Steerage Act

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Steerage Act


By: U.S. Congress

Date: March 2, 1819

Source: "Steerage Act." Statutes-at-Large. 3, 488. New York: Little Brown, 1819.

About the Author: The U.S. Congress is responsible, among other things, for the regulation of commerce. It passes laws that cover ships bringing people and goods into the country.


Immigrants had trickled into North America until the early decades of the nineteenth century when mass migration began. Floods of newcomers from Europe took advantage of improvements in transportation to immigrate to the United States. Many of the immigrants were steerage passengers, who historically paid the lowest fares for the poorest shipboard placements. To protect such people, Congress instituted the first of a series of Steerage Acts in 1819.

The transportation revolution in the early nineteenth century was brought about in part by an unprecedented expansion of transatlantic commerce. The most striking new development was the rise of the North American timber trade. As early as 1820, more than 1000 vessels were employed annually in carrying North American timber to the British Isles. This number doubled within twenty years. Simultaneously, there was an astonishing increase in the amount of tonnage engaged in transporting American staple products, particularly cotton, to Europe. On the eastward voyage across the Atlantic, the ships were generally fully laden. When returning to the United States, much of the cargo space was unoccupied.

With space available for passengers, merchants and shipowners came to look to emigrants to provide part of the return freight. In a short time, the emigrant trade became a highly organized and lucrative branch of transatlantic commerce. Competition dropped the price of steerage passage, prompting more people to immigrate to the United States to improve their circumstances. Travel remained uncomfortable, however, with people often stuffed into any available space on tiny brigs for a journey that typically took four to eight weeks.


Chap. XLVI.—An Act regulating passenger ships and vessels, (a)

SEC.1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That if the master or other person on board of any ship or vessel, owned in the whole or in part by a citizen or citizens of the United States, or the territories thereof, or by a subject or subjects, citizen or citizens, of any foreign country, shall, after the first day of January next, take on board of such ship or vessel, at any foreign port or place, or shall bring or convey into the United States, or the territories thereof, from any foreign port of place; or shall carry, convey, or transport, from the United [States] or the territories thereof, to any foreign port or place, a greater number of passengers than two for every five tons of such ship or vessel, according to the custom-house measurement, every such master, or other person so offending, and the owner or owners of such ship or vessels, shall severally forfeit and pay to the United States, the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars, for each and every passenger so taken on board of such ship or vessel over and above the aforesaid number of two to every five tons of such ship or vessel; to be recovered by suit, in any circuit or district court of the United States, where the said vessel may arrive, or where the owner or owners aforesaid may reside: Provided, nevertheless, That nothing in this act shall be taken to apply to the complement of men usually and ordinarily employed in navigating such ship or vessel.

SEC.2. And be it further enacted, That if the number of passengers so taken on board of any ship or vessel as aforesaid, or conveyed or brought into the United States, or transported therefrom as aforesaid, shall exceed the said proportion of two to every five tons of such ship or vessel by the number of twenty passengers, in the whole, every such ship or vessel shall be deemed and taken to be forfeited to the United States, and shall be prosecuted and distributed in the same manner in which the forfeitures and penalties are recovered and distributed under the provisions of the act entitled "An act to regulate the collection of duties on imports and tonnage."

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That every ship or vessel bound on a voyage from the United States to any port on the continent of Europe, at the time of leaving the last port whence such ship or vessel shall sail, shall have on board, well secured under deck, at least sixty gallons of water, one hundred pounds of salted provisions, one gallon of vinegar, and one hundred pounds of wholesome ship bread, for each and every passenger on board such ship or vessel, over and above such other provisions, stores, and live stock as may be put on board by such master or passenger for their use, or that of the crew of such ship or vessel; and in like proportion for a shorter or longer voyage; and if the passengers on board of such ship or vessel in which the proportion of provisions herein directed shall not have been provided, shall at any time be put on short allowance, in water, flesh, vinegar, or bread, during any voyage aforesaid, the master and owner of such ship or vessel shall severally pay to each and every passenger who shall have been put on short allowance as aforesaid, the sum of three dollars for each and every day they may have been on such short allowance; to be recovered in the same manner as seamen's wages are, or may be, recovered.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That the captain or master of any ship or vessel arriving in the United States, or any of the territories thereof, from any foreign place whatever, at the same time that he delivers a manifest of the cargo, and, if there be no cargo, then at the time of making report or entry of the ship or vessel, pursuant to the existing laws of the United States, shall also deliver and report, to the collector of the district in which such ship or vessel shall arrive, a list or manifest of all the passengers taken on board of the said ship or vessel at any foreign port or place; in which list or manifest it shall be the duty of the said master to designate, particularly, the age, sex, and occupation, of the said passengers, respectively, the country to which they severally belong, and that of which it is their intention to become inhabitants; and shall further set forth whether any, and what number, have died on the voyage; which report and manifest shall be sworn to by the said master, in the same manner as is directed by the existing laws of the United States, in relation to the manifest of the cargo, and that the refusal or neglect of the master aforesaid, to comply with the provision of this section, shall incur the same penalties, disabilities, and forfeitures, as are at present provided for a refusal or neglect to report and deliver a manifest of the cargo aforesaid.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That each and every collector of the customs, to whom such manifest or list of passengers as aforesaid shall be delivered, shall, quarter yearly, return copies thereof to the Secretary of State of the United States, by whom statements of the same shall be laid before Congress at each and every session.

APPROVED, March 2, 1819.


The 1819 Steerage Act did not do much to improve the safety and comfort of steerage passengers. Continuing problems prompted Congress to pass the Steerage Passenger Act in 1882 to establish accommodation requirements for people traveling in steerage. The 1882 law was repealed in 1983. In 1995, at the recommendation of the Coast Guard, Congress abolished all of the steerage regulations enacted in the nineteenth century. The rules were deemed unnecessary or obsolete because they covered vessels and equipment that were no longer operating.

While steerage passengers no longer arrive in the United States, many Americans are descended from ancestors who immigrated in this manner. For Irish fleeing the potato famine, for Jews escaping pogroms in Russia, for Italians seeking a better life, steerage offered the only affordable means of passage. For generations of immigrants, it was the only way to come to America.



Gowdey, David. Before the Wind: True Stories about Sailing. Camden, Maine: International Marine, 1994.

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: Blackbird Press, 2005.