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Did you know that the first Indian in the United States is said to have been a man from Madras who visited Salem, Massachusetts in 1790?
Long before the major thrust of Indian immigration to the U.S. began in 1965, Indians were trickling into the United States as merchants, adventurers and seafarers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Between 1904 and 1920, more than 7,000 Punjabis, mostly Sikhs, came as sojourners to the Pacific Northwest to work the lumber mills and the railroads. They eventually settled down in California and built successful farming communities. During this time, many Indians also came to the United States as students and political refugees who had been active in the movement to drive the British out of India. Among the famous Indian luminaries who visited the United States in the early days were Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore.
On September 15, 1893, Swami Vivekananda appeared at the Art Institute of Chicago with other dignitaries at the World Parliament of Religions. In his famous electrifying speech, the striking “Hindoo monk of India” proclaimed that truth is one and that all religions are valid means of realizing the one truth. The Swami stayed at 1415 N. Dearborn Street in Chicago, and developed a large following through his frequent Midwest visits. The Vedanta Society of Chicago, established in 1930, remains one of the oldest religious institutions devoted to the teaching of ancient Hindu philosophy in the U.S.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize (for Literature in 1913). In 1912, he visited the University of Illinois at Urbana where he had sent his son to study agriculture so that he could help with the development of India’s villages. In December 1916, on one of several subsequent visits here, he met the Tagore Circle members pictured at 909 W. Nevada in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur P. Seymour (standing, fourth from right and seated, fourth from left).
Click on picture to hear Rabindranath Tagore. Click here to see his words in translation.
Students from India, such as this June 1946 group pictured on Midway Plaisance in front of International House at the University of Chicago, had traveled to the U.S. for further studies even during the 1800’s. Since their visas did not permit them to re-enter the U.S. once they left, many students chose to forgo the opportunity to return home, and eventually became the very first immigrants of the modern era.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister (1947-1964) and his daughter Indira Gandhi, who also served as India’s Prime Minister (1966-77, 1980-1984) are seen leaving Rockefeller Chapel following a 1949 address to faculty and students at the University of Chicago. Years before the post-1965 Indian immigration, Nehru’s visit foreshadowed a future in which Indians would thrive in the United States.
More recently, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1996, 1998-2004) and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2004 –2014) have visited the United States and received enthusiastic receptions from Indian Americans.
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