The earliest known Turkish settlers in the United States arrived in 1586 when Sir Francis Drake brought at least two hundred Muslims, identified as Turks and Moors, to the newly established English colony of Roanoke on the coast of present-day North Carolina.
Only a short time before reaching Roanoke, Drake's fleet of some thirty ships had liberated these Muslims from Spanish colonial forces in the Caribbean where they had been condemned to hard labor as galley slaves. Historical records indicate that Drake had promised to return the liberated galley slaves, and the English government did ultimately repatriate about one hundred of them to the Ottoman realms.
Significant waves of Turkish immigration to the United States began during the period between 1820 and 1920. About 300,000 people immigrated from the Ottoman Empire to the United States, although only 50,000 of these immigrants were Muslim Turks whilst the rest were mainly Arabs, Azeri, Armenians, Greeks, Jews and other Muslim groups under the Ottoman rule. Most ethnic Turks feared that they would not be accepted in a Christian country because of their religion and often adopted and registered under a Christian name at the port of entry in order to gain easy access to the United States; moreover, many declared themselves as "Syrians" or even "Armenians" in order to avoid discrimination. The majority of Turks entered the United States via the ports of Providence, Rhode Island; Portland, Maine; and Ellis Island. French shipping agents, the missionary American college in Harput, French and German schools, and word of mouth from former migrants were major sources of information about the "New World" for those who wished to emigrate.
The largest number of ethnic Turks appear to have entered the United States prior to World War I, roughly between 1900 and 1914, when American immigration policies were quite liberal. Many of these Turks came from Harput, Akçadağ, Antep and Macedonia and embarked for the United States from Beirut, Mersin, Izmir, Trabzon and Salonica. However, the flow of immigration to the United States was interrupted by the Immigration Act of 1917, which limited entries into the United States based on literacy, and by World War I.Nonetheless, a large number of Turks from the Balkan provinces of Albania, Kosovo, Western Thrace, and Bulgaria emigrated and settled in the United States; they were listed as "Albanians", "Bulgarians" and "Serbians" according to their country of origin, even though many of them were ethnically Turkish and identified themselves as such. Furthermore, many immigrant families who were ethnic Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Macedonians or Serbians included children of Turkish origin who lost their parents after Macedonia was partitioned between Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece following the Balkan War of 1912–13. These Turkish children had been sheltered, baptized and adopted, and then used as field laborers; when the adopting families emigrated to the United States they listed these children as family members, although most of these Turkish children still remembered their origin.
Early Turkish migrants were mainly male-dominated economic migrants who were farmers and shepherds from the lower socioeconomic classes; their main concern was to save enough money and return home. The majority of these migrants lived in urban areas and worked in the industrial sector, taking difficult and lower-paying jobs in leather factories, tanneries, the iron and steel sector, and the wire, railroad, and automobile industries, especially in New England, New York, Detroit, and Chicago. The Turkish community generally relied on each other in finding jobs and a place to stay, many staying in boarding houses. There was also cooperation between ethnic Turks and other Ottomans such as the Greeks, Jews, and Armenians, although ethnic conflicts were also common and carried to some parts of the United States, such as in Peabody, Massachusetts, where there was tension between Greeks, Armenians, and Turks. Unlike the other Ottoman ethnic groups, most of the early Turkish migrants returned to their homeland. The rate of return migration was exceptionally high after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, sent ships from Turkey, such as "Gülcemal", to the United States to take these men back to Turkey without any charge. Educated Turks were offered jobs in the newly created Republic, whist unskilled workers were encouraged to return, as the male population was depleted due to World War I and the Turkish War of Independence.Those who stayed in the United States lived in isolation as they knew little or no English and preferred to live amongst themselves. However, their descendants mostly became assimilated into American culture and today vaguely have a notion of their ancestry.