Immigrant Experience

Imagine your ancestors huddled in the filthy, dark cavity of a ship, being loaded onto barges, herded like cattle through immigration lines, their stomachs empty and their spirits weakened by the long journey across the sea. This was their immigrant experience. Shipped like human cattle, they left with nothing and arrived with nothing. America promised a better life for everyone who passed through the Golden Door.

Their immigrant experience was a grimy, dirty city with ragged, dreary clothing hung on a line between ramshackle buildings. The smell of raw sewage mixed with the pungent odors of unwashed flesh and hundreds of thousands of immigrants-the place of new beginnings where the streets were reputed to be paved in gold-an immigrant experience unlike anything we could imagine.

From 1855 to 1890, Castle Gardens, New York served as America's immigration depot. The cost of a steerage ticket in 1890 from Queenstown, Ireland to Castle Gardens, New York was $12.00. Castle Gardens, New York was the major port of entry for all the Europeans clamoring to escape from the clutches of monarchies and kings, the systems of caste and peasantry, of famine and numbing poverty. But also left behind were friends and family as well as tradition and customs generations old. The immigrant experience forever altered their lives.

In 1882, the first general Federal Immigration Law denied entrance at Castle Gardens, New York to any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge. In 1891 this law was expanded to include the expulsion of paupers, prostitutes, polygamists, or persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease. Their unfortunate immigrant experience determined their fate.

While these laws were meant to protect the immigrant as well as the American citizen, they had little effect in deterring swindlers, runners, and labor brokers from exploiting new arrivals after they passed through the gates at Castle Gardens, New York. The immigrant experience of abuse and inhumane treatment inside the depot triggered newspaper accounts, which accused the inspectors at Castle Gardens, New York of corruption and criminal activity. My grandparents' Michael Shea and Bridget Murphy emigrated from Queenstown, Ireland to Castle Gardens, New York in 1880. Their immigration experience frightened them, and they were careful not to call attention to themselves as they moved through the line, for fear of being rejected and returned to Ireland. Castle Gardens, New York was closed down in 1890 and immigration was turned over to the federal government.

Ellis Island, New York opened to welcome immigrants from all over the world in 1892. The confusion of people, crying children, baggage, and foreign tongues defined this immigrant experience. Ellis Island, New York was the Island of hope, but for a few, the island of tears. For immigrants eager to step through the threshold of America, the sight of the Statue of Liberty was a welcoming beacon that signaled the end of a long, difficult journey, and the beginnings of a better life, renewed hope, and bigger dreams.

By the 1890s steam-powered ships replaced sailing vessels, making the Atlantic crossing from three months to two weeks. These steamships could accommodate as many as two thousand passengers in steerage. The steerage passengers slept in metal-framed berths three bunks high; the air inside the steerage compartment was rank with the heavy odor of spoiled food, seasickness, and unwashed bodies. There was little privacy, and the lack of adequate toilet facilities made it difficult to keep clean. By 1910 many ships had replaced steerage with four and six-berth Third Class cabins. The immigrant experience improved when the steamships were introduced.

Once inside the building at Ellis Island, New York, the immigrants made their way, three abreast, to the Registry Room. Doctors had only seconds to examine each passenger, checking for sixty symptoms, from anemia to varicose veins. Those who appeared sick were marked with blue chalk and taken to the Ellis Island, New York Hospital for observation and care. After passing the line inspection, immigrants were waved forward toward the Registry Room. It took an average of five hours to pass through the inspection process at Ellis Island, New York. The immigrant experience helped to prepare those entering the United States for the prejudice and suspicion that would follow them to the tenements of the large cities where they settled.

From the Registry Room, the immigrants were taken to the "Stairs of Separation," this marked the parting of the way for many family and friends with different destinations. From here, they were directed toward the railroad ticket office and trains to points west. My grandparents' Sarah Beirne and Michael Healy traveled from Queenstown, Ireland to Ellis Island, New York in 1903. Their fear of being rejected shattered their nerves. The immigrant experience worked to strengthen their resolve and heighten their awareness of being "outsiders" in this new place.

Ellis Island, New York closed its doors in 1954.

Additional Sources
    Table of Contents
  Irish Genealogy
  Immigrant Experience
  - Castle Gardens, New York
  - Ellis Island, New York
  Cahersiveen, County Kerry, Ireland
  Valentia, County Kerry, Ireland
  Boyle, County Roscommon, Ireland
  Irish Potato Famine
  Murphy Family
  Shea Family
  Healy Family
  Beirne Family
  Irish Family Research - Supplement
  Emigration - Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland
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