Immigration Before the Quota - 1924
Castle Garden Immigrant Depot, NY. nd circa 1870s. Stereograph by A. J. Fisher, NY. Library of Congress # 2017648898. GGA Image ID # 148286dd3a
Immigrants, Unlisted, uninspected, with or without means of support so far as anybody knew or cared to see, they were free to swarm onshore. With a rush and a shout, the tumultuous crowd fled from their fetid quarters. It bounded onshore, becoming almost at once and by those simple act citizens of the Great Republic!
Waiting for the cry of "All ashore!" the sea-worn steerage passengers of the coppered and copper-fastened brig Europa, twenty-one days out from Liverpool, hung over the rail while the little merchant packet was being warped into her Berth at the foot of Wall Street, interfering with the preparations of the sailors for knotting her, stem and stern, to the pier.
In the long hours after they had seen the lighthouse on Cape Cod few of them had slept and not many of them had prepared a meal, routine having been interrupted by the glorious hope of a landing.
The steerage itself had been like a bedlam, women packing trunks and chests, men tying up uncouth bundles. children crying because they were neglected except for a push out of the way or a slap administered to give them something to cry for.
Then this task was interrupted by a word, and on deck swarmed the emigrants again to cluster round the bows and watch the sail drawing near that brought the pilot.
Once on board and the ship's guidance in his hand, by short tacks she passed through the Narrows so close to shore at times that the delighted passengers could almost snatch a leaf from an overhanging tree, while as they passed Staten Island and held their breath in fear lest a Quarantine officer should come out to detain the ship, they mechanically counted the whitewashed buildings on the hillside end the scores of vessels lying here at anchor.
Sailing up the bay but too slow for their impatience, they saw New York at last, outpost of the promised land! Houses and steeples took the place of waves and whitecaps! Governors Island, Castle Garden, the East River! Would the sailors never drop anchor?
Paying little attention to the boats that clustered around the ship or to the shouting, waving people crowding the pier, the single concern of the steerage passengers was their baggage.
Unlisted, uninspected, with or without means of support so far as anybody knew or cared to know, they were free to swarm on shore. With a rush and a shout the tumultuous crowd fled from their fetid quarters and bounded on shore, becoming almost at once and by that simple act citizens of the Great Republic!
Yes, it was as easy as that – yesterday. For these were the days of what is called the "old immigration." before the topic soon to become and to continue to be a national worry was agitated—whether the hordes of foreign poor should be permitted to land on our American shores.
"These people have a right to come," cried a writer of 1837, "because the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world and, although they bring all the miseries of Europe with them, let them come if they can get here!"
To get here was the trick, that is, to be able to survive the horrors of a passage in an emigrant ship, occupying, if she were a greyhound of that day. from eighteen to twenty-one days, but frequently lengthening her voyage to thirty, forty and more.
The privation they might have to endure in the new country, the misery they had left at home, both were insignificant beside the incidents of that awful voyage.
Today it is different. Immigrants brought over by the great passenger fleet fare better than the cabin passengers of the rude 1840s. They are no longer herded like cattle; they are not compelled to furnish their own food nor to prepare it; they have their own staterooms and their own deck; in a word, the drawbacks of a steerage passage nowadays are what the steerage passengers themselves supply. All they need dread is the Quota.
So used have we become to discussions about the benefits and the disadvantages of the quota and the other immigration laws that preceded it on the State and Federal statute books that we have forgotten that it was only between the years 1837 and 1841 that the subject began to interest Congress and laws were passed restricting: ships to a limited number of emigrants, according to a certain rate.
About the same time laws were made in England to compel the provision of a fixed supply of food for every emigrant embarking from a British port. For several years thereafter these laws of either country remained ornamental, they were not enforced, nor did it seem likely that any legislation would reach and improve the hard lot of the emigrant.
Legislation tinkered with the problem through many years (legislation is tinkering with it still) and one may judge how urgent it was when it is recalled that the immigration flood had swollen before 1914 to more than a million annually.
Long before the law of quota was passed in 1917 other means had been discussed and some measures tried, compelling: immigrants to pass all sorts of tests or be deported. When the sailing vessel as a means of transport gave way to steamships a place of reception had to be provided while the immigrants' claim to a right to enter was being considered.
How slowly we moved, how dilatory were our methods, may be realized when we remark the date of the setting apart of Ellis Island as a reception center for immigrants. The United States Government took it over in 1890 and opened it two years later. Before that recent time and for the same purposes, Castle Garden had been used and incidentally the Barge Office.
Around 1870 the Government first began really to tackle the problem, learning its early and elementary lessons of inspection at Castle Garden. Strange sounds and stranger sights began to be seen and heard in that quaint building around which still faintly lingers an aroma of society and Jenny Lind.
Are there ancient employees of the Immigration Bureau still living and working who recall the old days of Castle Garden, Barge Office and the early occupation of Ellis Island?
Three or four of these worthies have been connected with the department for fifty years and more and they, happily, are full and running over with anecdotes of the old days.
A particularly vivid memory of Bookkeeper Murphy at Ellis Island is that he began business life at Castle Garden for a wage of $1,50 per week. He wasn't a bookkeeper then, being employed to help "hustle the baggage."
Also he used to see more of the immigrants in those days than be does now. for his ordinary View; of the possible new citizens of the: present is when, all preliminaries settled, they pass out of the building on their way to the city.
"Friendly souls I used to find many of the newcomers in them days, for mostly the grist was from Ireland and it was from little old Ireland I come myself. Plenty of young lads were among them and I could take them around the Battery and up as far north as Fourteenth Street, for there were no prisoners in Castle Garden in my time.
"Here and there one of the young fellows would be after wanting to stay in New York and these were the boys I showed the town after my work was done.
But mainly then, and it is pretty near so today, the Irish came over in families. There would be the old grandfather and the man and his wife and their children; over they come all altogether and after the 'free land.' Mostly, too, they went West to find it.
"That ignorant they were of what was before them but nothing daunted! The oldest of 'em wasn't frightened at my talk of Indians and all the bogys I scared up, for I liked to have my jokes.
They just shut their faces and nodded. There couldn't anything be worse than what they had been through, for they knew the big famine. And ignorant as they was they didn't talk much to show it.
"I mind a little fellow who found a potato in the grass outside the garden and come runnin' to his mother, crying:
"Mother, you need not be hungry anymore, they has potaties here!"
"Was we crowded at Castle Garden? Well, mostly not. It was comfortable enough to what I have seen here. A handful as we'd say now. mostly Irish. Welsh and Cornish, coming over on the Black Ball Line and the Top Scott Line.
A jolly crowd, taking things as they come and singing in the top of the morning as well as at night. Hardship beyond belief they had on some of the packets, but they made light of 'em and bore nobody a grudge.
They made up songs about the ships and well do I remember how they would laugh as they sang about the yellow meal which was about all the food some ships provided and tired they got of the color of it before they struck New York. Someone would start it and they would all burst out:
Bad tuck to Captain Top Scoff,
And his dirty old yellow meal!
''Had they money to take them to their journey's end? Yes, mainly they had when they came as families, but the boys that came over alone didn't many of 'em have a bawbee.
It was the custom then to let the young men do some work around the Garden, and anyway I never knew of anybody going hungry. The immigrants with money to buy food were, willing to share it with those who were strapped. And the hearty way they did it saved a man from feeling like a pauper.
"As I tell you, I was but a lad those days and just beginning life. and I've, forgotten many things or remember them only when I hear somebody discoursing about old times, but this I get right, all my time over in Castle Garden was more of a picnic than it was work.
The people coming over was a class I understood; we thought about the same things and when I got a chance to rest I didn't run off home, but could sit down in comfort and listen to one of them immigrants tell about Ireland. It ain't the same about here now, nor it couldn't be. This has grown to be a big business, and nobody has any time to waste in talk.'*
Another old employee at Ellis Island is Miss Prokupek of the Information Department. She began her long career in Castle Garden and has witnessed all the changes and heard (and refuted) all the criticisms which have been aimed at the bureau since Washington took it over from Albany.
She has not missed a day in her long service of fifty years except during the war, when a very small part of the force was needed to answer the questions of the few immigrants landed at Ellis Island during: a little less than two years. This period of enforced inactivity is not pleasant for her to dwell upon.
Inspector Sven Smith, a Scandinavian born, is Miss Prokupek's contemporary. Like her. he felt lost when the Island was full of soldiers and sailors and his occupation was temporarily gone. He is at his inspection desk every day and can do a longer day's work there without weariness than most of his younger assistants. Said Sven Smith:
"I began at Castle Garden when the head tax of 50 cents was first levied on the immigrants. Colonel Weber, late Congressman, had come over from Washington to take charge.
He was a fine man, a big-hearted man. If an immigrant proved that ho was penniless, the Colonel used to lend him enough to pay his railway fare to where he wanted to go and he took the money for this out of the head tax fund. I recollect well there was a row about it and an investigating committee.
"I never blamed the Colonel, for whoever got the help was deserving of it. It was a fine, upstanding crowd we used to get in those days at the old Castle, mostly strong young men with their wives, bound to be a credit to any country. No sniveling and all hoping for the best.
You could see these boys would all get work and that they did. It's different now with the Italians, Slovaks, and Poles. But I don't want to judge them, and I guess they do the best they can.
"The accommodations at Castle Garden were pretty good: oh yes. pretty good, considering. When we had a crowd and the barges kept bringing more people, we were pretty hard put to it finding places for them all to sleep.
I've seen hundreds of men stretched out on the floor of the old Castle, and there wasn't any more room betwixt them than there is between sardines in a box.
But we got along all right and never knew how lucky we were until the Government said we couldn't stay at Castle Garden any longer and moved us over to the Barge Office. There we were up against it. had to make beds frequently in the filing rooms and use the papers for mattresses.
"In those days when anybody was detained for any reason, including I observation for a disease, we sent them over to Ward's Island. A part of that island was given up for our use."
The old Inspector stroked his head to rind a reply to the question of the biggest number of immigrants that had to be housed in Castle Garden in his day. At last he said: "Well. I guess it was in 1888, the blizzard year. A regular fleet of ships had to lie off on account of the storm and then they all came up together. We had 9,000 to take care of and it was pretty crowded.
"The best times I've seen around here—on Hill is Island—were in the first years when we had the wooden buildings. Everybody was clean and comfortable and happy. I don't know what there was about it, but the old wooden buildings seemed more homelike.
"Our job was harder then than now; we didn't have manifests and we had to find out everybody's name and write it down. When you come to write down some of the outlandish names these people bring over you find that it takes a lot of time.
I'm referring to the date now when everything was different, to the time when people mostly came from my country or from Great Britain. As soon as South Europe got wind of this country about 75 percent, of the immigration began coming from there—yes, easy—70 anyway."
After the destruction by fire of the buildings on Ellis Island the Bureau was taken back to the Barge Office to await the construction of new buildings and considerable enlargement. Then, said Sven Smith, lüs work in the Inspection Department was abridged as to hours, for It did not take so long to convey the immigrants to that center.
"Expedition in the work here does not always depend on our force in the building:," said he, "and it varies with steamboat companies. Some lines never will learn how to handle immigrants quickly, the Italian lines do it fastest.
When we know that an Italian ship is in with, say, 1,000 steerage passengers, we get ready to look 'em over, for we are sure they will be here within three or four hours. And there are other lines which take all of a day to get 400 immigrants over to the island."
If ever the case of The Immigrants vs. Ellis Island comes up for judgment in a court not presided over by Idle Gossip stanch witnesses for the good conduct of the bureau are to be found in the ancient servants who have spoken here.
It may be true that it is the glamour of youth which makes Castle Garden and the first state of Ellis Island look rosier than they actually were, but these veteran persons see no wrong in the present state of things.
They have heard immigrants describe in many tongues what may be translated as the detention pens of European ports and none of the evils they enumerated is to be found in America.
The bookkeeper put it: "Sure, and it's a palace they think they come into when once they pass the big door!" Said Sven Smith: "When there was no quota the immigrants of the old days couldn't fairly complain of Castle Garden; now with the new quota they will not be able fairly to complain of Ellis Island."
"Immigration Before There Was A Quota: Recollections of the Days When Castle Garden Received the Incoming Alien Crew," in The New York Times, 18 May 1924, p. 124.