Decades of Immigrants
Thousands upon thousands of poor but hopeful travelers set out for America, in search of a better life. Railroads, canals, meatpacking plants — there was opportunity in Chicago.
Immigrants learned that to survive and prosper in a hostile urban environment of unleashed capital, they needed to stick together. Mutual aid societies and houses of worship provided support and kept their histories and languages alive. The strong communal bonds that could in effect relocate a European village to a single tenement are evident today in many of Chicago's neighborhoods. While the points of origin may have changed over the years, Chicago continues to welcome a significant immigrant population.
Learn about Chicago's immigrants from 1850 until 1990 by examining each decade and its top five immigrant groups. One of these five groups is highlighted in each decade, providing more information on that group.
Not all migrants to Chicago are represented here. A significant number of Chicago’s citizens came from other regions of the United States, including African Americans from the rural South and Mexican Americans from the Southwest.
Many mid-19th century French immigrants were political refugees who left France following the 1848 revolutions that swept through Europe.
Scottish immigrants founded the Illinois Saint Andrew Society in 1845 to help Scottish immigrants adjust to life in the New World. It was the first such organization founded in Chicago.
Norwegians entered America in the 19th century to join a labor force that had more opportunities than in their homeland. Norwegians helped establish the Logan Square neighborhood, which now houses a large Latino population.
Irish immigrants worked on the construction of the canal connecting Chicago with the Illinois River. The nearby neighborhood they settled, called Canalport, was later known as Bridgeport and was the power base of five 20th century Chicago mayors. By 1900, Chicago had the fourth largest Irish population in America, behind New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia.
British trade unions sponsored the emigration of British artisans during the end of the nineteenth century, as a means of decreasing the skilled labor pool in England and therefore increasing the wages that labor pool could earn.
The formation of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1867 sparked an exodus from that region. Czechs from Bohemia entered Chicago in the decades that followed. The Lower West Side neighborhood they settled, Pilsen, took its name from the Bohemian capital founded by King Wenceslas II, best known as the home of pilsner beer.
Austrian immigrants settled into the Fuller Park neighborhood, near the South Side, prior to World War I. This neighborhood became predominantly African-American in the latter half of the 20th century.
Many Russian immigrants were Jews who fled the persecutions, known as pogroms, which were prevalent in Russia following the assassination of Czar Nicholas II in 1881. A large population settled around Devon Avenue in East Rogers Park, which is now home to a large South Asian and Indian population.
Germans flooded into Chicago for over a century — from the mid-19th century through World War II. Lincoln Square, where Germans settled in droves, still maintains a strong German identity.
Swedish immigrants settled into the Andersonville neighborhood at the end of the 19th century. Chicago had the largest Scandinavian settlement in the U.S. at that time. Today, Andersonville hosts an annual summer festival with a Swedish flavor, Midsommarfest.
Over the years, the Polish community has lived in several different parts of Chicago. One such area, Bucktown, got its name from the goats some residents kept in their yards. Nowadays the Archer Heights neighborhood maintains a strong Polish presence.
Many Italian immigrants that came to Chicago in the early part of the 20th century were men who planned to work for a number of years before returning to Italy. Those who ended up staying formed the largest ethnic group in the Near West Side neighborhoods by the 1920s. The area around Taylor Street is Chicago's Little Italy.
Sparked by the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Chicago has seen a steady influx of Mexican immigrants throughout the 20th century. Today, the Pilsen neighborhood is home to a large segment of Chicago's Mexican population, as well as the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. This museum organizes annual Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations in the autumn.
Filipinos emigrated to Chicago throughout the 20th century in small numbers. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eased previous restrictions, saw a great increase in Philippine immigration.
The lure of higher education has been drawing a larger number of Korean immigrants to Chicago in recent decades. A growing Korean presence can be found in the North Side neighborhoods of Albany Park and North Park.