Library Blog

Overseas Immigration in Olden Days

Immigrants on sailing ship in 1849

Holding Their Breath While Yearning to Breathe Free: Immigrant Hardships During Ocean Voyages to America

O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea…

~T.S. Eliot., The Dry Salvages (No. 3 of Four Quartets)

In 1913 my maternal grandmother, Katarzyna Tymeczko, by herself at age 17, journeyed for ten days aboard the steamship SS George Washington.  Arriving on 10 June 1913 in New York Harbor at Ellis Island, she completed her unique transplanting of generations of Polish and Ukrainian culture into the American experiment.

Over the years of her long life in Youngstown, no one thought to ask her about her voyage.  What did you eat?  Where did you sleep?  Did you get sick?  Were you afraid?  She died when I was a young boy, so I never had a chance to ask her any of these or other questions.  Indeed, I wouldn’t have been thinking about these things at age seven.  Her amazing kolacz would have been on my mind.

Because none of the family elders recalled grandma ever talking about it (and they didn’t think to ask her), I set out to learn all I could about the experiences of immigrants during their early 20th century journeys to our shores.  What I found was both interesting and upsetting.

We all know that being an immigrant was, and continues to be, quite challenging upon that first step onto U.S. soil.  From my research, though, I learned that the challenges related to immigration began far away from our shores.  Just think of the clash of emotions and realities faced by our ancestors as they sailed: the desire to forge a new life; to escape despotism, famine, and war; the opportunity to own property; the joy of joining family and former countrymen.  And on board many sailing vessels and steamships; fear, poor conditions, sickness, and abuse.  The hope and hazard of America, stretched out upon the ocean.

The following is a sampling of sources that you can use to begin learning about the periods in history when many of our ancestors came to these shores.  In addition to these, check out the library’s genealogy and local history page to view and use the many online tools for locating immigration records.

  • The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation offers an “Immigration Timeline” that describes the journey to America and how it changed over time.  The Foundation also features an Oral History Collection that provides first-hand recollections of immigrants who passed through the Ellis Island immigration station between 1892 and 1954, and the employees who worked there.
  • History Channel’s U.S. Immigration Timeline discusses the attitudes and laws surrounding U.S. immigration that reveal the longstanding American personality of vacillation: welcoming immigrants and restricting their access.
  • The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has an online exhibit called On the Water.  See especially the 5th exhibit, called Ocean Crossings.
  • The Gjenvick-Gjønvik (GG) Archives is a social and cultural history archive with many collections including primary source documents on steamships, ocean liners, and more. See especially, Daily Life Aboard a Steamshipand steerage details.
  • Among the many resources available through the National Archives is the famed Prologue Magazine.  Here, you can search the database for interesting articles.
  • The conditions aboard incoming ships to American harbors and ports has long been a concern and interest of the federal government.  Over time several laws were enacted to ensure that regulations were being followed and conditions were meeting legal standards.  An Act of Congress in 1907 established an Immigration Commission to investigate and verify compliance with U.S. laws.

In a fascinating investigative maneuver, federal agents, in the guise of immigrants, traveled in the steerage of 12 trans-Atlantic ships belonging to steamship ocean liners conducting immigrant transportation.

Again, Steerage conditions were of particular concern, and in 1909 the Commission presented a report to the U.S. Senate regarding their findings.  See this 1911 reprint of the Reports of the Immigration Commission, particularly the section titled “Steerage Conditions.”  Disgusting and demoralizing conditions persisted, despite attempts to ameliorate the “standard practices” of shipping companies.

I wonder, grandma, what you experienced?

Tim Seman

Tim Seman has worked in archives and libraries from Washington, D.C. to Youngstown, spanning more than thirty years.  A staunch abolitionist vegan, Tim shares life with a multispecies family, reads broadly, writes occasionally, and enjoys cooking and marksmanship.  Contact him at