Three Myths About Your Immigrant Ancestors

Three Myths About Your Immigrant Ancestors

When America's immigrant heritage comes up in today's national discourse, you'll often hear: “My ancestors came here legally,” “They learned the language and became American” and “They didn’t take any handouts.” But these are myths that obscure our immigrant ancestors' true experiences. We'll explain the truth behind these myths.
myths immigrant ancestors
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, ggbain 09120

America’s great era of immigration ended less than 100 years ago. For the vast majority of US residents, our ancestors came from other countries to find work, freely practice their religion, join family and friends already here, and escape danger back home.

In today’s national discourse about immigration, it’s often said that all our ancestors arrived from somewhere else, looking for a better life. That’s except for American Indians, whose ancestors had been here for millennia, and African-Americans, whose ancestors were forcibly brought here as slaves.

Responses to such reminders frequently include “My ancestors came here legally,” “They learned the language and became American” and “They didn’t take any handouts.” But these are myths, and here’s why.

* Use the tools in our Immigrant Ancestry Mega Collection to start tracing your immigrant ancestors today!*

“My ancestors came here legally.”

There was no legal (or illegal) immigration for most of US history. Until the late 1800s, anyone could step off a boat or across the border, no questions asked.

In 1882, the first federal immigration restriction targeted Asians. Only after 1891 were there brief medical inspections and questions to weed out immigrants with communicable diseases, anarchists and people judged “likely public charge.” Ellis Island, known for its inspections, opened Jan. 1, 1892.

But there were no background checks or visas, and no literacy requirement. Personal identification wasn’t necessary until the United States entered World War I in 1917.

This changed only after 1921, when Congress enacted the first immigration quotas based on numbers of US residents born in European countries. US embassies then began issuing visas overseas.

myths about immigrant ancestors
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, ppmsca 51996


“They immediately learned English and assimilated.”

Immigrants didn’t shed their foreign identities the moment they stepped off the boat. Rather, they settled together with their countrymen in ethnic neighborhoods where everyone spoke the native language. That’s why today we have New York’s Little Italy, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine and Chicago’s Andersonville.

Immigrants brought their foods, music, traditions and activities to their new homes. They published newspapers in their native tongues. (Ethnic and foreign-language newspapers are great resources for discovering villages of origin.) They founded their own churches and businesses, like the Irish Emigrant Society’s Emigrant Savings Bank and Cincinnati’s Western German Bank. German and Irish Catholics eschewed public schools in favor of their own, private schools.

Historical US censuses reveal whether a person spoke English or another language. A 2008 study of census and other records from historically German settlements in Wisconsin found that “German remained the primary language of commerce, education and religion well into the early 20th century.

“Some second- and even third-generation German immigrants who were born in Wisconsin were still monolingual in German as adults.”

A large number of immigrants didn’t bother assimilating because they intended to earn money in America and go back home.  These “birds of passage” included more than half of southern Italians, 64 percent of Hungarians, 59 percent of Slovaks and 40 percent of Germans. Of course, many who planned to go home didn’t. Many who did return home came back and settled in the United States for good.


“They didn’t take handouts.”

Welfare as we think of it today didn’t exist for our ancestors. But other assistance was available: Immigrant aid societies and charitable organizations, including the YMCA, YWCA, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Salvation Army, had representatives on Ellis Island. They helped new arrivals with funds, employment, living arrangements, transportation, education and more.

Such groups continued the assistance from offices in cities across the country. The Legal Aid Society, for example, began in 1876 in New York City as Der Deutscher Rechts-Schutz Verein (The German Legal Aid Society) to represent Germans against their employers’ corrupt labor practices. The Order Sons of Italy in America established orphanages and offered scholarships and death benefits.

And just like the native-born, immigrants accepted the services of county poor farms, state hospitals and other government organizations.


Why it matters

We’re all prone to romanticizing our ancestry. But if we’re going to use feel-good myths to gloss over our ancestors’ actual experiences, why bother doing research? Genealogy is about getting as close as we can to what our ancestors’ lives were really about—and learning our true family history.


Learn more about your immigrant ancestors with our Make the Most of Immigration Records mini-workshop. In this three-day online crash course, you’ll learn how to find and use immigration and naturalization records to trace your ancestors back to the old country.

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  1. Diane,

    I believe that your statement that “Until the late 1800s, anyone could step off a boat or across the border, no questions asked” is not accurate.

    In the early 1700’s, so many Germans were coming over to Pennsylvania that the English got nervous about being overwhelmed. They required ship captains to list all passengers and started making them sign Oath of Allegiances and renunciation of loyalty to previous monarch before they could get off the boat. My ancestors among them. Those records are why we have so much information about them as in “Germans to America” series.

    There are other examples of this in ither ports.

  2. “There was no legal (or illegal) immigration for most of US history. Until the late 1800s, anyone could step off a boat or across the border, no questions asked.”
    Not true…My German and Swiss ancestors who arrived in Pennsylvania from 1727 to 1775 were “obliged” to take an oath of allegiance to the King. All men 16 years and older had to make the declaration as “soon as possible” upon their arrival, often being taken from the ship they came on to the court house to complete the process. (As a genealogist this is a blessing because it gives us so much information about our ancestors)
    This was done because the English settlers were unhappy with the numbers of Germans and Swiss arriving in the colony. There restrictions on their ability to own land (the Moravians who settled Bethlehem, had to have Henry Antes purchase the land for their settlement), they had to become naturalized citizens so that they could “trade and traffick in this Colony…as good Subjects do without any manner of Lett, Hinderance or Molestation whatsoever.”

    • These oaths of allegiance do exist. However, because they took place before the American Revolution, arrivals who swore these oaths were immigrating to the British Empire, not to the United States.

      Readers can find the oaths transcribed in the book Names of foreigners who took the oath of allegiance to the province and state of Pennsylvania, 1727-1775, with the foreign arrivals, 1786-1808 , available free online via Hathi Trust .

  3. I agree that research is key. And even when details about specific ancestors is unavailable, it is useful to look at the history of the area in which they lived and the culture of the time, which may provide some clues as to our ancestors day to day lives. It is therefore extremely disappointing that this article takes SOME information pertinent to SOME areas and applies it to ALL immigrants. Please stow your political bias. in my opinion there really is not any room for it here (feel free to express it as often as you wish elsewhere however as i am a big believer in the Bill of Rights). SOME immigrants needed help and it is wonderful that in SOME instances help was available. But MANY immigrants simply had to rely on themselves and their families and neighbors to make a life. It was very hard work and for myself I am amazed at the hours of toil these men and women endured to be able to feed and shelter themselves and their families. So I agree that there are a lot of exceptions to broad general statements, including those you made in this article.

  4. You statement about the immigrant ancestors getting aid from immigrant societies and charity organizations. These organizations received the money to help the immigrants through donations. There is a big difference between these charity organizations and today’s immigrants who are given everything by our government,. It is the money of the citizens who are paying for these ILLEGAL immigrants whether they want to or not – money families need for their own welfare. Our own citizens do not have enough money for food and shelter.
    Please leave politics out of your articles – you will lose subscribers if you keep this up. The subscribers are interested in genealogy !


    While your information may be accurate I am growing weary of Family Tree, not only on this website, but in your magazine, of politicizing what I enjoy doing, which is the research and the history. I am inundated on a daily basis on the subject of illegal immigration I do not need to hear it here. You have made it clear what your viewpoint is. Please allow me to continue enjoying the research and being enriched by the wonderful history, and thinking for myself.