Have you ever wondered why your ancestors came to America? This article provides the main reasons that our ancestors left home and built a new life in the United States.
While you are reading the reasons that our ancestors may have chosen to migrate below, you will probably notice that more than one reason will likely apply to the stories of most of the people in our family trees. The decision to immigrate is a major choice, and I am sure that most of our ancestors did not take this lightly.
They all must have really felt that leaving everything behind, including friends, family, jobs, businesses, their community, memories, and belongings, was the best way forward for them. It’s also important to mention that many of our ancestors may have not had much, or even any, choice when it came to leaving their home.
Pursuing economic opportunity
The majority of immigrants to America likely came to live in the United States in search of a more prosperous life than what was available to them in their home country. A young country like the United States offered, at least in theory, a less restrictive economic and social system for most migrants which had the potential to lead to more upward mobility.
Food and shelter are basic needs for all humans. If our ancestors felt that they did not have enough food to feed themselves or their children, or if their housing was inadequate, they were likely to try to establish a life in a new place.
One of the most well-known group of migrants to come to North America is a great example of how most people leave their homes to pursue, at least to a certain extent, better economic opportunities for themselves and their families.
Every schoolchild in the US learns about the Pilgrims coming to North America in order to be able to practice their religion freely, but careful students of history will note that the Pilgrims were primarily economic migrants.
The Pilgrims had actually already been practicing their religion freely while living in the Netherlands, but there was little opportunity there and their standard of living was much decreased compared to their former lives in England. In the early 1600s, word was spreading about potential economic opportunities in the “New World” in North and South America, and so the Pilgrims sought investors to fund their trip.
A life in British North America was advantageous in more ways than one. They could have the advantage of their children being British subjects, but they would be far away from the strict oversight of the government.
It was a win-win, if you could survive the trip.
The story of the Pilgrims is a great example of how the subject of why our ancestors decided to immigrate is complicated – there is often no simple answer to that question.
Whether or not our ancestors actually had a better life, and more money, than they would have had if they had stayed in their native country is an interesting question. Our ancestors were likely tempted by occasionally exaggerated stories of American prosperity, not unlike the theme of the song “There Are No Cats In America” in the movie American Tail, which promises the migrating mice streets paved with cheese.
Escaping religious persecution
Some of our ancestors were compelled to leave their country of origin due to religious oppression and persecution to seek safety. There are many instances in modern history where it has been dangerous to practice certain religious in some parts of the world, even if the practice was done in secret.
One of the most well-known examples of this reason for migrating is the tragic experience of Jewish people throughout Europe in the early and middle parts of the 20th century. While not everyone who wanted to leave Europe was allowed to leave, or permitted to enter a safer country, many hundreds of thousands of people tried to seek refuge in countries outside of Europe.
Unfortunately, many countries, including the United States, imposed limits on the number of Jewish immigrants who could be issued immigration visas. In the US, the quota number was often not even reached – meaning thousands of visas that could have been issued were not, and many of those would-be immigrants did not survive.
In the years between 1933-1945, only about 200,000 immigrants from Europe were allowed to enter the United States to live permanently. Most of the European immigrants who came to the US during this period were fleeing Europe because of religious persecution.
Fleeing political unrest or oppression
Many of our ancestors may have decided to leave their country because it was not a good place to raise a family due to political oppression or unrest. It may have been dangerous to voice an opposing opinion, or even be associated with an extended family member who was a member of an opposing political faction.
The United States saw waves of immigrants from all over the world during the 19th-20th centuries due to political upheaval. For example, shifting geopolitical boundaries in Europe in the late part of the 1800s led many people to leave Central and Eastern Europe.
This is a common reason for Poles to have left Poland, since Poland had a long history of resistance movements against imperial oppression.
By escaping the region, they were able to avoid physical violence, as well as economic hardship, and possibly even persecution due to their ethnic, religious, or linguistic heritage.
They came against their will
As many as 450,000 people from Africa were taken by force against their will from Africa to bring them to the part of North America that would later become the United States, or to the USA after its official formation. These individuals were forced to work their entire lives under the threat of physical violence, and generations of their descendants were enslaved, too.
There were many millions more people who were kidnapped, stolen, or purchased as hostages from African communities and forced to go to other parts of North and South America to live and work under similar conditions. Many Americans have ancestors who were from these other North and South American regions who could also trace some of their ancestry to Africa through this route.
Reuniting with family
Family bonds can be a powerful motivation for emigrating, or leaving one’s country of origin. Many of our ancestors may have decided to leave home to join a parent, sibling, cousin, or other relative, in order to reunite their family.
I don’t have any specific knowledge of my ancestors migrating across the country for this reason, but I do know that my Slovak great-great grandfather moved his young family from Massachusetts to New Jersey to live closer to his wife’s brother. Living closer to family can be a great source of stability for new immigrants.
To avoid military service
Some of our ancestors left to avoid military service. This choice may have been made for a variety of reasons, such as simply being afraid of or having a moral opposition to armed conflict.
While I don’t know why my Slovak ancestor moved from MA to NJ, I do know why he chose to leave the Austro-Hungarian Empire which used to rule over what is now Slovakia. In 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Empire Armed Forces made a new law that required three years of military service.
While not everyone ended up having to serve those three years, the idea of having to serve in this particular group of armed forces was too much for my ancestor. Like many young men in Slovakia at the time, he decided to leave and take his chances somewhere else.
Some of our ancestors may have left their home country in order to find excitement and adventure. Perhaps they did not want to take over the family farm, marry the neighbor’s daughter, and live in the same small town where their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years.
Maybe they knew that there was more to see in the world and they were determined to discover a new path for themselves.
It can sometimes be a shock to realize that our ancestors were exactly like us, which means that sometimes they took risks that may not have made sense to many people at the time. One such risk would be to leave everything behind, including close family, a business, or a job, and start a completely new life in a new country, maybe on a entirely different continent, where they may not even speak the same language.
Why would anyone make such a move without it being an absolute necessity? It goes against many of the most common stories that we hear about immigration, of course, since most people do leave their home country because of more basic needs not being met.
Some of our ancestors may have had a good life in their old country, but thought that taking a big chance could also have big benefits. Whether it worked out well for them or not is subjective, and only we can decide.
According to historians, my 12th great-grandfather, William Mullins, was prosperous enough in England to invest a substantial sum as a stockholder in the voyage of the Mayflower, the ship whose passengers are often credited with forming the basis for what would eventually become the United States of America.
Was it adventure he sought? It doesn’t seem like he had financial need in England.
Unfortunately for my 12th great-grandfather, his entire immediate family, except for a single daughter, died during their first winter in North America. The surviving daughter, Priscilla, eventually married another Mayflower passenger, John Alden, who was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact.
John and Priscilla Alden were especially lucky and had a large family, and those children went on to have about a million descendants. Most of these descendants live in the United States, but there are also many people worldwide who are descended from this union.
So, while William Mullin’s risky investment in the 1600s as a passenger and investor in the Mayflower turned out poorly for him, it might be viewed differently by his many, many descendants that exist because his daughter, Priscilla, survived to start a life here.
Wanting a fresh start
It’s possible that a few of our ancestors just wanted to go to a new place where they could start a fresh, new life without any of the baggage from their old country. A criminal record, bad breakup, or family drama could have been enough of a reason to buy a ticket across the Atlantic Ocean to a new start.
Some people may have chosen to emigrate in order to hide aspects of their lives that their families, communities or religions would have viewed as shameful.
My fourth great-grandparents on my father’s side of the family were first cousins, born near Braunton, Devon, England, in the early 1800s. These ancestors of mine were full first cousins who decided to marry and start a family.
According to a few very old letters that I found, the reason that they came to live in the United States was to escape judgement from their families about their cousin marriage. Apparently, it had created a big rift in the family at the time.
It worked like a charm, of course. Our family didn’t discover that our ancestors were first cousins (i.e. sharing one set of grandparents) and the resulting pedigree collapse until my great-grandmother began working on the family tree in the 1980s.
My ancestors were able to leave their old lives in England, and the people they left behind became ancient history to all of us.
I hope that you have found this post interesting and thought-provoking. While we can’t always know the exact motivation that drove each of our ancestors to leave their homeland to find a new country, it is a good exercise to try.
It can help give us a better understand of our family’s history, too. You might even see parallels between our ancestors who were immigrants and people who have come to live in this country in the last few decades.
The motivation of people to migrate has not changed much over time, after all. It is a very big decision and we must remember that our ancestors were once in a similar tight spot.
If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you would like to share a story from your family about why they immigrated to the US (aka “America”), I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.
Thanks for reading today!