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Immigration from Ireland
Digital History ID 281

Author:   William Smith
Date:1850

Annotation:

During the summer of 1845, a "blight of unusal character" devastated Ireland's potato crop, the basic staple in the Irish diet. A few days after potatoes were dug from the ground, they turned into a slimy, decaying, blackish "mass of rottenness." Dysentery, typhus, and lice soon spread through the countryside. Observers reported seeing children crying with pain, looking "like skeletons." Masses of bodies were buried without coffins, a few inches below the soil.

Over the next ten years, 750,000 Irish died and another 2 million left their homeland. Freighters offered fares as low as $17 between Liverpool and Boston and New York--fares subsidized by English landlords eager to be rid of the starving peasants. In 1847, 40,000 (20 percent) of the emigrants perished while at sea. "If crosses and tombs could be erected on water," wrote the U.S. commissioner for immigration, "the whole route of the emigrant vessels...would long since have assumed the appearance of a crowded cemetery."

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, just 5000 immigrants arrived in the United States a year. During the 1840s, 1.7 million immigrants entered the country when harvests all across Europe failed, and reached 2.6 million in the 1850s. Most immigrants came from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia, pushed from their homelands by famine, political unrest, and the destruction of traditional handicrafts by factory enterprise, and pulled by the promise of political freedom and economic opportunity. This selection provides a detailed account of an eight-week voyage from Liverpool to New York in the winter of 1847 and 1848.


Document:

The day advertised for sailing was the 12th of [November 1847], but in consequence of not having got in the cargo, which consisted of pig iron and earthen-ware, we were detained ten days...and one day to stop a leak.... The immigrants...having left Ireland a week, some a fortnight, before the day fixed for sailing, this detention of eleven days was severely felt by those poor creatures, many of them having consumed half of their provisions, without the means of obtaining more.... On Friday, November 26, 1847, we set sail....

[A] storm commenced[;] it rained so heavily the whole deay we could not make a fire on deck to cook our victuals with....

About midnight, a number of boxes and barrels broke loose...breaking the water cans and destroying everything capable of being destroyed by them.... In a few minutes the boxes and barrels broke to atoms, scattering the contents in all directions--tea, coffee, sugar, potatoes, pork, shorts, trowsers, vests, coasts, handkerchiefs &c., &c. were mingled in one confused mass. The cries of the women and children was heart-rending; some praying, others weeping bitterly, as they saw their provisions and clothes (the only property they possessed) destroyed. The passengers being sea sick, were vomiting in all parts of the vessel....

We had been at sea four weeks.... I felt sure...that however good the motives were which induced the captain to take a southerly passage, that the dreadful scourge, the ship fever, (which was already on board our ship) would be increased by it; an opinion...verified by the number of cases and deaths increasing....

Most of those who died of ship-fever were delirious, some a day, others only a few hours previous to death....

When we had been at sea a month, the steward discovered the four hogsheads [for water], by oversight or neglect, had not been [filled]. On the following morning...our water was reduced from two quarts to one quart per day for an adult and one pint for a child.... My provisions were consumed, and I had nothing but ship allowance to subsist upon, which was scarcely sufficient to keep us from perishing, being only a bound of sea-biscuit (full of maggots) and a pint of water.... I was seized with the ship-fever; at first I was so dizzy that I could not walk without danger of falling; I was suffering from a violent pain in my head, my brains felt as if they were on fire, my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth and my lips were parched with exceissve thirst....

This disastrous voyage...[came] to an end, after an absence of exactly weeks from the shores of my native land, (the day we arrived at Staten Island being Friday, the 21st of January, 1848). My whole lifetime did not seem so long as the last two months appeared to me....

William Smith, An Emigrant's Narrative; or a Voice from the Steerage (New York: W. Smith, 1850)

Source: William Smith, An Emigrant's Narrative, or a Voice from the Steerage (New York: W. Smith, 1850), 1-34.

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