Eight Waves of Migration and Human Relationships since 1845

Looking at the causes, effects, and impacts of different waves of migration.

By Carl Sack
PhD Student in Geography
University of Wisconsin-Madison

By Emmanuel K. Urey
PhD Student
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison


Immigration and refugees have long been debated in US political discourse. Given the current controversies surrounding human migration, we thought it would be useful to dig up some resources that examine the environmental contexts of historical immigrant and refugee waves. In some cases, environmental change has caused these migrations; in others, the migrants themselves have had lasting impacts on their adopted landscapes. Here we recommend eight cases of historical and contemporary movements of people that may be of interest for teaching or general reading.

1845-1852 Irish Potato Famine

Famine memorial in Dublin, Ireland. / Wikimedia Commons

The potato blight fungus crossed the ocean from the eastern U.S. and first struck Irish potato crops in 1845. That year, it wiped out half the British colony’s potato crop, and destroyed nearly all of the crop in 1846 and 1848. In a country where most people relied on potatoes as a dietary staple, the result was famine. Over a million people died of starvation and a million and a quarter more fled as refugees, largely to the Americas.

The Atlas explores the geography of the famine and the resulting Irish diaspora through hundreds of maps and illustrations with accompanying essays. From the abandoned farmlands and county workhouses to the packed tenements of New York City, it paints a picture of landscapes forever changed on both sides of the ocean.

1840-1880 German Immigration

he Kliese Housebarn, built by German immigrants near Watertown, Wisconsin. / Photo by James Steakley, Wikimedia Commons

It is impossible to understand Wisconsin’s landscape without recognizing the lasting impact of German immigrants on the state. “Wisconsin attracted more immigrants from German-speaking states than from any other part of Europe, and in the process became the most German of American states,” write Robert C. Ostergren and Heike Bungert in the introduction to Wisconsin German Land and Life. Pushed overseas by inheritance laws, taxes, and political turmoil, immigrants from the loose confederation of German states flooded into Wisconsin between 1830 and 1880, making up 34% of the state’s population by 1900.

Once here, they recreated the agrarian lifestyle with which they were familiar, transforming the prairies and oak savannas of southern Wisconsin into farmland. Through essays by scholars on both sides of the Atlantic, Wisconsin German Land and Life explores the social dynamics that led so many Germans to migrate to the Badger State along with the many ways in which their presence shaped it.

1845-1882 Chinese Immigration

“The yellow terror in all his glory.” One of many racist, anti-Chinese political cartoons produced in the 1800s. / Wikimedia Commons

Half a million Chinese migrants came to the Western Hemisphere as laborers in the mid-19th Century, sometimes through human traffickers, with about half of those entering the U.S. and Canada. Famously, many labored for the Central Pacific Railroad, building the extraordinary transportation link that would ultimately connect the nation’s coasts and forever change the continental interior by opening it up for widespread Euro-American settlement.

Exploited and underpaid while also extolled as virtuous and efficient workers, Chinese immigrants inspired a nativist backlash that ultimately led to the first law restricting immigration in the United States, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Alien Nation explores the transnational history of Chinese immigration, following the routes taken by Chinese immigrants in the Western Hemisphere, the racist reaction among whites, and the making of the blueprints of modern U.S. immigration policy.

1960-2007 Salvadoran Refugees

According to Immigration Policy Institute, approximately 1.1 million Salvadorans lived and worked in the United States in 2008. Prior to the 1960s, immigration from El Salvador to the United States was relatively small, but it increased from the late 1970s to the early 1980s due to the country’s civil war and targeting of civilians by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military. Central to the conflict was the issue of land reform, a bone of contention in many countries of the post-colonial Global South that has major implications for the landscapes and ecologies of those countries. In his report, Vargas details El Salvador’s various failed attempts to break up large, semi-feudal estates and turn land over to peasant cooperatives, and the backlash that ultimately led to civil war.

1960-2016 Haitian Immigration

Deck of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Legare with 301 Haitian migrants rescued on the Caribbean Sea in 2001. / Wikimedia Commons

It is estimated that Haitians constitute 1.5 percent of all US foreign-born population. Although recent Haitians immigration can be linked to a 2010 Cholera outbreak and Hurricane Matthew, the bulk of immigration can be traced to the 1960s and 1980s when political instability and deforestation crippled the Haitian economy. Using a combination of US census data and interviews, Catanese argues that population growth and deforestation, among other factors, caused Haitians to undertake dangerous journeys as “boat people” to the United States.

1995-2010 Mexican Immigration

A Mexican farmer shows visitors his conservation agriculture wheat crop being grown in rotation with conventional maize. / Photo by International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Flickr, Creative Commons

According to the Pew Research Center, there were 11.4 million Mexican refugees residing in the USA in 2012. Although there has been migration of Mexicans to the U.S. throughout the two countries’ histories, the years 1995-2005 have been dubbed the “great Mexican emigration” due to the sheer volume of migrants during those years. In their article, Fenga et al. argue that this migration can be partially attributed to the effects of climate change, particularly low Mexican crop yields.

2011-2016 Syrian Refugees

Are the roughly 12,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. from Syria since 2010 environmental refugees? Environmental Refugees are people displaced as a result of environmental causes such as drought, land loss, land degradation, and natural disasters, as well as civil wars that are linked to such causes. The dominant narrative of the Syrian Civil War in the U.S. has focused on political oppression by the Syrian regime, but such a narrative masks the underlying climate change effects that catalyzed the war.

Kelleya et al. argue that drought in the Fertile Crescent had a catalytic effect on the conflict, contributing to the initial political unrest. They contend that years of drought coupled with unsustainable agriculture and environmental policies by the Syrian government created an internal migration from rural areas to urban centers in Syria. This climate-induced “population shock” in turn led to overcrowding, unemployment, and crime, which festered into civil unrest and ultimately violence.

2016-? U.S. Internal Environmental Migrants

A storm-damaged house on Isle de Jean Charles. / Photo by Karen Apricot, Flickr, Creative Commons

Van Houten tells the story of Isle de Jean Charles, the rapidly disappearing homeland of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe. It is estimated that inhabitants of this Indigenous community in southern Louisiana have lost 98 percent of their land to the rising waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The only road to the island now floods regularly during high tide. The tribe’s disappearing land base is key to tribal livelihoods and culture, both of which members fear losing once the rising waters swallow their homeland for good.


Originally published by Edge Effects, Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History, and Environment, University of Madison-Wisconsin, 10.12.2019, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.



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