Browse The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives Home Page

Steerage Passengers At The Gateway

THE barges on which the immigrants are towed towards the island are of a somewhat antiquated pattern and if I remember rightly have done service in the Castle Garden days, and before that some of them at least had done full service for excursion parties up and down Long Island Sound.

The structure towards which we sail and which gradually rises from the surrounding sea is rather imposing, and impresses one by its utilitarian dignity and by its plainly expressed official character.

Immigrants arrive via Ferry at Ellis Island circa 1910.

Immigrants arrive via Ferry at Ellis Island circa 1910. Photograph by Underwood & Underwood

With tickets fastened to our caps and to the dresses of the women, and with our own bills of lading in our trembling hands, we pass between rows of uniformed attendants, and under the huge portal of the vast hall where the final judgment awaits us.

We are cheered somewhat by the fact that assistance is promised to most of us by the agents of various National Immigrant Societies who seem both watchful and efficient.

Mechanically and with quick movements we are examined for general physical defects and for the dreaded trachoma, an eye disease, the prevalence of which is greater in the imagination of some statisticians than it is on board immigrant vessels.

Immigrants Awaiting Processing At Ellis Island

THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS. In the great examination hall, they wait, some with curiosity, some with anxiety, the decision that shall give them entrance to the new home or consign them again to the Old World strife.

From here we pass into passageways made by iron railings, in which only lately, through the intervention of a humane official, benches have been placed, upon which, closely crowded, we await our passing before the inspectors.

Already a sifting process has taken place; and children who clung to their mother's skirts have disappeared, families have been divided, and those remaining intact, cling to each other in a really tragic fear that they may share the fate of those previously examined.

A Polish woman by my side has suddenly become aware that she has one child less clinging to her skirts, and she implores me with agonizing cries, to bring it back to her.

In a strange world, at the very entrance to what is to be her home, without the protection of her husband, without any knowledge of the English language, and with no one taking the trouble to explain to her the reason, the child was snatched from her side. Somewhere it is bitterly crying for its mother, and each is unconscious of the other's fate.

" Gdeye moya shena " (where is my wife ?) an old Slovak cries as he looks wildly about for her, whose physique was suspected of being belowthe normal and who was passed on for further examination.

A Russian youth, stalwart and strong, is separated from his household which came together to settle in Dakota; but now he, the mainstay of the family, is gone and they are perplexed and distracted.

A little girl scarcely five years of age, cries : " Mitter, mitter, ich will zu meiner mitter gehen "; she is there alone and uncomforted, surrounded by rough-looking men, while not far away her mother is working herself into hysterics because she must await in the detention room the supreme decision.

A woman with three children has two of them taken from her because they are suspected of disease and found to be afflicted by trachoma; the mother also has the disease, but her husband, now an American citizen, comes to claim her, and she passes in while the little ones are held in custody by the immigration authorities.

One by one we pass the inspectors; we show our money and answer the questions which are numerous and pertinent.

The average immigrant obeys mechanically; his attitude towards the inspector being one of great respect. While the truth is not always told, many of the lies prepared prove both inefficient and unnecessary.

New Immigrant to America

WILL THEY LET ME IN? It is a serious matter to many a man who has invested his all in a ticket tor the New World to face the possibility of rejection.

On one of the boats very recently a number of young women were imported for immoral purposes, and each of them was supposed to be married to the attendant agent of a firm which conducts an international business.

The young man having announced himself as married to the woman accompanying him, was asked, " Where were you married ? " " In Paris." " Who married you ? " " Pere Abelard." " When were you married ? " " The fifteenth of May." " Were your wife's parents present ? " " Yes."

Next the young woman was questioned, and announced the marriage as having taken place in Brussels, some time in June, and that she is an orphan. The case is very plain, and both will have to face the court of special inquiry.

A young Jewish girl who really escaped the torment of some Russian persecutions conjures up in her mind a relative in New York whose name and address are not discovered, and the more she is questioned the more she entangles herself in a network of lies.

A dear old mother is held, because instead of the one son who awaits her, she has announced three or four sons residing here; and continued questioning more and more involves her in useless affirmation.

The examination can be superficial at best; but the eye has been trained and discoveries are made here, which seem rather remarkable.

Immigrants being inspected at Ellis Island circa 1910.

Immigrants being inspected at Ellis Island circa 1910. Photo by Underwood & Underwood.

Four ways open to the immigrant after he passes the inspector. If he is destined for New York he goes straightway down the stairs, and there his friends await him if he has any; and most of them have.

If his journey takes him westward, and there the largest percentage goes, he enters a large, commodious hall to the right, where the money-changers sit and the transportation companies have their offices.

If he goes to the New England states he turns to the left into a room which can scarcely hold those who go to the land of the pilgrims and puritans.

The fourth way is the hardest one and is taken by those who have received a ticket marked P. C. (Public Charge), which sends the immigrant to the extreme left where an official sits, in front of a barred gate behind which is the dreaded detention-room.

The decision one way or the other must be quickly made, and the immigrant finds himself in a jail-like room often without knowing just why. There is not much time for explanation.

Imagine a room filled by at least fifty people, many of them doomed to recross the terrible sea and to be landed upon strange territory, to find the way unattended, to their obscure little village.

When they arrive there they are usually paupers with -a stigma resting upon them; for were they not rejected in America, and why ? Ah, who knows why !

Let us pass through this room. " Brotherwhy are you here?" A stalwart Lettish peasant boy answers demurely, " Because I haven't money enough. I had some money and they stole it out of my father's pockets."

The father and the boy have been marked by the inspector as likely to become a public charge, because they had neither money in their pockets nor friends waiting for them. A matter of ten or twenty dollars is between these men and the fulfillment of all their desires.

The court may be lenient, but the father is old and the boy young and it is more than probable that they will both end their days on the rough Baltic, where society now is as turbulent as that northern sea.

A Servian peasant, browned by the hot sun which shone upon the Danubian plains where he lived, edges up to me, for he hears a familiar Slavic note in my speech, and he brings this bitter plaint. "

How far I have travelled from Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, and Hamburg. I have spent all my money and now it looks as if I must go back. Must I go ? Tell me."

The court will tell him to-morrow that he has passed the dreaded dead line, is over fifty years of age, not too well built, used up by the hardships of his native country, and that as he is likely to become a public charge he is marked for deportation. He will be sent back to Hamburg and how he will find his way home I do not know.

A German woman with three children is the next whom I notice. She is at the point of a nervous breakdown. She has a husband waiting for her, she has over $100, but P. C. is marked on her slip; so she must face the court which will admit her, but she has a long twenty-four hours to wait and the strain is terrible. She needs to be reassured and comforted.

Two boys under ten years of age came unattended; fine looking boys. Over their heavy blue coats hung tickets with the mother's address. How happy they were to be going to mother.

She had preceded them by several years to work out for herself and for them a new destiny on this side of the sea; for on the other side life had been blighted by the unfaithfulness of her husband.

At last the hour came when she could send for her children. How she watched their journeying, and how anxious she was while they were on the sea !

They are on this ship, and she is waiting for them behind the iron grating at the island. Crowds pour into the great hall, past the physician, towards the inspectors, towards the great centre, to the east and the west.

Now she sees them; the physician looks at their faces, and bends low over their chests; but instead of walking straight towards her they are turned aside with those suspected of contagious disease.

" Where are you from, my boy ? " " Russia."

One of the few real Russian peasants whom I have met. He measures five feet six inches, is sound as an oak, and having escaped through the cordons of gendarmes which separate his native country from the rest of the world, came here to meet his brother who was at work in the coal mines near Scranton, Pa.

" What about your brother ? " " Ah ! Barin (sir), my brother they say, was killed in the mines and they are afraid to let me in; so I suppose I shall have to go back to Russia," and the big melancholy peasant cried like a baby. " Buy this shirt from me, Barin, I need money."

" What's the matter with you, why are you so unhappy, you gay, care free Roumanian ? " Half Slav, half Latin, and the whole no one quite knows what, -- he is dressed in a shepherd's garb, a heavy sheepskin coat over him. "

Look here, Panye (sir). This keeps me from going as a shepherd to the West; " and he shows me a lacerated breast on which a wolf has written the shepherd's story of his faithfulness to the sheep.

" Yes, the wolves came round and round my sheep," he says, " and I went round and round between the sheep and the wolves and the nearer they came the faster I went my rounds between them; but before the morning came they tore many sheep though they tore me first.

I bled and bled and have remained sore as you see. A younger shepherd took my place and I sold all and spent all to come here. Ah, well, I could still guard the sheep."

The most melancholy of all men are the detained Jews, for they usually have strong family ties which already bind them to this new world, and they chafe under the delay.

Their children or friends are waiting impatiently, crowding beyond their allotted limit, trying the severely taxed patience of the officials, asking useless questions, and wasting precious time in waiting; for the courts work their allotted tasks with dispatch, but with care and dignity; and all must wait in deep uncertainty through the long vigil of a restless night spent on the clean, but not too comfortable bunks provided by the government.

Let no one believe that landing on the shores of " The land of the free, and the home of the brave " is a pleasant experience; it is a hard, harsh fact, surrounded by the grinding machinery of the law, which sifts, picks, and chooses; admitting the fit and excluding the weak and helpless.

Much ignorance needs to be dispelled regarding these immigrants. Not long ago, I heard one of the secretaries of a certain home missionary society say, with much unction as he pleaded for money for his work,

" We land annually on these shores, a million paupers and criminals." Unfortunately, much of such impression prevails. It was my privilege recently, as a member of the National Conference on Immigration, to be among the guests of the commissioner of the port of New York, and one of the spectacles which we witnessed was the landing of a ship-load of immigrants.

We stood in the visitor's gallery and looked down upon a hall divided and subdivided by the cold iron railings. Many of the visitors were beginning to hold their noses in anticipation of the stenches which would come with these foreigners, and were ready to be shocked by the horrors of the .

Slowly the bewildered mass came into view; but strange to relate, those who led the mass appeared like ladies and gentlemen.

The women wore modern, half acre hats a little the worse for wear, but bought in the city of Prague a few months before; and they were more becoming to these young Bohemian women than to the majority of their American sisters.

The men carried band-boxes, silk umbrellas and walking canes, the remnants of past glories. They were permitted to come in first because they wore good clothing and passed out quickly into their freedom, the members of our Congress welcoming them heartily by the clapping of hands.

After them came Slavic women with no finery except their homespun, rough, tough and clean; carrying upon their backs piles of feather-beds and household utensils.

Strong limbed men followed them in the picturesque garb of their native villages; Slovaks, Poles, Roumanians, Ruthenians, Italians, and finally, Russian Jews; but lo, and behold ! no smells ascended to our nostrils, and no horrors were disclosed.

Taking a group of delegates down among them, we found that they were wholesome looking people, not devoid of intelligence, and when the barrier between us was broken down by the sound of their native speech, they were communicative, at ease, and very human.

The first time I entered New York was at Castle Garden, from the steamer Fulda, twenty years ago; and having watched the tide of immigration ever since, I can say that I never have seen, at any time, a ship-load of better human beings disembark than those which came from the steamer Wilhelm II, on December 7, 1905.

And of the many who came on this ship, it is just possible that those who wore neither fashionable hats nor trailing skirts, and who were not politely treated, -- it is just possible that they may after all, make the best members of this democratic society.

A gentleman from Ohio, a member of the Conference on Immigration said on the floor, in open debate, and he said it with menacing gesture : " We don't want you to send none of them yellow worms from Southern Europe to our state, we got too many of them now."

No doubt the gentleman from Ohio and the delegate from Rhode Island who said : " We don't want no more iv thim durrty furriners in this grand and glorious counthry of ourn," voiced the common prejudice which rests itself entirely upon its ignorance.

It is true that many criminals come, especially from Italy. Many weak, impoverished and poorly developed creatures come from among Polish and Russian Jews, but they are only the tares in the wheat.

The stock as a whole is physically sound; it is crude, common peasant stock, not the dregs of society, but its basis. Its blood is not blue, but it is red, wholesomely red, which is more to the purpose.

Blue blood we also receive -- thin, worn-out blood, bought at a high price for the daughters of some of our multimillionaires; but no one can claim that either they or we have been specially blessed by it.

The hardships which attend the examination and deportation of immigrants seem unavoidable, and would not be materially reduced if any other method were devised. To examine them at the centres of immigration seems a rather vague and not a feasible plan.

First of all because the immigrant can present himself as physically fit, more easily in his native country where the agencies already exist, to prepare him for an examination which most steamship companies rigidly enforce; because the long journey makes artificial cleansing of diseased eyelids or the hiding of other physical defects impossible.

Again because of the fact that such commissions would be hard to control so far from home and would be in constant danger of exposure to " Graft "; a disease not unknown among American officials at home and abroad.

The next reason is, that these countries might object to the presence of such alien commissions, which would select the best material and leave the worst; and the last reason is that it would give foreign governments a very fine opportunity to detain those who emigrate for political reasons or those who desire to avoid service in the army.

Much greater responsibility should be put upon the steamship companies, many of which still practice their ancient wrongs upon their most profitable passengers. One of the demands which should be made, and made immediately, is the abolition of the steerage.

Future American citizens should be taught when they step on board of ship, that people in America are expected to live like human beings, and not like beasts.

The price they pay for their passage is large enough to entitle them to better treatment, and if it is not, then the price should be raised to such a figure as to permit it.

This humane treatment should follow the passenger until the last moment of his stay under government supervision; for the more humanely the immigrant is treated, the better citizen he is likely to become.

The is responsible for not a little imported anarchy, and the sooner it is abolished the better. The more humanely the immigrant is treated at Ellis Island, the more humanely he will deal with us when he becomes the master of our national destiny.

Source: Steiner, Edward Alfred, On the Trail of the Immigrant, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1906

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.