Boston's Immigrant Past

‘The family, pony, and saddle horse,’ is a photograph from the City of Boston School Department’s Jamaica Plain High School collection. The photo was taken between 1900-1920. (City of Boston Archives/Flickr)

The first season of The New American Songbook tells the stories of immigrants in the Boston area, so we asked historian Marilyn Halter, who’s an advisor on this project, to share her thoughts on the region’s immigrant history. Marilyn is Professor Emerita of History at Boston University; her latest book examines the impact of the 1965 immigration reforms on American society.

Marilyn Halter

Bearded Irish clam diggers on a wharf in Boston in 1882. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

Bearded Irish clam diggers on a wharf in Boston in 1882. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

Over the last three decades, the traditional Yankee city of Boston has become more ethnically diverse than at any other point in its history. Latinos, Asian Americans and immigrant blacks arrived at the same time that tens of thousands of whites were moving out to the suburbs. In the 1990s, these two trends together made Boston a majority minority city for the first time in its 400-year history.

Yet, unlike most U.S. cities with large immigrant communities  – such as Los Angeles, where the majority of immigrants are from Mexico, or Miami, where the majority are Cuban – in Greater Boston, no single ethnic group predominates. And this diversity is rooted in the city’s distinct history of immigration, one that dates back over two centuries and encompasses four different waves of new arrivals.


The first wave of voluntary immigrants to America’s shores came from the northwest of Europe. In Boston, it was initially British, Scottish and Scotch-Irish arrivals, before the mass migration of Irish Catholics in the 1830s and 40s. From the patriots of the American Revolution right up to John F. Kennedy, Boston’s Irish have shaped the history of the city, and the nation. Indeed, the very first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in America occurred in colonial Boston in 1737, and to this day, Boston still commands the largest percentage of Irish-descended people of any city in the United States.

Beginning in the late 1800s, a second wave of immigration brought Southern and Eastern Europeans – especially Italians, Russian Jews and Polish – as well as the first Chinese immigrants into the city of Boston. Here they met a rapidly urbanizing society in search of cheap labor to drive industrialization and expansion in America.

A Chinese family at their home on Harrison Avenue in Boston circa 1920. (Boston City Archives/Flickr)

A Chinese family at their home on Harrison Avenue in Boston circa 1920. (Boston City Archives/Flickr)

As the first group of voluntary migrants to settle in Boston who were not of European descent, the Chinese community holds a significant place in the city’s immigrant history. The first sizable contingent of Chinese to migrate to New England came via California in 1870 to work in North Adams, Massachusetts, the bustling center of the nation’s boot and shoe industry. When the laborers at the large C. T. Sampson shoe factory went out on strike, the owner fired them all and devised a bold plan to bring in 75 Chinese replacement workers. They arrived to a hostile, stone-throwing crowd, yet the move proved to be successful for the company, which hired an additional 50 Chinese laborers within three months.

Chinese immigrants were ineligible for United States citizenship due to the Naturalization law of 1790, and also prohibited from bringing their wives and children with them, and so their path of incorporation into New England society differed from that of their European counterparts. After their contract expired, some Chinese laborers stayed on in North Adams, but many relocated to the Boston area and became the pioneer settlers of the city’s Chinatown neighborhood.


The third wave of migration was from south to north within the North American continent. This included the internal movement of African Americans, as well as the arrival of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and West Indians. Like the second wave immigrants, they fulfilled the labor needs of the still expanding industrial economy of this period. In the Boston area, the influx of West Indians was the most significant flow among this wave.

Portrait of the Gazarian family in Boston, 1908. Ted Gazarian (right) was the first Armenian graduate at MIT. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of the Gazarian family in Boston, 1908. Ted Gazarian (right) was the first Armenian graduate at MIT. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The term West Indian refers here to the Anglophone Caribbean, a group of countries that were once British territories or are still formally associated with the British Commonwealth, including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas and Guyana, as well as a number of smaller islands. By some measures, this group would seem destined to fit well into Boston society. The West Indians were mostly Protestant, they embraced values that echoed the Puritan work ethic and civic responsibility, and they spoke and wrote English – unlike many of the new Jewish and Italian migrants to the city at the time. But in the racial categories of the day, they were Black and that made all the difference, helping to shape the group and its experience in Boston.

Many West Indian newcomers tried to maintain their identity as nationals of a particular colony and as British. There were community efforts to promote the celebration of the Commonwealth holidays and to encourage participation in organized cricket matches. Some immigrants even emphasized their British accents. Yet no matter how hard they tried to assert their differences, for the most part, the white majority did not distinguish West Indians from the larger black population. 


The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 spurred a new chapter in the history of immigration to the United States, bringing a fourth wave of migrants to Boston from even more diverse locations. Whereas the previous immigration system established in 1924 gave priority to applicants from northwestern Europe, the 1965 measure eliminated discriminatory national quotas, and as a result, the profile of immigrants changed dramatically.

The composition of Boston’s newest wave of immigrants has followed national trends, representing a wide array of homelands, but most notably from the Caribbean, Asia, Latin America and Africa. As of 2015, the top ten countries of origin for the foreign-born in Boston (in order) were China, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, El Salvador, Vietnam, Cape Verde, Jamaica, Colombia, Guatemala, and Trinidad and Tobago.

No longer able to afford to live in some of the traditional immigrant enclaves of the central city such as Chinatown and the South End, these more recent arrivals reside for the most part in the neighborhoods of East Boston, Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. And since the 1990s, immigrants have increasingly bypassed the city itself, heading out into the surrounding region to places like Quincy, Malden, and Framingham.

Today, 28 percent of Boston residents are immigrants. You can hear it in the number of foreign languages spoken on the streets of Boston and see it in the storefront signage of newly revitalized commercial districts. The image of the staid, homogeneous city that Oscar Wilde once dubbed ‘the paradise of prigs’ is being refashioned, almost overnight.  

  • Rose Doherty

    Excellent summary of immigration to Boston. Thank you.

Back To Top Back To The New American Songbook : Introduction