Between 1815 and 1915,
some 30 million
Europeans arrived in the
United States. For many it
was a long and arduous journey.
In the early part of the century, just
getting to a port of embarkation
might mean days or weeks of travel
on foot, by rivercraft, or in horse-drawn
vehicles. Because regularly
scheduled departures were rare in
the age of sail, immigrants often had to
wait in port for days or weeks
before their ship departed.
In Northern Europe, many immigrants departed
from Dutch or German ports
and Bremen. Later, when immigration from Central
and Eastern Europe was on
the rise, immigrants often had to
travel down the Danube River to Black Sea ports like Constanta and Varna.
From there, they had to endure
weeks or months at sea aboard sailing ships subject to the vagaries of
wind and weather.
The spread of the railroads across Europe in the mid-1800s greatly shortened travel time to
embarkation ports, while the introduction of steamships cut passage time
from weeks to days, in the case
of the fastest ships. Ships also increased in size, some carrying more than
1,000 immigrants in steerage class.
Except in places where immigration was restrictedlike the Russian
Empireit was fairly easy to travel from
an obscure European village to the United States by the late 19th century.
A potential immigrant contracted
with a shipping company agent, often a local cleric or teacher,
who informed the
head office at the departure port. The agent then received a departure date and ticket voucher, which
he passed along to the immigrant, who boarded a train for the port city.
If the port of embarkation was
Bremen, immigrants could almost step directly from the train
onto their shipthe city had railroad track leading right onto the docks.
Between 1882 and 1917, the U.S. government introduced laws regulating
immigration. In 1891, for example,
Congress barred from admission those "suffering from a loathsome or
a dangerous contagious disease" and
those "convicted [of] a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude" like
anarchists and polygamists.
As a result, steamship lines became increasingly careful about whom
they let on board. Immigrants had to
have their papers checked and their health inspected before departure.
Sometimes immigrants had to spend
several days awaiting boarding, during which they were lodged and
fed by the steamship company.
Source: Destination America by Charles A. Wills