How the world made America – History Channel


This two-part series about immigration into (what became) the United States focused on major waves of immigration, which sometimes made it seem a bit stereotypical and generalistic, but there’s no way that they could have made a coherent programme otherwise and it really was very interesting. They did it in a docu-drama way, and focused on individuals as representatives of each group, showing interviews with descendants of each individual, which I thought was rather nice, and also mentioned well-known historical figures whose ancestors came over in that particular wave of immigration.  Some of the groups they mentioned were very much minority groups, and others – Huguenots and Greeks, for example – weren’t mentioned at all, but, OK, you can only fit so much into two episodes.

They started off with Dutch immigrants, mainly young men after beaver fur, and how they founded New Amsterdam, which, as we all know, is now New York. Then on to the English.  They focused on Philadelphia Quakers, who can only have formed a very small proportion of all the English immigrants into the colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it was rather nice to hear about how their belief in freedom and equality influenced America, rather than all the usual stuff about Puritans in New England!   They also made the point that ships had improved by this time, despite the horrendous conditions on board, and that the English, unlike the Dutch, tended to come over in family groups.

Then on to Texas – part of Spanish-ruled Mexico at this point, but the programme talked about how it was the Spanish who brought cattle to what’s now the United States, and (this did seem a bit contrived!) claimed that this played a big part in the colonies winning their independence. The next part, after covering how citizenship was restricted as early as 1790, claimed that people of French descent living in New Orleans and other areas included within the Louisiana Purchase were responsible for developments in medicine, which seemed even more contrived!   I know they were trying to make out that each group made some sort of major contribution to American culture, but I’m not sure that you necessarily associate New Orleans with medicine.  Oh well!

Then over to internal migration, with the sad story of Native Americans being forced west. At this stage, they also talked about slavery and the large number of people brought to America from Africa as slaves.  I’m not sure why they didn’t mention that earlier, because the 18th century rather than the early 19th century would seem a more appropriate time to focus on the slave trade, but the chronology got a bit muddled generally at this point.  They went on to the Civil War before mentioning all the people who moved to America as a result of the “Hungry Forties” and the 1848 revolutions, which annoyed me because I thought they were missing the 1848 stuff out, but then they went back to it afterwards!

Anyway, back to the 1840s (the aspects of it mentioned in the right order), and the development of steamships. And then one of the best-known waves of immigration to the US – from Ireland, as a result of the Potato Famine, with a lot of talk about the contribution of Irish immigrants to railroad building.  And the effect of the California Gold Rush in encouraging people to Go West.

The reason that they mentioned the Civil War before mentioning immigration from the German states, in particular, from the 1840s, was so that they could go on about immigrants joining the Union Army, and show someone going on about how immigrants loved the United States and made the ultimate sacrifice for it. The bounties given to immigrants joining the US Army, and the fact that the Confederacy was not threatening the rump United States at all, weren’t mentioned at all.  There are plenty of other aspects of German immigration which could have been focused on instead.

Then they started talking about Scottish immigrants and the role of Scotland in social and industrial change … some of which would have worked a lot better in the context of the late 18th rather than the late 19th century, but it worked with the railroad building of the 1870s and 1880s as well.  And it was nice to see a positive focus, rather than talking about the Clearances.  Shame they weren’t talking about Canada, or they could have shown someone yelling “Craigellachie” J. They didn’t mention Andrew Carnegie, which was a bit odd, come to think about it.  Oh well.

The “coolie” labourers from China were also discussed at this point. This is an area that I’ve been reading up on recently: it’s appalling how these people were excluded from citizenship, purely on racial grounds – it was a time when many immigrants from many countries were pouring into the United States, and the Chinese, settling mainly in California and Hawaii, were the only ones legally discriminated against in this way.

A lesser-known group are the Mennonites of the Russian Empire. I knew that quite a lot of them had moved to Canada, but I honestly hadn’t been aware of what a major contribution they made in Kansas, where Mennonites from Ukraine, the “bread basket” of the Russian Empire, played a big role in developing wheat-growing there.

I’m not sure how much the people who made the programme actually know about the Russian Empire, but they then proceeded a) to talk about Finland as being part of Scandinavia and b) to ignore the fact that Finland was under Russian rule at this point!   They were talking about Scandinavians, mostly from Norway and Sweden, moving to Oregon, and the crucial role that they played in developing the logging industry there.   I’d have associated Scandinavian immigration more with Minnesota and other parts of the mid-West than with Oregon, but, again, they couldn’t talk about everything.  Something like a third of the population of Norway emigrated to the United States.  Asked which country lost the highest proportion of its population to emigration to the US in the 19th century and I think most people would, correctly, say Ireland, but how many people would know that Norway came in second place?   Interesting.

And, asked about major “push” factors involved in 19th century emigration, and I think the two that most people would come up with would be the Potato Famine and the pogroms.  At this stage, the programme moved on to Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms in the Russian Empire, and discrimination elsewhere in the Russian Empire and also in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  This is probably the period that you really think of when you think of immigration into the US – huge ships, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and huge numbers of people settling in Manhattan.  It’s inspiring, but it’s also sad, because, for so many years, there were always opportunities for people fleeing bad conditions, and that seems to have changed now.  Or has it?  There’ve been articles about some parts of Western Europe – I think Portugal’s been mentioned – and maybe parts of South America as well, which are actually looking for immigrants, to fill gaps in the labour market, but those aren’t the countries which people are heading for.  Everything’s such a mess now.

Then back to the issue of Chinese immigration, and the very unpleasant attempts to use the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as an excuse to push the Chinese community outside the city. And more and more immigrants flooding in from Europe – from Poland to Chicago and other growing industrial cities, and from Southern Italy into New York and elsewhere.  They were generally trying not to be negative about anyone, but they did mention some of the issues with Mafia gangs, and the attempts to deal with those.

And, at this stage, in 1924, in came the quota system – which lasted until 1965. I remember first coming across this when I was a university student, and being quite shocked by it.  There have to be controls on immigration, but controls based on skills and economics are one thing and this very unpleasant “quota” system is quite another.  It was put in place purely because of concerns that most immigrants were now coming from Southern and Eastern Europe, and from outside Europe.  Immigration from Asia, including the Middle East, was pretty much banned, immigration from Africa severely restricted, and immigration from elsewhere limited to a percentage of the number of people from that country already in the US – that being aimed at keeping down numbers from Southern and Eastern Europe.  And this went on until the 1960s.

They then talked about Mexicans being invited to work in the US during the Second World War, mainly to take the places of men who’d gone into the Armed Forces, and how many of them remained. Then, rather bizarrely, they talked about Japanese-Americans in the context of GI brides moving to America.  Surely only a very small percentage of GI brides were Japanese, and only a very small percentage of Japanese-Americans are descended from GI brides!   Maybe they didn’t want to talk about Japanese immigration before the war to avoid talking about internment.  Anyway.  Then Cubans, many of them children, moving to Miami, and then the sad story of the Vietnamese boat people.

It was all quite simplistic, as I said, but it was very interesting as well. Take a minute to imagine what would have happened if the “New World” hadn’t been “discovered”, and the surplus populations of so many countries hadn’t moved there.  Strange idea, isn’t it?  Very interesting series.





4 thoughts on “How the world made America – History Channel

  1. mrsredboots

    Did you say this was the History Channel? I thought that had given itself over to Ancient Aliens and similar junk tv, and had stopped following it. Has it improved?


  2. Chris Deeley

    A great story, but told from an American perspective to make them feel good about themselves. No mention of the early Jewish migrants who settled in New Amsterdam and Newport.


    • I know, but they couldn’t fit everyone in. They never mentioned the big Greek community in Massachusetts, nor the Huguenots who settled in the Southern states in the early days, and they never said much about English immigrants other than Quakers, who were only one small group. Wales never got mentioned at all, nor Portugal. I suppose you can only fit so much into two episodes 🙂 .


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