Understanding Your Immigrant Ancestors:
Immigrating to the U.S. was a monumental event in the lives of our Western European ancestors. They said goodbye to everything familiar and set off toward the unknown in search of a better life. Each had their own specific reasons for coming to America and their own unique voyage. Yet, many shared basic experiences on the trip across the ocean.
Preparing to Emigrate
Making preparations to emigrate was no small task. The first obstacle to overcome was the cost. Many families scrimped and saved for years in order to put aside enough money to pay the fare. Because of the high cost, most emigrants, although not numbered among the wealthy (since these people had little reason to leave), were also not among the destitute. It often cost the equivalent of over one-third a laborer’s annual income to bring an average-sized family to America.
Emigrants also had to plan carefully to decide what to bring with them. With limited space available on their voyage, they only had room for the bare necessities. This often consisted of clothes, tools (if the family’s livelihood came from a skilled trade), a family Bible or other valuable family heirlooms, and basic provisions for the trip.
Before heading to the designated port of departure, emigrants bid their families and friends farewell. Although a few returned, most would never see their loved ones or homes again.
Once emigrants arrived at the port of departure, a few obstacles remained. Emigrants had to pass various physical exams to ensure a certain level of health before embarking. This was to prevent the spread of disease while on board as well as to prevent diseases from being carried to the destination country. Physical exams and eye exams (to make sure travelers did not have trachoma, a chronic conjunctivitis) sometimes held emigrants up for days or even an entire week.
Living Conditions on Board
Many emigrants probably did not look back on their ship voyage with fond memories. The trip contained a variety of trials including seasickness, inadequate food, lack of privacy, cramped living quarters, and spreading illnesses. And, particularly at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the experience could stretch on for what seemed like an eternity. Up until the 1850s, most emigrants traveled on sailing ships, with an average voyage lasting 43 days. Steamships, which made sailing ships obsolete by the end of the 1870s, shortened the voyage to 12-14 days. Steamships began replacing sailing ships as early as 1850, although some emigrants continued to choose sailing ships for nearly thirty years because of their cheaper fares. The last sailing ship left Hamburg in 1879.
Living conditions on board were often primitive. Space and privacy were both hard to come by. Passengers slept in narrow, closely packed bunks located below deck. During storms, the door was latched closed, leaving passengers with little light or fresh air. The stench of vomit and unemptied chamber pots could be overwhelming. Constant jousting about from weather and waves made even standing difficult on many days. On the worst days, passengers could not even stay in their beds to sleep, but went sliding about the cabin.
Food on board did not contain a great deal of variety. As the century progressed, various countries began regulating food on ships more closely. For example, the British Passenger Act set some minimum requirements for food on board ships that included items such as biscuits, wheat flour, oatmeal, rice, tea, sugar, and molasses. Food had to be issued in advance and not less often than twice a week. The captain had to ensure that each passenger received three quarts of water daily. Passengers could bring additional provisions, and many did. The quality of the water was also often lacking. One passenger advised others on what to bring, remarking that, “Coffee is much preferable to tea, the water being so bad, as to render the tea rather insipid and tasteless.” Passengers also found eating difficult. Many used their trunks as tables. In rough waters, they struggled to prevent these makeshift tables from sliding back and forth across the deck.
Seasickness was a constant companion for many travelers. One emigrant recorded, “A good many are sick and vomiting.” Another recorded that most people threw up after eating their very first meal on the ship. “My family and others were sick little or much all the time,” he explained. Although some people adjusted to the constant rocking and bouncing of the ship, others spent the entire trip nearly bedridden with nausea. Days passed slowly for those afflicted with it as they struggled to keep any food down. Occasionally, emigrants with overwhelming seasickness starved to death during the voyage.
Life was not all drudgery though. Reasons for celebration such as marriages and births occurred on board. In addition, travelers found time for fun, sometimes dancing on deck, writing letters home, or playing games. Despite the difficulties, many were excited by the adventure and the approach of their new home.
Dangers at Sea
Worse than mundane food and cramped sleeping quarters were the life-threatening dangers encountered at sea. The most obvious was the possibility of shipwreck. Due to poor ship construction, shipwrecks were a very real threat, particularly in the early 1800s. In 1834, for example, 17 ships were lost at sea. By the middle and end of the century though, ships had become larger and safer, partly due to increased government regulations.
In reality, disease killed many more emigrants at sea than shipwrecks did. Illnesses often spread throughout the ships in epidemic proportions due to crowded and unsanitary conditions. Typhus, cholera, and dysentery were some of the biggest threats. For example, in 1853, 10% of Irish emigrants died at sea due mostly to cholera. Sometimes upon landing, a large percentage of emigrants went straight from the ship to the hospital, where survival rates were grim.
For emigrants, the voyage to America was an important and memorable experience. It was not only the changes that arrival in American brought to their lives, but the very trip itself that made a lasting impression on their lives.
Arriving in the U.S.
Soon after arriving, immigrants headed to Castle Gardens, located across from the Statue of Liberty on an island off the southwest tip of Manhattan. As the predecessor to Ellis Island, Castle Gardens served as the station to examine and process new immigrants until 1890. Scores of immigrants crowded through its doors, hundreds each day, thousands each month.
Here, the immigrants reported their names and destinations. Government officials informed them that in Castle Gardens they could purchase train tickets, exchange money, seek out directions, learn about employment opportunities, and use other services. Emigrants could also sleep on the floor there for a couple of nights until they got their bearings. These services were provided partly in an effort to shield the immigrants from the thieves and opportunists who hung around the harbor waiting to prey upon the ill-informed and sometimes desperate people that flowed into the country. Also, exams given at Castle Gardens served as a way to screen people and prevent those with contagious diseases from entering the country.
The Entryway at Castle Garden