The discovery of gold in California in 1848 prompted people from all over the world to seek their fortunes on the Pacific Coast of the United States. The discovery came during a period of political turmoil and economic hardship in China. The Chinese Empire was losing control of the nation and imperial powers from Europe were forcing their way into the country.
As a result, many Chinese left their homeland to make a living in America. They sailed to San Francisco, which the Chinese immigrants had named the "golden mountain." The number of Chinese entering the country grew to a steady rate of four to five thousand a year in the mid-1850s. Most of these immigrants settled on the west coast and began work in the gold mines.
In 1868, the United States and China negotiated the Burlingame Treaty, which gave China most-favored-nation status for trade, travel, and immigration. The Treaty, supported by the Chinese at the time, allowed an unrestricted influx of Chinese immigrants to provide cheap labor for the expanding railroads. The number of Chinese immigrants entering the United States more than doubled following the Treaty. By 1880, the 75,000 Asian immigrants living in California constituted nine percent of the state's population.
The majority of Chinese immigrants were single males who came to earn their fortune in America. They typically wanted to return to their homeland once they had earned enough money to marry and purchase land in China. Their desire to return home with the money they earned made the low pay and dangers of railroad work more acceptable to them than to most American workers. Thus, the majority of laborers working on the Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese. The Chinese and other Asian immigrant workers were often called "coolies," which in the nineteenth century referred to low or subsistence wage earners.
When the railroads were completed and little gold was left to be mined, as many as half of the Chinese who had arrived before the 1880s went back to China. Those who stayed had to compete for jobs with white workers and faced incredible hardships. Most Chinese men found themselves working as domestic servants to wealthy western women. In these positions, they had to learn how to cook, sew, clean, and do laundry; tasks not required of them in China.
Chinese men soon took advantage of the desire of most white women for someone else to take care of their laundry. As a result, many Chinese men left their roles as servants and opened laundry cleaning storefronts all across the American west. They often formed their own settlements, or "Chinatowns," wherever economic opportunities existed. Within these areas, they could socialize with other Chinese, speak their native language, and find some escape from the prejudice they faced. Since many did not intend to stay in the United States, they felt no need to assimilate into American society. Chinatowns provided these men some sense of community in a foreign environment.
However, even within their own societies, the Chinese still faced challenges. Very few Chinese women made the journey to America, and those who did were brought to the United States, San Francisco in particular, as prostitutes or domestic slaves. Girls as young as ten were bought from families in China that could not afford to pay their daughter’s dowry or from orphanages, where even legitimate daughters were left by parents who did not want the burden of raising a girl. Since most Chinese men were not married and did not have families in the U.S., the barriers to assimilation remained high. There were no children to bring home knowledge of the English language and American customs from school as the children of earlier immigrant groups had done.
Circumstances for the Chinese worsened as friction over jobs escalated. In 1877, the major rail lines cut wages by 10 percent, which followed a similar cut that had been made following the Panic of 1873. The wage cut caused railroad workers in West Virginia to walk off the job, and similar demonstrations occurred across the country all the way to San Francisco. However, the strikes failed, leaving the workers without any improvements.
The Chinese-Americans faced a new challenge in San Francisco during a meeting, known as the "Sand Lot," being held by whites in support of white railroad strikers' goals. A few of those in attendance attacked some Chinese who were passing by. Their actions were likely due to the fact that many European immigrants saw the Chinese as a convenient scapegoat for the economic problems.
This anti-Chinese movement gained momentum when Dennis Kearney, a recently naturalized Irish immigrant, founded the Workingmen's Party of California in 1877. One of the party's goals was to end Chinese immigration. Kearney stirred up resentment in his followers who now saw the Chinese as a danger to their own survival. Kearny's followers began terrorizing the Chinese in the streets, killing some Chinese immigrants and shearing the pigtails off of others.
Kearney's Workingmen's Party continued to grow and was able to gain a number of seats at the state constitutional convention in 1878, which was held to rewrite the constitution. The group was unsuccessful in its attempts to influence the state's basic law, but the constitution did deny Chinese immigrants the right to vote and prevented them from obtaining jobs on public works projects. The following year, the party successfully elected the Mayor of San Francisco and many members of the state legislature.
By this time, the move to exclude Chinese from the U.S. had become a national issue and had garnered widespread support. The final blow to Chinese immigration came in 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act barred nearly all immigration from China for 10 years. The only Chinese permitted to enter the U.S. after the Act was passed were those who could claim a Chinese-American parent. The Act was the second attempt at restricting Chinese immigration—Congress had first passed a bill that would have suspended Chinese immigration for 20 years, but President Chester A. Arthur vetoed that bill.
The door to Chinese immigration remained shut for many years as the Chinese Exclusion Act was occasionally renewed. In 1902, the exclusion became indefinite. The door for Chinese immigration would not reopen until 1943.
Approximately two to three million immigrants entered the United States during each decade from 1850 to 1880. In the 1880s, the number of immigrants swelled to over five million. Prior to 1880, the majority of immigrants were from the British Isles and western Europe. Many were literate and came from countries with representative governments. Most of them were Protestant, except for the Catholics from Ireland, France, and Germany. Although not all spoke English, many of the cultural customs of these immigrants allowed them to assimilate to life in America relatively easily.
Starting in the late 1870s and continuing through the 1880s, the source of the immigrants pouring onto America’s shores began to change. People from southern and eastern Europe, including Italians, Slovenes, Croats, Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Russians, and Greeks, began immigrating to America. After the 1880s, they made up the majority of immigrants entering the country, and from 1900 to 1910, they comprised nearly 70 percent of all immigrants.
In contrast to earlier immigrants, many of these new immigrants were illiterate and poor, had little experience with democratic governments, and included followers of Judaism and Orthodox Christianity. This new wave of immigrants also included large numbers of Catholics. Although many of the immigrants in the late 1800s originated from rural areas of Europe, they preferred to seek industrial work in the cities of America.
Upon arrival, most new immigrants settled in New York, Chicago, and other cities in neighborhoods with their own ethnic groups, which became known as “Little Italy,” “Little Hungary,” and so on. The number of immigrants in these areas soon outnumbered the population of some of the largest cities in their home countries. By 1910, one-third of Americans were foreign born or had one parent who was foreign born. Although these ethnic neighborhoods offered new immigrants a connection with others from their homeland, they also served to segregate the immigrants from mainstream American society.
Within these ethnic communities, the immigrants tried to maintain a life similar to that of the Old World. Among their compatriots they could speak their own language, practice their religion, and follow their own traditions. Many communities had foreign-language newspapers as well as theaters, food stores, restaurants, and social clubs that reflected their cultural and religious heritage. Many Jewish immigrants set up Hebrew schools, and Catholics created Parochial schools. At school, many of the immigrant children received formal instruction in English; others went to work instead of attending school. Often while the first generation immigrants struggled to maintain their culture, the children shed the customs of the Old World to adopt new American traditions.
Poor economic conditions, as well as religious, political, and racial persecution in Europe helped create this new tide of immigrants. Overpopulation in Europe combined with rapid industrialization and imports of fish and grain from America led to the collapse of the peasant economy of southern and eastern Europe. Unemployed and poor, millions of Europe’s rural inhabitants moved to the cities seeking new vocations, while many chose to leave Europe altogether.
Others, namely Jews from the Polish areas of Russia, fled to America in the 1880s to escape violent persecution in their homeland. Unlike many of the other European immigrants at the time, the Jews were accustomed to city life. Many of them made their new home in New York and were able to transfer their skills as tailors and shopkeepers to the New World. However, once they were in America, they faced resentment from the German Jews who had arrived years earlier. Some German Jews took advantage of the destitute circumstances of the new arrivals and hired them as cheap labor in their businesses.
In addition to the hardships faced in Europe, a number of other factors added to the appeal of America that lured many Europeans to make the voyage across the Atlantic. In Europe, people saw America as the land of opportunity, a viewpoint partially created by the letters from friends and family already in America that told of the opportunities that awaited immigrants. Another factor attracting immigrants was that America was free of the compulsory military service required in many European countries. Expanding American industries needing new sources of low-wage labor recruited workers in Europe and at American ports, and railroads advertised in multiple languages to find buyers for their land grants and create traffic on their lines.
The federal government also encouraged immigration under the Contract Labor Law of 1864. Although the law was repealed in 1868, during the time it was in effect the federal government would pay for immigrants’ travel to the U.S. and then recoup the money by garnishing their wages once they arrived. American businesses made similar contract agreements with workers until the Foran Act eliminated the practice in 1885.
Established immigrants often recruited workers from the home countries and arranged for their travel and housing. Most notable is the “padrone” system used by the Italians and Greeks. The “padrone,” or labor agent, contracted with companies to provide workers. Since the new immigrants were unfamiliar with American employment practices, labor agents and other contractors sometimes took advantage of them.
With the launch of the steamship, the passage to America, which had once been quite dangerous, was now safe, fast, and affordable. The price became even lower as the steamship lines competed for passengers.
Of the millions of new immigrants who made the passage either to escape the hardships of Europe or to seize the promise of the New World, most entered America through New York. Other ports that saw many immigrants were Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Galveston, Mobile, and New Orleans. Those that came through New York before 1890, entered through the state-run Castle Garden reception center at the southern tip of Manhattan. At this time, the Atlantic coast states were responsible for determining the process of entry for immigrants, but the federal government soon took over. Stories of corruption at Castle Garden prompted a Congressional investigation, which led to the facility closing in 1890.
Congress then provided funding to build a new reception facility on an island south of Manhattan and assigned the new federal Bureau of Immigration to oversee the entry process. After Ellis Island opened in 1892, immigrants entering through New York now passed near the Statue of Liberty. The statue, erected in 1886, was a centennial gift from the people of France. On the base of the statue, workers inscribed the words of the poet Emma Lazarus:
“Lady Liberty” soon became a symbol of hope for the immigrants as they began their new life in America.
The influx of millions of new immigrants into America’s cities had a powerful effect on city governments. At the time, state and federal governments did little to help immigrants adjust to their new lives in America, leaving city governments burdened with the enormous task. Due to the rapid rate of urban growth, cities could scarcely keep up with city dwellers' needs for transit, water, sewers, street cleaning, and fire and police protection. This lack of governmental preparedness created room for corrupt political machines to intercede.
The powerful “bosses” that led these political machines provided services to immigrants and other residents in exchange for their support at the polls. A boss was often able to create large immigrant voting blocks that he could then use for his own purposes. Some of the services provided by the political machines included finding work for immigrants (often on the city payroll), providing food and housing to the poor, offering legal assistance, and building schools, parks, and hospitals in immigrant neighborhoods. Although many of these services were in fact beneficial to the immigrants, the political bosses also provided themselves with healthy profits in the process.
George Washington Plunkitt, a minor boss in Tammany Hall, New York City’s most infamous political machine, gained notoriety for his corruption. In 1905 during a newspaper interview, he described his views on how officials might make money from their positions. Plunkitt explained that if he was tipped off about an imminent public project, he would buy up the land where the project was to take place, and then he would sell it for a profit when the plan became public and people were interested in purchasing the land. Plunkitt felt this type of activity was an example of honest graft. A dishonest graft, on the other hand, would consist of blackmailing people or stealing money from the city treasury. These types of corrupt practices infuriated many reformers, but little was done at the time to curb the political machines and the bosses that ran them.
In addition to political machines, the influx of new immigrants into America created a resurgence of “nativism,” or antiforeignism. Such sentiments had originated during the 1840s and 1850s with the mass immigration of the Irish and German. The new group of southern and eastern European immigrants with their unfamiliar cultural and religious traditions created new concern among many old-stock Americans who thought these new arrivals were difficult to assimilate into American culture.
In some respects, the new immigrants did not adapt as well as earlier groups. The fact that they lived in ethnic enclaves in the cities slowed the adoption of American culture. Additionally, some of the immigrants had no intention of assimilating or even staying in the United States. Of the 20 million immigrants who arrived between 1820 and 1900 nearly 25 percent returned to their homelands. These “birds of passage” were often single men who simply came to America to make enough money to improve their lives when they returned home.
Whether the immigrants stayed or not, their presence became worrisome to many native-born Americans. Many nativists saw the new immigrants as a threat to traditional America culture and values, the Anglo-Saxon bloodline, and their jobs. The old-stock Americans often viewed the new arrivals as culturally and religiously exotic. The new immigrants’ high birthrate worried many native-born Americans that they would soon be outnumbered. Others were concerned that the Anglo-Saxon bloodline might be tainted by what they saw as inferior southern European blood.
More prejudice came from trade unionists who were angered by the immigrants’ willingness to work for extremely low wages. Adding to the nativist feelings, companies sometimes used immigrant labor to break strikes. The immigrants themselves may have been unfamiliar with strikes and thus, unlikely to think they were taking other people’s jobs. Another concern stemmed from the foreign doctrines such as socialism, communism, and anarchism that the immigrants brought to America.
As nativist sentiments grew, antiforeign organizations began to appear. The most notable was the American Protective Association (APA), which formed in 1887. The APA grew slowly at first, but in 1893 the economic depression helped the organization attract thousands of new members. The group soon claimed more than a million members. Similar to the nativist group in the 1840s and 1850s called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, the APA’s primary goal was to resist what its members felt were Catholic conspiracies. Some of the organization’s activities included voting against Catholic candidates and promoting immigration restriction and stringent naturalization requirements.The APA and other organizations wishing to restrict immigration never achieved their aim. However, the issue did receive some attention at a national level. In 1882, Representative Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts began arguing to exclude illiterates from immigrating into America. In 1897, President Cleveland vetoed a bill that included such a restriction. President Taft vetoed one in 1913, and President Wilson vetoed similar legislation in 1915 and 1917. Their reason for vetoing the restriction was that it would penalize people because they lacked the opportunity for learning to read. Despite this argument, Congress overrode the 1917 veto and the restriction became law. The Immigration Act of 1917 was replaced by The National Origins Act of 1924, which was even more restrictive. This Act was repealed in 1965 by the Hart-Celler Act.