I’m still working on my novel set on the Oregon Trail. This has led me to think a lot about why people choose to leave the safety of their home for a new start in an unknown land in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My husband’s family is newer to this country than mine, and came to America for many of the same reasons my characters are embarking on the Oregon Trail. My husband’s family came to this country from Norway, traveled through Ellis Island, and eventually settled on the fertile prairie. My family came over in the late 1600s, long before Ellis Island existed.
Which brings me back to why. Why did my husband’s family leave Norway? Why did my family leave Scotland? Why did anyone leave Europe for America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
Here are the top reasons, in no particular order.
- The promise of fertile land. This was true for many of the pioneers, but especially true of the majority of the emigrants from northern Europe. The Scandinavians and others like them were mostly farmers. Settling in the Great Plains made sense, especially the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. This area was often called “New Norway” since over eighty percent of Norwegian immigration settled there.
- Heavy promotion by emigration agents and newspapers. These entities worked tirelessly to advertise the benefits of a new life in the United States. The impoverished liked what they heard and took a chance on the promise of a new life.
- Railroad and mining companies promoted the stellar employment opportunities. Jobs in American cities also offered more work at higher wages than was available in Europe. Are we seeing a pattern here? Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity.
- Handbooks were published and distributed throughout Europe, praising the climate and stellar living conditions in the United States.
- Political freedom and the opportunity to vote. Although there wasn’t universal voting in the United States in the nineteenth century, the right to vote in many European countries was only available to an elite minority of the population. The majority of immigrants that came to the United States were not in the upper classes.
- Word of mouth, or rather letters sent to friends and families back home. The sender often urged the receiver to join them in America.
So, there you have it, the top reasons for much of the immigration to the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When did your family come to America? Did they come through Ellis Island or another route? Leave a comment and you’ll be eligible for any book in my backlist.
In the meantime, it’s back to the Oregon Trail for me.