America, the Nation of Nations

Great Hall at Ellis Island
Great Hall at Ellis Island

Courtesy of National Park Service

Americans are people on the move. From the earliest human beings who migrated to the North American continent 13,000 years ago on foot or in flimsy water craft, to the most recent arrival at LAX or Kennedy International airports, we have been a people that has been cast and recast many times by migrations, voluntary and involuntary. The only way to keep pace with a people in motion is to follow in their paths, to see who went where through the twin lenses of time and space. The National Park System encourages visitors to take such a walk through the past via its richly interpreted sites. 

The peopling of North America did not begin in the 15th century court of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, where an earnest Italian captain promised riches from abroad. It began in the huts of north central Asia where itinerant hunters during several periods of the Pleistocene Ice Age walked on a land bridge that is no longer in existence, across the Bering Strait from what is today Siberia to Alaska’s Seward Peninsula: a distance of approximately 55 miles. At other times, these wanderers may have traveled by small boat or canoe hugging shorelines. Although the land bridge between Russia and Alaska is long gone, visitors to the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve can ponder how plants and animals as well as humans migrated from one continent to another. Visitors see how a Native American tribe, the Inupiat, follow the agricultural patterns of their forbears. Recognizing that the heritage of the land bridge belonged to Russia as well as to the United States, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George H. Bush signed an agreement to establish heritage parks on both sides of the strait in the waning days of the Cold War. Thanks to the internet, an American can visit the other side of the Bering Land Bridge without vacationing in Siberia.

The initial migrants crossing the land bridge were searching for sustenance. Dispersing across North America over centuries, they became divided by rivers, valleys, and mountain ranges. Different tribes with unique cultural patterns evolved. Those on the trail of the first Americans today will find treasure troves in the National Parks. Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico has thirteen significant archeological sites illuminating the Pueblo pre-Columbian civilization. The Aztec Ruins National Monument opens a door on an ancient civilization of legendary strength and complexity; and Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument offers a glimpse into the homes and lives of the Mogollon people who, over 700 years ago, lived in what is today the American Southwest.

By the late 15th century, Native Americans were no longer alone in the Americas. They encountered Europeans who were engaged in exploration. Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Hernan Cortes, Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, and Henry Hudson, among others, all explored North America for the European powers. Sites throughout the country allow visitors a sense of what European explorers saw and experienced. As early as 1686, Henri de Tonti built a trading post called Poste de Arkansas at the Quapaw Indian village of Osoturoy, now Arkansas Post National Memorial. It was the first semi-permanent French settlement in the Lower Mississippi Valley. The post’s importance is closely linked with the imperial competition of England, France, and Spain for colonial possessions in North America. The flooding of the Arkansas River caused the trading post to move seven times during its existence, but its location near the meeting of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers made this post strategically important militarily. At various times French and Spanish forts, respectively, were located there. In 1800, the French gained control of the fort from the Spanish, and it was included in the Louisiana Purchase negotiations between France and the United States in 1803 by President Thomas Jefferson.

The heart of English settlement in the colonial period was along the Atlantic seaboard. There, religious dissenters such as the Puritans and the Pilgrims sought not just economic opportunity but freedom of religious expression. Those who sought toleration were not always tolerant of others, however. When Puritan minister Roger Williams preached doctrine that was not in conformity with the beliefs of Massachusetts Bay community elders, he was banished. He founded his own congregation in Rhode Island in 1636. Today visitors can pay tribute to Williams and his belief in religious freedom at the Roger Williams National Memorial. The visitor center for the Memorial is one of the oldest commercial buildings in Providence.

Further south at Colonial National Historical Park at Yorktown, Virginia, there is a monument to others among the first colonists. The park’s Cape Henry Memorial marker designates the approximate site of the first landing of Virginia’s Jamestown settlers. The monument overlooks the Chesapeake Bay location where the Battle of the Capes occurred--the naval battle decisive in the British surrender to George Washington’s troops at Yorktown during the American Revolution. 

Unfree laborers such as indentured servants and slaves often provided the labor needed to conquer the environment and make it yield sustenance. White European settlers negotiated indenture contracts with other white Europeans who wanted to emigrate to the American colonies but could not afford to do so. Often these indentured servants were the second or third sons of landed English families. Under the laws of primogeniture, eldest sons inherited all their families’ wealth, and indenturing themselves was often the only path to upward mobility for siblings. Not all indentured servants were white. Some were people of color or of mixed blood and also in need of opportunity. By the 1640s, contemporary court records dealing with cases of runaway indentured servants, such as those of the Virginia General Court, suggest that some of these servants were in fact enslaved for running away. Enslavement was a penalty meted out only to nonwhites. Increasingly, black slaves were brought in chains as part of an international slave trade, an involuntary migration from Africa. 

Slavery, an ancient institution mentioned in humanity’s earliest records, including the Bible, became an increasingly popular means whereby Europeans acquired low cost agricultural labor to farm rice, tobacco, and cotton crops, especially but not exclusively in the Southern colonies. Initially Europeans had attempted to enslave the Native Americans, but a combination of factors including familiarity with the environment, tribal unity, and combat experience made such enslavement a costly and often futile endeavor, as the Spanish learned in Central and South America. African slaves themselves became critical commodities in the Atlantic community. Although the United States’ Constitution provided for the end of the cruel slave trade by 1808, slaves were bred on plantations and smuggled into the United States prior to the Civil War.

By the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, over four and a half million slaves were in the U.S., most of them concentrated in the southern States. Many northern States, not finding slaves an economical labor force, stopped supporting the institution by the 1820s.

The National Park System offers a variety of places where visitors can learn about the involuntary migration of black slaves to North America and about the anti-slavery struggle. Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John had been the home of the Taino people for thousands of years, but Europeans drove the tribe into extinction in the 17th century and then brought slaves to work in sugar cane production. Cane River Creole National Historical Park in Natchitoches, Louisiana includes the grounds of the Oakland and Magnolia Plantations. Here, slaves once lived and labored. The mixture of French, African, and Spanish traits along with some from Native American tribes among the older families is a reminder of the rich heterogeneous ethnic heritage that is a legacy of the cruel institution of slavery in this region. Visitors can find another plantation in the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve which includes Fort Caroline and Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, Florida. Kingsley Plantation was the abode of Zephaniah Kingsley, his African wife Anna, and the hundreds of men, women, and children who were enslaved on his plantation.

Not all those of African heritage were slaves in North America before the Civil War. The Boston African National Historic Site includes the largest area of antebellum black-owned buildings in the U.S. and is the perfect place to pursue the history of antislavery reform. The two dozen sites on the north face of Beacon Hill were businesses, churches, homes, and schools belonging to a robust black community that struggled to free their enslaved brothers in the South. Further south in the Anacostia area of Washington D.C. is the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Here at his Cedar Hill home, the escaped slave and later great abolitionist Frederick Douglass resided and entertained some of the most influential individuals of his era. In a small stone house, known as the “growlery,” behind the mansion Douglass wrote and thought, growling at those who showed the temerity to disturb his peace and quiet.

After the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1866, some former slaves, or freedmen, migrated west. Organizing themselves into colonies during the Reconstruction era, these freedmen headed west to Kansas. The Nicodemus National Historic Site at Nicodemus, Kansas helps visitors to understand the role of African Americans in western expansion and the settlement of the Great Plains. It is the oldest and only existing Black Town west of the Mississippi River. 

African Americans migrating out of the South after the Civil War found themselves competing for jobs in northern cities with the millions of immigrants who had arrived in the United States in search of jobs and liberty in the two decades before the Civil War. This first great wave of European migration to the United States in the 19th century occurred between 1840 and 1860 when 4.5 million newcomers arrived, most of them from northern and western Europe. The largest groups were the Irish. Over 1.25 million Irish, most of them Catholics from the Southern provinces, arrived in search of work and in flight from starvation, especially during the Great Famine of the mid-1840s. While many participants in this Irish diaspora were unskilled laborers, the growth of American industry offered opportunities. Lowell National Historical Park commemorates the early years of America’s industrial revolution. At Lowell and other such mills, low cost Irish labor replaced the farm girls who worked in the mills to earn dowry money.

Others arrivals to antebellum America included Scandinavians and migrants from the German provinces. Among the former was almost one fifth of the population of Sweden in flight from poverty and in search of opportunities to own their own land. The Germans included skilled artisans and craftsmen seeking to preserve their status as masters and apprentices by avoiding the increasing number of factories and assembly line jobs in Europe. Among the Germans were also radicals who had fled the abortive revolutions of 1848. Many of the German Jews who arrived in this period became peddlers and roamed the farmlands of America selling their wares to the wives of farmers and perhaps settling down and opening stores in the Midwest or the South.

Immigration was a State, not a Federal matter, until the end of the 19th century. In busy harbors, State officers ran facilities where they interrogated and inspected new arrivals, and sought to protect them from the con artists who roamed the docks seeking to bilk the immigrants out of their savings. In 1855, Castle Clinton, constructed on landfill in New York Harbor as a fort for the War of 1812 and later an opera house (1840-1855), became Castle Garden, the site of the New York State Emigration depot in 1855. There New York State officers counted and processed the new arrivals while volunteer physicians conducted perfunctory health inspections. Today, visitors to Manhattan’s Battery Park can buy their ticket for the boat trips to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island inside the thick round stone structure, the remains of Castle Garden.

Not all of America’s peopling was the result of migration. Conquest and annexation also played a significant role in the 19th century. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that concluded the Mexican War added a significant amount of territory and Mexican population to the United States. Mexicans living in the territory that was annexed by the United States became Americans. At the time of the Mexican War, perhaps as many as 80,000 Mexicans lived in the territory the U.S. annexed. Sixty thousand resided in what is today New Mexico and 20,000 in California. Another 5,000 or so lived in Texas, which had been annexed in 1845. The treaty gave all Mexicans on U.S. territory the right to stay or go. Three thousand returned to Mexico. All of those who stayed were guaranteed the rights of citizens, although those rights were often violated, especially in New Mexico and California. Many lost their land and became aliens in what had once been their own country.

By the end of the 19th century, the United States was again in the midst of a great wave of immigration, now largely from South and Eastern Europe as well as China, Japan, and parts of Latin America. Between 1880 and the 1920s, 23.5 million newcomers arrived in the United States. The size and complexity of the migration led the Federal Government to assume responsibility for the processing and inspection of the newcomers. Facilities were established in every port, and in the busy port of New York, the Federal Government created an immigration depot on Ellis Island, opening a wooden depot in 1892. It burned down in 1897 and the red brick building that still stands in New York Harbor opened in 1900. Restored and reopened for visitors in the 1990s, Ellis Island is among the most popular National Park sites.

Federal depots such as Ellis Island did not process all immigrants. Those who traveled first and second class passage received their inspections in the comfort of their cabins. Only those who traveled third class or steerage often stood in long lines to be interrogated by Federal immigration officers and inspected by the Federal physicians of the U.S. Marine Hospital Service (later renamed the U.S. Public Health Service). At all U.S. depots, including San Francisco’s Angel Island where most Asians entered the country, procedures were similar. By the 1920s, the United States had enough workers to satisfy the needs of American industry. Congress passed highly restrictive legislation. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 included a national origins quota system, which slowed migration to the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had already curbed the migration of laborers from China.

Migration and annexation had long been factors in Hawaii’s relationship to the United States. Annexed by the United States and formally made a U.S. territory in 1900, Hawaii was the doorway to the United States for many Asians, especially Japanese at the turn of the last century. Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, established in 1916, not only see the results of 70 million years of volcanoes, but also the results of early migrations. At Kalaupapa National Historical Park, the story told is the intersection of migration and disease. From 1866 to 1969, the facility built at Kalawo on the windward side of the Kalaupapa Peninsula is where Hansen’s disease (leprosy) patients were sent to live their lives separately from the rest of society.

Some of the Japanese immigrants who entered the United States through Hawaii established lives on the west coast. Some owned rich farming land and contributed significantly to agricultural development in California. Almost from the first arrival, Japanese immigrants confronted racial discrimination. In the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1903, the Japanese Emperor agreed to curb migration to the United States in return for President Theodore Roosevelt’s intervention to end school segregation and other acts of discrimination in California. Hawaii, however, remained an entry port for some Japanese. Anti-Japanese feelings persisted, especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor that drew the U.S. into World War II. Some Americans, especially on the west coast, which had a history of anti-Japanese feeling, thought Japanese residents would be a security risk. One hundred and twenty thousand Japanese living on the west coast of the United States, including many who were American citizens, were placed in internment camps in compliance with Executive Order 9066. In one of the greatest injustices in American history, people of Japanese ancestry were moved to internment camps in isolated, often desolate, locations. Manzanar National Historic Site is one of 10 permanent war relocation camps that existed and were the temporary home of more than 10,000 people from the spring of 1942 to 1945. For thousands of years it had been the home of the Paiute tribe before they were marched to Fort Tejon in the mid-1800s to make way for European ranchers and farmers. During World War II, Manzanar again played a role in the history of American migration and ethnicity.

Similarly, the Minidoka National Historic Site near Twin Falls, Idaho housed 13,000 people of Japanese descent, most of whom had been residents of Washington, Oregon, or Alaska. Bainbridge Island, Washington, a unit of the Minidoka National Historic Site, is where President George W. Bush established the Nidoto Nai Yoni (Let it not happen again) Memorial. In March 1942, 227 men, women, and children were escorted from their homes on the island by armed U.S army officers. Each was allowed only two suitcases. Official apologies and some financial restitution in 2001 were grim reminders that the peopling of America did not occur without painful and dishonorable episodes.

After World War II, civil rights activists launched a movement that would transform the nature of racial relations in the United States. Descendants of the black slaves brought from Africa still did not enjoy a full measure of political rights a century after their emancipation following the Civil War. Court cases and non-violent protest were the instruments of the Civil Rights movement. The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site at Topeka, Kansas commemorates the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ordered the nation’s schools desegregated. No figure in the Civil Rights movement looms larger than Martin Luther King, Jr. His philosophy of non-violent protest and his relentless struggle for civil rights ended only by his assassination in 1968 can be pondered by visitors to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia. The site includes the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King’s father and grandfather were pastors before him.

During the Cold War, immigration became an issue of national security. The McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 barred members of the Communist Party and anyone who would “endanger the welfare or safety of the United States.” In 1965, major immigration reform ended the highly restrictive national origins quota system and replaced it with a generous system of hemispheric quotas and an emphasis on family reunification. 

By the 1970s, a fresh wave of newcomers headed to the United States. The end of the Vietnam War brought many Southeast Asians to the U.S., while economic downturns in Mexico and other parts of Latin America brought millions of newcomers across the country’s southern borders. By 2010, over 36 million residents of the U.S. were foreign-born, approximately 12.1 per cent of the population; high, but still not as high as the 14.8 per cent in 1910. Unlike earlier waves of migration that brought millions of Europeans, today’s top ten nations whose nationals emigrate to the U.S. include Mexico, China, Philippines, India, Vietnam, Cuba, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Canada, and Korea. 

Economic and political pressures often cause migrants to elude long waiting lists and paperwork and enter or remain in the United States in an unauthorized status. By 2010, approximately 1.25 million newcomers in various legal statuses were arriving each year. 

Immigration remains a perennial issue of controversy in American society. Throughout our history as a nation, some Americans have feared that newcomers would be unable or unwilling to integrate into American society, or would change the nature of American culture, or would compete with native-born Americans for jobs. Others have countered that newcomers have always integrated into American society within several generations after arriving and that the diversity and economic advantages that new arrivals bring enrich our diverse, multi-cultural society in many ways. After the 9/11 attack on the U.S. by Islamic extremists, immigration has again become a factor in the debate over national security. The Patriot Act tightened procedures and a new office of Homeland Security consolidated and recast the administrative machinery of U.S. immigration policy. In spite of contemporary controversies over immigration, however, the United States today has more immigrants than the rest of the world combined.

No doubt, the current arrival of immigrants from abroad will inspire yet new National Park sites to educate visitors about one of the most important dimensions of the American national experience. In the meantime, the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York Harbor remains a monument to the masses, the ordinary individuals who peopled the United States and through their labor and genius created a great nation. The statue called Liberty Enlightening the World was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States and opened to the public in 1886. It has become a universal symbol of freedom and democracy. Replicas of it are often carried by freedom fighters in other countries, most memorably in China’s Tiananmen Square. Though originally intended to celebrate Franco-American friendship and common values, the Statue has also come to symbolize America’s welcome to the foreign born. A poet of Jewish immigrant heritage, Emma Lazarus, won a poetry contest sponsored by newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer to raise money for the Statue’s base. “The New Colossus” includes a famous verse referring to the foreign-born engraved on a plaque at the statue’s base. Lazarus envisions the Statue saying “with silent lips,”

“Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

While at times the welcome Lazarus envisioned seems more of an aspiration than a reality, her verse remains a compelling poetic expression of the American debt to immigration and the need to appreciate and understand why it is embodied in so many compelling sites treating America’s peopling that are in the National Park System.

Alan M. Kraut is Professor of History and an affiliate faculty member in the School of International Service. He is a Non-resident Fellow of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. He specializes in U.S. immigration and ethnic history, the history of medicine in the United States, and the American Civil War, co-directing the AU Civil War Institute. He is the prize-winning author or editor of eight books and many scholarly articles. His research has been supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, NEH, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Institutes of Health. He chairs the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island History Advisory Committee and is a consultant to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. He is an historical consultant on PBS and History Channel documentaries. He is the past President of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. In 1998 he received the Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, AU’s highest honor. In 2009 he was elected a fellow of the Society of American Historians.

Last updated: August 22, 2017