the United States of America
American People Of The United States of America
The story of the American people is a story of immigration and diversity. The
United States has welcomed more immigrants than any other country -- more
than 50 million in all -- and still admits between 500,000 and 1 million
persons a year.
the past many American writers emphasized the idea of the melting
pot, an image that suggested newcomers would discard their
old customs and adopt American ways.
for example, the children of immigrants learned English but
not their parents' first language. Recently, however, Americans
have placed greater value on diversity, ethnic groups have
renewed and celebrated their heritage, and the children of
immigrants often grow up being bilingual.
The first American immigrants, beginning more than 20,000 years ago, were intercontinental
wanderers: hunters and their families following animal herds from Asia to America,
across a land bridge where the Bering Strait is today.
Spain's Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New
World in 1492, about 1.5 million Native Americans lived in
what is now the continental United States, although estimates
of the number vary greatly. Mistaking the place where he landed
-- San Salvador in the Bahamas -- for the Indies, Columbus
called the Native Americans "Indians."
the next 200 years, people from several European countries
followed Columbus across the Atlantic Ocean to explore America
and set up trading posts and colonies. Native Americans suffered
greatly from the influx of Europeans. The transfer of land
from Indian to European -- and later American -- hands was
accomplished through treaties, wars, and coercion, with Indians
constantly giving way as the newcomers moved west. In the 19th
century, the government's preferred solution to the Indian "problem" was
to force tribes to inhabit specific plots of land called reservations.
Some tribes fought to keep from giving up land they had traditionally
used. In many cases the reservation land was of poor quality,
and Indians came to depend on government assistance. Poverty
and joblessness among Native Americans still exist today.
territorial wars, along with Old World diseases to which Indians
had no built-up immunity, sent their population plummeting,
to a low of 350,000 in 1920. Some tribes disappeared altogether;
among them were the Mandans of North Dakota, who had helped
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in exploring America's unsettled
northwestern wilderness in 1804-06. Other tribes lost their
languages and most of their culture. Nonetheless, Native Americans
have proved to be resilient. Today they number almost 3 million
(0.9 percent of the total U.S. population), and only about
one-third of Native Americans still live on reservations.
American place-names derive from Indian words, including the
states of Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri,
and Idaho. Indians taught Europeans how to cultivate crops
that are now staples throughout the world: corn, tomatoes,
potatoes, tobacco. Canoes, snowshoes, and moccasins are among
the Indians' many inventions.
The English were the dominant ethnic group among early settlers of what became
the United States, and English became the prevalent American language. But
people of other nationalities were not long in following. In 1776 Thomas Paine,
a spokesman for the revolutionary cause in the colonies and himself a native
of England, wrote that "Europe, and not England, is the parent country
of America." These words described the settlers who came not only from
Great Britain, but also from other European countries, including Spain, Portugal,
France, Holland, Germany, and Sweden. Nonetheless, in 1780 three out of every
four Americans were of English or Irish descent.
1840 and 1860, the United States received its first great wave
of immigrants. In Europe as a whole, famine, poor harvests,
rising populations, and political unrest caused an estimated
5 million people to leave their homelands each year. In Ireland,
a blight attacked the potato crop, and upwards of 750,000 people
starved to death. Many of the survivors emigrated. In one year
alone, 1847, the number of Irish immigrants to the United States
reached 118,120. Today there are about 39 million Americans
of Irish descent.
failure of the German Confederation's Revolution of 1848-49
led many of its people to emigrate. During the American Civil
War (1861-65), the federal government helped fill its roster
of troops by encouraging emigration from Europe, especially
from the German states. In return for service in the Union
army, immigrants were offered grants of land. By 1865, about
one in five Union soldiers was a wartime immigrant. Today,
22 percent of Americans have German ancestry.
came to the United States in large numbers beginning about
1880, a decade in which they suffered fierce pogroms in eastern
Europe. Over the next 45 years, 2 million Jews moved to the
United States; the Jewish-American population is now more than
the late 19th century, so many people were entering the United
States that the government operated a special port of entry
on Ellis Island in the harbor of New York City. Between 1892,
when it opened, and 1954, when it closed, Ellis Island was
the doorway to America for 12 million people. It is now preserved
as part of Statue of Liberty National Monument.
Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from France to the people
of America in 1886, stands on an island in New York harbor,
near Ellis Island. The statue became many immigrants' first
sight of their homeland-to-be. These inspiring words by the
poet Emma Lazarus are etched on a plaque at Liberty's base: "Give
me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to
breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
/ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, / I lift
my lamp beside the golden door!"
Among the flood of immigrants to North America, one group came unwillingly.
These were Africans, 500,000 of whom were brought over as slaves between 1619
and 1808, when importing slaves into the United States became illegal. The
practice of owning slaves and their descendants continued, however, particularly
in the agrarian South, where many laborers were needed to work the fields.
process of ending slavery began in April 1861 with the outbreak
of the American Civil War between the free states of the North
and the slave states of the South, 11 of which had left the
Union. On January 1, 1863, midway through the war, President
Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which
abolished slavery in those states that had seceded. Slavery
was abolished throughout the United States with the passage
of the Thirteenth Amendment to the country's Constitution in
after the end of slavery, however, American blacks were hampered
by segregation and inferior education. In search of opportunity,
African Americans formed an internal wave of immigration, moving
from the rural South to the urban North. But many urban blacks
were unable to find work; by law and custom they had to live
apart from whites, in run-down neighborhoods called ghettos.
the late 1950s and early 1960s, African Americans, led by Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., used boycotts, marches, and other
forms of nonviolent protest to demand equal treatment under
the law and an end to racial prejudice.
high point of this civil rights movement came on August 28,
1963, when more than 200,000 people of all races gathered in
front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to hear
King say: "I have a dream that one day on the red hills
of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former
slaveholders will be able to sit down together at the table
of brotherhood....I have a dream that my four little children
will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged
by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Not
long afterwards the U.S. Congress passed laws prohibiting discrimination
in voting, education, employment, housing, and public accommodations.
African Americans constitute 12.3 percent of the total U.S.
population. In recent decades blacks have made great strides,
and the black middle class has grown substantially. In 2001,
38 percent of employed blacks held "white-collar" jobs
-- managerial, professional, and administrative positions rather
than service jobs or those requiring manual labor. That same
year 56 percent of black high school graduates were enrolled
in college, compared to 38 percent in 1983.
any case, perhaps the greatest change in the past few decades
has been in the attitudes of America's white citizens. More
than a generation has come of age since King's "I Have
a Dream" speech. Younger Americans in particular exhibit
a new respect for all races, and there is an increasing acceptance
of blacks by whites in all walks of life and social situations.
The Statue of Liberty began lighting the way for new arrivals at a time when
many native-born Americans began to worry that the country was admitting too
many immigrants. Some citizens feared that their culture was being threatened
or that they would lose jobs to newcomers willing to accept low wages.
1924 Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. For
the first time, the United States set limits on how many people
from each country it would admit. The number of people allowed
to emigrate from a given country each year was based on the
number of people from that country already living in the United
States. As a result, immigration patterns over the next 40
years reflected the existing immigrant population, mostly Europeans
and North Americans.
to 1924, U.S. laws specifically excluded Asian immigrants.
People in the American West feared that the Chinese and other
Asians would take away jobs, and racial prejudice against people
with Asian features was widespread. The law that kept out Chinese
immigrants was repealed in 1943, and legislation passed in
1952 allows people of all races to become U.S. citizens.
Asian Americans are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups
in the country. About 10 million people of Asian descent live
in the United States. Although most of them have arrived here
recently, they are among the most successful of all immigrant
groups. They have a higher income than many other ethnic groups,
and large numbers of their children study at the best American
The year 1965 brought a shakeup of the old immigration patterns. The United
States began to grant immigrant visas according to who applied first; national
quotas were replaced with hemispheric ones. And preference was given to relatives
of U.S. citizens and immigrants with job skills in short supply in the United
States. In 1978, Congress abandoned hemispheric quotas and established a worldwide
ceiling, opening the doors even wider. In 2000, for example, the top 10 points
of origin for immigrants were Mexico (173,900), China (45,700), the Philippines
(42,500), India (42,000), Vietnam (26,700), Nicaragua (24,000), El Salvador
(22,600), Haiti (22,400), Cuba (20,800), and the Dominican Republic (17,500).
The United States continues to accept more immigrants than any other country;
in 2000, its population included more than 28 million foreign-born persons.
The revised immigration law of 1990 created a flexible cap of 675,000 immigrants
each year, with certain categories of people exempted from the limit. That
law attempts to attract more skilled workers and professionals to the United
States and to draw immigrants from countries that have supplied relatively
few Americans in recent years. It does this by providing "diversity" visas.
In 2000 some 50,000 people entered the country under one of three laws intended
to diversify immigration.
The steady stream of people coming to America's shores has had a profound effect
on the American character. It takes courage and flexibility to leave your homeland
and come to a new country. The American people have been noted for their willingness
to take risks and try new things, for their independence and optimism. If Americans
whose families have been here longer tend to take their material comfort and
political freedoms for granted, immigrants are at hand to remind them how important
those privileges are.
also enrich American communities by bringing aspects of their
native cultures with them.
Americans celebrate their traditions with street fairs and
other festivities on Cinco de Mayo (May 5).
black Americans now celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa, a
festival drawn from African rituals.
restaurants abound in many American cities. President John
F. Kennedy, himself the grandson of Irish immigrants, summed
up this blend of the old and the new when he called America "a
society of immigrants, each of whom had begun life anew, on
an equal footing. This is the secret of America: a nation of
people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dare to
explore new frontiers...."
Department of State – Info USA