Immigration in the Gilded Age & the Melting Pot

After the passage of the Homestead Acts and the end of the Civil War, the United States experienced an influx of around 12 million immigrants from various countries around the world. Many of them moved to the U.S. with the dream of making a better life for themselves, either by finding a job to make money or to escape religious and economic struggles that they might have been facing in their home country.

Once on U.S. soil, however, not all immigrants were welcomed with open arms. They were largely expected to join the Melting Pot, a term which is and has been used to describe the growing diversity of the United States. Imagine taking many different colors of crayons and melting them together; the end result would be one color once the crayons melded together. In the same way, the U.S. was considered a place where cultures and ethnicities would “melt together” and become one.

Three groups of people came together in America during this period from approximately 1870 to the early 1900s. The first group is known as the Old Immigrants. These Americans came primarily from Northern and Western European countries such as England, Germany, and Ireland. They belonged to the Protestant faith, were more likely to be literate (meaning they could read and write), and had skilled jobs. The majority of them came as families and had some money to their names. The Old Immigrants assimilated, or fit in, much more easily than later immigrants due to the fact that they either spoke English or because they were considered white. 

The second group included the New Immigrants, and mainly represented countries from Southern or Eastern Europe. They came from areas such as Italy and Poland, Mexico, Latin America, and parts of Asia. Jews from Eastern Europe were also part of this wave of immigration. Unlike the Old Immigrants, the New Immigrants were primarily Catholic, Orthodox, or Jewish. More of them were illiterate, meaning they could not read nor write, and were unskilled workers. Due to the fact that many of them did not speak English and did not come over with much money, they had a more difficult time assimilating and fitting into their new country. 

A third group to emerge during this time were not immigrants, but Nativists. They often traced their American ancestry back to one the original British American Colonies, and were staunchly anti-immigration. Their strong feelings about immigration and the desire to preserve a true American identity led to the formation of the American Party, which was also referred to as the Know Nothing Party. Members of this party sought to protect the rights of what they called “native-born Americans”, which ironically did not refer to American Indians. They thought that more immigrants to their country would threaten them socially and economically.