immigrants rising after 1700. By 1808, approximately 375,000 Africans had been imported as slaves.

Religious persecution played a large role in immigrants’ decision to leave their home countries and move to the United States. The Pilgrims, a Protestant group that wanted to separate from the Anglican Church of England, immigrated to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 in order to practice their religion freely. The Pilgrims were followed by more Puritans, religious dissenters from the Church of England, who formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Jewish immigrants arrived in New Amsterdam, Newport, Rhode Island, and other coastal cities in the mid-18th century seeking religious freedom. The Quakers, fleeing persecution in England, arrived in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the 1670s and 1680s. Many German immigrants of the mid 18th century, including Mennonites, Reformed, and Moravians, sought religious freedom in Pennsylvania. To escape laws banning Catholic worship, English Catholics founded Maryland in 1634. These early settlers’ desire to worship freely and practice their religion without persecution led to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution has served as a beacon for people experiencing religious persecution in their home countries.

The Second Wave (1820s-1870s)

The second major wave of immigration to the United States welcomed 7.5 million immigrants. One-third of these immigrants were Irish, most seeking relief from the great potato famine of the 1840s. While the Irish remained on the East Coast and found work in factories and construction, the majority of German immigrants of this time moved to the Midwest, including Minnesota and Wisconsin to establish farms and dairies. Chinese immigrants arrived in California to participate in the Gold Rush and to build railroads in the 1870s. Portuguese immigrants settled in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and brought their sailing and whaling expertise to the port cities.

The Third Wave (1880s-1920s)

Nearly 23.5 million immigrants arrived in the United States during the great third wave of immigrations. Many of these immigrants arrived in Ellis Island, an immigration center in New York City, and today almost half of the U.S. population can trace its roots to Ellis Island immigrants. These new immigrants hailed overwhelmingly from southern and eastern Europe, including Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. Many of these immigrants worked in construction, building railroads, and paving streets. Italians joined the Irish in large cities on the Eastern seaboard, particularly in the mid-Atlantic region, and brought their signature cuisine with them. Czech, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants found work in steel mills and coal mines in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.

The Fourth Wave (1965-Present)

Restrictions on immigration were eased in 1965 when annual quotas based on nationality were replaced with quotas from the Eastern and Western hemispheres. In 1978, these quotas were abolished. Asian, West Indian, and Latin American immigration increased as European immigration dropped. Since 1965, over 34 million immigrants have arrived in the United States. Many Latin American and Central American immigrants have settled along the East Coast, in Florida, California, and the Southwest, while Asian immigrants have principally settled on East and West coasts. Since 2000, the states with the greatest growth of immigrant population were California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Georgia. The states with the greatest share of immigrants as a percentage of total population are California, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, and Florida. Today, over 12 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born. Most of these new immigrants arrive in the United States for the same reason that previous generations left their homelands: to seek a better life, to escape persecution, and to reunite with family.

Immigrant Contributions

Immigrants arriving in each of the four great waves of immigration contributed to the formation of America. Immigrants bring their religion and their passion for religious toleration, which has made the United States home to the greatest number of religious sects in the world. Churches, synagogues, and mosques sponsor countless charitable programs and fund hospitals, adoption agencies, and community centers that benefit all residents. Immigrants also bring their national cuisine with them, making “American” food a mixture of many different national dishes. Pizza and pasta are standard dishes for many Americans, as are tacos and Mexican cuisine. In the Midwest, German bratwurst and sauerkraut are commonly featured items. Chinese food of many types, Japanese sushi, Indian curries, and other foods have enriched the American culinary experience. Immigrants also bring their zeal for prosperity, starting up approximately 40 percent more small businesses than native-born Americans. Immigrants bring their unique perspectives on history, language, and culture, which broadens the educational experience for all American children.