The 19th century saw a great deal of immigration from Turkey to the United States and although a large percentage of these immigrants returned to their native country, many did stay. Their motivation for moving to the U.S. from their home country, which stands straddling two continents and carries a 2,000 year-plus history, was largely to take advatage of educational and economic opportunities unavailable in their homeland.
It’s estimated that fewer than 20 Turks per year emigrated from the historical Ottoman Empire between the years of 1820 and 1860. Of these, 86 percent returned to their native country on the introduction of the secular state. While illiteracy was a hallmark of early Turkish immigrants, it was mostly the literate Turks who returned to their native land.
Of the illiterate Turks who remained in the U.S., many settled around major urban centers like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles and San Francisco. The immigrants formed close-knit communities and maintained their native culture without assimilating wholly into the country.
Many early Turks obtained work in factories and tanneries. The immigrants quickly gained a reputation as industrious and hard working. The industrialization of the U.S., however, was filled with unsafe and inhumane working conditions. In large part, it’s these early Turks who were on the front lines of gaining workplace improvements through strikes.
The bulk of early Turkish immigrants were men. The Islamic laws of the Ottoman Empire, some historians say, meant women were simply prohibited from traveling outside the country with their husbands. Due to the atmosphere surrounding their immigration, many Turks stayed in the country for less than a decade.