The United States has always been home to immigrants. Scientists believe the first were Native Americans who came to North America thousands of years ago from Asia.
After European explorers discovered they could travel around the world, settlers from Europe began to move to America. As the country changed from a colonial property of England to an independent country, more settlers came to live in America. While the number of people coming to America from other countries has varied from year to year, America has always been home to immigrants from countries around the world.
Between 1820 and 1930 about 60 percent of the world’s immigrants came to live in the United States.
During most of this time, farming and industry were growing very rapidly. As large sections of the Midwestern and Western states became open for pioneer settlement, immigrants found opportunities to own land and build homes as Americans.
As the Midwest and western territories of the United States were opening up for settlement, not all new immigrants became farmers. Some settled in towns and cities where they found work in factories and businesses.
Like a snowball rolling down a hill, business and industry recruited
immigrants to come to America to work in factories and businesses.
As more people arrived businesses expanded as the demand for factory
goods grew. This pattern was followed as Iowa developed into an agricultural
and industrial region.
As Waterloo developed into an established community, the city’s industries developed as well. When the railroad arrived in Waterloo on March 11, 1861, the city grew even faster.
Farm products and factory goods could now be transported to the Mississippi River quickly and efficiently. They could be moved by rail to states to the east and west as well. In a single day, the railroad could now carry passengers to locations that before would have required several day’s travel.
As industries expanded, new workers were needed. At first, local farmers and transient laborers filled these jobs.
But by 1890, many European immigrants were being attracted to Waterloo to work in the factories. Often they came from small villages, sometimes in the same region, which provided a common bond.
Nearly everyone used family connections and friends to obtain jobs. They worked in railroad shops and meatpacking. They helped build farm equipment. Some worked in paving and construction. Others worked in machine shops and foundries. Still others worked in the wholesale trade.
Waterloo welcomed immigrants from many countries including Italy, Germany, Ireland, Denmark, Greece, Mexico, Croatia, Bulgaria and Russia—to name just a few.
But not all new people moving to Waterloo came from Europe. Many moved to Iowa from states to the east. Still others came from the south. In 1912 for example, many African American people arrived in Waterloo from Mississippi to work for the Illinois Central Railroad.
By 1920 the city had attracted immigrants from twenty nations. By 1925 the total foreign born was 4254, 12% of the city's population.
The new arrivals lived in working class areas close to the factories and streetcar lines. At first, most were single men who came with the intention of bringing their families later. Some lived in boxcars in the train yards.
At first most cultural groups maintained their individual identities. The ethnic neighborhoods they formed were a blend of different languages, exotic foods, and new forms of dress.
In the homes and neighborhoods, language and cultural traits could be retained, but the workplace demanded English. As a result, the sharp cultural lines that defined groups began to blur as a common language and common work place worked to assimilate some groups together forming a new community.
But how these new immigrants assimilated varied from group to group and changed over time. For example, still today the religious diversity of the early immigrants to Waterloo can be seen in the names of religious houses of worship. St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, the Sons of Jacob Jewish Synagogue and the African Methodist Episcopal Church reflect strong cultural ties to this day.
Some groups including African Americans and members of the Jewish community were confronted with racism and social isolation. Restricted covenants in housing, for example, kept members of these groups from buying property outside a very restricted area. Job discrimination also reduced the number of jobs they could be hired to do.