The Emigrants' Dangers

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The Emigrants' Dangers

Magazine article

By: Harper's Weekly

Date: August 2, 1873

Source: Harper's Weekly, August 2, 1873

About the Author: Harper's Weekly was established in 1850 as a magazine of fiction, essays, and cultural and political commentary.


Passage to the New World always brought hazards. Emigrants were put on grossly overcrowded ships and often housed in the same area as cargo. Captains and crews had little incentive to protect the health of passengers, with deaths at sea common. In the nineteenth century, a dramatic increase in immigration led to more publicity of the dangers faced onboard ships.

Advances in overseas transportation made emigration to the New World cheaper than ever before in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The Atlantic crossing, however, remained filled with dangers. Until the Civil War in the 1860s, the immigrant trade was virtually monopolized by sailing vessels, resulting in a crossing that still took at least four weeks, and often far longer. Transport ships remained primarily freight carriers that were quickly converted for passenger carrying on the westward journey. Steerage quarters were cramped and poorly ventilated, sanitary arrangements were crude, and cooking facilities completely inadequate. At every stage of the journey, the emigrant was swindled, imposed upon, and poorly treated by dishonest passenger brokers, lodging house keepers, and unscrupulous ship captains. Women additionally suffered sexual harassment. As one traveler reported, everything was disagreeable.

The ship City of Washington, the subject of the Harper's Weekly essay, sank off the coast of Nova Scotia without any loss of life. Built in 1855 at Glasgow, the steamship left Liverpool for New York on June 24, 1873. On the afternoon of July 5, the ship struck the reefs off Newfoundland, Canada. It was enveloped in a thick fog at the time and the captain had neglected to take soundings to identify hidden rocks. He lost his license for a year. The passengers and crew, amounting to 576 persons, escaped in life boats.


Sailing through thick fogs and over an unknown sea at the rate of twelve miles an hour, dashing forward into the jaws of death, landing with a sudden shock upon a Nova Scotian reef, escaping only by a miracle from total destruction, is the fate which the foreign lines of steamers offer to their throngs of helpless passengers. If the City of Washington had swerved only a few feet from her providential path, the horrors of her disaster would have outdone all that was told of the fate of the Atlantic. It is possible that no one in the dim and misty surf would have been able to reach the shore. All must have gone down together. Happily the friendly rock bore up the ship. Her officers attempted to drag her back and sink her, with all the crew, in the deep water behind. They were prevented. The lives at least of the great company of travelers were saved. Yet they were saved only, apparently, to show the continued inhumanity of the steamer's officials. No effort, we are told by Colonel Parnell, was made to soften the sufferings of the three hundred and fifty immigrants, men, women, children, who were thrown upon the barren coast, and who for days and nights were left without shelter, fire, and almost food. On the bleak rocks and sands they remained shivering, wet, and famished in the misty rain, yet thankful that life at least had been spared them in spite of the cruel negligence of the steamer's officers.

Indeed, the characteristics of this unprecedented voyage seem to verge upon the extreme of madness. For seven days, we are told, the steamer pressed on at a rapid rate in the midst of a thick fog. She was in the centre of a crowded pathway, where ships were to be looked for incessantly. Even on our narrow rivers and bays, when a fog prevails, it is usual for steamers to move with constant caution, to sound an incessant alarm, and to watch with extraordinary diligence the approach to the shore. No Hudson River steamer or ferry-boat would neglect to secure itself by the most natural precautions. Yet of these nothing was provided in the City of Washington. She was hurried on in spite of warnings and remonstrances, of rock weeds that told of the nearing reef, of the total ignorance of her officers as to her position and her danger; and it was only when she had struck with a sharp crash that guns were fired, steam-whistles sounded, bells rung, and that the officers came to know that their perilous voyage had reached its natural end. Yet not even then, until the voices of Swanberg and Fergusson sounded hopefully in the misty night, does there seem to have been any proper effort made to save the passengers. But for these two heroes, for all that appears, the City of Washington might have swung unrelieved on her friendly rock until she parted in the sea.

The same incompetence on the part of the officers seems to have marked the wrecks of the Atlantic and the City of Washington. Both were emigrant steamers. Both seem to have been committed to the charge of men who were unfit for any trust; and that the throng of emigrants who perished in the Atlantic was not rivaled in the later disaster is due to no precaution on the part of the owners of the steamer. The remedy for these inexcusable events lies, in great part, with the emigrants themselves. They should carefully avoid patronizing all lines of travel where their interests are not provided for, and their lives and comfort secured; they should warn their friends in Europe of the dangers that await them, and show to the companies, who make immense sums from the host of immigration, that they are resolved to have a proper return for their money.

Yet the failures and the discomforts, the needless disasters and ceaseless inhumanity, on the part of foreign ships and ship-owners, show that the ocean travel should no longer be left in their hands. To the immigrant an American line of steamers is an absolute need. On the European steamer he is too often looked upon as a serf, and treated with European inhumanity. The moment he touches an American deck he is free. That an American line of steamers, conducted with discretion and liberality, might engross a large share of this gainful traffic we are quite confident; and that the American ship-owner and the American government are better fitted than the foreign to watch over the interests of our future citizens no one can doubt, or that the immigrant, from the moment he leaves his native shore, should be under the protection of the country where rests his hope of freedom and of peace.


In 1873, at the request of the U.S. Senate and in response to disasters such as the City of Washington wreck, a team of Treasury officials investigated steerage conditions. They concluded, after inspecting thirty ships, that much of the abuse of passengers and poor living conditions was part of the past. They commended the present conditions of the ships. Along with many Americans, the officials believed that any problems were rare and the fault of European authorities. In reality, the Europeans had stronger regulations than the Americans, but all of the standards remained fairly low. Governments were reluctant to insist on anything because any increase in costs might stop either emigration or immigration.

By the first decades of the twentieth century, conditions for emigrants had improved considerably. The change was due to advances in epidemiology that stopped outbreaks of diseases from wiping out passengers as well as improvements in shipbuilding and navigation. Abuses remained, however, because of a lack of law enforcement. Illegal immigrants have been especially at risk of predatory captains and abusive crews.



Friedland, Klaus, ed. Maritime Aspects of Migration. Cologne, Germany: Bohlau, 1989.

LaGumina, Salvatore J. From Steerage to Suburb: Long Island Italians. New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1988.

Rossi, Renzo. A History of Powered Ships. San Diego, Calif.: Blackbird Press, 2005.

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