Minnesota Immigrants: Immigrant Experiences

Transportation

Immigrants have come from all over the world to make Minnesota their home. How did they get here?

Early immigrants used many methods of transportation to arrive in the young state. They often combined steamship travel with railroads, stagecoaches, riverboats, wagons, and more to cross the ocean and get to the middle of North America. More recent immigrants have traveled with cars, trucks, buses, and even direct airplane flights to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

Over Water

European immigrants in the 19th century traveled to the United States on large ocean-going ships. The trips would take several days before the immigrants landed in ports like New York or Boston. Once they arrived and disembarked, they spread out across the country to get to their destinations.

Norwegian immigrant Ole E. Rolvaag described his long sea voyage using a diary.

Aug. 10: After traveling four days and four nights, I shall again try to write a few words, imperfect though they may be. The weather up to now has been fine, but there seems to be a change from clear sky to fog and rain, with signs of a rising wind and storm, and some are beginning to be seasick. If this develops into a real storm, I'm afraid there will be excitement on board…
Aug. 12:
There was no storm which was doubtless best for the many, but how I should have enjoyed seeing the great ocean in a mighty uproar! As a Norwegian fisherman, I have many a time been at sea in a storm, but to see this great Atlantic Ocean in a raging upheaval, that I should like to experience. However, it doesn't appear as if I shall have that wish granted, but we haven't reached our destination yet, - - we shall see.

– Ole E. Rolvaag

Later, he wrote about his arrival in New York on August 20: "We have finally arrived in New York, the metropolis of the world."

From Ole E. Rolvaag's 1896 Immigrant Diary.

Some immigrants continued their travels into the heart of the United States using smaller ships. They would travel through the Great Lakes or along rivers using steamships and paddleboats.

Others continued on to Minnesota using trains and other overland methods of transportation. In the interview below, Mary Poljanic describes how she traveled this way in 1914 and why she chose to live in Ely.

Interview with Mary Poljanic


Over Land

Pioneers and immigrants both traveled over land using stagecoaches, wagons, and even by foot. Covered wagons bringing new people were very common in parts of Minnesota that were not reachable by water travel. They became symbols of the early days of many communities.


By Train

By the 1870's, several railroads connected Minnesota to the rest of the country. Many immigrants journeyed at least partway to the state by train. Some railroad companies even encouraged new immigrants to buy land along the railways, and this helped expand the rail network across the country.

Omaha passenger train pulling out of the depot, Currie, Minnesota
The land of promise for farmers, dairymen, stock raisers, market gardeners, etc., a brief description of the resources and possibilities of the country tributary to the Saint Paul & Duluth Railroad and general information about the State of Minnesota

Some Minnesota ranchers, railroads, and other industries would provide both work and transportation to immigrant workers.

Migrant workers from Mexico, like Manuel Contreras, traveled from Texas to Minnesota on a train provided by beet farmers. After the beet harvest, some would go back if they could afford it, but many stayed in Minnesota.

The train was full of people. Once we got to Minnesota the train would stop at different places to leave some people off. The ranchers would come and pick them up in the trucks. You signed a contract saying how many acres you wanted. When the people got there the trucks were waiting for the families.

– Manuel Contreras

Interview with Manuel Contreras, 1975


Crossing the Border

Many people have crossed the border between Mexico and the United States—legally and illegally—to live and work here. These people came for many reasons: for better jobs, to join their families, and to escape poverty and violence. In some cases, companies recruited them specifically to come work in the fields, railroads, or factories in Minnesota.

In his interview, Alfonso Galvan explained how he crossed the border. After he crossed the border, he was brought to Minneapolis to work with a group of other Mexicans. He has held several jobs here, including as a railroad worker, farm laborer, butcher, and factory worker.

We came here in 1919. We swam across the border. I was a "wet back". At first I tried to come across the bridge, but they wouldn't let us, because we did not have the proper documents. We tried to cross a few times, then I met a group of poor people who told me they could get me across the river when the guard went to lunch. I crossed by myself.

– Alfonso Galvan

Interview with Alfonso Galvan, 1975

Esiquia Monita was only about 4 years old when she crossed the border to El Paso, Texas, with her mother and stepfather. She grew up working the beet fields in Kansas and eventually came to St. Paul to live, work, and grow her family.

Q: Do you remember how you came across the border to the United States?
A: No, I think my mother crossed the border by paying two or five cents. Then there wasn't any border patrol.

– Esiquia Monita

Interview with Esiquia S. Monita, 1975


By Plane

Now when people immigrate to Minnesota, most of them come by plane. This is especially true for refugees. Sometimes they fly to a refugee camp elsewhere in the United States before coming to live in Minnesota.

After fleeing Vietnam in 1975 on an overcrowded boat of refugees, Lisalan Thai arrived at Camp Pendleton in California, which was set up as a refugee camp. She and her son then flew to Minnesota because several Catholic churches had sponsored her extended family to live here. In her interview, she described her feelings as she arrived by plane to Minneapolis.

We were in the airplane, we were so worried, we didn't know what to expect, when we arrived to the airport and honestly that we were shaking because we, oh my gosh, what happened to us next.

– Lisalan Thai

Interview with Lisalan Thai, 2010

Even though plane travel is significantly faster than crossing the ocean by ship, some immigrants spend many long hours on the plane before arriving in Minnesota. In this interview, Abdi Sheikh discussed his long plane ride and how he felt about time while traveling here.

Interview with Abdi Sheikh, 2004


Explore more immigrant experiences using the page links below.