There were very few Bulgarian immigrants to North America prior to the 20th century, and they never constituted a major immigrant group. In the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, only 55,489 Americans identified themselves as having Bulgarian ancestry, and only 15,195 Canadians. The earlier Bulgarian ethnic neighborhoods were in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Granite City, Illinois, while later immigrants congregated in major cities, including Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Toronto was the first the choice of most Bulgarian Canadians, and in 2001 more than half lived in Ontario.
Bulgaria occupies 42,600 square miles in the eastern Balkan Peninsula along the Black Sea between 41 and 44 degrees north latitude. Romania lies to the north; Greece and Turkey, to the south; and Serbia and Montenegro and Macedonia, to the west. Several major plains dominate the landscape. In 2002, the population was estimated at 7,707,495, the majority of which are ethnically Bulgarian. A minority of Turks lives in Bulgaria and practices Islam, while most of the country adheres to Bulgarian Orthodox. Slavs first settled Bulgaria in the sixth century. In the seventh century Turkic Bulgars arrived, amalgamating with the Slavs. The nation was Christianized during the ninth century. The Ottoman Turks invaded Bulgaria at the end of the 14th century and ruled for more than 400 years. Frequent revolts led to the exile and forced migration of large number of Bulgarians to Russia, the Ukraine, Moldavia, Macedonia, Hungary, Romania, and Serbia. The first immigrants who began coming to North America just after the start of the 20th century were almost all single men who planned to return to Bulgaria after earning a stake. They worked on railroads or in other forms of migrant labor, thus not establishing large ethnic communities. Bulgaria gained territory during the Aegean War but lost it again as an ally of Germany in World War I (1914–18). In 1944, following its withdrawal from an alliance with Axis powers in World War II (1939–45), Bulgaria came under Communist rule, aided by the Soviet Union. A Communist regime remained in power until 1991 when a new constitution came into effect. Despite democratization, the economy went into a sharp decline that incited national protests in 1997.
It is extremely difficult to establish accurate immigration figures for Bulgarians. Until the early 20th century, they were often listed as Turks, Serbs, Greeks, or Macedonians, depending on the particular passport they were holding. In some periods, they were grouped with Romanians. Given the estimated numbers of Bulgarian immigrants over a century, one would expect their numbers to be much larger now. This may be explained in part by the large return migration during the Balkan Wars (1912–13) and World War I, in part by the constantly shifting boundaries throughout the region, making “nationality” a problematic category.
A handful of Bulgarian converts to Protestant Christianity immigrated to the United States during the last half of the 19th century, mainly for training, though some chose to stay. A few hundred Bulgarian farmers settled in Canada before the turn of the century. The first major wave of Bulgarian immigration, however, was sparked by the failed Ilinden revolt in Turkish Macedonia in 1903. Combined with the economic distress of native Bulgarians, 50,000 had immigrated to the United States by 1913 and perhaps 10,000 to Canada. Most Bulgarians were poor, and travel was difficult from remote regions of southeastern Europe, so their numbers never approximated those of other European groups. After World War II, a repressive Communist regime made immigration virtually impossible, sealing the borders in 1949, though several thousand Bulgarians escaped and came to the United States as refugees, often after several years in other countries. Between passage of the restrictive Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished national quotas, it is estimated that only 7,660 Bulgarians legally entered the United States, though some came illegally through Mexico. The restrictive American legislation led more Bulgarians to settle in Canada, with 8,000–10,000 immigrating during the 1920s and 1930s and several thousand more between 1945 and 1989.
With the introduction of multiparty politics in 1989, travel restrictions were eased, leading to a new period of emigration from Bulgaria. Between 1992 and 2002, more than 30,000 Bulgarians immigrated to the United States, most being skilled workers and professionals. There was a similar surge of immigration in Canada. Of 9,105 Bulgarian immigrants in Canada in 2001, 7,240 (80 percent) came between 1991 and 2001, and 62 percent of these came between 1996 and 2001.