Before the modern era of giant ocean liners and international passenger planes, most immigrants from overseas countries had to endure arduous and often dangerous voyages to the reach the United States.
After the United States became independent in the late eighteenth century, immigrants coming from Europe sailed on merchant ships that began their voyages from seaports along the coastlines of continental Europe and the British Isles. Most immigrants during that period were peasants with little money for travel who had to make their way from inland homes to the ports any way they could. Before railroads were developed, the fastest and most comfortable methods of inland travel in Europe were canal and river boats. However, their fares were often prohibitively expensive for immigrants, as were fares on public stagecoaches. Consequently, travelers walked, unless they owned carts and animals that they could sell when they reached their seaport destinations. Some immigrants had to travel overland more than three hundred miles, spending a month or more braving the dangers of the road–bad weather, con men eager to cheat them, bandits, and even wild animals.
During the early nineteenth century, overland travel in Europe became even more difficult, as governments put ever more bureaucratic obstacles in the way of travelers, especially those crossing national borders. Rights of transit were required in every country through which travelers passed. If the travelers lacked sufficient documentation to identify themselves, show they had paid their taxes in their home countries, or prove they had not evaded compulsory military service, or if they could not prove they had neither physical disabilities or diseases, they could be stopped and even turned back.
When immigrants finally reached seaports, there were no guarantees they would find passage on ships sailing to North America. Because many vessels had no firm sailing schedules, immigrants might have to wait in the port towns for weeks or even months to board departing ships. To complicate travel further, the ships’ captains often were not even certain to which ports in the New World they would be sailing, as their routes depended on the cargoes they would be carrying. Finally, after the ships loaded their cargoes and their captains determined their destinations, the captains would decide which passengers they would allow to sail with them.
After negotiating and paying their fares, the immigrants were allowed to board the ships. The poorest travelers were given accommodations in the ships’ steerage sections–the most crowded, least comfortable, and least desirable quarters, which were usually well below deck, toward the stern. Until the mid-nineteenth century, no government regulations dictated any health and safety standards for passenger accommodations aboard ships. As transatlantic crossings could take from six to ten weeks, steerage passengers generally faced exhausting ordeals.
In many ships, the steerage accommodations were located in parts of ships that were originally built to contain cargoes, not human beings. Individual quarters were tiny, with little light or ventilation. During stormy weather conditions, when the ships’ hatches were battened down, passengers often feared suffocating more than they did drowning, and went above deck, where they risked being washed overboard in heavy seas.
In some ships, as many as 400 to 1,000 men, women, and children were crowded in steerage sections as small as seventy-five long, twenty-five feet wide, and only five and one-half feet high–a total area of only eighteen hundred square feet. Passengers were provided with stoves and a few tables on which to cook and consume meals. The ships were supposed to supply food and drinking water, but inefficient and miserly management sometimes left passengers unsupplied for days at a time. Passengers aware of this possibility usually had the foresight to bring food supplies with them. Less provident passengers went hungry. Occasionally, they went so long without food they went mad.
Facilities for sanitary needs were limited. Enclosed water closets provided for female passengers were usually situated at the ends of steerage areas. Male passengers were expected to go above deck when they needed to relieve themselves. Water for washing was practically nonexistent. Rows of five-foot-long plank bunks lined the bulkheads, but many passengers simply slept on the decks. Some were wise enough to bring straw on which to sleep. To add to their discomfort, passengers were allowed above decks only infrequently, and typically at the captains’ whims. In bad weather, passengers could be kept belowdecks, without sunlight or fresh air, for days at a time.
A serious hazard of traveling by steerage was the fact that some passengers carried communicable diseases that could spread easily within the cramped steerage quarters. Smallpox, yellow fever, measles, cholera, dysentery, and other diseases could all be brought on board through carelessness or indifference. Stifling heat during warm-weather voyages and bitter cold during the winter voyages further aggravated health hazards. On one early voyage, 500 of 1,100 Germans on a single ship died before reaching America. That high mortality rate was exceptional, but mortality rates of 10 percent were common. After 1855, governments began regulating passenger ships, limiting the crowding, requiring medical doctors on ships with more than 300 passengers, and inspecting food supplies before ships sailed to make sure they were adequate for the voyages
The introduction of steam-powered oceangoing ships during the 1840’s began an era during which transatlantic travel conditions gradually began to improve for impoverished immigrants. As the earliest steam-powered passenger ships catered to wealthy travelers, immigrants found the obsolescent wooden sailing ships competing for their business. These ships lowered their fares, improved their accommodations, and began adhering to more regular departure schedules. By the 1870’s, steerage fares on steamships were even lower than those on sailing ships. In addition to cheaper fares, the steamships provided reliable meals. Even more important, however, was their speed. They could cross the Atlantic in as few as ten days, and they were largely immune to the vagaries of the winds that propelled sailing ships. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of European immigrants crossed the Atlantic on steamships every year. About 90 percent of them came by steerage.
Print made in 1882 depicting the various forms of transportation by which immigrants reach their destinations in America.
The first significant numbers of Asians who immigrated to the United States began arriving in California during the early 1850’s, by which time steamships were beginning to displace sailing ships on transpacific routes. The steamships that brought Asians to the West Coast were often owned by the same Americans who hired them to work on railroads and in gold mines. Because employers wanted their immigrant workers to be healthy and relatively strong when they arrived, the Asian immigrants were typically provided with less oppressive accommodations than those of Europeans arriving on the East Coast by steerage. American employers sometimes paid the Asian workers’ fares, but the immigrants were expected later to repay their transportation costs out of their wages.
By 1867, a regular transpacific steamship service connecting Asian ports to California was making transpacific travel more efficient. The
As the American western frontier opened up for settlement, many immigrants arriving on the East Coast soon headed west. Most had lived off the land in their home countries and were more familiar with farm life than with urban conditions. Those longing to own their own land set out on foot or on horseback. Those who had livestock and draft animals drove them ahead or had them pull their wagons loaded with their belongings. Some dragged or pushed crude, homemade three-wheeled carts piled high with their possessions.
Because few establishments along the immigrants’ overland routes offered meals and overnight accommodations, travelers had to carry their own supplies with them. Many travelers began their journeys on the
While stagecoaches were more comfortable and convenient than the kinds of overland conveyances that most immigrants used in their westward treks, travel by canal boats
The packet boats used on canals were often as narrow as only fourteen feet, but they could be from seventy to ninety feet in length. The boats had cabin space for as many as sixty passengers, along with space to carry mail and freight. They moved up and down artificial canals, pulled by two or three horses or mules walking along the adjacent banks. The provided generally smooth rides, and they were almost always considerably faster than most forms of surface travel. The great era of canal boat traveling lasted from 1784 to the 1850’s, when the rise of railroads revolutionized inland travel.
The development of steamboats had an even greater impact on inland travel than canals. One of the most outstanding geographical features of the United States is its Mississippi River system, which drains an area of more than 1,250,000 square miles encompassing all or parts of thirty-one states between the Rocky and Allegheny mountains. Virtually all 2,350 miles of the Mississippi itself between Minnesota and the Gulf of Mexico are navigable, as are long stretches of the dozens of rivers feeding into the Mississippi. Before the development of steam-powered boats in the early nineteenth century, the Mississippi was useful for transporting large cargoes and passengers in only one direction: downriver. Timber cut in the upper Midwest could easily be floated down the river, as could boats and rafts carrying other cargoes, but upriver voyages were too difficult to make carrying cargo or large numbers of people practical.
The introduction of steamboats to American waterways was one of the first great revolutions in inland travels. The first commercial passenger steamboats actually starting operating on the rivers of New England and other East Coast states, but they had their great impact on the Mississippi River system. By the 1830’s, several hundred steamboats were carrying passengers on the Mississippi and its major tributaries. By the 1850’s, arguably the golden age of steamboating, more than 1,000 boats were in service. Until railroads began supplanting them after the Civil War (1861-1865), steamboats became one of the major conveyances of immigrants to the frontier regions. Many European immigrants entered the United States at New Orleans, from which they could begin steamboat voyages into dozens of states. It was even possible to ride steamboats as far inland as Montana. Many immigrants rode steamboats to St. Joseph, Missouri, which they could continue farther west by overland routes.
The second great revolution in inland travel was the development of railroad networks across the country. By the end of the nineteenth century, no other form of passenger transportation could compete with the railroads for speed and carrying capacity. Major construction of railroad lines in the United States began during the 1840’s, when about 2,800 miles of tracks were laid–primarily in eastern states. By the 1860’s, more than 30,000 miles of tracks were in use, and work was beginning on the first transcontinental line, which would connect western Missouri with California. Other transcontinental lines would soon follow.
As American railroads expanded, immigrants gladly took advantage of this new form of travel to reach the Midwest to the lands west of the Mississippi River. Railroad companies were direct participants in the sale of undeveloped land to settlers, and they encouraged immigrants to ride their trains to inspect land for possible purchase. They often offered immigrants such inducements as cut-rate tickets and free carriage of household goods. Sometimes, they went so far as to offer financing to help immigrants buy land.
The trains on which the typically cash-strapped immigrants rode differed greatly from those catering to more prosperous travelers. Immigrants generally rode in what were essentially crowded and stuffy cars with narrow wooden benches, poor ventilation, and windows that could not be opened.
These cars were railroad equivalents of steerage quarters. Passengers wishing to eat had to prepare their own meals, and facilities for any kind of washing were often absent. Sleeping accommodations were fashioned from boards stretched across aisles between benches. Despite these spartan conditions, such railroad cars were a cut above the real boxcars often used to transport immigrants. Loaded with as many as sixty 60 or seventy passengers each, the boxcars were attached to freight and cattle trains and were often filthy because they were also used to transport cattle.
Bettmann, Otto L. The Good Old Days–They Were Terrible. New York: Random House, 1974. This volume’s chapter on travel during the post-Civil War era discusses conditions faced by immigrants traveling by steerage on ships and by train. Illustrated. Calkins, Carroll, ed. The Story of America. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader’s Digest Association, 1975. Illustrated general history of the United States containing chapters discussing how immigrants traveled. Davidson, Marshall. Life in America. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. Generously illustrated work on U.S. history with chapters devoted to both travel and immigrants. Dublin, Thomas, ed. Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773-1986. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Collection of accounts of immigrants’ lives in America that includes immigrant travel narratives. Flayhart, William. The American Line: Pioneers of Ocean Travel. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. History of the early disasters and triumphs of the American Steamship Company, the first American transatlantic line that competed directly with European lines. Includes lengthy discussions of shipboard conditions for immigrants. Levy, Janey. Erie Canal: A Primary Source History of the Canal That Changed America. New York: Rosen, 2003. Discusses both the building of the Erie Canal and the canal’s impact on the transportation of goods and people into Louisiana Territory. Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén Rumbaut. Immigrant America: A Portrait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Broad study of immigration containing chapters devoted to immigrant movements to and within the United States. Ray, Kurt. New Roads, Canals, and Railroads in Early Nineteenth-Century America: The Transportation Revolution. New York: Rosen, 2004. Discusses how new forms of transportation opened the frontiers and changed life in America. Most suitable for juvenile readers.
Haitian boat people
Pacific Mail Steamship Company
Smuggling of immigrants