Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Background Reading

Peopling Pennsylvania

Photo of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island

A mother and her two children wait at a dock in their home country Rumania.

Part 1: Push and Pull

Everyone came from somewhere else

Everyone's ancestors come to Pennsylvania from somewhere else! Your ancestors may have moved here from Asia, Africa, Europe, South America or from somewhere else in North America. You may have moved with your family from another country, from one state to another, from the country to the city, or from a city to a suburb.

When people move from one place to another to live, we call it a migration. We call a person moving into a place an immigrant. A person moving out of a place is an emigrant.

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Push and Pull

Historians use the words "push" and "pull" when they study migration. Something "pushes" migrants away from their original homes. Something "pulls" them to their new home.

Push: Deciding to leave

If everything is going well at home, most people don't want to leave. Something must push them to make such a big change. Most often people are pushed by not having enough money or land to feed and clothe their families. Others leave home because they are not free to practice their religion. Some leave because of war. It is not safe to stay in their home country.

It is not easy to decide to leave home. Even though there may be strong reasons to leave, there are still some good reasons to stay. People must decide if what they gain is worth what they must give up.

If you could listen to immigrants from the past talking about the "push" to move, you might hear something like this:

I'm the last of five sons. If my father divides his farm between us, no one will have enough land to feed our families. If he gives it all to my oldest brother, I get nothing. If I'm drafted into the prince's army, I may not live long enough to worry about farming! There is nothing for me here. I need to move away from all this confusion and find a peaceful place to farm.

--Karl, Prussia, 1840

Those hateful bullies have gone too far. First they rode through town shouting terrible things about us. Next, they wrecked our synagogue. Now they break into our homes! The police do nothing to stop them. I'm afraid it is time to leave.

--Nina, Russia, 1890

Photo of two peasants standing in ruins of a building

Even when life was hard, people loved their homelands. It was hard to make the decision to leave for America.

Pull: Deciding where to go

How do immigrants decide where to move? Something about a place must attract them. Most migrants choose a place where they know they can find work. They also look for a place where they can afford to live.

The chance to be free to practice their religion pulls some migrants. Others want to live in a democracy where they can vote for their leaders. They want to be free to express their opinions. Sometimes, immigrants are pulled to a place because someone they know already lives there. Often, people migrate for more than one reason.

If you could listen to immigrants from the past talking about the "pull" to a place, you might hear something like this:

I hear that William Penn is trying something new with his colony Pennsylvania. He's letting people worship as they please. They get to vote for an Assembly who makes the laws. They also need carpenters like me and are willing to pay a high price. I'd like to get in on that experiment!

--John, England, 1690

My cousin wrote me a letter from America. He says he's making good money -- much more than he ever had at home. The factory works around the clock, every day, even Sunday! They always need new workers. He promises me I will have work if I come! I can stay at the boarding house where he stays.

--Josef, Poland, 1905

Forced migration

Sometimes people migrating do not have a choice about moving. They are forced from their homes as prisoners or slaves. Some people have to flee their homes for fear of being killed or imprisoned. They are called refugees. Some people must leave homes destroyed by flood or hurricane. Others leave because of a food shortage. When migrants do not have a choice, the migrations are all push and no pull!

Photo of two peasants standing in ruins of a building

Jewish men look at the damage to a building after Russians ransacked their village.

Who came to Pennsylvania?

Native Americans

Most scientists believe that the first people migrated to Pennsylvania thousands of years ago. They walked across a land bridge that is no longer there. Slowly, over time, they spread out all over North and South America.

The First Europeans

Thousands of years later, the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indians greeted the first Europeans. Dutch and Swedish settlers came to trade with the Indians. They came to make money. Soon the Swedish were farming.

William Penn and the Quakers

Next, the English came. William Penn's colony welcomed people of any religion. Pennsylvania was like a magnet, pulling in people who had been pushed away by unfair treatment in their homelands. First English Quakers like Penn came and settled Philadelphia. Soon people of other faiths followed.

The Germans

The Mennonites, Amish, Baptists, Moravians, and others came from Germany. Instead of settling in Philadelphia and blending with the English, they moved farther west and started farms and towns. Many still spoke German long after other groups had learned English. They were nicknamed the "Pennsylvania Dutch," which means "Pennsylvania German" (the German word for German is "Deutsch").

The Scots Irish

Next, the Scots Irish came. They were Presbyterians who were pushed out of Ireland because of their religion. After arriving in Pennsylvania, they moved west into the mountains and beyond. Many of the early settlers of western Pennsylvania, including Johnstown, were from this group of Scots Irish pioneers.

All Push and No Pull: Indians and Africans

At first Penn bought land from Native Americans at a fair price. The Indians moved short distances away to allow room for their new neighbors. Then, as the English wanted more and more land, they pushed the Indians farther and farther west. Sometimes the Indians left peacefully; other times they defended their land.

Indians did not want to leave their homes. By 1800, most of Pennsylvania's native people were gone. Over time they were pushed all the way to Oklahoma.

Another forced migration happened in colonial times. Most Africans never chose to leave their homes. They never close to come to America. Slave traders captured them and took them far away from their homes and sold them to work as slaves. They could not choose where they would live in America or what they would do here.

Some Pennsylvanians had slaves in colonial times. But early on, Quakers, Mennonites and other religious groups came to believe that slavery was wrong. They freed their slaves and tried to convince others to do the same. In 1781 a law was passed to gradually end slavery in Pennsylvania. Many free blacks chose to live in Pennsylvania.

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Another Wave

In the years after the Declaration of Independence, immigration to PA slowed to a trickle. Our new nation suffered one war after another. It did not have much "pull" to bring in new immigrants.

But in the 1830s, immigrants started coming again. There was plenty of farmland for a low price. People who did not farm could get jobs in building boats and ships, making glass, or working in other new industries. Between 1830 and 1870 about half a million new immigrants came to Pennsylvania.

The Irish

About half of the new immigrants were Catholics from Ireland. A terrible plant disease had killed Ireland's main food crop, potatoes. Almost a million Irish starved to death. Another million and a half came to America. They were penniless and didn't have many job skills. Many men got jobs building the railroads. Women became servants.

Many of the people already here did not like Catholics moving to the state. They had forgotten William Penn's dream! Businesses hung up signs that said, "No Irish Need Apply." This unfair treatment is called discrimination.

More Germans, Welsh, and English

Things weren't going well in Germany either. It was divided into many small states. Each state had its own prince. Princes often fought each other for land. They made the men in their states serve in their armies.

Some of the people revolted and tried to join the states together into one free nation. When this did not work, many people decided to move to the United States. Many came to Pennsylvania to join the Germans already living here. Some came with enough money to buy farms. Others had skills needed by glass and other factories.

Our coal, iron, and glass industries needed workers and miners. Americans went to Europe to find these workers. They offered them more money if they would move to the Pennsylvania.

German glass workers immigrated to Pittsburgh's many glass factories. English ironworkers settled in Johnstown and other towns where the iron factories were starting up. Welsh miners immigrated to the coal regions, including Cambria County. In fact, Cambria is the ancient Roman name for Wales!

The Underground Railroad

During this time, some brave souls became involved in a secret migration. Many African Americans wanted to escape from slavery in the South. Free black and white abolitionists helped them on the Underground Railroad. At first many of the “passengers” stayed in Pennsylvania. Later, it became too dangerous. A new law made Northerners return runaways to slavery. They started moving all the way to Canada. There they could not be caught as fugitives.

Photo of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island

New immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. At Ellis they will be "processed" before they are allowed to continue their journey to find a new home.

A Bigger Wave

Around 1890, immigration changed again. This time even more people came. Pennsylvania's growing coal and steel industries needed cheap, unskilled labor. That was the "pull." The "push" for most came from hard times in Europe. Discrimination pushed others. Jewish people living in Russia and Poland would be attacked by mobs of people while the government did nothing to stop them.

Millions of immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, and other countries of central and eastern Europe came to America on steamships. It became the largest migration the world has ever seen. By 1920, 36% of Pennsylvanians (about one out of three) were foreign born!

So many people arrived every day in New York City that the government built a special place called Ellis Island just to check them in. Many of the newcomers boarded trains and went straight to work in Pennsylvania's mines and mills. They settled in neighborhoods with others from their homelands, who shared their language and customs.

The Great Migration

World War I cut off the flow of immigrants. But the mines and factories needed more workers than before. This was the "pull" for thousands of African Americans in the South. They were glad to leave behind unfair laws in the South. They came for higher paying jobs in the North. This “Great Migration” reached its peak during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Quota Laws

After World War I, immigration almost stopped completely. Many people were worried that new immigrants would take their jobs. Congress passed laws that limited the number of immigrants that could come each year from each country.

These laws kept immigration down until 1965 when Congress passed new laws that let people come to America from any country. Section divider

Migration Today

Many of today's immigrants come from Latin America and Asia. Latin America includes Spanish-speaking countries like Mexico and Cuba. Most Mexicans come for work. Cubans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and others have come to escape Communist governments. Others from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East come to get a good education.

These immigrants are coming to the United States, but most are not coming to Pennsylvania. Since the 1970s, the push-pull factors have not been working in Pennsylvania's favor. As the manufacturing jobs went away, more people have left Pennsylvania to find work than have moved in.

Pennsylvania's new economy needs people with technology and medical skills. New immigrants from Asia and the Middle East have come to make their homes in our state. Many Arab Americans have settled in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Scranton, and Allentown.

Excerpted with permission from the textbook Pennsylvania, Our Home by Susan K. Donley (Layton, UT: Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 2005) www.gibbs-smith.com/textbooks

See also: Peopling Pennsylvania, Part 2, Creating Community

 

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