Emigrants, and Emigrant Life

Harpers Weekly, June 26, 1858

Years ago, a Canadian governor— not by any means a quick-witted personage, or gifted with deep sensibility— wrote an intensely interesting book, entitled, “The Emigrant.” Therein he depicted the trials of the exile, from the hour of his departure from his native soil to his final settlement in the land of promise: the naked recital of facts was so touching that thousands read the book eagerly, and the author began to be mistaken for a man of literary talent.


The trials, privations, disappointments, and ultimate rewards of the European emigrant to America, yet await their Homer. No writer has done justice to the domestic romance of the emigrant’s fortunes. They are an unexplored mine of pathos, suffering, and hope; rich in yield to him who shall delve therein in the proper spirit, and with the proper tools.


From the hour of his departure to the hour of his settlement on his final resting-place, the emigrant is prey to human vultures. At the great ports where emigrants embark in the Old World— Liverpool, Limerick, Glasgow, Belfast, Bremen, Amsterdam, Havre— a brood of hungry rascals earn a fat livelihood by cheating them. Some are tricked into purchasing spurious tickets; others are duped into the acquisition of worthless stores; many are robbed outright. The most fortunate are they who simply pay a bonus to the sharks for tickets which are good, certainly, but which are sold at an advance over their proper cost. The business is most profitable at Liverpool— which is the largest emigrant dépôt of the Old World— and the chief dupes are the Irish. Englishmen, Scotchmen, Germans, possess a native shrewdness which often protects them against sharpers. The expatriated Irish cotter falls an easy prey to the first ensnarer he meets. There is a firm in Liverpool— they are rich merchants now— which has carried on the business of swindling Irish emigrants systematically for years. They have had a house in New York and New Orleans; boarding-houses in both these places and in Liverpool; runners not only in the United States and in the port of embarcation in England, but in every emigration district in Ireland. For years this firm has pursued the policy of deliberately fleecing emigrants. It rarely wastes time on the poorer classes, such as those which are shipped by Unions or landlords; but it hardly ever lets an emigrant of the better class out of its clutches till he has parted with his last dollar.



Once on board ship, and the cruel parting with friends over, the emigrant falls a prey to a new class of masters, the sailors. Enough has been printed about the trials to which young emigrant girls are subject. Both sexes, and all ages, are the victims of a tyranny which is none the less grinding because nautical discipline may justify or excuse it. At sailing, the steerage passengers are mustered, and the emigrant learns— from the blows and jeers of the mate and crew— that he is “under authority.” The whole passage confirms this first impression. Sailors interfere with his feeding, his sleeping, and his exercise. If he be ill— as in most cases he is— his sufferings provoke jibes, where they do not lead to violent correction, from the officer of the watch. He may die if he choose, but he must not soil the purity of the deck or the steerage. To cook his food properly, he must fight manfully. To protect his wife and daughters, he must unite imposing strength with unusual courage. To resist the brutality of the crew, he must share their pugnacity, and surpass them in shrewdness.


At last the voyage is over, and the emigrant lands on American soil. In olden time his condition at this stage in his fortunes was truly pitiable. Federal, State, and municipal authorities regarded him with as much indifference as if he had been a bale of cheap goods. Scoundrels of the very lowest calibre— emigrant runners— seized him, and made him their own. If he had any money, they robbed him of it. If he had a pretty wife or daughters, they stole them too, if they could. If he had neither money nor daughters, they merely took his luggage. It was well for him if, after having been robbed of all he had, he was not beaten to death, or entrapped into committing crimes which transferred him almost directly from the emigrant vessel to Blackwell’s Island or the State Prison. His bewrayers were of his own kith and kin. The easiest emigrants to rob were the Irish; and the majority of emigrant runners belonged to the same race. The brogue was part of their capital in trade.

This is ancient history now. A few years ago, the railways of this State grew jealous of emigrant runners, and proposed to monopolize the business. With the aid of certain politicians, they established an emigrant dépôt at Castle Garden, in the city of New York, where immigrants are now landed, and whence they are forwarded to their destination. Into this dépôt the old class of robbers known as runners are not openly permitted to enter. It is a vast improvement on the old system; though whether it be itself tainted with corruption appears to be matter of debate. There seems to be some doubt whether European emigration to the United States will continue. Of late years it has greatly fallen off. This year it will not, most probably, amount to one-third what it was a few years since. Germany has thrown off its surplus. Ireland has got rid of its starving thousands, and there is more elbow-room for those who remain behind. Until some convulsion disturb peaceful trade and industry in Europe, there is no reason to suppose that immigrants will flow into the United States at the same rate as formerly; though, so long as we have vacant lands and political privileges to offer, we can hardly fail to levy a large percentage upon the increase of the European people. EmigrantLanding