Lithuanian immigration to North America, spurred by economic opportunity and political oppression, has been the largest among the Baltic states. According to the 2000 U.S. census and the 2001 Canadian census, 659,992 Americans and 36,485 Canadians claimed Lithuanian descent. The largest concentrations of Lithuanians were in Chicago, with other significant settlements in Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; New York City; and Boston. Almost a third of Lithuanian Canadians live in Toronto.
Lithuania occupies 25,212 square miles in the Baltic region of northeastern Europe. In 2001, its population was about 3.7 million people, with about 82 percent being ethnic Lithuanians; 8 percent, Russians; and 7 percent, Poles. More than 72 percent of Lithuanians are Roman Catholic, 3 percent are Orthodox, and most of the rest are unreligious.
The region of modern Lithuania was settled by Baltic peoples in ancient times. As Germans expanded eastward, however, Lithuania developed a strong state and began to expand to the east and south into Belarus and Kievan territories. Joining with Poland in 1386, the two powers combined to form one of the largest states in Europe and gradually halted the eastward advance of the Germans. Lithuanian noblemen largely adopted Polish culture and developed a political system that hampered development of a strong monarchy. As a result, the Polish-Lithuanian state was partitioned by 1795, and Russian domination of the region followed until a declaration of independence in 1918. During World War II (1939–45), Lithuania was invaded first by the Soviet Union in 1940, then by Nazi Germany in 1941, and again by the Soviet Union in 1944. Thousands of Lithuanian refugees fled from the Soviets, becoming displaced persons. Many of them eventually sought refuge in the United States.
Because Lithuanian immigrants were usually included as Russians in statistics prior to World War I (1914–18), it is difficult to know exactly how many came prior to that time. A significant number of Lithuanians first immigrated to the United States after the Civil War (1861–65), in part because the abolition of serfdom in the Russian Empire (1861) gave the peasantry greater personal freedom, but also because of an aggressive policy of russification after the failed uprising of 1863. A much larger wave of migration came between 1880 and 1914, with some estimates placing the number of immigrants as high as 300,000. Although emigration was illegal, many political dissidents risked capture, and Jews were sometimes forced to emigrate. Between the 1860s and 1914, almost 400,000 Lithuanians emigrated, about 20 percent of the population and one of the highest rates of emigration in Europe. The restrictive JOHNSON-REED AACT of 1924 virtually halted Lithuanian immigration until after World War II, when 30,000 refugees were admitted, many under the Displaced Persons Act (1948). Whereas earlier Lithuanian immigrants had been mainly laborers, the refugees frequently came from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Although Lithuanians continued to immigrate to the United States in small numbers—averaging a little more than 1,000 per year between 1992 and 2002—those claiming Lithuanian descent are fewer as assimilation and outmarriage occur. In 1990, 811,865 Americans claimed Lithuanian descent, 23 percent higher than the 2000 figure.
Lithuanian immigration to Canada is usually divided between the “Old Lithuanians,” who came up through the 1920s, and the “New Lithuanians,” mostly displaced persons, who arrived after World War II. About 150 Lithuanian soldiers fought for the British army in the War of 1812 (1812–15), and many were given land grants as a result. There was no significant chain migration, however, so their numbers remained small. In the 1880s and 1890s, few Lithuanians came to settle, though many migrated between the United States and Canada doing seasonal work. The first separate listing of Lithuanians in the Canadian census was in 1921, when there were still fewer than 2,000 in Canada. Twenty years later the official number was almost 8,000, though the actual number was probably closer to 10,000. Among these, a large percentage eventually migrated to the United States, where jobs and pay were generally better. The New Lithuanians of the post–World War II era were considerably different. Whereas many of the Old Lithuanians had been miners and sojourners, the 20,000 displaced persons accepted by Canada—one-third of the Lithuanian total—were largely educated officials and professionals who feared the return of the Soviet army. Because Canada was seeking miners, laborers, servants, and farmhands, many Lithuanians hid their true professions, did manual labor for their contracted year of work, then moved to Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, or other Canadian cities. Many eventually migrated to the United States. With the return of Lithuanian independence in 1990, immigration to Canada revived, though it remained small. Of 6,830 Lithuanian immigrants in Canada in 2001, 4,915 came before 1961, and only 900 between 1991 and 2001.
See also Russian immigration; Soviet immigration.