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I’ve been re-reading Russel Gerlach’s classic study Immigrants in the Ozarksoriginally published in 1976 and now out of print. As you might imagine with any 43-year-old work of scholarship, it has some things I would quibble with, but by and large it’s a fine study and the source of some excellent basic information. I was taken aback, though, at his casual use of a phrase that has taken on harsh political connotations in recent years.

He quotes an earlier work, Wilbur Zelinsky’s The Cultural Geography of the United States, published in 1974:

Once a viable ethnic nucleus takes hold in a given location, chain migration may be triggered. If communication lines are kept open between the new settlements and relatives and neighbors back home, positive information may induce the latter to pack up and follow. In this way, a great many . . . rural ethnic neighborhoods have been expanded.

Nowadays, of course, “chain migration” is used almost as a dirty word in the debate over immigration. I didn’t realize that the phrase had such a long history or neutral use. But a moment’s reflection made me realize that I should not have been so surprised. Chain migration, the phenomenon if not the term, has been the American norm. My own family story is one of chain migration. One adventurous son makes the journey; writes back that there’s opportunity to be had; his brother (my great-grandfather) follows; makes a start; writes home; more family members follow. Most of us, if we look back far enough, are chain migrants.

Sometimes even entire communities were the product of chain migration. As you drive the back roads, you’ll see the evidence of this phenomenon in the names of towns and settlements, some now gone, some still flourishing:

Altenburg

Bavaria

Belgique

Dresden

German

Kiel

Krakow

Rhineland

Swiss

Westphalia

Wittenburg

And the list could go on and on (and no, Japan was not named by a group of homesick Japanese settlers!) Everywhere I turn, I see evidence of chain migration’s effects.