THE JOURNEY TO AMERICA
Here is the story of what Patrick J. Dorgan experienced on the voyage to America and what happened when he landed on Ellis Island in New York on October 28, 1896.
STEP ONE: LEAVING HOME
For many, the decision to leave the “Old Country” was a family affair. Advice was sought and help was freely given by mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends, and even entire villages. It was not unusual for an entire family to work for the money for a single family member to make the trip.
The practice of one member of a family going to America first, then saving to bring others over, was common. From 1900 to 1910, almost 95 percent of the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were joining either family or friends. Sometimes the father would come alone to see if the streets really were paved with the gold of opportunity before sending for his wife and family. Sometimes the eldest son immigrated first, and then sent for the next oldest, until the entire family was in America. Often those who arrived first would send a prepaid ticket back home to the next family member. It is believed that in 1890 between 25 and 50 percent of all immigrants arriving in America possessed prepaid tickets. In 1901, between 40 and 65 percent came either on prepaid tickets, or with money sent to them from the United States.
Since all steerage tickets were sold without space reservations, obtaining a ticket was easy. Principal shipping lines had hundreds of agencies in the United States, and “freelance” ticket agents traveled through parts of Europe, moving from village to village, selling tickets. After 1900, in addition to a ticket, however, an immigrant had to secure a passport from local officials, and a United States visa from either the nearest American consular office of from the local consul at the port.
For many, simply getting to the port was the first major journey of their lives. They would travel by train, by wagon, on donkey, or even on foot. Sometimes travelers would have to wait days, weeks and even months at the port, either for their paperwork to be completed or for their ship to arrive, because train schedules were not coordinated with sailing dates. Assuming their paperwork was in order and a ticket had been purchased, some provision was usually made for the care of the emigrants who were forced to wait for the ship. Steamship companies were required by the governments to watch over the prospective passengers, and at most ports the travelers were housed in private boardinghouses. Some port cities even boasted their own “emigrant hotels.”
After the 1893 immigration law went into effect, each passenger had to answer a series of 29 questions (recorded on manifest lists) before boarding the ship. These questions included, among others: name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, nationality, ability to read or write, race, physical and mental health, last residence, and name and address of the nearest relative or friend in the country from which the immigrant came. Immigrants were asked whether they possessed at least $30, whether they had ever been in prison an almshouse, or an institution, or it they were polygamists or anarchists.
Steamship lines were also held accountable for medical examinations of the immigrants before departing the port. Most seaport medical examinations were made by doctors employed by the steamship lines, but often the examination was just too rapid to disclose any but the most obvious diseases and defects. Disinfection (of both immigrants and baggage) and vaccination were routinely performed at the ports. Finally, with questions answered, medical exams completed, vaccinations still stinging, disinfectant still stinking, the immigrants were led down the gangplank to first-class, second-class, or steerage accommodations. Steerage passengers walked past the tiny deck space, squeezed past the ship’s machinery, and were directed down deep stairways into the enclosed lower decks. They were now in steerage, their prison for the rest of their ocean journey.
STEP TWO: ON BOARD
Three types of accommodations on the ships brought immigrants to America: first class, second class, and steerage. Only steerage passengers were processed at Ellis Island. First- and second-class passengers were quickly and courteously “inspected” on board ship before being transferred to New York.
But steerage was enormously profitable for steamship companies. Even though the average cost of a ticket was only $30, larger ships could hold form 1,500 to 2,000 immigrants, netting a profit of $45,000 to $60,000 for a single one-way voyage. The cost to feed a single immigrant was only about 60 cents a day!
For most immigrants, especially early arrivals, the experience of steerage was like a nightmare. (At one time, the average passenger mortality rate was 10 percent per voyage.) The conditions were so crowded, so dismally dark, so unsanitary, so foul smelling, that they were the single most important cause of America’s early immigration laws. Unfortunately, the laws were almost impossible to enforce; steerage conditions continued to remain deplorable almost beyond belief. As late as 1911, in a report to President William H. Taft, the United States Immigration Commission said of steerage:
“Imagine a large room, perhaps seven feet in height, extending the entire breadth of the ship and about on0third of its length…. This room is filled with a framework of iron pipes, forming a double tier of six-by-two-feet berths, with only sufficient space left to serve as aisles or passageways….Such a compartment will sometimes accommodate as many as three hundred passengers and it duplicated in other parts of the ship and on other decks.
“The open deck space reserved for steerage passengers is usually very limited, and situated in the worst part of the ship subject to the most violent motion, to the dirt from the stacks and the odors from the hold and galleys….The only provisions for eating are frequently shelves or benches along the sides or in the passages of sleeping compartments. Dining rooms are rare and if found are often shared with berths installed along the walls. Toilets and washrooms are completely inadequate; salt water only is available.
“The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of the steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it ….Most immigrants lie in their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the foul air. The food often repels them… It is almost impossible to keep personally clean. All of these conditions are naturally aggravated by the crowding.”
In spite of the miserable conditions, the immigrants had faith in the future. To pass the time a crossing could take anywhere from 10 days to more than a month depending on the ship and weathering would play cards, sing, dance, and talk, talk, talk.
Rumors about life in America, combined with stories about rejections and deportations at Ellis Island, circulated endlessly. There were rehearsals for answering the immigration inspectors’ questions, and hour upon hour was spent learning the strange new language.
By the time the tiring trip approached its long-awaited end, most immigrants were in a state of shock: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Yet, even with the shores of a New World looming before their eyes, even with tears of relief streaming down their faces, their journey was not at an end.
A final fear gripped their hearts: Would their new home accept or reject them?