Posted by Ancestry Team on October 22, 2014 in Family History Month, Research

20141022migrantsEach of us has been touched in some way by the experiences, choices and attitudes of our ancestors.  The decisions they were often forced to make during the great migrations of the 1800s radically changed our ancestors’ world – and ours.

1800-1900 – Unprecedented population growth in Europe along with social, political and religious conflict left millions without land or a means of support in the 19th century. Many moved to cities, other countries or across oceans in search of a better life.  Industrialization accelerated rapidly with manufacturing techniques. Improvements in turnpikes, canals, steam engines and railroads made it possible for made it possible to move from one place to another with more ease.

In the years just after the American Revolution, the westward migration of Americans intensified. In 1800, significant numbers of settlers were moving to Kentucky and Tennessee – the only two states west of the Appalachians at the time. Early in the century, as the states of Ohio, Louisiana, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi and Alabama opened up, they too became magnets for those hoping to find their fortunes and better lands to cultivate.

1803 – War between England and France resumed. As a result, transatlantic trade and emigration from continental Europe became practically impossible. Irish emigration was curtailed by the British Passenger Act, which limited the numbers to be carried by emigrant ships.

1803-1851 – When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, the door was opened for the government to move forward more aggressively with earlier attempts to relocate eastern tribes of Native Americans to lands beyond the Mississippi River. Although initially rejecting the forced moves, small groups of Native Americans left for the west in 1810 and again between 1817 and 1819. For the next several decades, Native Americans were moved out of areas where whites were settling.  In 1838, U.S. Army troops were ordered to round up as many Cherokees as possible and to march them over 800 miles across the plains and across the Mississippi to the Oklahoma Territory. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Cherokees died on what became known as the Trail of Tears. In 1851, the Indian Appropriations Act consolidated western tribes on reservations to enable the westward expansion of settlers and to open the way for the building of the transcontinental railroad.

1807-1808 – In 1807, the Congress of the United States passed the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves.  The federal law that stated that no new slaves were permitted to be imported took effect in 1808.

1812-1814 – The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States brought immigration to a halt until the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 that ended the war.

1815-1865 – The largest global migration of modern times began just after the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) and continued for the rest of the century.  The first great wave of emigration to the United States brought 5 million immigrants between 1815 and 1860.

1818-1861 – Liverpool became the most-used port of departure for British and Irish immigrants, as well as considerable numbers of Germans and other Europeans as the Black Ball Line sailing packets began regular Liverpool to New York service. Before the American Civil War (1861-1865), the vast majority of immigrants came from western and central Europe: Ireland, England, Wales, France, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and German-speaking areas.

Ship Europa (built 1848) voyaged from Liverpool to New York. From New York Port, Ship Images at Ancestry.

1819 – The first significant federal legislation was passed relating to immigration: Passenger lists were to be given to the collector of customs and immigration to the United States was to be reported on a regular basis.

1820 – The United States saw the arrival of 151,000 new immigrants.

1825 – Great Britain officially recognized the view that England was overpopulated and repealed laws prohibiting emigration.

1825 – The completion of the Erie Canal linked the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Erie and opened up a new era in transportation history. Completed by thousands of immigrant laborers, the waterway forged a new route to the interior of the country and made New York City the greatest port in the world.

1840 – The Cunard Line began passenger transportation between Europe and the United States, opening the steamship era.

1845 – The Native American party, precursor of the nativist and anti-immigrant Know-Nothing party, was founded.

1846 – Crop failures in Europe and mortgage foreclosures sent tens of thousands of dispossessed to the United States.

1846-47 – Irish of all classes immigrated to the United States as a result of the potato famine. The fares of many immigrants were paid for by landlords, the British government or the local Poor Law Union.

1848 – The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought an official end to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), was signed on February 2, 1848. Under the terms of the treaty, Mexico ceded to the United States Upper California and New Mexico. This was known as the Mexican Cession and included present-day Arizona and New Mexico and parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Mexico relinquished all claims to Texas and recognized the Rio Grande as the  boundary with the United States.

1848 – Failure of German revolution resulted in the emigration of political refugees.

1849 – California Gold Rush drew migrants from across the United States and foreign countries.


1855 – Castle Garden immigration receiving station opened in New York City to accommodate mass immigration. Alien women married to U.S. citizens became U.S. citizens by law (the law was repealed in 1922).

1858 – A financial crisis in Sweden caused large-scale migration to the United States.

1860 – New York became “the largest Irish city in the world.” Of its 805,651 residents, 203,760 were Irish-born.

1861-1865 – The Civil War caused a significant drop in the number of foreigners entering the United States. Large numbers of immigrants served on both sides during the war.

1862 – The Homestead Act encouraged naturalization by granting citizens title to 160 acres, provided that the land was tilled for five years.

Homesteading Family. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

1864 – Congress centralized control of immigration with a commissioner under the Secretary of State. In an attempt to meet the labor crisis caused by the Civil War, Congress legalized the importation of contract laborers.

1875 – The first direct federal regulation of immigration was established by prohibiting entry of prostitutes and convicts. Residency permits were required of Asians.

1880 – The U.S. population was 50,155,783. More than 5.2 million immigrants entered the country between 1880 and 1890.

1882 – The Chinese Exclusion law was established, curbing Chinese immigration. A general immigration law of the same year excluded persons convicted of political offenses, “lunatics,” “idiots,” and persons likely to become public charges. A head tax of fifty cents was placed on each immigrant.  A sharp rise in Jewish emigration to the United States was prompted by the outbreak of anti-Semitism in Russia.

1883 – In an effort to alleviate a labor shortage caused by the freeing of the slaves, the Southern Immigration Association was founded to promote immigration to the South.

1885 – Contract laborers were denied admission to the United States by the Foran Act. However, skilled laborers, artists, actors, lecturers and domestic servants were not barred. Individuals in the United States were not to be prevented from assisting the immigration of relatives and personal friends.

1890 – New York City had the distinction of being home to as many Germans as Hamburg, Germany.

1891 – The Bureau of Immigration was established under the Treasury Department to federally administer all immigration laws (except the Chinese Exclusion Act). Classes of persons convicted of felonies or misdemeanors of moral turpitude and polygamists.  Pogroms in Russia caused large numbers of Jews to immigrate to the United States.

1892 – Ellis Island replaced Castle Garden as the New York reception center for immigrants.

1893 – Chinese legally in the United States were required to apply to collectors of internal revenue for certificates of residence or be removed.

1894 – The Immigration Restriction League was organized to lead the restriction movement for the next twenty-five years. The league emphasized the distinction between “old” (northern and western Europeans) and “new” (southern and eastern European) immigrants.

1894-96 – To escape massacres, Armenian Christians began immigrating to the United States.

1900 – The U.S. population was at 75,994,575. More than 3,687,000 immigrants were admitted in the previous ten years.


  1. Sheila E. Johnson

    Great info and just what I was looking for.
    A possible thought for information added, was to add how or why did my ancestors end up in the state they did. Could be a part in the pop up hint leaf or a 2nd type of pop up hint leaf of what was going in those years/that period of time.
    Thank you! Love what you are doing here.

    • Lou Szucs

      Thanks for your feedback. We’re working on a more comprehensive guide that will be downloadable and cover 1600s to the 1900s.

  2. The Meek-Cook and the Watson-Coleman has been my learning curve, as our ancestors entered the Americas in the east from Virginia up to Canada in the late 1600’s at least. It has been interesting tracing them from one location to another, and thoroughly surprised when I found some entered via Canada.

  3. Debra

    looking for anyone with the last name of Gore, and Lassiter…immigrated from Ireland in the 1800’s, and were settled in Oklahoma and surrounding areas…later share cropped their way to California and settled in various cities along the way..Mostly in Modesto and Ceres California….Maternal Grandparents were Joseph Gore and Ida Mae Lassiter…Paternal Grandparents were Joe Robison or Robinson and Grandmother was Last name of Maples, no first name…as i did not get to know her….any help would be appreciated…thank you

  4. Cathy Roylance

    Very Interesting, Lots if Information for me to consider on my 2nd GGParents who came Over in 1864 . Thank You, A lot of hard work done and is appreciated.

  5. Very interesting, I really like to learn more about my family traveling to USA, I found that my first ancestor to arrive in US was a cousin of my father in 1909 later another cousin in 1919.

  6. Jonathan Jacobs

    Thank you Lou, that was really interesting. My earliest family just barely made your timeline. I will be looking forward to your next installment ie 1900-2000. Note to the other posters, this is immigration not migration, there is a difference.

  7. Jim Moore

    This is a great page of historical context, to better understand what was happening in a region or the world when people decided to move. Does the Ancestry site have more information like this?

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