Telling All Americans' Stories: Introduction to European Heritage

In many ways, the story of America is the story of movement—the unprecedented migration of people, ideas, and beliefs. The Statue of Liberty stands as perhaps the most iconic symbol of our nation’s largely immigrant past and its European heritage in particular.

Upon crossing America’s shores, European immigrants spread across the North American continent, altering its physical and cultural landscape along the way.

A German immigrant family at Ellis Island with two men, a woman, a young boy, and baby
German family who immigrated from Eastern Europe stands for a family photograph in an office at Ellis Island.

National Park Service

Under the watchful gaze of this imposing monument, lives converged. Between 1892 and 1954, over 12 million immigrants passed through the processing facility on Ellis Island . Many of those people left homes across Europe—particularly England, Ireland, the German and Russian empires, and Scandinavian countries—to escape famine, political and economic oppression, or in search for greater opportunities in America. At the Statue of Liberty National Monument, visitors can explore the sights and sounds that greeted these men, women, and children during their first days in America.

Europeans arrived on the North American continent long before those who passed through Ellis Island’s inspection facilities. Imperial powers across Europe jockeyed for control over the New World from the 1500s through the 1700s. Dutch, Spanish, French, Russian, English, and other explorers, traders, and missionaries began to claim land and establish settlements from New England to the Southern tip of Florida, current-day Mexico, and the Alaskan frontier. The remnants of their communities, such as archaeological sites, forts, trading posts, and missions, dot the continent’s landscape. Explore their remarkable stories preserved in our national parks, sites, and historic places.

Upon crossing America’s shores, European immigrants spread across the North American continent, altering its physical and cultural landscape along the way. These experiences are often told through the treasured European American narrative of the “melting pot”—where diverse groups traveled to a “New World,” where they peopled a nation and forged a uniquely American identity. However, these immigrants arrived on a continent already populated by indigenous nations who possessed their own complex political, economic, and cultural systems. The ensuing encounters between these diverse groups serve as some of the foundational moments in American history. The 1604-1607 maps and documents by Samuel de Champlain are testimony to the interactions between French explorers and the Native peoples living along the coast.

At some of the earliest European settlements, the National Park Service preserves and interprets how the lives of European settlers, American Indians, and enslaved Africans intersected. Historic Jamestowne at Colonial National Historical Park was the first permanent English settlement in North America. Here, visitors can learn about the lives these colonists built and the stories that survive—from the harsh first years of English settlement, the indispensable role of women colonists, and Bacon’s Rebellion. These stories intersect with those of other people who lived along the Chesapeake—indentured servants, the Powhatan Confederacy, and enslaved Africans. English settlers struggled to find a place for themselves within this world—often resulting in uncertain alliances, land disputes, and frequent warfare.

The history of European settlement is also deeply intertwined with the history of slavery in North America. In 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia by way of an English warship, the White Lion. Virginian farmers’ demand for labor to cultivate tobacco, the colony’s most profitable cash crop, far exceeded their population. Creating the institutions of indentured servitude and slavery provided much-needed sources of labor and slavery continued to became vital to the economic development of both colonial America and the Early Republic. At the same time, slavery stripped the enslaved of their most basic human rights and embedded racial inequality into American society and law. Its legacy can be seen throughout the nation even though it is most often interpreted at plantation sites in the south, such as Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana and ’Hermitage, on Monocacy National Battlefield in Maryland. ‘Hermitage was a plantation owned and operated by the Vincendières, a family of French origin that arrived in Maryland around 1794 from Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) following slave rebellions that threatened the operation of their sugar plantation.

The development of local industry and the extraction of natural resources also shaped European-Americans communities as well as their surroundings. Indigenous peoples and European settlers mined Keweenaw copper from nearly 7,000 years ago until the 1990s at Keweenaw National Historic Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. During much of the 19th and 20th century, a thriving copper mining industry drew a diverse mix of labor to the region. The copper country also became embroiled in labor unrest as miners demanded better wages and working conditions from the management of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. In 1913, unionized member carried out a five month long strike that ended in tragedy. In what became known as the Italian Hall Disaster, 73 people—mostly striking miners and family members—were trampled to death when an unknown person shouted “fire” at a crowded holiday celebration.

On the western side of the continent, Russian hunters and fur traders arrived in current-day Alaska during the late 1700s. Sitka National Historic Park  —the oldest national park in Alaska—interprets the interactions between American Indians and Russian settlers. These two cultures often met in violent clashes—such as the 1802 battle between Russians and Tlingit Indians—and also sustained lasting relationships. While Russian hunters and trappers were drawn to the abundant fur-bearing animals along the continent’s west coast, Russian Orthodox missionaries set out to convert the native Alaskan population. By the early 1800s, nearly 20,000 native Alaskans had converted to Christianity. But native Alaskans blended new and old religious traditions and today Christian churches share the landscape with native totems and lodges.

Along the continent’s southeastern coast, the Spanish crown moved quickly to establish control of the land and sea after Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon laid claim to La Florida in 1513. St. Augustine, the site of a 1565 military base and fort, was the seat of Spanish influence in Florida. The St. Augustine Town Historic District is the oldest continuously occupied settlement of Europeans and African Americans in the continental United States. While under Spanish control, slaves and free blacks also called Florida home. Unlike the English colonies, the Spanish crown promised refuge to African Americans if they converted to Catholicism.

Diverse European experiences form a vital aspect of America’s rich and varied past. As the nation’s storyteller, the National Park Service is committed to preserving and interpreting all aspects of that history. When we explore where their stories converge with other populations—indigenous groups, immigrants from South America and Asia, and enslaved Africans who arrived in chains—we begin to arrive at a more complete image of our nation’s complex and conflicted past.

Visit the National Park Service Telling All Americans' Stories portal to learn more about American heritage themes and histories.

Last updated: February 9, 2017