Many Americans know the historical significance that Ellis Island holds as a symbol of the nation’s immigrant past. Yet far fewer are aware that Galveston played a similar role. For seven years, between 1907 and 1914, under a program often called the Galveston Immigration Plan, thousands of Jewish immigrants from Europe passed through the Port of Galveston on their way to resettlement in Texas in addition to communities throughout the western states and as far north as Fargo, North Dakota.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia faced an increase in the number of pogroms and organized violence against them. In order to escape persecution, many of them chose to emigrate. America served as a major destination for a large number of these migrants, many of whom mainly settled in East Coast cities. Urban areas such as New York, however, suffered from severe overcrowding in immigrant districts during this time. American Jewish leaders feared that crime, poverty, and other social ills arising from these packed neighborhoods would lead to restrictions on immigration.
In 1907 New York banker Jacob Schiff, a noted philanthropist of German Jewish origin, believed that he had found a solution to the congestion. Schiff wanted to relieve population pressure in the Jewish immigrant ghettos by directing new arrivals to the North American interior. He chose Galveston as his gateway and it was there that he created an organization called the Jewish Immigrant Information Bureau. In New York, Schiff formed the Galveston Committee, which worked with Jewish aid organizations abroad, such as the Jewish Immigration Society of Kiev and the London-based Jewish Territorial Organization, to recruit immigrants. The Port of Galveston was chosen over several other locations for its small size (which would encourage new arrivals to disperse, rather than all stay in the same place, thus recreating the overcrowding Schiff and his compatriots were trying to avoid), and its status as a standard port of call for the shipping line that served Bremen, Germany, the main embarkation point for European Jewish migrants.
In 1907, the first year the program operated, 900 immigrants passed through Galveston. Yet there were snags, too. The warehouse that organizers had set up as a reception center burned down two days before the arrival of the first boatload of migrants, leading to suspicions that the program had strong opponents. But the mayor of Galveston showed his support and spoke to the first group of 56 immigrants.
From Galveston, immigrants were sent to various locations throughout the western states. The new arrivals who stayed in Texas settled in a number of communities, including Fort Worth, Cleburne, Texarkana, Tyler, Marshall, and Palestine. The latter four cities were chosen because the rail fare to them from Galveston, at a charity rate, was at most $5.00.
Despite the efforts of organizers, the Galveston Plan faced many difficulties and was eventually overcome by them. There were disagreements between the various agencies that oversaw the program, and there were issues with integration into local communities. Also, while the idea of settling in the West was appealing to Schiff and his associates, many of the immigrants themselves preferred to move to places with religious significance, such as Palestine, or areas with established Jewish communities, such as New York.
In addition, the depressed state of the U.S. economy in the early 1900s served to restrict employment opportunities for new citizens and dampened the enthusiasm of host communities toward new arrivals, whom locals feared would take jobs and burden community resources. While the plan did manage to bring several thousand new immigrants through Galveston—between 1907 and 1914, 10,000 immigrants passed through Galveston—these numbers, in the context of immigration to the U.S. as a whole, were small in comparison.
All the same, the Galveston Plan represents a distinctive chapter in the history of Texas. It’s a story that recalls both the American and Texan immigrant heritage and the determination it takes to seek out a better life far from home. It’s also a reminder, in the face of the current debate over immigration policy, that the U.S. has faced down such issues before—and prospered.