Coming to America

December 17, 2015

What were you doing when you were 15?

Imagine 1893 (122 years from this writing, four full generations have passed since).  Immigration to America has opened up officially through Ellis Island. You are 15 years old, and you board a steamship headed to America. Not much money with you (probably $25 or less).  But you have very precious cargo with you:  your younger brother Hugo, aged 10, and your younger sister Minna, aged 7. Only the three of you traveling as a family to America, steerage class, via the Steamship Trave.  Your parents are not with you.

This is what my husband and I uncovered on a recent trip to NYC and Ellis Island. What an adventure!  If you have not been to Ellis Island recently (or ever) you HAVE to go.  It is amazing, beautiful. The Ellis Island Foundation (, in partnership with the National Parks Service, do a wonderful job of helping you experience, through first hand audio accounts, what it was like to travel via steamship to Ellis Island and what happened once you arrived.

Another service of the foundation is a passenger search and online resources to help you identify your immigrant ancestors.  So for $7 and after one hour of our time, we had a passenger manifest, a picture of the steamship, and I discovered how incredibly brave my great-grandfather was to have traveled at age 15, in very difficult conditions, with his 10 year old brother and 7 year old sister.  Below is a description of what steerage passage would have been like for passengers. (Oh, and by the way, guess what we found on the ground as we left Ellis Island? Yep! A Dime!!!)

After the 1893 U.S. immigration law went into effect, each passenger had to answer up to 31 questions (recorded on manifest lists) before boarding the ship. These questions included, among others: name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, nationality, ability to read or write, race, physical and mental health, last residence, and the name and address of the nearest relative or friend in the immigrant’s country of origin. Immigrants were asked whether they had at least $25; whether they had ever been in prison, an almshouse, or an institution; or if they were polygamists or anarchists.

There were three types of accommodations on the ships that brought immigrants to America: first class, second class and steerage. Only steerage passengers were processed at Ellis Island. First- and second-class passengers were quickly and courteously “inspected” onboard the ship before being transferred to New York. 

For most immigrants, especially early arrivals, the experience of steerage was like a nightmare (at one time, the average passenger mortality rate was 10 percent per voyage). The conditions were so crowded, so dismally dark, so unsanitary and so foul-smelling, that they were the single most important cause of America’s early immigration laws.

In spite of the miserable conditions, the immigrants had faith in the future.

(For more information on the steerage journey to America, go to

Something important to remember, what most of us think of as difficult or even terrible today is much easier than what our ancestors endured on the way here, to America.

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