An Emigrant’s Narrative; or, A Voice from the Steerage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“We had been five nights and nearly four days with only one hatchway . . . open for a few hours at a time . . . breathing the close, polluted, and unhealthy atmosphere constantly in all ships, especially immigrant ships, where large numbers of human beings are crowded together in a small space.”

Summary Overview

During the mid-nineteenth century, millions of European immigrants willingly undertook the long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to take a chance on a new life in the United States. Many of these immigrants had little money and traveled in the steerage, the cheapest, most crowded and unhygienic accommodations on the transatlantic ships of the era. The crossing was thus fraught with dangers ranging from shipwreck to theft to disease. In the late 1840s, William Smith became one of many immigrants who chose to leave his native home and family to undertake the trip to the United States. His personal narrative of his experiences aboard the ship India as a steerage passenger traveling from Liverpool, England, to New York City exemplifies the experience of many millions of other immigrants to the United States.

Defining Moment

The US population grew greatly during the mid-nineteenth century, from about 12.9 million people in 1830 to about 35.4 million people on the eve of the Civil War in 1860. Immigration fueled much of this increase. In 1860, more than 4.1 million US residents, about 13 percent of the total national population, had been born in a foreign country. The overwhelming majority of these immigrants came from Europe, particularly from Germany and Ireland, whose combined total of roughly 2.9 million immigrants accounted for more than two-thirds of the US foreign-born populace. The third-highest contributor of immigrants was Great Britain, with other northwestern European countries and Canada filling in most of the remainder; significant immigration from the rest of the world, including southern and eastern Europe, would not begin for another thirty years.

Most immigrants to the United States were of modest backgrounds, with few financial resources to secure a comfortable passage in a ship cabin. Instead, they negotiated with ship captains or middlemen to crowd into commercial sailing vessels, populating the steerage, a below-decks area often between the highest surface deck and the lower cargo and storage areas. The mid-nineteenth-century steerage deck was, at its best, cramped and uncomfortable; ceiling heights could lie as low as five and a half feet, and the overall dimensions of the space were often about seventy-five by twenty-five feet. Nearly all available space was crowded with furniture: wide bunk beds shared by several passengers at once, long tables where travelers sat and passed the time, and the meager possessions and supplies of perhaps hundreds of people. Travelers shared these tight quarters for an average of forty days on the most common transatlantic route from Liverpool to New York City. Although the development of steam technology enabled some ships to make the crossing in just over two weeks, most immigrants traveled on older and cheaper sailing ships. Unsurprisingly, disease spread quickly in the crowded environs, and it was common for about 10 percent of passengers to die on crossings during this era, though the mortality rate increased to about 20 percent in 1847.

Not all passengers shared in the steerage experience. Wealthier passengers had the means to purchase passage in more comfortable and more private cabins, sometimes on steamships and sometimes on the very same ships that housed the masses below decks. The most impoverished travelers lacked even the ability to pay for steerage accommodations, instead paying a pittance for passage on empty cargo ships returning to North America without a commercial haul.

Author Biography

Little is known of William Smith outside of the content of his narrative. From this document, however, a handful of significant biographical details emerge. Smith was a native of England and had, prior to his emigration, lived in the industrial center of Manchester, where he worked as a power loom weaver as part of the city’s bustling textiles sector. Although the author comments that he was poorly educated, he was apparently literate, as no editor or amanuensis is mentioned as assisting in the creation of his narrative. Smith’s family situation—he was married with a young child—suggests that he was, like most US immigrants, mature but still relatively young, perhaps in his twenties, at the time of his passage. His decision to emigrate seems to have stemmed largely from a combination of factors. He was attracted to the United States for its history of freedom and liberty from what Smith saw as the tyrannical government of England. Furthermore, he believed there to be good economic opportunities in the growing country. Indeed, Smith reports that after settling in the United States, he found work as a straw-hat presser in New York City and was soon sufficiently financially secure to send for his family.

Smith’s personal history resembles that of many who joined the growing US population during this era. Like Smith, many immigrants chose to leave their lands due to political or economic factors. During the first half of the nineteenth century, labor mobility increased throughout much of Europe as the first wave of industrialization produced new employment opportunities in certain urban areas. Thus, the era saw first a rural-to-urban shift within Europe and then, increasingly, a shift outward to the United States.

Many of Smith’s fellow emigrants hailed from places with even more intense incentives to emigrate. Ireland underwent a devastating famine during the mid- to late 1840s that forced the migration of close to two million people. Political turmoil and crop failures in Germany pushed migration from central Europe. Yet Smith shared some particularly important key characteristics with others of these disparate groups. Like many immigrants, he had family in his home country and, after arriving in the United States, became able to send for that family. On a broad scale, this series of events set off a migration chain that drew increasing numbers of new immigrants to the United States for years to come.

Document Analysis

Published by the author in 1850, An Emigrant’s Narrative; or, A Voice from the Steerage was written as a brief account of Smith’s experiences crossing the Atlantic during late 1847—a year of particularly high immigration to the United States from Europe, yet still some time before the steady flow of people from one continent to the other led to the more formalized migration procedures and regulations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As such, the narrative provides a valuable and personal view of the challenges typical of the movements of this era. Smith’s experiences, although extremely difficult, were by no means unique; his story, written soon after his crossing and thus relatively unclouded by the passage of time, offers the reader a window into the motivations and experiences of an antebellum immigrant.

Smith opens his narrative with a discussion of the events immediately preceding his departure for the United States from the British city of Liverpool. This port was the most common departure point for people not only from Great Britain but also from Ireland, a much greater source of emigrants during this era, due to the great famine and poverty afflicting the latter island. Liverpool had been a major hub of the British slave trade before the practice was abolished in 1807; over 40 percent of all enslaved Africans transported to the Americas passed through the city. After the slave trade ended, the city retained its position as a leading commercial shipper and continued its practice of transporting human, albeit now voluntary, cargo. Ships bearing cotton and other goods entered Liverpool from the United States and Canada and returned to those shores with their holds filled in part with immigrants, with the physical difference in size between US agricultural products and British industrial and manufactured goods allowing for the additional passenger space. By the late 1840s, a substantial portion of Irish immigrants traveled from Ireland via cheap steamboats to Liverpool, where they then booked passage on one of the many vessels traveling to New York City. The sheer volume of ships traveling along this route—more than 450 ships in 1851, carrying nearly 160,000 passengers—made the cost of traveling from Liverpool less expensive than from other points of disembarkation.

Thus, Smith joined with many other immigrants when he left his residence in Manchester to travel to Liverpool to seek passage in the steerage, the cheapest and most heavily populated deck on a transatlantic ship. The ships’ dual role as carriers of both goods and humans is apparent in Smith’s complaints that the ship was delayed for several days as its crew awaited the arrival of its physical cargo; from the perspective of the shipping lines, these physical goods were the main reason for the voyage, with the human passengers simply providing a relatively cheap and plentiful way to fill space that would have otherwise remained empty. Smith notes the migrants were forced to wait yet another day after the arrival of the iron bars and earthenware goods because of a leak in the ship that needed to be repaired. Despite maintenance issues such as these, Liverpool’s sailing ships were among the largest and most seaworthy plying the Atlantic at the time, providing another reason for Liverpool’s appeal for migrants.

Yet the requisite stopover in Liverpool could present its own series of challenges to travelers. Smith comments that the Irish travelers who made up the bulk of the ship’s passengers were forced to eat some of the food that they had brought for the journey and, presumably, to spend some of their limited funds on lodging at one of the dock area’s many rooming houses while awaiting departure “without the means of obtaining more.” The passengers sought to remedy the situation by appealing to the shipping line for the compensation legally owed them for each day of the delay—a law comparable to modern regulations requiring airlines to pay travelers a small sum in the event of a lengthy flight delay—but the shipping company refused. After the passengers complained to a British government overseer, the shipping company stated that it would pay the immigrants their due but instead tricked them into boarding the ship by promising them their stipend on board. There, they received a much-reduced payment and a small amount of food, but they were unable to complain again to the government because the ship moved away from the docks to prevent their disembarking. Taking advantage of passengers was quite common. Businesses overcharged them for provisions, middlemen sold them tickets for passage on ships that did not exist, and petty thieves preyed on them.

Despite these troubles, the moment of departure was often a bittersweet one. Emigrants living in an era without ready long-distance communication—even the transatlantic telegraph was still some years in the future—left their home countries, friends, and families for what was quite possibly the rest of their lives. Smith admits that the departure strongly affected him even though he had spent several days hoping for nothing more than to commence his belated journey from Liverpool; he had, he explains, “voluntarily exiled myself from all that was near and dear to me in my native country” for what he acknowledges was the great uncertainly of improved economic success in the United States. In this, Smith broke from most of his fellow passengers, who were driven by hunger to join in the mass migration from famine-stricken Ireland to the Americas in 1847.

About three weeks into the voyage, the India began to experience the difficult traveling conditions that afflicted so many emigrant vessels. Storms and rough seas caused poorly secured personal goods and provisions to be destroyed, and Smith reports that the impoverished travelers wailed as they saw all of their possessions lost. Larger problems loomed as the steerage travelers were confined to their deck for the duration of the storm. Smith asserts that steerage passengers “were unable to breathe the pure air or see the light of heaven but a few hours at a time.” Bad weather forced the travelers below decks to remain in their cramped quarters without access to fresh air; their only source of ventilation was the hatches leading to the deck above, and these were closed in poor conditions, with the steerage passengers required to remain below.

The resulting combination of human waste, body odor, vomit, and other smells produced by people in close and unhygienic quarters was notoriously foul. Smith and his shipmates spent several days under these conditions, becoming so disgusted by their surroundings that they physically jockeyed for position to climb up to the main decks for fresh air after the weather cleared enough that they hatchways could again be opened. The year following Smith’s migration, the United States instituted new regulations for ships bringing immigrants to its shores, requiring the steerage deck to have permanent ventilation and hatchways that could remain open in all weather. These measures did not necessarily bring about a significant transformation, however, as passengers sometimes blocked up the ventilators to prevent the cold sea air from seeping into the steerage. Later passengers still endured the foul, polluted air that passengers traveling in better classes reported smelling as it wafted upwards from the steerage.

Given the lack of hygiene among the steerage passengers, disease was, unsurprisingly, a common and dire problem aboard immigrant ships. During the nineteenth century, pest-, water-, and airborne diseases such as typhus, cholera, dysentery, and the measles were spread easily, understood poorly, and difficult to treat effectively. Passengers in the steerage were particularly prone to these diseases because of the conditions below decks. Typhus, for example, was commonly called ship fever due to its strong association with sea travel. Transmitted by lice and fleas, typhus could break out quickly and spread widely throughout the steerage passengers, causing fever, rashes, delirium, and numerous other painful symptoms. A lack of understanding of the disease and a paucity of effective treatment options meant that many of those who contracted typhus died on ship, and the year that the India crossed was a particularly deadly one. Emigrants who died aboard the India were committed to the sea in a ceremony that Smith describes as “far more impressive than those that take place on land.” The corpse was wrapped and weighted to ensure that it sank, draped with the British flag, and given a brief ceremony on deck before being pushed overboard. Although those who died at sea were not granted the possibility of being buried near home or family, the practicalities of this method cannot be denied; disease-ridden corpses carried with them the possibility of generating more illness, and the stench of decomposition would have added to the already-rank conditions of the steerage.

Along with continuing struggles with ship fever, the passengers faced an outbreak of dysentery. A disease transmitted by contaminated food or water, dysentery causes diarrhea, fever, and severe dehydration. Without proper medical treatment, the illness can cause death within a short time, and it had the potential to be devastating within the close confines of the steerage. The combination of the extended trip and the outbreak of disease sorely tried the passengers’ flagging spirits. “To have a friend well this hour, sick the next, and in a few hours more, dead, and thrown overboard before his remains are cold, is indeed awful!” Smith writes. Although Smith does not identify it, the passengers may also have endured cholera, another common shipboard illness of the time with symptoms quite similar to those of dysentery. Smith himself contracted a disease that left him dehydrated and weak for much of the journey, becoming so ill that he was unable to go above decks on his own. An acquaintance he made during the journey was so certain that he would be unable to survive after reaching land that he wrote to Smith’s family to erroneously inform them of his death.

Aside from disease, migrants also often worried about the possibility of shipwreck. Mid-nineteenth-century sailing vessels were typically small ships easily buffeted by high winds and rough seas, and ships traveling during the winter—as the India was—were especially at risk from inclement weather. Although records indicate that occurrences of migrant ships sinking were actually quite rare, steerage passengers did have valid cause for concern. Lifeboats were generally inadequate for the number of people aboard ship, and space on them was likely to go to the crew or to passengers traveling in more expensive cabins in the event that they were needed. Ships might be destroyed by high waves or breached by icebergs; inflammable materials aboard wooden ships could contribute to fires that would rapidly consume the vessels. These concerns likely contributed to the differences in opinion aboard the India as to the wisdom of the captain’s decision to steer a longer but warmer course through the Atlantic. Passengers worried that an unexpected event could cause a dramatic and unavoidable loss of life were likely pleased that the ship took what seemed to be a safer route. Those who, like Smith, feared the danger of illness in the close quarters of the ship were less supportive.

The lengthier journey proved to be a strenuous one. The dysentery outbreak began at a time when a direct route may have already placed the passengers on land, and food and water supplies dwindled as the voyage stretched on. Laws required ships to carry a certain amount of provisions for their passengers, but the extended duration of the trip strained these resources, and some passengers, having lost many of their own provisions during the storms early in the voyage, were forced to rely on extremely limited food. This surely contributed to the death toll aboard the ship, as Smith states that toward the end of the journey he received just a pint of water each day—an amount insufficient to rehydrate a person suffering from the effects of dysentery or some other fever.

Eight weeks after setting sail from Liverpool on a journey that normally took about forty days, the India and its hungry, diseased, and greatly diminished passengers at last sighted land. The effect on the passengers and crew was immediate and, by Smith’s account, quite dramatic: “Some fell upon their knees and thanked God for his mercy to them, some wept for joy, others capered about, exhibiting extravagant demonstrations of joy.” Soon after, the ship arrived at Staten Island, where the ship’s migrants entered the country through a quarantine station; the first formal US immigration station at Castle Garden, New York City, did not open until 1855, with Ellis Island following in 1892. Yet Smith’s account attests that official immigration proceedings existed despite the lack of a formal base of operations. A health official visited the ship to usher all of the sickened passengers into a local hospital for a period of quarantine intended to prevent the spread of infectious disease from the ship to the mainland. Such health inspections endured well into the mass immigrations of the early twentieth century, as passengers arriving at Ellis Island underwent brief medical examinations before being permitted entry. Smith’s experiences aboard the India, with its unsanitary conditions, close crowding, and rampant disease, readily show the necessity of these measures.

Smith’s own “disastrous voyage” across the Atlantic ended in January of 1848, but his challenges—and successes—as an immigrant did not. He spent some time in the Staten Island immigration station recovering his strength after his shipboard illness. Even after his release into the city, he found himself with little money, no place to stay, no family to count on, and no job. Unlike Smith, many immigrants to the United States were part of a migration chain that provided them with an immediate source of support after their arrival in the country. Nevertheless, Smith eventually got back on his feet thanks to the help of a kindly stranger and established himself in New York, sending for his own family to join him there and so creating a migration chain himself. Thus his story stands as one among many similar experiences by the millions of European immigrants who swelled the US population during the mid-nineteenth century.

Essential Themes

The European immigrant experience during the mid-nineteenth century, like that discussed in Smith’s narrative, had significant short- and long-term effects on the United States. In the short run, the difficulties faced by passengers in steerage, like those on the India,prompted greater governmental regulation of the ships providing passage to immigrants; within years of Smith’s voyage, for example, new laws were instituted requiring increased ventilation of the steerage deck and stipulating that each passenger be assigned a certain, albeit still small, amount of individual space. The volume of immigration also increased the number of ports providing regular passage from Europe, with a notable number of passages originating in places such as Bremen, Germany, from the early 1850s. The incidence of disease encouraged stronger oversight of passenger health upon arrival, with quarantine stations holding sickly arrivals until they either recovered or died. Historical experience justified these policies, as immigrants from ships like the India probably contributed to significant outbreaks of cholera and typhus in port cities as early as the 1830s.

Immigrants to the United States from Ireland, Great Britain, and Germany helped swell the country’s population greatly during the antebellum era. Immigrants from poor backgrounds often became domestic servants, workers in the growing Northern industrial sector, and unskilled laborers. Immigrants also settled parts of the agricultural Midwest and generally contributed to the westward expansion of the country; in later years, immigrants provided labor vital the construction of railroads and other economic infrastructure. Yet immigration also contributed to social, political, and cultural conflict. Discrimination against Irish immigrants due to their poverty and their adherence to Roman Catholicism sparked a nativist movement. The heavy influx of Germans during the mid-nineteenth century influenced US neutrality in the early years of World War I, although German Americans were subject to growing discrimination and distrust after the country entered the war.

In the broader sense, the story of immigration is tightly bound up with the story of the United States. Unlike most Asian, African, and European countries, the modern United States largely reflects the influence of the diverse peoples who moved there beginning in the late 1500s. Thus the immigrant story, like Smith’s narrative, lies at the heart of the US cultural experience; the benefits of freedom and the promise of economic opportunity, the two main driving factors cited by Smith, have become inextricably linked with US cultural identity and remain an incentive for immigrants to the country to this day.

  • Bergquist, James M. Daily Life in Immigrant America, 1820–1870. Chicago: Dee, 2008. Print.
  • Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002. Print.
  • Jones, Maldwyn A. Destination America. London: Weidenfeld, 1976. Print.
  • Smith, William. An Emigrant’s Narrative; or, A Voice from the Steerage. New York, 1850. Print.
  • United States. Bureau of the Census. Historical Statistics of the United States, 1785–1945. Washington: US Dept. of Commerce, 1949. Print.
  • Van Vugt, William E. Britain to America: Mid-Nineteenth-Century Immigrants to the United States. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1999. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. Princeton: Perennial, 2002. Print.
  • Dinnerstein, Leonard, and David M. Reimers. Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration. New York: Columbia UP, 1999. Print.

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