Numerous nations represented in the area’s population
German, Palestinian, Chinese, South African, English, Haitian, French, Irish, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, Jamaican, Polish, Indian, Lithuanian, Slovenian, Canadian, Austrian, Indian, Lebanese, Syrian, Croatian, Dutch, Belgian, Scottish, Greek, Russian, Welsh, Spanish, Mexican, Salvadoran, Danish, Japanese and New Zealander.
These are nationalities of immigrants who are currently living in or have lived in Bureau County since its formation in 1837.
Unless your ancestry is entirely Native American or your ancestors were brought here as slaves from Africa, you are a descendant of immigrants (or an immigrant yourself), very likely from one or more of the groups mentioned above.
We sometimes think of the rural Midwest as being more homogeneous than it actually was and is. History tells us otherwise.
The image of the “pioneers” who came to Illinois in the 19th century is usually of yeomen from Kentucky or Tennessee or Ohio or New England. In fact, they were almost as likely to be immigrants. In 1850, immigrants, mostly from Germany, Ireland or England, constituted 40 percent of the state’s adult male population.
The history of many local churches is an immigrant history. Consider, for example, Princeton’s Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church (now First Lutheran). Founded in 1854, it conducted all of its services in Swedish until 1901, when it began offering an afternoon service in English once a month.
Similarly, when the (Swedish) Evangelical Covenant Church celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1943, it noted a recent milestone: “All services are held in the English language.” And it was only in the 1920s that the 50-year-old Princeton German Evangelical Church (now defunct) began alternating its German language services with English every other week.
Wide range of immigrants
In Spring Valley, three of the town’s four Catholic churches at the turn of the last century drew a specific immigrant group and offered services in their respective languages: Italian (St. Anthony’s), Polish (Sts. Peter and Paul) and Lithuanian (St. Anne’s).
At St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, founded in 1918 by immigrants from Syria and Lebanon, Arabic was the liturgical language.
The many languages spoken in DePue in the early 20th century reflected the diversity of immigrants who came from such countries as Poland, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Spain and Mexico to work in the zinc plant. While DePue is now home to many 21st-century Hispanic immigrants, the first Mexican family settled in DePue in 1915.
Some Americans feel that today’s immigrants don’t care about learning English. However, linguists who study language acquisition patterns have found that, by and large, newer immigrant groups learn English at the same rate as those who came earlier from Europe.
First-generation immigrants of every era struggle with learning English, but the second generation becomes quite fluent and the third generation, sadly, often knows almost nothing of the native language of their grandparents.
As a volunteer in a regional ESL program, I find young adult immigrants are eager and conscientious learners. Many work during the day and attend classes at night. One motivation for learning English is being better able to help their American-born children with their schoolwork. Like most parents, they want their children to succeed.
Today’s national immigration level may appear high (13.5 percent), but it hasn’t reached the historic high of almost 15 percent at the turn of the last century. Locally, we had an even higher percent. In 1910, about a fourth of the people in Bureau County were immigrants.
Immigration dips, expands
The low level of immigration to the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s (only 4 percent) was an aberration from the historic norm. It significantly increased again in the 1980s, due to a change in immigration law.
Despite popular perception, the size of the illegal immigrant population decreased considerably in the last decade. Between 2007 and 2016, it declined by 1.5 million people, including 140,000 fewer undocumented immigrants in Illinois, according to 2018 Pew Research Center Immigration Reports. This is attributed to a large decline in the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico. While illegal immigration from Central American countries has increased, it is nowhere parallel to what was previously seen from Mexico.
As more Americans delve into their diverse genetic ancestry, they begin to appreciate the struggles of their immigrant forebears. Whatever the era, immigrants often endure hardships while seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
For today’s immigrants, the United States is still the country where Lady Liberty (if not American policymakers) extends “her beacon hand” with a torch that “glows world-wide welcome.”