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Charting Immigration--How Many Came and Why

Created by:
Michelle McDonald
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

19th Century Immigration

Grade Level:
9 to 12


Migration to the Unites States between 1860 and 1920 stimulated the country's economy and the growth of the working class. More than 1 million immigrants entered the country every five years between the end of the Civil War and World War I. More than 9 million people arrived between 1865 and 1890; another 16 million came between 1890 and 1915.

The story of early twentieth-century immigration to the United States is often told in romantic or patriotic terms emphasizing the forces that drew migrants to America, such as economic opportunities and religious freedom. Such images have an element of truth, but pay too little attention to the events outside of the United States that pushed migrants away from their countries of origin. Millions of men and women migrating to the United States were part of larger global phenomenon that moved peoples around the world, not just to America. Throughout Europe and parts of Asia, a combination of population growth and economic change pressured individuals and families to leave their homes and try to begin new lives elsewhere.

This activity is designed to encourage students to compare and contrast patterns of migration from different parts of the world during the first quarter the twentieth century. Students then conduct further research on specific nations or ethnicities to determine why people moved and to compare these motivations with migration patterns reported in newspapers today.

Historical Context

As early as 1880 most American workers were either immigrants, the children of immigrants, or African American; by 1900 almost a third of the nation's day workers were foreign born. By contrast, relatively few native white Americans, whose parents were also native-born, belonged to the working class. Even in small Midwestern cities, fewer than one-fifth of the working class came from native parentage.

Until the mid-1880s, the great majority of immigrants came, as they had for some time, from northern and western Europe. Between 1876 and 1880, for example, Great Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany, and Canada accounted for over 75% of all immigrants. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, however, migration from these countries began to ebb, while new migration patterns increased from southern and eastern Europe. Between 1906 and 1910, for example, more than 1-million migrants came from Italy alone, while another 2 million came from Russia, central Europe, and the Baltic states. To native Americans, these new immigrants seemed less familiar and often less desirable than the old immigrants from western and northern Europe.

Some migrants brought property or capital with them and came as settlers, intent on farming or establishing a business in a new country. But most were not so lucky; they traveled only with their skills or their muscle. In the North and West, factories, mines, and construction sites were peopled largely with immigrants; by the beginning of the twentieth century they constituted 44% of all miners, 36% of all steelworkers, and 38% of all cotton mill operatives.

What this meant is that class boundaries were beginning to align along ethnic and racial lines. America's middle class consisted overwhelmingly of white, native-born families whose parents had also been born in the United States. The working class was predominantly African American in the South, and either foreign-born or of foreign parentage in the North.


immigration, patterns, graphs, motivations, citizenship

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this activity, students will be able to:

1. Compare and contrast immigration patterns to the United States from different regions of the world in the early twentieth century.

2. Convert information from a table into a bar graph.

3. Research information about motivations for immigration.

4. Compare immigration into and emigration from the United States at the turn of the twentieth century to patterns today.


STANDARD 6.3 (World History) All students will demonstrate knowledge of world history in order to understand life and events in the past and how they relate to the present and the future.

STANDARD 6.4 (United States and New Jersey History) All students will demonstrate knowledge of United States and New Jersey history in order to understand life and events in the past and how they relate to the present and future (particularly strand c, Many Worlds Meet).

STANDARD 6.6 (Geography) All students will apply knowledge of spatial relationships and other geographic skills to understand human behavior in relation to the physical and cultural environment.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Table handout: Immigration, 1899-1924 (Appendix A in this activity)

Graph paper

Access to the Internet, textbooks, or school library for information about different ethnic communities' migration patterns at the turn of the twentieth century

If you elect to complete follow-up activity #2, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Naturalization Test (a practice test released by the agency for migrants seeking US Citizenship which appears as Appendix C in this activity)

Details of Activity

PART 1: Dividing the World (10-15 min.):

Distribute the table handout Immigration, 1899-1924 (which appears as Appendix A at the end of this lesson). Ask student to divide the nations on the table into one of the seven groups below.

Western Europe

Eastern Europe

Southern Europe

Americas (includes Central America, South America, Canada, and the Caribbean)




Many countries will be familiar but not all (some nations' names have changed). Students should use a globe, map or the internet to locate countries they are not familiar with to complete this activity (a teacher's key with these divisions appears below as Appendix B).

PART 2: Tracing Patterns of Immigration (30-40 min.):

Divide students into five groups and have each group focus on one of the following regions:

a) Western Europe

b) Eastern Europe

c) Southern Europe

d) Americas

e) Asia/Africa/Other (these regions have been grouped as fewer nations or ethnic groups appear from these regions on the assigned table)

You may wish to divide the groups that are larger (for example, eastern European) between two groups of students.

Each group should work to create two sets of bar graphs. Students can hand-draw these graphs using graph paper or, if the class has access to computer with Microsoft Office, students could input their information and create bar graphs using Microsoft Excel.

The first set of graphs will consider each individual country or group separately and compares the Immigration Rate (number of people moving into the United States) with the Emigration Rate (number of people leaving the United States) between 1899 and 1924. In most instances, the immigration bar on the graph will be higher than the emigration rate.

The second set of graphs should provide two composite pictures of each group's region, and should compare the Immigration and Emigration rates for all nations/groups in their subset.

Ask students to arrange groups on the bar graph in descending order (highest immigration rate and highest emigration rate to lowest).

PART 3: Reporting Out (15 min.)

Have each group present their finding to the class. Which nation or ethnicity was highest in each group? Which was lowest? Based on what they have already been assigned to read for class about this time period, have students speculate on the reasons why some groups might have been more likely to immigrate during these years.

Practice and Reinforcement

FOLLOW-UP #1: Motivations for Immigration (1 class period, following a homework assignment that extends over at least a week)

Assign students different nationalities or ethnicities from the table in Appendix A to research either individually or in groups. Students should use their textbook, books available in their school library, and internet resources. Good collections of readings, primary documents, and websites on immigration are posted under Summer 2009 on the One Nation, Many Americans Project, a TAH Grant of Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District (http://www.ettc.net/tah/Summer_Institute_2009.html). Next have students monitor daily newspaper for a week for any articles about immigration or movement of peoples. These can be limited to migration into or out of the United States, or you might assign a larger scope--any form of immigration around the world.

Working individually or in groups, students should compare the motivations for migration at the turn of the twentieth century with motivations reported in the newspaper today. They should be able to find a wide variety of reasons--economic opportunity, religious persecution, political refugee, war, or famine. Do not forget forced migration--those that are forced to leave their homes. Students should collect the newspaper articles they are working with, and be prepared to share their findings with the class.

FOLLOW-UP #2: Naturalization Test (10-15 min. to complete the test; an additional 25-35 minutes to diagram the test questions and discuss their content and relevance).

Migrants to the United States who want to become U.S. citizens must study for and pass a Naturalization Test. Appendix D includes 35 sample questions available at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website (http://www.uscis.gov). Students should complete the test and then compare their answers.

Once students have shared their responses, ask them to consider the kinds of questions they were asked to answer. It might be helpful to diagram these on the board (for example, which questions were about: early American history, nineteenth-century history, twentieth-century history, the function of government, geography, social responsibility, etc.).

As a class, discuss how they felt about the composition of the questions. Were some categories of question more prominent than others? Do students agree or disagree with the types of knowledge USCIS test-makers felt is important for new migrants to know about the United States? Are there any questions or categories of knowledge students would recommend adding to a test of this nature and why? How well do they think the average native American would perform on such a test?


This lesson plan is adapted from An Immigration Graph, part of the Education World website (http://www.education-world.com/) and released practice questions from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website (http://www.uscis.gov).

For more information about turn-of-the-century immigration and migration see:

Frederick Binder and David M. Reimers, All Nations Under Heaven An Ethnic and Racial History of New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1987).

Oscar Handlin, The Epic Story of the Great Migration that Made the American People, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

John Higman, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

Supplementary Materials




For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here