Understanding the Immigrant Experience of your Ancestors

Understand the ancestry genealogy and immigrant experience of your ancestors.

The Immigrant Experience

Millions of people in America today have at least one ancestor who immigrated from the “old country” in Europe.  It is only natural to be curious about what the immigrant experience was like for your relatives as they said good-by to everything they knew and set off in search of a better life.  In this article, I will describe in general terms the immigrant experience of the mid to late 1800s.

Traveling by Steamship 

Steamship trips crossing the Atlantic Ocean on route to America generally took from ten to fourteen days depending upon weather conditions, a vast improvement over the old sail powered ship days of the past.  For example, the Mayflower departed Plymouth, England in 1620 and arrived in America 66 days later.

Most immigrants chose a third class ticket in what is referred to as “steerage” because it was the cheapest.  They likely scrimped and saved for several years in order to come up with the price of the ticket.  First and second class ticketed passengers get their own cabin and have access to the deck and dining room, but pay a much higher fare.  This is 19th century equivalent of buying a coach ticket instead of first class when booking airfare, less legroom and peanuts instead of an inflight meal.

The accommodations in steerage were primitive at best.  Third class passengers lived below deck in what can be described as the cargo hold of the ship, sharing communal bunks and toilets that were not much more than buckets which were emptied over the side of the ship daily.  Water for washing was mostly reserved for the first and second class passengers, so after a few days, the steerage compartment would start to smell rife with body odor and vomit from sea sick passengers.  Food served to passengers in steerage was also minimized by the steamship companies to lower their operating costs and maximize profits.

Passenger Processing

Once the ship docked in the port of destination, passengers disembarked and were processed.  Inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” These words were written by American poet Emma Lazarus in 1883 from her poem The New Colossus

Although Americans today take this poem at face value, in reality America was only interested in allowing healthy able bodied people who are able to work for a living and not become a burden on the government into the country.  Newly arriving immigrants were subjected to a series of invasive examinations and those found deaf, senile, lame, insane or with a contagious disease were sent back to their homeland. Unfortunately, the deportation of a family member meant that many families were split apart.

In loud, crowded and chaotic rooms, third class boat passengers were processed by overwhelmed men in uniform.  Immigrants were pushed from room to room as they were repeatedly questioned and subjected to physical exams.  Once clear of these hurdles, they were free to exchange their money and purchase a train ticket to their final destination.

Hopefully, this glimpse into the immigrant experience of your ancestors gives you a little more realistic view of what your ancestors faced on their journey to America.  It may not be what you expected, but historical accounts and records tell the real story.

Further Exploration

If you wish to dig deeper into the immigrant experience, I suggest you visit the GG Archives website.  GG Archives (shorthand for Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives) is a website run by professional archivist Paul K. Gjenvick.

The website holds a vast collection of historical items that otherwise might be impossible or unlikely to be found elsewhere.  It contains superb examples of many documents used by immigrants and the steamship lines that can be extremely useful for family researchers or professional genealogists.

Their extensive collection of articles, brochures, historical documents, images and books represent one of the largest private collections online available free to the public.  I found the large array of first-hand accounts of immigrant voyages to be fascinating and thorough coverage of both Castle Garden and Ellis Island.

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