Immigration policy in America is difficult to understand. But it is a little easier to understand if one knows about the early history of U.S. immigration. To help people comprehend better what the world was like before the days of H-1Bs and Green Cards, below is a brief history of immigration during the decades before and after the first Thanksgiving.
Opposition to Immigration
Opposition to immigration has always existed in America, with the degree of practical obstacles to those immigrating influenced by the country’s economic circumstances and Americans’ perceptions of international events. A political cartoon once showed two Native American (Indians) on a shore watching the Pilgrims arrive at Plymouth Rock. One knowingly says to the other: “Illegal immigrants.”
Although the first settlers to America at Jamestown and Plymouth were immigrants they were not breaking any immigration laws, since none existed. In fact, it would be a long time before those coming to America would face any serious impediments or legal restrictions.
In 1607, the first immigrant-settlers to America arrived in Jamestown. To say these first settlers experienced hardship would understate the case. “The hard winter of the Starving Time  reduced a population of about 500 to barely sixty . . . Everything from the horses . . . to rats, snakes, mice and roots dug from the forest were consumed, and emaciated survivors took to eating the dead.”
In 1610, the surviving settlers decided to abandon Jamestown but were soon met at sea by ships with supplies and new settlers and chose to return to the colony. The settlement became important as an example of self-government. While King James and later his son, Charles I, retained the authority to enact laws and govern the colony, the settlers had the right, they believed, to decide purely local matters and established an assembly of burgess.
The first immigrants at Plymouth Rock endured many hardships. Unlike the Jamestown settlement, which was organized by the Virginia Company, the Pilgrims sailed to America as a group of like-minded religious individuals and families seeking freedom to worship without interference from governmental authority. “The First Thanksgiving marked the conclusion of a remarkable year. Eleven months earlier the Pilgrims had arrived at the tip of Cape Cod, fearful and uninformed,” writes Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower. “They had spent the next month alienating and angering every Native American they happened to come across. By all rights, none of the Pilgrims should have emerged from the first winter alive . . . ”
The immigrants quickly learned a lesson about food production and private property that three centuries later Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong failed to grasp, resulting in the unfortunate deaths of millions in 20th century China and the Soviet Union. The lesson was simple – people work harder when they own property and can enjoy the fruits of their labor for themselves and their families.
Nathan Philbrick explained: “The fall of 1623 marked the end of Plymouth’s debilitating food shortages. For the last two planting seasons, the Pilgrims had grown crops communally – the approach first used at Jamestown and other English settlements. But as the disastrous harvest of the previous fall had shown, something drastic needed to be done to increase the yield. In April, Bradford had decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew. The change in attitude was stunning. Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before . . . The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism. Although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never again starved.”
Early Colonial Period
Historian Bernard Bailyn estimates total migration to Colonial America between the founding of the Jamestown colony and 1760 of “at least 700,000,” including slaves forced to America against their will. The scale of immigration from 1630 to 1775 was large given the population size of America and the sending countries. Even in the 1630s and 1640s, concerns about religious persecution sent another 21,000 Puritan immigrants to New England. Between 1630 and 1660, an estimated 210,000 British immigrants came to America. Approximately 75,000 German immigrants arrived between 1727 and 1760, while about 100,000 to 150,000 Scotch-Irish came to the colonies from 1717 to 1760.
The pace of immigration increased after 1760. Bailyn calculates approximately 221,500 arrivals between 1760 and 1775, an average of about 15,000 a year compared to about 5,000 annually in earlier decades. And here is an amazing figure: about 3 percent of Scotland (40,000 people) and 2.3 percent of Ireland (55,000) came to the colonies from 1760 to 1775.
A Correct Prediction of How Immigration Would Transform America Into a World Power
A prescient writer in the London Chronicle in 1773 understood the significance of the large flow of migrants from Britain: “America will, in less than half a century, form a state much more numerous and powerful than their mother-country…”
And this turned out to be true. As we now know, the early immigrants and their descendants became the people who fought for American independence, giving us the country we have today.
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