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Family Histories
The Peopling of America
The Peopling of America
A timeline showing forces behind immigration and their impact on the immigrant experience.
Click the time period you'd like to explore.
Pre-1790 1790 1820 1880 1930 1965 2000
Most scientists believe that human beings first came to America over the Bering Straits about 20,000 years ago. These were the ancestors of the many Native American cultures, which would people the landscape for thousands of years.

Around the year 1000, a small number of Vikings would arrive. Five-hundred years later, the great European migration would begin.

Crossing the Atlantic meant two to three months of seasickness, overcrowding, limited food rations, and disease. But the lure of available land and the hope for political and religious freedoms kept the Europeans coming.

In some places, the meeting of Europeans and Native Americans was peaceful. In others, the cultures clashed, leading to violence and disease. Whole tribes were decimated by such newly introduced diseases as small pox, measles, and the plague.

By the end of the 16th century the Spanish were established in St. Augustine, and by the early 17th century thriving communities dotted the landscape: the British in New England and Virginia, the Dutch in New York and New Jersey, and the Swedish in Delaware.

But the Europeans weren't the only immigrants in these communities. As a freed slave from the 19th Century would recall:
"...I looked around the ship...and saw ... a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted my fate..."

Slaves from Africa and the Caribbean were brought forcibly into the New World as early as 1619.

Among the early British settlers were indentured servants willing to trade four to seven years of unpaid labor for a one way ticket to the colonies and the promise of land. There were also convicts among the newcomers - up to 50,000 transported to the colonies from English jails.

By the mid-18th century, the British colonies had become the most prosperous in North America. But the exodus of skilled laborers from the Old World to the New was becoming a matter of concern for the British Parliament. Some called for a total ban on immigration to the colonies.

But history was moving in quite a different direction...

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