Leaving Europe: A New Life in America

Departure and Arrival


The transition from transatlantic crossing by sailing ship to steamship in the mid-1800s made the voyage faster and less dangerous. At the same time, organising the voyage also became easier as ships began sailing on a regular schedule, and it became possible for immigrants already in America to purchase pre-paid tickets for their relatives or friends.

After the long and gruelling ocean voyage, most immigrants to the United States in the late 18th and early part of the 19th century made their way to rural areas to farm. Most immigrants in the mid-19th century remained in the ports where they had arrived except for those with the financial means for further travel. The American government had no arrangements in place for assisting immigrants acclimatise to their new country. The newcomers, after passing a medical examination and demonstrating their ability to support themselves, walked onto the docks where some were met by family or friends while others were left to fend for themselves.

Ports of Departure and Shipping Companies

Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Antwerp, Belgium; Hamburg, Germany; Goteborg, Sweden; Bremen, Germany; Naples, Italy, and Le Havre, France were important ports of departure as were Cork, Belfast, Liverpool, and other ports in Ireland, England, and Scotland. In the 1840s, steamships began transporting wealthy passengers while the poor immigrants still made the voyage to America by sailing vessel. In the 1860s and 1870s, the size of steamships increased, and companies transported poor families in steerage at a low cost. Transporting immigrants to America became a big business. The major European passenger companies had extensive networks of ticket agencies, and worked diligently to attract business. They published literature describing the merits of America, and did nothing to dispel the notion that American streets were paved with gold. Steamship companies had to be selective, however, in whom they accepted as passengers because the companies had to pay the return passage of any immigrant who was turned away from America. To this end, they examined prospective passengers to make sure they met the health and financial requirements for acceptance into America.

Ocean Voyage

Before the mid-1800s, the journey to America was long and difficult. Immigrants first travelled by foot or cart to a nearby port where they arranged and then waited for a sailing ship to take them to America. Poor immigrants travelled to America on ships that were making their return voyage after having carried tobacco or cotton to Europe. The voyage took between 40 and 90 days, depending on the wind and weather. In steerage, ships were crowded (each passenger having about two square feet of space) and dirty (lice and rats abounded), and passengers had little food and ventilation. Between 10-20% of those who left Europe died on board. From the 1860s, getting to America became shorter and less dangerous when railways enabled an easier trip to the port of departure and steamships sought to attract immigrants as passengers. Conditions in steerage were still harsh, but steamships ran on regular schedules, and the crossing time was reduced to 7-10 days. The shift from sail power to steam power enabled the temporary migration of ‘sojourners’ - house painters and quarrymen who returned to their homeland when their jobs vanished in the American winter.

Port of New York

Most immigrants entered the United States through the Port of New York. Formed principally at the request of benevolent aid societies, Castle Garden, located in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, opened in 1855 to protect and aid immigrants. In 1892, Ellis Island was founded as an inspection station both to keep out inadmissible immigrants and to assist newcomers. Increasing anti-immigrant sentiment necessitated the shift from state to federal government responsibility for processing immigrants. About 80% of the 12 million immigrants who landed at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 were admitted to America within a few hours of their arrival. For those who had to stay longer, Ellis Island offered a library, kindergarten, and a weekly film showing.

Papers and Questions

The Registry Room at Ellis Island was a large room inside the main building where immigrants sat on long wooden benches, waiting to be interrogated. When immigrants’ names were called, they presented their papers to inspectors who questioned them: What is your name? Where were you born? How much money do you have? Have you ever been in jail? Do you have a job? Do you know anyone in this country? Based on the answers, the immigrants were either accepted into the United States or sent back to their homeland. Immigrants did have the opportunity to protest against their exclusion, but those who the inspectors thought were unable to support themselves were not admitted.

Medical examination

Although federal law defined who was ‘undesirable’ and should not be admitted to America, it was up to physicians and inspectors at Ellis Island and the other ports of entry to implement the law. Upon arrival, immigrants stood in line to be assessed by a physician who looked at their scalp, face, neck, hands, walk, and general mental and physical condition. From 1905, immigrants were inspected by a second physician who examined their eyes. People with illnesses, either mental or physical, that would prevent them from earning a living were sent back home. Sometimes, individuals with curable diseases were held at the Ellis Island hospital where they were treated and released when cured.

Other Ports of Entry

Although the majority of immigrants passed through the Port of New York, immigrants also arrived, for example, at Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; New Orleans, Louisiana; Baltimore, Maryland, and from 1910 at Angel Island, California. From 1855 to 1892, most Irish immigrants entered America through the Port of New York; however, a significant number of Irish people also entered through Boston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. German immigrants often debarked in New Orleans, Louisiana, and then travelled up the Mississippi River system to the Midwest, or westward to Texas.