The Flow of History

Gathering and Interactions of Peoples, Cultures, and Ideas

Overview: Immigration To The Americas Some Overall Themes

by Elise A. Guyette

For many thousands of years people have been settling the Americas. The earliest hunted, gathered, fished, and raised families in small communities. The old tradition holds that people first entered the Americas over a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska about 14,000 years ago. Recent finds, however, put the date of the oldest human remains somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 years ago. These earliest people were not really migrants in a strict sense because they simply widened their hunting areas over many generations, gradually moving into new territory as the population expanded and the animals they were tracking moved into new habitat.

The concept of migration involves more complex aspects than a gradual widening of one's territory. Migrations involve two major factors: PUSH & PULL. People are pushed out of where they are by forces such as cultural conflicts, inability to make a living, natural disasters, human rights violations and the like. They are also pulled toward another place by factors such as economic opportunities, adventure, religious freedom, or being kidnapped into slavery or servitude. All of these various factors involve some degree of choice -- from total freedom of choice to no choice at all. So all migrations are CHOSEN OR FORCED to varying degrees. Migrations always involve encounters between the people moving and the people being moved toward. At the points of encounter, CULTURAL DIFFUSION takes place in both directions -- both groups change as they borrow ideas and material culture from each other -- and a new culture is born out of the mix.

The effects of migrations are like the "break" at the beginning of a pool game -- except the balls never come to rest. They constantly move and affect the positions of all the others. All those who arrived in the Americas created change for the original people, as all immigration continues to do today. And, as always happens, the original people created change in the new arrivals. This change might be through violent means, such as conquest and colonization or through peaceful interactions. The old image of a melting pot doesn't fit the reality -- it is more like a stew with some blending of old and new, but with many elements of both cultures still recognizable.

When people first migrate, they USE OLD WAYS to sustain them until the new blended culture forms. They do not arrive empty-headed but with long histories and cultural traditions to transplant. We can see this not only in the early French, English and Spanish migrations to the Americas but in the later 19th and 20th century migrations. Immigrants usually RESIST ENCULTURATION (except in the economic realm) and form their own villages or neighborhoods and community organizations via religious institutions, traditional festivals, fraternal organizations, and the like.

The word immigrant often conjures up the words from the Statue of Liberty, "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses..." These words add up to an image of powerless dependents needing help to move and to survive in a strange place. Research, however, paints quite a different picture of aggressive and ambitious people who are willing to take chances, uproot themselves and begin again. John Briggs (1978) contends that immigrants are "not chameleons totally dependent on their surroundings for their character. They contribute to shaping their future rather than receiving their destinies wholly defined and packaged by others."

The earliest immigrants who chose to come to North America came from northern Europe; members of this OLD IMMIGRANT group were the first entrepreneurs and business owners. Many of them had indentured servants or enslaved peoples to help overcome obstacles and gain a foothold on the continent. Later in the nineteenth century, many NEW IMMIGRANTS began flowing in from all over Europe. Many millions chose the United States from 1880 to 1930.

Cultural diffusion continued, of course. One example of immigrants changing a community comes from a lumber camp in the Connecticut River Valley. Scott E. Hastings, Sr. tells of Finnish choppers WELCOMED in McIndoe Falls where a little bit of forest was still untouched in 1918. The Finns brought small two-pound axes with them. They were single-bitted with short handles.

The Yankees had a laughing-fit first time they saw those little axes. But you know they couldn't begin to keep up with them. They could strike a deeper cut with those little hatchets than we could with the big Yankee axe. There was one Finn there, Otto. I don't know what his name was, they always called him Otto Apple. I used to go eat with him a lot over to the camp. He gave me one of those axes. Those fellows would buy them a dozen at a time. I took the ax home. Dad was looking at it one night and wanted to try it. You know, inside of a week every man was using those axes just as fast as they could buy them off the Finns." (Window of Vermont, Winter, 1985-86)

Members of the old immigrant group, however, did not always welcome these newcomers unless they were from northern Europe and looked and acted similar to their ancestors and to themselves. As a result, those from southern and eastern Europe and Asia often experienced prejudice and discrimination -- similar to that experienced by the Irish. Africans and Native Americans, of course, experienced extreme ALIENATION in the Americas.

Eventually, there was a BACKLASH against so many people coming from areas other than northern Europe. The old immigrants feared the corruption of their white, Anglo-Saxon ideals due to the inevitable cultural diffusion and constant blending of old and new. Congress responded with new immigration laws based on ethnicity, and businesses responded by hiring the new immigrants for only the most menial jobs.

Some from the old immigrant group responded by creating museums, especially house museums of traditional American heroes, and working for universal education to inculcate the children with their values.

Sometimes poor treatment AWAKENED THE CONSCIOUSNESS of those who couldn't find the ideal in the American dream. This led to the spread of "radical" ideas such as unionization, women's rights and abolition of slavery. All of this activity, of course, has made America what it is today -- a marvelous stew of peoples and ideals from all over the world.


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Hastings, Sr. S.E. (1985-86) Window of Vermont, Winter.

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