The First Iranian American

Hajj Sayyah become an American citizen on May 26, 1875


The First Iranian American

Mirza Mohammad Ali, better known as Hajj Sayyah (meaning the traveler), was born in 1836 in the town of Mahallat in Iran. His studies exposed him at a young age to modern and democratic ideas that were at the time spreading throughout parts of the world. The stark difference he observed between the treatment suffered by most Iranians under their autocratic rulers and the ideas he studied inspired him to see the rest of the world.

At the age of 23, Hajj Sayyah embarked on a remarkable journey around the globe that would last for nearly 18 years. He began his travels by wandering throughout Central Asia and Europe for more than six years. Often he traveled alone and in poverty.

The motivation for Hajj Sayyah’s travels was his thirst for knowledge and spiritual strength. He wanted to learn as much as he could about the world and how other people lived, in order to bring those ideas back to Iran. As a result of his observations throughout his travels, he concluded that human beings are supposed to live in reasonably humane societies and enjoy basic human rights.

Hajj Sayyah came to the United States through New York. During his ten-year stay in the U.S., he met with many prominent personalities such as President Ulysses Grant on more than one occasion. His travels across the United States eventually took him to San Francisco where he spent several months.

Upon returning to Iran in July 1877, Hajj Sayyah became politically active and was imprisoned for having instigated a clandestine letter writing campaign to the monarch and clergy regarding the unbearable living conditions in Iran. After his release, fearing further persecution he sought the protection of the United States Legation in Tehran. This move puzzled many Iranians who didn’t know why he felt the United States government would protect him.

Hajj Sayyah went on to play a major role in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 in Iran, and remained active until his death in 1925 at the age of 89.  

In the course of studying Hajj Sayyah’s life, Dr. Ali Ferdowsi recently discovered through State Department documents that Hajj Sayyah had become an American citizen on May 26, 1875, making him the first Iranian to become a U.S. citizen. This was a closely held secret that Hajj Sayyah had shared with only a few people. Well over a century later, considering ourselves as first or second generation Iranian Americans, we are reminded by Hajj Sayyah’s story that the history of Iranian Americans is indeed much longer.

This article, first published in the PAAIA website, was made possible by the research efforts of Dr. Ali Ferdowsi, the Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Notre Dame de Namur University. For more details about Hajj Sayyah’s life and travels, refer to the entry by Dr. Ali Ferdowsi for Hajj Sayyah, Mirza Mohammad Ali Mahallati, in the Encyclopedia Iranica (


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Hajj Sayyah

by John Carpenter III (not verified) on

Hajj Sayyah played an important role in getting rid of the monarchy in Iran for good. The majority of progressive Iranians believe that monarchy is an evil entity that was forced on the humble Iranian people. The only true way is a democratic republic. Hajj Sayyah tried to bring about a constitutional monarchy in order to chip away at the power of the monarch. The next step after that would be the total abolishing of the monarchy and freeing the masses of people. The end of the monarchy happened in 1979. People today still try to bring change and help to create a democratic republic that is similar to the United States. That is why Hajj Sayyah became an American. Constitutional Monarchy does not work in Iran. A constitutional Monarch is paid for doing nothing. If you invetigate the matter most of the people who favor a constitutional monarch in Iran have low self esteem and low IQ. The Iranians as a people should strive for a democratic republic like America. Anything less than that is just plain wrong. And why not?


Very Interesting?

by AnonymousHaha on

Wow. Histroy is so cool. Thanks for the info!


very informative. Thank you.

by manesh on

One aspect that caught my attention is Sayyah's reluctance to let on he had become an American citizen.  That is a shame. 


He was not a Baha'i...

by alborz on

...but was aware of Baha'u'llah and His station.   There is one account that points to a meeting between him and Baha'u'llah in Akka, Palestine.  Another account points to him bearing a letter from Zillu’s-Sultan, Nasridin Shah's son, who had not been chosen as heir to the throne, and was quite bitter about this.  These two accounts may be referring to the same meeting and that he was simply a courier.

His travels and connections clearly awakened him to the world outside of Qajar Iran and therefore positioned him to be a player in the Constituional Revolution.



I highly doubt he was

by Anonymous34234234 (not verified) on

I highly doubt he was because Baha'i was created in 1844 and by the time the religion would have spread he had already begun his travels.


This is a remarkable story

by ramintork on

I did a check and in 1875

  • Hajj Ali could had seen the first ever college football at Harvard and Tuft play in Cambridge Mass on June 4th
  • Travelling with a fast balloon he could had Attended the funeral of chief Long Horn of the Minneconjou
  • and aim to attend the opening of  Brigham Young University the next day but not make it.
  • He could had heard the first performance of  Tchaikovsky's  Piano Concerto No. 1 in Boston on th 25th of Oct
  • and in a very American way join the  Massachusetts Rifle Association, the oldest active American Gun club as it was formed that year.


Need to remember ......

by amirkabear4u on

This is a good story.

In 19th century life was much simpler and Iranians had less politics to deal with. Most of the foriegn politics was in the hand of british in Iran. However what is strange PAAIA says, 'the treatment suffered by most Iranians under their autocratic rulers'. We need to remember those days most nations had difficulty regarding human right issues. But I find it difficult to believe Iran's situation was so bad some intellectual had to leave Iran and travel around the world. Or is it because Hajj Sayyah visited US and saw democracy! Even those days americans did not discover freedom and democracy as much as they have today.


Was he not a Baha'i?

by botshekan (not verified) on

I can't recall the source but I remember to have read somewhere that the first Iranians who traveled to the US were Bahaie. Any ideas folks?


I don't think he was the first

by Q on

Years ago, when I researched this issue myself, I heard of the story of Persian Yusef up in New England who was an Iranian. I think his immigrating to America predates this guy by at least some decades. I can't find much on him online except a picture of his tombstone.


As you can see, the name is probably an attempt at Americanization. This indicates he had been in America for some time and was known as a "Persian' by others. His real name was probably "Yusef-e-farsi" with the H. denoting his home town.


Iranian at Harvard around 1900

by Amir Khosrow Sheibany (not verified) on

There is also a record of the first Iranian citizen, studying at Harvard University in or around 1905, or there abouts. He was an Armenian-Iranian, and did not return back to Iran.