Journey to America

Journey to America

In the early 19th century sailing ships took about six weeks to cross the Atlantic. With adverse winds or bad weather the journey could take as long as fourteen weeks. When this happened passengers would often run short of provisions. Sometime captains made extra profits by charging immigrants high prices for food needed to survive the trip.

In 1842 the British government attempted to bring an end to the exploitation of passengers by passing legislation that made it the responsibility of the shipping company to provide adequate food and water on the journey. However, the specified seven pounds a week of provisions was not very generous. Food provided by the shipping companies included bread, biscuits and potatoes. This was usually of poor quality. One government official who inspected provisions in Liverpool in 1850 commented that "the bread is mostly condemned bread ground over with a little fresh flour, sugar and saleratus and rebaked."

Captains were sometimes accused of using rations to control the behaviour of their female passengers. William Mure, the British consul in New Orleans reported that one captain "conducted himself harshly and in a most improper manner to some of the female passengers having held out the inducement of better rations to two who were almost starving in the hope they would accede to his infamous designs." In 1860 the New York Commissioners of Emigration reported that there were "frequent complaints made by female emigrants arriving in New York of ill-treatment and abuse from the captains and other officers." As a result of their investigation Congress passed a law that enabled captains and officers to be sent to prison for committing sexual offences against female passengers. However, there is no evidence that anyone was ever prosecuted under this law.

Travellers often complained about the quality of the water on the journey. The main reason for this was that the water was stored in casks that had not been cleaned properly after carrying substances such as oil, vinegar, turpentine or wine on previous journeys. One immigrant travelling in 1815 described the water as having such "a rancid smell that to be in the same neighbourhood was enough to turn one's stomach".

To maximize their profits shipowners tried to cram as many people as possible on board for the trip. In 1848 the U. S. Congress attempted to improve travelling conditions, by passing the American Passenger Act. This legislation prescribed a legal minimum of space for each passenger and one of its consequences was the building of a a new, larger type of ship called the three-decker. The top two decks carried the immigrants and although they had more space, the journey was still unpleasant. It was very dark in the lower deck and their was also a shortage of fresh air. Whereas those on the upper-deck had to contend with the stench rising constantly from below.

Immigrants suffered many dangers when crossing the Atlantic. This included fires and shipwrecks. In August, 1848, the Ocean Monarch, carrying immigrants from Liverpool to Boston, caught fire and 176 lives were lost. As ships got larger so did the deaths from fires. In September, 1858, an estimated 500 immigrants died after a fire on the steamship Austria. Another 400 died on the William Nelson in July, 1865.

In 1834 seventeen ships shipwrecked in the Gulf of St Lawrence and 731 emigrants lost their lives. In a five year period (1847-52) 43 emigrant ships out of 6,877 failed to reach their destination, resulting in the deaths of 1,043 passengers. In 1854 the steamship City of Glasgowcarrying 480 emigrants went missing after leaving Liverpool and was never heard of again.

A major problem for emigrants on board ship was disease. There were serious outbreaks of cholera in 1832, 1848 and 1853. Of the 77 vessels which left Liverpool for New York between 1st August and 31st October, 1853, 46 contained passengers that died of cholera on the journey. The Washington suffered 100 deaths and the Winchester lost 79. All told, 1,328 emigrants died on board these ships on the way to America.

The most common killer was typhus. It was particularly bad when the passengers had been weakened by a poor diet. In 1847, during the Irish Famine, 7,000 people, most of them from Ireland, died of typhus on the way to America. Another 10,000 died soon after arriving in quarantine areas in the United States.

In 1852 shipping companies began using steamships to transport immigrants to America. This included the ships the City of Manchester and the City of Glasgow, that could transport 450 immigrants at a time from Liverpool to New York. The fare of six guineas a head was double that charged by sailing ships. However, it was much faster and by the 1870s the journey across the Atlantic was only taking two weeks.

Italian family arriving in New York in 1905.
Italian family arriving in New York in 1905.

Primary Sources

(1) Reverend William Bell, writing about the quality of the water on a boat sailing from Leith to Quebec in 1817.

Our water has for some time past been very bad. When it was drawn out of the casks it was no cleaner than that of a dirty kennel after a shower of rain, so that its appearance alone was sufficient to sicken one. Buts its dirty appearance was not its worst quality. It had such a rancid smell that to be in the same neighbourhood was enough to turn one's stomach.

(2) In 1860 the New York Commissioners of Emigration carried out an investigation into the treatment of female passengers on board ship bring immigrants from Europe to the United States.

The frequent complaints made by female emigrants arriving in New York of ill-treatment and abuse from the captains and other officers. caused us to investigate the subject; and from investigation we regret to say that after reaching the high seas the captain frequently selects some unprotected female from among the passengers, induces her to visit his cabin, and when there, abusing his authority as commander, partly by threats, and partly by promises of marriage, accomplishes her ruin, and retains her in his quarters for the rest of the voyage, for the indulgence of his vicious passions and the purposes of prostitution; other officers of the ship often imitate the example of their superior, and when the poor friendless woman, this seduced, arrive at this port, they are thrust upon shore and abandoned to their fate.

(3) Samuel Gompers and his family emigrated to the United States in the summer of 1863.

The Cigarmakers' Society Union of England, whose members were frequently unemployed and suffering, established an emigration fund - that is, instead of paying the members unemployment benefits, a sum of money was granted to help passage from England to the United States. The sum was not large, between five and ten pounds. This was a very practical method which benefited both the emigrants and those who remained by decreasing the number seeking work in their trade. After much discussion and consultation father decided to go to the New World. He had friends in New York City and a brother-in-law who proceeded us by six months to whom father wrote we were coming.

There came busy days in which my mother gathered together and packed our household belongings. Father secured passage on the City of London, a sailing vessel which left Chadwick Basin, June 10, 1863, and reached Castle Garden, July 29, 1863, after seven weeks and one day.

Our ship was the old type of sailing vessel. We had none of the modern comforts of travel. The sleeping quarters were cramped and we had to had to do our own cooking in the gallery of the boat. Mother had provided salt beef and other preserved meats and fish, dried vegetables, and red pickled cabbage which I remember most vividly. We were all seasick except father, mother the longest of all. Father had to do all the cooking in the meanwhile and take care of the sick. There was a Negro man employed on the boat who was very kind in many ways to help father. Father did not know much about cooking.

When we reached New York we landed at the old Castle Garden of lower Manhattan, now the Aquarium, where we were met by relatives and friends. As we were standing in a little group, the Negro who had befriended father on the trip, came off the boat. Father was grateful and as a matter of courtesy, shook hands with him and gave him his blessing. Now it happened that the draft and negro rights were convulsing New York City. Only that very day Negroes had been chased and hanged by mobs. The onlookers, not understanding, grew very much excited over father's shaking hands with this Negro. A crowd gathered round and threatened to hang both father and the Negro to the lamp-post.