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Introduction to the Immigration Commision Report on Steerage Conditions (1911)

Prior to the act of 1819, “Regulating passenger ships and vessels,” (Note a) there was no law of the United States for the protection of passengers at sea. In 1796, Congress, at the instance of States having seaports, passed a law directing revenue officers “to aid in the execution of the quarantine and also in the execution of the health laws of the States.” (Note b)  

Again, in 1799, it was decreed by Congress “ that quarantine and other restraints which shall be required and established by the health laws of any State or pursuant thereto, respecting any vessels * * * shall be duly observed by the collectors and other officers of the revenue o the United States.”  (Note c)  

These laws were intended to protect persons already in the country rather than those journeying to or from it in ships, but the act of 1819, above referred to, was the first national legislative attempt to improve conditions surrounding immigrants during the then long voyage across the Atlantic. This law limited the number of passengers to be carried and specified the amount and kind of foo to be provided. It is of interest also that under this law the recording of data relative to immigration to the United States was first provided for.

The introduction of steam as a motive power in ocean transportation and the enormous increase in the tide of immigration necessitated further legislation relative to the transportation of immigrants, the history of which is told in a special report of the Commission upon that subject.“ (Note d)

The latest general revision of the law upon this subject occurred in 1882, when “An act to regulate the carriage of passengers by sea ” (Note e) was enacted. Section 1 of this act was subsequently amended, (Note f) but otherwise it has remained unchanged.

The unamended act of 1882 was in force when the Immigration C0mmission’s investigation of steerage conditions was made.

There has never before been thorough investigations of steerage conditions by national authority, but such superficial investigations as have been made, and the many nonofficial inquiries as well, have invariably disclosed evil and revolting conditions.

The high percentage of sickness and death, which attended immigration by sea during the sailing-vessel period, has been practically eliminated by reducing the length of time required for the voyage, and perhaps also in part by the greater precautions in this regard taken by steamship companies; but improvements along other lines are much less conspicuous.

The steerage on some ships at the present time is entirely unobjectionable, but both unobjectionable and revolting steerage conditions may and do exist on the same ship.

It is the purpose of this report to show steerage conditions exactly as they were found, but, what is of more importance, it will show also that there is no reason why the disgusting and demoralizing conditions, which have generally prevailed in the steerages of immigrant ships, should continue. This has been amply demonstrated by experiences of the Commission’s agents, and the Commission believes that the better type of steerage should and can be made general instead of exceptional, as is the case at the present time.

The report on steerage conditions is based on information obtained by special agents of the Immigration Commission traveling as steerage passengers on 12 different trans-Atlantic steamers and on observation of the steerage in 2 others, as well as on ships of every coastwise line carrying immigrants from one United States port to another. Because the investigation was carried on during the year 1908, when, owing to the industrial depression, immigration was very light, the steerage was seen practically at its best. Overcrowding with all its concomitant evils was absent. What the steerage is when travel is heavy and all the compartments filled to their entire capacity can readily be understood_ from what was actually found. In reading this report, then, let it be remembered that not extreme but comparatively favorable conditions are here depicted.

Note a: 1 U. S. Stat. L., p. 54, sec. 4 (Resume from Note a)

Note b: 1 U. S. Stat. L., p. 474 (Resume from Note b)

Note c: 1 U. S. Stat. L., p. 619 (Resume from Note c)

Note d: See Steerage Legislation, 1819-1908. Reports of the Immigration Commission, vol. 40 (Resume from Note d)

Note e: Appendix A (Resume from Note e)

Note f : Appendix B (Resume from Note f)

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