Although most North Dakotans today are well aware of the role played by Scandinavian and even German settlers in the state’s early history, few people are familiar with later ethnic immigrations, especially those at the turn of the 19th century. Between 1890 and 1910, immigration to the Great Plains changed dramatically, as changing political and social conditions in Eastern Europe led to an influx of Greeks, Italians, Czechs, and Poles.
These later migrations were the result of several changes occurring in Eastern European countries. In Italy, southern Italians faced growing economic hardships and a scarcity of farmland as Italy witnessed a population boom. Land pressures combined with decades of drought to create poor conditions for the contadini, Italian farming peasants, and many became unemployed. In addition, an 1887 malaria outbreak wreaked havoc on the southern cities. From 1891 to 1910, over 30,000 Italian immigrants settled in the Great Plains, with nearly 1300 arriving in North Dakota to work on the railroad.
Greeks were another group that traveled to the state seeking work on the railroad. They founded Orthodox parishes in both Grand Forks and Minot.
Jewish groups from Eastern Europe also began immigrating in large numbers, mainly due to religious persecution from Russia. Six colonies of Jewish immigrants came to North Dakota between 1882 and 1910, most coming from the region that would later become Poland. Since they had been forbidden from owning land in much of Europe, the majority of the Jewish immigrants looked forward to homesteading as a way to earn land ownership.
On this date in 1912, The Bismarck Tribune published letters from prospective immigrants received by the city’s commercial club. One letter came from a Greek hoping to bring a colony of immigrants to the city. Another came from an Italian man asking about the state’s railroad. The man had heard that “…the Northern Pacific railroad facilities were excellent” and he stated that railroad lines in his own country were very poor.
Although the diverse immigrations altered the state’s landscape, the vast majority of immigrants continued to be Scandinavian, and many of the newcomer groups left the state after work on the railroad declined and farming became more difficult. By 1920, only 400 of the state’s 1300 Italian immigrants remained.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
“Bismarck Well-Known in Foreign Countries,” The Bismarck Daily Tribune. Thursday, August 22, 1912: p. 1.
Dillingham, William Paul. 1907-1910. Statistical Review of Immigration, 1820-1910: Distribution of Immigrants: United States Immigration Commission: Washington, D.C.