Destroying the Narrative: Immigration Flows Both Ways by Jennifer Proctor

When schoolchildren learn about immigration in American History class, the archetypal narrative presented starts in Europe with poor workers setting sail for the United States, passing through Ellis Island, and finally settling in the tenement buildings of New York. But this picture is much too simple. Migrants often travelled far more extensively, including back and forth across the Atlantic

For example, born in Germany in 1845, Henry Mueller immigrated to the United States some time before 1864. During the American Civil War, he served in D Company of the 7th New York Volunteers of the Union Army and developed a disability, possibly as the result of serious heatstroke during the Appomattox Campaign. His documents – which range from printed pension rolls and standard forms to handwritten affidavits by Henhenrypicry Mueller, comrades of Henry Mueller, and several doctors concerning Henry Mueller’s disability – show at least seven trips across the Atlantic over the course of his lifetime as well as residences all over the northeastern United States.

And Henry Mueller is by no means unique. Tens of thousands of other pensioned veterans who traveled the world appear within the collections of the Overseas Pension Project specifically because they lived abroad at some point following their pensionable service. This is an important narrative because that elementary school archetype continues to shape how we think immigration is supposed to work and affects the particular patriotic image of America as a particular kind of “Melting Pot”. Immigration isn’t always a one way trip and in truth, has never really been that way.


For additional resources about the maintenance of cultural ties to their homelands among immigrants throughout history and around the world, see also: Global diasporas: An introduction by Cohen.

Have you explored your own family history? Did you find any migrants? What did their journeys look like?