Browse The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives Home Page

VII. Weekend in Steerage - 1888

A Sham Immigrant's Voyage to New York in 1888

Saturday and Sunday were days of smooth running. I was growing acquainted with my fellow-passengers by this time and found them worth cultivating. As to nationality they were English, Irish, Welsh, Scotch and French. A majority of them had the makings of excellent citizens in them. I made some acquaintances -- friends, if they will own me when this article shows them that I sailed under false colors -- for whose character, intelligence and valuable attributes of manhood and womanhood my respect was sincere. There were also a few -- only a few -- mentally and physically foul, whom -- well, one wouldn't have mourned to see them drown. I think there were none for whom there was not a reasonable outlook for self-support. They told me their stories very readily, not thrilling stories, the short and simple annals of the poor.

The most interesting group to me among our passengers was bound for the mining districts of Ohio. It centred about a fresh-complexioned girl whose brother and whose lover had been in the States two years. They had done well, had become mining contractors in a small way, and there was to be a wedding when the Aurania came to port.

The father and mother could not let their daughter leave them and had packed the household goods for a general migration. They came from the potteries district of England and were farming folk. There had been many bad years, they said, and they had sunk several hundred pounds. They had opened a small shop and sunk money in that. Now they were bringing two younger children to America, where they hoped bread would come easier. The brother and the lover had built a double house for the united family and there was great talk of expected surprises in the furnishing.

The bride-elect showed me photographs and souvenirs from friends at home and the signatures of her class of Sunday school children. She was afraid she should be too late for the fruit canning this fall, but said that Western neighbors, or neighbors-elect, were putting up a good many jars against her coming.

With this family traveled a slight, refined girl, who had been a millinery saleswoman in a big London house. She had held a good place as English places go, and had thrown it up to gratify a desire she had had since childhood to come to America. She asked me with some anxiety if I knew anything about the chances for a "business girl" in New York.

Belonging to the same party was a pleasant-faced woman whose husband had sent for her to join him in Trenton, where he had some connection with the potteries, bringing the skill acquired in Stoke and Burton-on-Trent to bear. She said she sent one lad to his father last fall, a second in the spring and now she was bringing the two youngest herself. Fine, manly boys they were.

The story of one family was the story of the next. My friend who had instructed me in ways and means of getting better fare was a thoroughly good-tempered, wholesome soul, bound for a factory town in Orange County, N. Y. He had been in America before, had returned to England to visit his mother and remained with her till she died. Then he "'ad to av some un in the 'ouse," as was his undemonstrative way of saying that he fell in love and got married. After some years his father died, and then, English ties being finally broken, he had taken his wife and two children and was coming to America to stay. His wife was a nice little brown-haired body, and he took the best of care of her all the way over. He expected to find work in a hat factory.

A party of five from the steel works in Swansea, Wales, was going to Silver Bow County, Montana. Its energetic spirit was a sturdy, elderly woman, whose strongly marked face and grizzled hair would have tempted a painter. Her husband and son were in the silver mines.

"They've been over nex' mun' fourteen muns," she told me. "They sent me sixty puns in wan lump, and then they sent me mooney to coom over too. W'en ah got me mooney for me sons, ah wrote back an' ah said, 'Nay, ah cooms not 'thout thee sen's mooney for the gal too. If it's sooch a fine coontry, ah want the gal to 'av the good o't. 'Thout the gal ah stirs not.' An' my husband, 'e sen's twenty puns to do for the gal what's needful and ah got 'er wi' me now."

The daughter whom the mother had thus refused to leave behind was a splendid, red-cheeked creature of seventeen or eighteen, strongly knit and already like her mother. She told me that her father had visited home once but had refused to stay; said he would walk his feet off to find a ship to take him back to America.

"England's no good for anybody any more," went on the girl. "An' a thing cost ye fo' pence in the morning, it may be fo' pence-ha-penny by noon and fi' pence by night. England goes down, down, down."

A round, slow, dumpy little woman, whose husband was also a miner, was traveling to join him in Pennsylvania. Her husband had always fretted for America. A year ago she said to him:

"An thee wants to sell oop, sell oop!"

And he sold up and went. He sent for her several times but she refused to leave home. Finally he wrote:

"'An ye'm coomin' at a', coom. 'An ye'm not coomin' stay awa'."

And she came.

There was a farm laborer who had bought himself a cowboy hat and started for Texas or Arizona. There was a placid old lady in a widow's cap and white apron whose son was a carpenter in the suburbs of Chicago. The son had crossed the Atlantic to bring her home with him and she told me with much pride that a church society was waiting till he got back to give him the job of roofing its chapel.

There was a bright-eyed, roguish Irish girl whose husband was a plasterer, in good work in Connecticut. He had been over, she said, four months and wrote her that America was a beautiful place. There was a brigade of Irish girls from Killarney and Cork. They were going out to service in New York, Springfield and Boston.

Not all the people were emigrants. A Scotch couple had lived thirty-one years on an Iowa farm, bringing up eleven children as American citizens. They had been on a pleasure trip to the Glasgow exhibition and traveled in the for economy. The artist whom I had seen sketching spoke five or six languages and had traveled round the world. He found himself stranded in London and was trying to get to his home in San Francisco. An English teacher was making an experimental trip to New York in search of work.

As foils to these pleasant folk there were women who made night hideous with indecent songs, and whose talk in the small hours was so foul that mothers sat upright in bed watching their children's faces to be sure they were still sleeping and could not hear. Everybody seemed to have relatives or friends in the States and the faith they all had in the New World gave me a lesson in patriotism. One man told me that of scores of people who had emigrated from his native town he had heard of only one who did not like America. But there were disappointments ahead of them.

They were utterly ignorant -- most of them -- of the country they were coining to and some expected almost to find gold growing on bushes. Some had left their clothes behind, because they thought people would dress so differently that they would be of no use here. Hardly one understood American money. Several asked me if dollar bills would be changed in the stores or if they had to take them to banks. Several got small sums exchanged on the ship and spent much time puzzling over nickels and dimes and quarters, trying to learn their respective values as a precaution against being cheated. I told them that I had been in America and tried to help a few of the women a little.

Sunday morning we spoke pilot boat No. 4 and took our pilot. Later there was service in the saloon, the Rev. Dr. Hall, of New York, officiating. Our Methodist hymn leader was greatly distressed at being refused admittance at the service. I asked our stewards if people were not allowed to attend worship. They told me that the rule was against it, that people were not allowed theoretically in any part of the vessel except forward; but that practically on Sundays the rule was relaxed in favor of the decent. If the men shined their boots and had on collars and if the women were not distinctly out of keeping they would not be turned away. My Methodist acquaintance made a second and successful attempt, and a number of women also attended and came back eloquent over the glories of the saloon.

Those of us who remained away had our spiritual wants recognized by the plentiful distribution of tracts.

We had expected to land on Sunday, but the delay at Queenstown and the storm had lengthened the passage. All Monday we ran slowly through fog, anchoring in the lower bay at night. My heart went down with the anchor, for I was mad for sleep. The stewards amused us with tales of former passengers, of the baby born at sea on the last voyage, of a woman with the "heart of a lion" who brought over fourteen children.

They had tales of Castle Garden also, and frightened us well with stories of the railroad pool which they asserted often separated families, forwarding parents and children to their Western homes over different roads. Tuesday morning was heavy with clouds and fog, and I missed the interest of watching the emigrants' faces as New York Bay unfolded before them.

I threw my mug overboard, and bade goodbye to the which had become forbidding as we moved into the warm air off land. When I made my adieus to the stewards I resisted with difficulty a wild impulse to invite them to a spread at Delmonico's. It had been a weary voyage, but stewards and sailors, if rough with us, had been kind too. The stewards' places were hard ones, and they deserved respect for the general good sense with which they acquitted themselves.

We were mustered for the inspection of the health officers as we passed quarantine, and I saw our artist flying about distracted with anxiety because he had lost his vaccination ticket and feared detention. Afterward I came upon him seated placidly on his baggage at the dock and asked him how he fared.

"Oh, the stewards have a lot of extra tickets," he said, "and they gave me one."

The Custom House inspection was a sore trial to those who had not fastened their boxes so as to be easily opened. Their faces were pictures of anxiety as the carpenter hammered and pried. The examination was not at all rigid. I had with me one trunk and two handbags. The inspector bent over the trunk ten seconds, looked at the bags as they lay open without touching them and marked them passed. If I wanted to smuggle I'd travel .

Return to Top of Page

Steerage Definition, Conditions, and the Immigrant Journey
GG Archives

Copyright © 2000- Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives. All rights reserved. See Terms of Use.