Emigration and Immigrant Life - Subject Cards O-Z

Returning Emigrants

Letters & remittances attested that emigrants were making a success, but the most convincing and unanswerable evidence was the reappearance of the expatriate himself. The visit of one of these adventurers was a demonstration no village could ignore, & gave rise to many stories of the good fortune that had come to the once-pitied refugees of the "hunger years." Conversation & the press repeated stories of the penniless servant who was now a rich merchant, the apprentice who was the master of 100 employees, the poor tenant who owned scores of acres. Not only success, but rapid success was the recurring theme.

- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Migration, p. 154-55

Schools and Education


The roots of Irish deficiency were that great numbers could neither read nor write. A RR contractor told Horace Mann, Sec. of the Mass. Board of Ed., that within a period of 10 years he had employed about 3,000 foreigners, mostly Irish, of whom only 1 out of 8 could read intelligibly. It was estimated in 1845 that probably 20,000 immigrants lived in Boston and vicinity, of whom about 8,000 were reckoned as permanent residents. About 4,000 were above the age of 18, of whom perhaps 7/8 lacked the lowest degree of common-school education. "The present generation of Irish emigrants still feel the effects of these penal laws," an Irishman told the Mass. Board of Ed..
- G. Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 435

Parochial schools (New York)

The common school system of N.Y. City was unacceptable to Catholics. Until it was superseded in 1842 by an elected school board, the administration of these schools had been in the hands of the Public School Society, a state-chartered, private philanthropic body founded by Quakers in 1805; its members decidedly Protestant in their views. Catholics objected to daily Bible readings from a translation which the Church condemned. They complained that the Protestant teachers commented upon the scriptures in a manner derogatory to Catholicism, & that school textbooks "abound in false & contemptuous passages respecting the Catholic Church."
The Catholics organized a separate parochial school system. The clergy conducted classes in church basements & other modest locations but the shortage of adequate school buildings & competent teachers handicapped their efforts. The parochial schools were crowded to capacity, yet accommodated less than 1/2 the Catholic children of the city. Bishop Hughes estimated about 1840 that Catholic institutions provided for only 4,000 to 5,000 of the 9,000 to 12,000 Catholic children of school age. In the next 15 years the number of Catholic school children tripled, yet teachers remained scarce. In 1856 the parochial schools, convents, & seminaries averaged one teacher for every 60-75 pupils.
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, chap. XII

In New York City in 1840 the schools were under the control of the Public School Society, a benevolent assoc., formed in 1805 to care for the instruction of children financially unable to attend religious or private schools.
Catholics had a just cause for complaint against this monopoly. The King James version of the Bible was read daily in the schools, & regular prayers, singing, & religious instruction were not in accord with Catholic belief. History books emphasized the corruptions of Catholicism. The presence of these books in a public school system receiving support from the state was rightly resented by Catholics.
In 1840 Gov. Wm. H. Seward pointed out that many immigrant children were kept out of school because of the sectarian nature of the instruction. Bishop Hughes asked that public funds be given Catholic schools. His request was refused by the Common Council in 1841. The fall election was hard-fought on this issue. Hughes urged political action & called Catholics to political rallies. His move for a separate party brought about the defeat of the Democrats.
In January 1842 a bill was introduced to the legislature which would reorganize N.Y. City schools, eliminating the Public School Society and putting control in the hands of commissioners elected in each ward. The bill passed in the Democratic legislature. On the night the bill was passed the N.Y. streets were filled with mobs which pursued luckless Irishmen & stoned the windows of Bishop Hughes' home, forcing the calling out of the militia to guard Catholic churches.
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(New York City) Many children of foreigners were completely untouched by the public school system, which was ill-equipped physically & ideologically to accommodate the youth of the slums... The sons & daughters of impoverished newcomers augmented the ranks of the uneducated, some working in shops or at home to help support their families, others walking the streets as newsboys, peddlers, beggars, & vagrants...
In 1852, in the 11th Ward, with a large foreign population, only 7,000 of the 12,000 children between the ages of 5 & 16 attended school. In 1856 a census of the area east of 3rd Avenue in the 18th Ward showed that nearly half the children between the ages of 5 & 15 did not go to school. Half of these were immigrants & undoubtedly many of those born in the U.S. were of foreign parentage. In the entire city between 1856 & 1863, at least 30,000 to 40,000 children were untouched by any schools, public or private, secular or religious. The proportion of children attending school actually dropped 10% between 1850 & 1856.
- Robt. Ernst, Imm. Life in N.Y. City, chap. XII
There were public evening schools authorized by the state legislature in 1848. Each year hundreds of foreign-born working people, both male & female, learned the English language or received vocational training in these schools.

- Ibid.


There was no legislation covering the dangers of shipwreck in the early period. The Act of 1842 stated that from 2-4 lifeboats, depending on the ship's tonnage, must be carried, but such provision was intended for cabin passengers only. [This distinction recalls a newspaper's description of a wreck in which "20 souls & 240 emigrants" were lost.][1] In 1840 the death rate of passengers to Canada was 1.005%, fairly evenly divided between drowning & disease. Between 1847 & 1851 forty British emigrant ships were wrecked, with a loss of 1,043 lives.
- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 17

One ship [Beaver] Islanders came on was lost on return trip - look this up, I think the Green sisters.

1834 - seventeen vessels were wrecked on the Quebec route. The Quebec Gazette, commenting on the recent shipwreck of half a dozen vessels with a death list of 700 for the 3 worst disasters, suggested rigid regulations to insure the seaworthiness of emigrant vessels, which were quite the worst in the Atlantic service. Those sailing from Ireland were the most defective of all & had frequently to put back to port when only a few days out, having sprung a leak, or lost a mast, or otherwise crippled.

Lifeboat accommodations were commonly provided only for 1st class passengers.
1847-51 - Forty-four passenger vessels out of 7,129 from the British Isles were shipwrecked & 1,034[2] lives were lost, with the result that legislation was adopted to aid the destitute. One of the worst disasters was the 320-ton Exmouth, sailing from Londonderry for Quebec with a crew of 11 & 240 emigrants, mostly women & children who hoped to join relatives in Canada. According to law, this vessel was limited to 65 1/2 passengers, but the number was swelled by allowing children to count as half an adult or less. In 1841 the 290-ton Minstrel wrecked between Limerick & Quebec, only 4 out of 141 emigrants being saved. Another notable Irish wreck occurred in the late fall of 1850. In spite of the season, the Edmund sailed from Carrigaholt on the Shannon with 207 emigrants. In spite of the heroic conduct of the captain & crew, 96 lives were lost when she foundered off the Irish coast in a storm. On some other ships the conduct of the captains & crews was lamentable. On the John, wrecked off the English coast, not a seaman perished & Captain Rawle was arrested & a verdict of manslaughter was returned against him.
- E. C. Guillet, The Great Migration, p. 128-30

1 Brackets in original.

2 In a duplicate entry this number of lives lost is listed as 1,043.


Father Matthew in America -
Nativist editors were placed in a quandary with the arrival in the U.S. in the early 1840s of Father Matthew, an Irish priest who devoted himself to temperance reform among his own people with considerable success. As religious men they were universally supporting [of] temperance, yet it was against their principles to admit that a priest could do anything that was praiseworthy. Some editors welcomed Father Matthew & even went so far as to say that he had more chance of getting into heaven than the Pope & all his cardinals. Others saw in his efforts only another Popish plot to collect money for the advancement of Catholicism or to unite all Catholics into temperance societies which would really be military organizations making ready for the conquest of America.

Protestant Crusade, note, p. 212

Transatlantic Crossing

The conditions on immigrant ships at this time (middle 1840s) were unbelievably bad. Owners sold their excess ship space to agents whose only interest was to fill it with as many passengers as possible. The immigrants were crowded together into unsanitary quarters for voyages of 6 weeks or more & were particularly susceptible to the ravages of disease.

Protestant. Crusade (note), p. 211

Many early immigrant carriers were, in the words of a contemporary newspaper (Quebec Gazette, June 2, 1834), "the worst of all the merchant ships of Gt. Britain & Ireland; with few exceptions they are very old, very ill-manned, very ill found; & considering the dangers of an early spring voyage to this port from ice & tempestuous weather, it is astonishing that more serious accidents have not occurred."

There was an improvement in sailing vessels in the 1840s & '50s, which is called "the golden age of sail." In the 1850s iron began it replace wood on a large scale.

As late as 1860 fine clipper ships were still being built.

In 1856 the "Royal Charter" provided the 1st important trial of a combination clipper ship with auxiliary steam power. This practical combination had been used long before its initiation on the Atlantic. As early as 1803 the first successful operation was the "Charlotte Dundas" on the Forth & Clyde canal.

In 1833 the Royal William was the 1st ship to cross the Atlantic entirely under steam.

The 1st Cunard liner, the Britannia, created a flurry of excitement when she arrived at Boston in 1840, but the Cunard liners & those like them were only for the wealthy. In 1849 Robert Gourlay observed that by steamship, "one may leave the county of Fife (Scotland) & be in Boston on the 11th day after departure, & within a fortnight bathe in the Mississippi." He suggested that by dispensing with frills & "crowding in" the emigrants it would be possible to reduce the fare from $125 to $30.

In 1863 45% of the British emigrants to America traveled in steamships, while 3 years later the number had increased to 81%. Sailing ships continued to be patronized by small groups of the poorest emigrants in later years, particularly from the Irish ports at a distance from the steamship service.

Steamship service had been in operation for nearly 20 years on the N.Y. route before it was inaugurated to Quebec & Montreal. In 1856 the Allan Line fortnightly Atlantic mail service commenced. The record of this company shows the losses experienced by the early S. S. companies. In 1857 the Can[adian?( illeg.)] was wrecked through the stupidity of a pilot. In 1859 the Indean was lost near Halifax. In 1860 the Hungarian ran ashore near Cape Sable & all on board perished. In 1861 a second Canadian was crushed in an ice field in the Strait of Belle Isle, & the North Briton was wrecked in a snow storm. In 1863 both the Anglo-Saxon & the Norwegian were lost, & in the following year the Bohemian struck a rock off the state of Maine. The Allan Line was kept solvent only by subsidies from the Canadian government.

- Guillet, The Great Migration, p. 236-39

...as has already been described, the period 1850-70 saw the gradual transference of the emigrant trade from sailing ships to "steam & sail." Sailing vessels predominated until the end of the 1863 season, during which 55% patronized them; but in subsequent years the S. S. quickly assumed the lead, & by 1870 the number of sailing ship passengers was negligible.

- Ibid., p. 246

The Irish who landed in America before the Civil War came on sailing vessels. While in the 1850s the steamship was supplanting sail & forecasting the later great emigrant trade, the price still remained beyond the means of the Irish. The Civil War marked the transition from sail to steamer for the Catholic Irish & the passing of the American merchantman which had carried so many thousands to America.

April & May were the recommended months for the emigrant to take passage. The average length of the voyage on a sailing ship from Liverpool to Quebec was 6 weeks; from Irish ports 4 days shorter; from Liverpool to N.Y. the passage averaged 5 weeks.

- Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 154-55

From Canada came awkward ships built expressly to bring eastward the timber of American forests; lumbering vessels with great open holds not suited to the carriage of any westbound cargo. Formerly they carried back ballast. Now they would bring Irishmen to the New World. The pittance they could pay - 10 to 20 shillings, was pure gain. The passengers camped out in the empty, stinking space below decks. After all, the shipping agents argued, the emigrant had never known what it was to sleep in a bed. Give him pork & flour & you would make him sick. Let him lie on a good firm deck & eat salt herring, he would be hale & hearty.

The 1840s introduced steam into the transatlantic trade. The Cunard Line & its imitators preempted the high-class passenger service & drove the sailing ships into the immigrant trade. Competition lowered the price & improved the service; by 1860 it was possible to buy reasonably-priced tickets prepaid & to travel on a reliable schedule.
- Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted, chap. II[1]

The crossing involved a shift of attitudes. The qualities that were desirable in a good peasant were not those conducive to success in the transition. Neighborliness, obedience, respect, & status were valueless among the masses that struggled for space. They succeeded who put aside the old preconceptions, who pushed in, & took care of themselves.

- Ibid.

[In the case of the Irish, the Famine had already broken the pattern.][2]
The process of migration had been shared; together they faced the open road & the close quarters of the steerage; long after final settlement, recollections came back to unite those who made the journey together.

- Ibid., p. 231

John O'Connell, son of Daniel O'C. & a member of the British House of Comm., said that emigrant ships under British registry should at least be as good as the ships that took convicts to Australia. Vessels that had just brought in a cargo of guano, hides, or old rags "in unwholesome & offensive condition" were pressed into service without being cleaned or whitewashed...

The American laws were more severe than the British, and tried particularly to prevent the great evil of the emigrant trade - overcrowding: a captain who risked piling in more emigrants than the law allowed faced confiscation of his ship by Am. authorities if the number over the law exceeded 20. Am. law aimed to enforce better ventilation between decks & healthier conditions of sanitation.

But no law, the English emigration commissioners admitted, could stop the frauds practiced on Irish emigrants who suffered from organized racketeering...

The Liverpool correspondent of Dublin's Freeman's Journal said, "From the very first application (the Irish) make relative to their passage to the moment of their setting foot on Am. soil, those with whom they have to deal, with perhaps some few exceptions, make it a point to gull & deceive them." The same gantlet (gauntlet?) of swindling was resumed in Am..
- Patton, The Golden Door, p. 140-41

The U.S. escaped the disaster of 1847 Irish immigration to Brit. N. Am. that caught Quebec & Montreal unprepared. The Am. emigrant health record favorably contrasted with the black concentration of deaths at sea in English ships or Irish ships & in Quebec & Montreal in 1847.

- Ibid., p. 463.

All Irish transatlantic vessels were primarily engaged in timber or foodstuffs trade, similarly Liverpool vessels depended on American timber, grain, or cotton. For want of other cargoes they came gradually to rely on emigrants for the outward voyage. Passengers were tiresome but better than sailing in ballast.

By 1848 a three-cornered traffic developed. N. Orleans (or other southern port) to Liverpool with cotton, Liverpool to Atlantic states with emigrants, New York to the south with manufactured goods or coal.

When Stephen de Vere sailed in the steerage in 1847 he found hundreds of people lying there like sacks together, quite motionless, with neither light nor air; many, struck down with fever, had "no food or medicine other than casual charity," & could scarcely turn in their narrow berths. [de Vere was a humanitarian who sailed to Canada as a steerage passenger in 1847 so "that he might speak as a witness reflecting the sufferings of the emigrants."][3]

Prices for passage at first fluctuated. 1846 passage to Canada - 50s-60s; to the U.S. - 70s to €5. At the end of the famine period, cheapest passage to N.Y. - 75s; to Canada - 65s.

The passage averaged 40 days.

U.S. ships considered best because Congress demanded more deck space per passenger, & they were speedier.
Mortality high. In 1847 1 passenger in 40 died on vessels from Limerick, Killala, & New Ross. On Liverpool vessels, 1 in 14 - on Cork vessels, 1 in 9. Some vessels from same ports at same time had much higher mortality. One factor seems constant, the vessels from larger city ports had higher mortality. Douglas, Canadian quarantine surgeon, found that typhus was contracted ashore. He concluded the true seedbeds were the slums where the immigrants lodged. This [was] not the only factor - they were weakened by privation when they came aboard - the crowding & lack of sanitation aboard.

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Storm - The confusion above deck & the tramping around frightened those in steerage almost out of their wits. The air was foul, the hatches had been battened down for a week. With each roll of the ship the people in the crowded berths were bumped & bruised as they were hurled from side to side against the rough partitions, and there was real danger of crushing the children to death. Water leaked through the decks in such quantity that the beds were soaked & the floor ankle-deep. Candle lanterns could not be lighted, nor had there been cooking for days... "A sudden heave of the ship," wrote one traveler, "often dislodged whole families from their berths, & hurled them headlong among their companions who lay on the opposite side"...

A cabin passenger describes the situation on a vessel where 180 people were confined in a dark space "not much larger than a drawing room. I popped my head down for a minute or two, but the smell was too powerful for my olfactory nerves - children crying, women screaming; butter, biscuit treacle, herrings, & potatoes, all rolling from side to side, made up a scene of misery & confusion such as I never saw before."

- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 81-82

Stephen E. De Vere, a public-spirited Irish landlord, performed a notable act of disinterested philanthropy when he traveled steerage in an emigrant vessel in April, 1847. His description of his experiences eventually came to the notice of a committee of the House of Lords. It must be taken not only as characteristic of conditions during the fever epidemic during the fever & cholera years, but also typical of the terrifying & degrading experiences through which hundreds of thousands passed in ordinary times.

"Hundreds of poor people, men, women, & children of all ages, from the driveling idiot of 90 to the babe just born, huddle together without light, without air, wallowing in filth & breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fever patients lying between the sound, in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the natural restlessness of the disease; by their ravings disturbing those around...living without food or medicine except as administered by the hand of casual charity, dying without the voice of spiritual consolation, and buried in the deep without the rites of the church.

The food is generally ill-selected and seldom sufficiently cooked, because of the insufficiency & bad construction of the cooking places. The supply of water, hardly enough for cooking & drinking, does not allow washing. In many ships the filthy beds, teeming with all abominations, are never required to be brought to deck & aired; the narrow space between the berths and the piles of boxes are never washed or scraped, but breathes up a damp stench, until the day before arrival at quarantine, when all hands are required to 'scrub up' and put on a fair face for the doctor & gov. inspector. No moral restraint is attempted, the voice of prayer is never heard. Drunkenness, with its consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged, because it is profitable to the captain who traffics in grog.

The meat was of the worst quality. The supply of water shipped on board was abundant, but the quantity served out to the passengers was so scanty that they were frequently obliged to throw overboard their salt provisions & rice (a most important article of their food) because they had not water enough for the necessary cooking & the satisfying of their raging thirst afterwards. They could only afford water for washing by withdrawing it from the cooking of their food. I have known persons to remain for days together in their dark, close berths because they thus suffered less from hunger...

The master during the whole voyage never entered the steerage, and would listen to no complaints; the dietary contracted for was, with some exceptions, nominally supplied, though at irregular periods; but false measures were used (in which the water & several article of dry food were served), the gallon measure containing but three quarts, which fact I proved in Quebec & had the captain fined for. Once or twice a week ardent spirits were sold indiscriminately to the passengers, producing scenes of unchecked blackguardism beyond description; & lights were prohibited because the ship - with her open-fire grates upon deck - with lucifer matches & lighted pipes used secretly in the sleeping berths - was freighted with government powder for the garrison in Quebec."

- Stephen E. De Vere to T. F. Elliot in "Evidence before the Select

Committee of the House of Lords on Colonisation from Ireland, 1847," p. 458

Instead of exporting his tenants like so many cattle, Mr. De Vere took a dozen volunteers with him, & when his companions were stricken with fever he personally attended to them.

- Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 96-97

Those who had money had to be very careful, for there was no place of safety on shipboard in which it might be deposited... Francis Thomas describes in his diary (18330 that on the Hebe there were robberies "almost every night in a sort of wholesale way," and several members of the crew were in this instance suspected to be culprits.

- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 36

The famine emigration took place under the Passenger Act of 1842:
1.) height between decks not less than 6'; 2.) no deck for immigrants could be below the
waterline; 3.) the carrying of lifeboats was compulsory; [4].) a stock of medicines must
be carried, though not a doctor; 5.) seven pounds of provisions were to be given out
weekly, & 3 quarts of water daily per person.

- C. Woodham-Smith, Hunger, p. 210-12


Transatlantic Crossing - Cost

Because of the competition & various accommodations of ships, there was little attempt at standardization of rates. The cheapest appears to be the 10 shilling ($2.50) rate, which numerous Irishmen paid to cross to Newfoundland by fishing vessel, their food supply consisting of a few dried herrings. Timber ships charged as low as 20 shillings ($5.00). Provisions - for Scotchmen, 60 lbs. of oatmeal & possibly a small quantity of butter & eggs (this checks with what I was told of Burton Port) - added from 10 to 20 shillings more. Some vessels from Irish ports charged 40-50s ($10 - $12.50) & the emigrant carried a sack of potatoes as his provisions. Accommodations consisted of a place in the hold to throw his chest and stretch himself out at night, & an allowance of water, usually filthy. From English ports steerage rates were generally much higher.

- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Migration, p. 50

The price fluctuated according to demand, season, etc... Before organization entered the emigrant trade, the cost on regular cargo vessels was prohibitive to the Irish emigrant: in1811 the rates from Londonderry to N.Y. between decks varied from $50-$60. Twenty years later the price from Liverpool to Quebec was $20, & from Cork, $12.50, from Liverpool to N.Y., $25; from a western port of Ireland, $10. In 1851 the passage from Liverpool to N.Y., on the average, was $17.50.

- Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 154-55

To offset the attractions of the U.S., the British government consistently made the passage to British N. Am. cheaper than to the U.S., & in addition transported poor immigrants who declared their intention of settling Canada free, in barges, up the St. Lawrence to the interior. The urgent need of the British N. Am. colonies for population was not the government's only reason for encouraging Irish emigration. The fear of an enormous poverty-stricken Irish migration into Britain was always present... Advantage was taken of the low fare & often the emigrant, alleging his intention of settling in Canada, procured free passage up the St. Law. before making his entry into the U.S. simply by walking across the border. In 1843, out of 20,892 emigrants only 85 settled in eastern Canada, & only 208 in Montreal...
A man, his wife, and four small children, Belfast to Quebec in 1842, €6; but if he went to N.Y. it was €21.

C. Woodham-Smith, Hunger, p. 210-12

At Liverpool, the cost of steerage passage to N.Y. fell from 12 pounds ($60) in 1816 to just over 3 pounds ($15+) in 30 years (1846)... The drop was nowhere as great or as abrupt as in Irish ports, where passage to Quebec during the 1820s (1840s?) could be obtained for as little as 30 shillings ($3.75)...
Since many of those engaged in the emigrant trade had personal or business connections with the U.S., they were able in the late 1820s to establish Am. agencies for the sale of prepaid passage tickets. This enabled those who had migrated earlier to bring over their relatives and friends, & the arrival of tickets and money from Am. proved an added stimulus to emigration generally. What proportion of emigrants traveled on pre-paid tickets is not known, though a sample survey conducted by the Irish Emigrant Society of N.Y. in 1843 suggested that it might be as high as 1/3. This estimate did not take into account the great numbers who, though not in receipt of prepaid tickets, had their fares paid by remittances from Am..

- Maldwyn A. Jones, Am. Immigration, p. 105

It is estimated that well over one-half of the emigrants to Am. in some years had their passage paid in whole or in part by friends. The peak year for such assistance was 1854, when a total of €1,730,000 ($8,650,000) was received in the United Kingdom; and in addition to this, the passage of many thousands was paid in N.Y..
- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 34

How did the poor finance passage? Hidden in the thatch of many a poor cottage were a few sovereigns, put aside for an emergency. The emergency had come. The sale of furniture netted a few pounds. Landlords complained that out of pity they had not pressed their tenants for last year's rent, & now this rent was taking them forever out of reach. Others did not hesitate to beg, & those who contributed believed they were giving to the most worthy of causes.
Another important source was the contributions of relatives in the U.S. & Canada, who may have thought the funds were for relief; but the recipient hastened to buy passage, the best relief he could think of.
- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Mig., p. 244-51


Transatlantic Crossing - Food

Throughout the sailing period many emigrants provided their own supplies. The procedure when the vessel supplied the food was the cook or mate dealt out the rations daily, or at less frequent intervals, from barrels which had been brought onto the deck or into the steerage by the crew... Sometimes passengers were so sick that they were unable to prepare their food - others, for the same reason, did not receive their allowance. It was reported in 1844 that such conditions led to starvation amid plenty... On a typical vessel in 1847, each adult received a pound of meal or bread daily, the children under 14, half that quantity, & those under 7, one third. "On either side of the foredeck were the fireplaces. The fire was contained in a large wooden case, lined with bricks, the coals being confined by 2 or 3 iron bars in the front. From morning till evening they were surrounded by groups of men, women, & children, some making stirabout in all kinds of vessels, & others baking cakes upon extemporary griddles. These cakes were generally about 2 inches thick & when baked were encased in a burnt crust coated with smoke, being actually raw in the center. The fireplaces were scenes of endless contentions, the quarrels were usually only ended when the fires were extinguished at 7 p.m., at which time they were surrounded by squabbling groups, preparing their miserable evening meal. They would not leave until Jack mounted the shrouds of the foremast & precipitated a bucket of water on each fire; when they snatched up their pots & pans, & half-blinded by the steam, descended into the hold with their half-cooked suppers." (Information from evidence before a Parliamentary committee on emigration, 1847.)

Legislation in 1850 improved rations at least in theory. A week's supply was stipulated in the act as 2 1/2 lbs. bread or biscuit, 1 lb. wheaten flour, 5 lbs. oatmeal, 2 lbs. rice, 2 oz. tea, 1/2 lb. sugar, & 1/2 lb. molasses. It was legal for the shipmaster to substitute 5 lbs. potatoes for 1 lb. of oatmeal or rice.

Water - the amount of water to be supplied to each passenger varied slightly from time to time, but under the Act of 1842 it was required to be 3 qts. Per day for each adult passenger... The innumerable references to impure water suggest that only on the best packets was it satisfactory... In general the best that could be expected was that the water, particularly in the last half of the voyage, could be made usable, even if still repulsive, by the addition of vinegar. Like the other conditions of the passage, it was something that had to be endured.

- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Migration, p. 72-76

The law ordered 21 quarts of water each week for passengers (both for drinking & washing), which, when in short supply, caused frightful suffering when the casks were leaky or spoiled. The law also called for a minimum of food that was "not sufficient for the sustenance of any human being" - 1 pound of breadstuffs daily or its equivalent in potatoes up to 1847, when the ration was increased to a pound & 1/2 . Passenger certificates specifically warned emigrants to bring along their own supply of food.

Grates, called "cabooses," were set up on the main deck, & the passengers lined up with their supplies to cook their own food. The "cabooses" were few and each individual required 15 minutes at least to cook his food. Passengers often waited from early morning to late afternoon for their turn, except when they tipped the attendant, and the children & old people were pushed aside in the scramble. Many, unable to stave off the pangs of hunger, ate their oatmeal raw, with unhappy consequences.

- Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 150


Transatlantic Crossing - Length of Voyage

Before 1835 emigrants were officially advised to make preparations for a voyage of 12 weeks, but in that year the period was reduced to ten. Some emigrants were fortunate to make a voyage of 25 days, while others were driven by contrary winds to the Azores or Greenland, & barely survived a terrifying experience of 4 months. The average passage to Quebec was around 45 days... Ships & weather varied so greatly that averages meant but little to the individual. It was always advisable to take passage to Montreal rather than Quebec, since captains frequently charged no more for the additional 180 mi..

- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 50

When Old Man McCann came over [to Beaver Island] they got within sight of land when a contrary wind blew them out to sea again. It was 9 days later before they landed.

- Roland, p. 146

April & May were the recommended months for the emigrant to take passage. The average length of the voyage on a sailing ship from Liverpool to Quebec was 6 weeks; from Irish ports 4 days shorter; from Liverpool to N.Y. the passage averaged 5 weeks.

- Patton, To the Golden Door, p. 154-55


Transatlantic Crossing - Overcrowding

"Investigators concluded that the law regulating the transport of slaves rendered their accommodations preferable to those of many emigrant ships."

In the regular emigrant ships there was usually a steerage of about 75' long by 20 or 25' wide & 5 1/2' high. On either side of a 5' aisle were double rows of berths made of rough planks; & each berth, designed to accommodate 6 adults, was 10' wide & 5' long. Four rows of 13 berths might therefore hold 312 people, while the 5' aisle was congested with their baggage, utensils, & food. In the semi-darkness dozens of children played. In the fetid atmosphere the passengers often went days without ventilation. In some ships the dirty bilge water of the hold seeped through the temporary flooring. A contemporary pointed out, "Their trials were so intense that multitudes came here worn out, impoverished, & diseased & never, in numerous cases, recovered the fatal consequences."

- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 11

The first government regulation was the Passenger Vessel Act, which passed Parliament in 1803. It limited the number of passengers to one to every 2 tons of the ship's register. This was no criterion of the total passenger list, for there were often almost half as many small children: those under 14 being reckoned 1/2 an adult, under 7, 1/3, & infants under 1 near not counted. The large number of deaths among children was the natural result of conditions that encouraged contagious diseases. Among other regulations, the Act of 1803 called for a surgeon on each ship & sufficient provisions for all passengers. The Act brought forth loud protests from ship owners, who immediately raised fares.
Frauds were practiced. Ships which left port after a satisfactory inspection by the government inspector would proceed to a remote spot on the coast & pick up more passengers. Upon arrival they would avoid regular ports, dumping the unfortunate immigrants upon some unfrequented shore of New England, Cape Breton, or the lower St. Lawrence. Laws might be passed by Parliament, but masters, when well out to sea, observed the laws perfunctorily, if at all.
Regulations were relaxed in 1817.

Conditions became so bad that there was strict government supervision imposed in 1823, but rates were raised to a prohibitive level.

In 1826 the 1823 Act was amended to exempt Ireland.

The Act of 1828 - under this legislation emigration reached its peak. Cut down the allowance for food to 50 pounds of bread & stuffs for each passenger (about 1 pound per day). Between-deck space must be 5 1/2' (but often large beams obstructed this space). Permission to carry 3 passengers for every 4 tons resulted in terrible overcrowding. In most vessels this allowed 1 passenger for every 20 1/2" of deck space, a condition hardly paralleled in slave ships.
Of the 16 vessels reaching Quebec between May 9 & July 15, 1831, all had more than the law allowed, & 1/2 more than a passenger per ton; the worst offender being the Ulster, from Londonderry, a vessel of 334 tons, with 505 passengers. Under legislation of an earlier period such a boat would accommodate 110 passengers, & in order to crowd in several hundred more triple tiers of berths & false decks were common, & the practice of alternating sleeping shifts in the berths was not unusual.

In 1835-36 an Act of Parliament reduced passengers from 4 to 3 for every 5 tons. Otherwise conditions were not improved.

It was a standing joke the immigrant ships could be recognized by their smell. During the ship-fever year of 1847 there was little pretense of passenger limitation on Irish ships bound for Quebec. The Elizabeth Grimmer was in such a filthy state that "persons could not be had near her, for purpose of throwing out the ballast, for 3 weeks, & then only when tempted by extraordinary wages."

Until the Act of 1847 the only ventilation in the steerage of many ships was through the hatchways, & these during storms were sometimes kept closed for a week or more at a time. One family describes that for two weeks the steerage passengers were shut out from the light, with fever raging among them.
Not until the Act of 1847 was there any regulation that "adult passengers of different sexes, unless husband & wife, shall be separately berthed."

- Franklin D. Scott, ed., World Migration in Modern Times, p. 34-39 (Wab.)[4]

Upon the most overcrowded vessels the life of the steerage passenger was a continuous nightmare of suffering. To substantiate the statement, "frequently heard," that the character of emigrant ships from Ireland was worse than those engaged in the African slave trade, the Montreal Advertiser cites the case of the Thomas Gelston from Londonderry. This vessel carried a somewhat uncertain quota of passengers, estimated from 450 to 517. "Upon the current testimony of several passengers," it is stated that during the entire passage of 9 weeks, they were confined to between-decks, where they suffered considerably from a shortage of water. The berthing arrangements alone were enough to demoralize them, for we learn that "besides two tiers of berths on the sides, the vessel was filled with a row of berths down the center, between which & the side berths there was only a passage of about 3 ft.. The passengers were thus obliged to eat in their berths. In one were a man, his wife, his sister, & 5 children; in another were 6 full-grown young women, while that above them contained 5 men, & the next one, 8 men."

Some of the features of the 628-ton emigrant ship St. Vincent in 1844 were to be found in the better vessels. She accommodated about 240 passengers, & her length between decks was 124', height 6'4", & the breadth of the main hatchway 25'3". Stationary tables & benches were located midway between the rows of berths throughout the length of the ship, & beneath the tables were plate racks & battens to hold the water casks. Hanging shelves were secured between beams. Double berths were 6'by 3', & single 6' by 2', & each was separated from the next by a partition extending from top to bottom. _eats were fixed at the outer extremity of each bed-place. Water-closets for females were located on either side of this deck, but those for males were on the upper deck. Both ventilation & lighting were dependent upon scuttles, & the bulkheads were constructed to allow for a free circulation of air. Hospital facilities included a 6 bedroom for women & one of 4 beds for men. These accommodations were undoubtedly superior to those of the average emigrant ship, for the expense was being born almost entirely by the government, aided to some extent by the emigrants themselves, or the parishes which sent them.

- Edwin C. Guilett, The Great Mig., p. 67-68

Law of Mar. 4, 1819 - went into effect Sept. 1819.

Recognizing overcrowding as the fundamental trouble, it forbade any transatlantic ship entering an American port to carry more than 2 persons for every 5 tons of its registry. Customs officers must record the number of passengers of such vessels. Heavy penalties were inflicted on violators. Federal supervision & official statistics begin with this date.
Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Mig., p. 102 (Wab.)


Transatlantic Crossing - Regulations

Act of Feb. 1847 (heretofore the only gov. regulation had been act of 1819) specified that on the lower deck 14 "clear superficial feet" must be allowed for each person, & on the bottom or top[?] deck, 30'. The length & width of beds & food were the same. Vessels arriving with more passengers than permitted could be confiscated.

- Marcus Hansen, The Atlantic Mig., p. 255

Boston - though American officials tried to prevent the coming in of disease-stricken and starving refugees from Quebec, they were unsuccessful. So great was the influx (1847) of human wrecks that a receiving room for invalids just off the ships (coastwise & transatlantic) was constructed at Boston Long Wharf, & a carriage was kept constantly busy conveying to the boat for transportation to the hospitals on Deer Island. In Jan. 1848 the legislature tightened the laws on the capitation tax & the bonds required of captains.

New York - Although N.Y. witnessed less appalling scenes, they realized the dangers to which their geographic position exposed them. The nearby New Jersey coast offered convenient opportunities for debarkation. Shipmasters landed their human cargo off these ports & left the emigrants to find their way to N.Y. City as best they could. May 5, 1847 the legislature created an administrative body of 6 commissioners appointed by the governor, who served with the mayors of N.Y. & Brooklyn & the presidents of the German & Irish Emigrant Societies to supervise the problem & to charge $1 for every passenger landed, the funds thus raised to be used by the commission as it saw fit.

Shipping interests objected to the flat fee & the shippers in Mass. & N.Y. brought action to test the constitutionality of the laws passed by the states. In due time it reached the Supreme Court, which in 1848 sustained the shippers. The states reverted to the earlier system of bonding the captains (by a flat fee paid by contracted professional bonders). It was not until 1882 that the federal government assumed control.

In 1848 the federal gov. took additional action regarding the carriage of passengers at sea. The repealed the "2 passenger per ton" provision, & provided that the number of "clear superficial feet" allowed each passenger should be determined by the height between decks. It also prescribed a diet of greater variety, & held the captain responsible for the general cleanliness & discipline aboard his ship.

- Ibid., p. 256-60

1855 - the laws of 1848-49 had banished absolute hunger & lessened pestilence, but many discomforts & unsanitary conditions remained. Two long reports to Parliament exposed the indecent conditions & the shady side of life on board emigrant vessels. The result was a statute with specific regulations as to space, food, & arrangements. The U.S. tightened its restrictions the same year. A comprehensive statute was passed by Congress regulating the tonnage & space requirements in accordance with the number of decks & intervening heights. Also there was a great commercial decline in 1855, which caused shippers out of self-interest to make conditions more attractive to passengers.

- Ibid., p. 300

1 Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1973.

2 Brackets in original.

3 Brackets in original.

4 Franklin D. Scott, ed., World Migration in Modern Times. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Treatment by Authorities and Others

Those who manned Atlantic sailing ships were obviously not all villains, despite the existence of no small number of disreputable characters.

On the John Dennison the capt., though he kept a lucrative grog shop & overcharged his passengers in the matter of the Am. "hospital tax," was found to be "always attentive to our comfort." It is recorded similarly of Capt. Blake of the Brunswick that, "from the moment of our embarkation at Cork to the night of our departure from his ship, his attention, not only to the cabin passengers but also to the humblest individual in the steerage, evinced a disposition highly creditable to himself & honorable to his profession."
- Guillet, The Great Mig., p. 99-100

Frauds were practiced. Ships which left port after a satisfactory inspection by the government inspector would proceed to a remote spot on the coast & pick up more passengers. Upon arrival they would avoid regular ports, dumping the unfortunate immigrants upon some unfrequented shore of New England, Cape Breton, or the lower St. Lawrence. Laws might be passed by Parliament, but masters, when well out to sea, observed the laws perfunctorily, if at all.
- Franklin D. Scott, ed., World Migration in Modern Times, p. 34-39

A rich philanthropist, Mr. Vere Foster, embarked incognito as a passenger on the Washingtonin 1850... On the 1st day of the voyage the 900 passengers were mustered on deck for their water, but while it was being pumped into their cans the mates cursed, abused, cuffed, & kicked the people without provocation, & served only 30 of them. The others had to go without. In spite of the contract, no provisions were served on that or the following day, and, as many people were almost starving, a letter of complaint was written to the capt.. The man who wrote it was knocked down by a blow from the 1st mate. The next day 1/2 rations were served, the supplied being given out raw. To get near the fires, many people bribed the sailors, & those too poor to offer money managed to obtain a turn only once in 2 or 3 days.
Dr. Poole, Inspecting Physician at Grosse Isle, stated that, while there were plenty of seaworthy vessels, the worst ones only were used in the emigrant trade; & that the brokers & ships' captains disregarded legislation. ...misrepresentation of the length of the voyage was another common fraud, most masters of Irish vessels advising emigrants that 3 weeks or a month would be sufficient. They then extorted as much as 400% on the cost of supplies, knowing that from 6 to 9 weeks would elapse before debarkation. Dr. Poole also found that where provisions were served out daily to the emigrants, short rations, bad quality, or dishonest weight were common frauds... The surgeon in charge of the average emigrant vessel was usually a mere apprentice or apothecary's assistant... It was impossible to rely upon a surgeon's statement, for upon inspection dozens of cases of typhus were sometimes found in ships certified as free from disease.
- Edwin C. Guillet, The Great M., p. 18-19

...no law, the English emigration commissioners admitted, could stop the frauds practiced on Irish emigrants who suffered from organized racketeering...
The Liverpool correspondent of Dublin's Freeman's Journal said, "From the very first application (the Irish) make relative to their passage to the moment of their setting foot on Am. soil, those with whom they have to deal, with perhaps some few exceptions, make it a point to gull & deceive them." The same gantlet (gauntlet?) of swindling was resumed in Am..
- Patton, The Golden Door, p. 140-41

May 5, 1847 - Abuses & lack of supervision of incoming immigrants lead to the State assuming responsibility. The new law created a Board of Commissioners of Emigration, consisting of 10 members - 6 appointed by the governor, the mayors of N.Y. & Brooklyn, & the presidents of the German Society & the Irish Emigrant Society. The Board 1.) inspected incoming ships, 2.) gave advice, aid, & employment opportunities to immigrants, & 3.) supported immigrants who became public charges within 5 years after landing.
Under the new law the master of each ship must file complete data for each voyage in the mayor's office, [and] shipowners had to give bond for each passenger, or he could pay $1.00 for each person. In 1867 this was fixed at $2.50 after several raises. After a few years the Board became political (appointees by governor were uninterested), & the maintenance of German & Irish interests was left largely with the German & Irish members. There were many abuses & criticism was kept up against the Board by the Irish-Am. press.
1855 - Castle Garden converted into a landing depot for immigrants - things were much better - runners were eliminated - tickets to the interior sold by officials, not shysters; baggage officially weighed & correct freight charges made. This reform relieved the overtaxed benevolent societies of much of their burden.
[- no citation given for this entry]

Because of the abuses & exploitation of immigrants the Board of Emigration Commissioners was set up. The bill was passed through the legislature through the efforts of Archbishop Hughes, Thurlow Weed, & other eminent citizens.
Weed had his attention called to the evil by personal knowledge of a specific case. He exposed the "ring" & its operators in his newspaper. He was immediately set upon by the "scalpers" & was deluged with lawsuits & threatened with personal violence. After 8 mo. effort by himself, he enlisted the help of Robt. B. Munturn. They found that "Castle Garden" could be bought on reasonable terms. They drew up a bill moderately increasing the "head-money tax" & providing for appointment of the Emigration Board. The Assembly appointed a committee to investigate abuses:
Report -
"As soon as a ship loaded with emigrants reaches our shores it is boarded by a class of men called 'runners,' either in the employ of boarding-house keepers or forwarding establishments, soliciting customers for their employers. If they cannot succeed in any other way in getting possession & control over the objects of their prey, they proceed to take charge of their baggage, & take it to some boarding-house for safe-keeping, generally under the assurance that they will charge nothing for carriage, hire, or storage... The keepers of these houses induce these people to stay a few days, & when they come to leave, usually charge them 3 or 4 times as much as they agreed or expected to pay, & exorbitant prices for storing their luggage; & in cse of inability to pay, their luggage is detained as security... Your committee have been shocked to find that a large proportion of the fraud committed upon these innocent & in many cases ignorant foreigners are committed by their own countrymen who have come here before them; for we find German preying upon German, Irish upon Irish, etc..."
The bill became law May 5, 1847.
Another bill soon was passed designating Castle Island as the Emigration Depot where emigrants must be landed.
The speculators transferred their activities to Albany, where transfer was made to the Erie Canal, & to Europe. Immigrants began to arrive with worthless RR tickets bought in Europe,
for which they had paid 2 or 3 times what a real ticket would have cost. To combat these abuses, the Emigration Board was granted further powers & they sent an agent to Albany & one to Europe with endorsement from the State Dept. He (Mr. Robert Murray) visited England, Ireland, France, Belgium, Prussia, Italy, & Holland, & in each of these countries, through his efforts, measures were taken which dealt a final blow to the business of swindling emigrants.

- Thurlow Weed Barnes, Memoir of Thurlow Weed, Vol. II, p. 138