Back to Chronicle Page    Home Page

THEIR JOURNEY TO AMERICA

The following article was E-mailed to the Historical Society by Dave and Patricia Kustra, Phoenix, Arizona with the attached message: just finished a family history of my paternal grandparents, Jacob and Mary (Adamik,) Chudosky. They all emigrated from Slovakia in the first decade of this century, and settled in the Tarentum and Creighton area. I grew up in West Tarentum. 1 distributed copies of the first editions of our family histories to family members in the Tarentum area. I’m working on a second edition, with chapters on the history of Slovakia, history of places in the Allegheny Valley, Christmas traditions in Slovakia and Hungary, etc. I have enclosed a rough draft of one chapter, "Their Journey to America ", which you may use in the Chronicle if anyone is interested.

Steel, coal and glass companies in America hired labor agents to recruit laborers in Europe. Many took up the offer, mostly young single men. Some planned to work only a few months, then return to buy a farm in their native country. Just before leaving for America, many married, leaving behind their brides in the old country while they worked in America, living frugally to save money to send home. It was common for Greek, Italian or Slavic men to come to America in the spring, work several months, then return home for Christmas. Immigration officials called these seasonal workers "birds of passage. In time, many stayed in America, and sent for their families, to the dismay of many English-speaking Americans who feared the growing number of "greenhoms," as they were sometimes called. Over thirty-four million Europeans came to America before the immigration quota law in May

1921.

Before 1906, an alien could become a citizen by merely taking an oath. But after 1906, federal laws required a candidate to appear before a court, to prove he could speak English, and to answer questions on American history, civics, and the Constitution. Many immigrants, therefore, postponed becoming citizens for decades. The naturalization process took at least five years. The first step for an alien, who had resided in the U. S. at least two years, was to file a "declaration of intent" with a court. Any court of record could be used, but most large cities processed aliens through a U. S. District Court. Three years later the alien could file a ‘petition for naturalization’ with a court. If he knew English and passed the questions he was awarded a Certificate of Naturalization. From 1790-1922, wives of naturalized men automatically became citizens, and women who married naturalized men automatically became citizens. But American women who married aliens automatically became aliens; even if they remained in the U. S. Also, from 1790-1940, children under age twenty-one automatically became naturalized citizens upon the naturalization of their father. Our ancestors immigrated to America in the first decade of the 20th Century, crossing the Atlantic in iron steamships. Most immigrants from regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as Slovakia, booked their passage through the ports of Hamburg or Bremen. Transatlantic steamship companies and railroad companies distributed brochures and posters in many languages throughout the United States and Europe to drum up business. They painted a rosy picture of employment opportunities and quality of life in America.

Steamship companies like White-Star, Cunard, Hamburg America, and La Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, offered ticket packages, promoted by their agents throughout Europe, which offered to transport immigrants by rail and steamship from their homes in Europe to their new homes in America. For example, La Compagnie Generate Transatlantique offered to transport passengers by train from their homes to the company village at the port of Le Havre, where they were examined by company doctors, given an antiseptic bath and short haircut, vaccinated, and quarantined several days before being placed on a steamship to America. Their luggage was fumigated with steam before boarding, which destroyed many of their belongings. Cunard had similar port side facilities in Liverpool, Holland-America in Rotterdam, and Hamburg-America in Hamburg. Steamship companies screened passengers carefully, because they were fined as much as $100 (after 1905) for each passenger rejected by U. S. Immigration. Sometimes, family members already in America purchased tickets through a steamship agent for their relatives in Europe. By 1900 most immigrants made their way to industrial areas rather than rural areas. Over 55% settled in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Massachusetts.

U. S. Immigration required ships to compile detailed manifests for all passengers landing in America. Each numbered manifest sheet had room for thirty names, and each immigrant was assigned a passenger number from one to thirty. Information on each passenger was record in the columns to the right of his name, for example: age, sex, occupation, country where he was a citizen, intended destination, whether he is in transit or permanent, location of his space or berth on the ship. number of bags, port of embarkation, and date and cause of death if he died en route.

In the first decade of the 20th Century, the Atlantic crossing in an iron steamship took six to twelve days, far better than the two to four months it took for sailing vessels in the days before steam. By the 1880’s, almost all transatlantic passengers’ vessels were steamships. Most immigrants booked into the less expensive ‘steerage" class, which cost at least $25. This was about two or three weeks wages for a coal miner. Second class cabins cost about $20 more. Steerage compartments were in the lowest decks; along with the ships steering controls and engines. Each steerage passenger was assigned a numbered metal berth, a canvas or burlap mattress stuffed with hay or seaweed, a life preserver which doubled as a pillow, and a tin pail and utensils for meals, which were often served from a huge tank. The bunks were typically stacked two high and two side by side, and a compartment might accommodate 100 to 400 or more passengers. Yet these conditions in the first decade of the 20th Century were much improved over those in previous years. After 1910 the newer ships replaced steerage class with third class, which consisted of four-berth or six-berth cabins. Stewards served meals in dining rooms, and the passengers had china and flatware.

During this time immigrants came to America through New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans, Key West, Galveston, and Seattle. Some who couldn’t be admitted because of medical or other reasons entered illegally through Canada or Mexico. Steerage class immigrants arriving in New York after January 1892 were processed at the new Ellis Island facility. As early as February 1890, Secretary of the Treasury William Windom moved to close the Castle Garden facility in Battery Park, which operated as a landing station since 1855, because immigrants were being fleeced by a barrage of thieves and corrupt officials. The Immigration Act of 1891 brought immigration under the auspices of the Treasury Department. The wood frame building on Ellis Island, opened on 1 January 1892, burned down on 15 June 1897, and was replaced by a brick structure on 17 December 1900.

From its beginning, Ellis Island was notorious for its corrupt currency exchange officials who shortchanged immigrants. Concession operators were also a problem. The catering service was known to serve meals without utensils, but served up 20 million pounds of prune sandwiches a year. A barber was fired after threatening an immigrant with deportation if he did not pay to have his hair cut. A clerk was accused of failing to deliver money orders to immigrants, resulting in their deportation. Baggage handlers were found to charge immigrants twice the going rate. Railroad ticket agents often routed immigrants, not by the most direct route to their destination, but by one that required a layover. Some were forced to buy a fifty-cent or dollar bag of food from the restaurant concession for their train trip. There were always a large number of clergy and persons representing charities, boarding houses, and immigrant aid societies to meet passengers as they disembarked on Ellis. Some boarding houses charged excessive rates and abused guests. St. Joseph’s Home for the Protection of Polish Immigrants was accused of beating tenants with rubber hoses, exacting exorbitant rents, and withholding money left with

them for safekeeping. Women taken in by the Swedish Immigrant Home disappeared, perhaps sold into slavery or prostitution. These abuses were cleaned up to a great extent under William Williams who serve as Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis from 1902-05 and 1909-14. Not everyone on the Island was corrupt. Social workers helped immigrants find jobs, and avoid unscrupulous labor contractors who preyed on their own countrymen. Many of the forty immigrant aid societies appearing on Ellis gave cards to passengers to facilitate their travel. A typical card might read, "To the conductor: Please show bearer where to change train and where to get of, as this person does not speak English.’ They also helped locate lost luggage, cut red tape, contact family members, and even gave money and clothing to immigrants.

Passenger steamships typically docked at a pier in Hoboken, NJ, where steerage passengers were transferred to a crowded ferryboat, which the company chartered to carry them to Ellis Island. Each passenger was given a landing card and medical inspection car. The landing card was pinned to his lapel, listing the name of the steamship, manifest sheet number, and passenger number. The medical inspection card recorded each time the ship’s doctor examined the passenger, which was usually once a day. Ellis processed an average of 2,000-4,000 immigrants a day, but some days were busier than others. On 27 March 1907, when 16,050 passengers arrived in a twenty-four hour period, thousands spent days waiting aboard their steamships in the harbor, and hours waiting on ferryboats. Stephen Graham called the crowded ferry to Ellis a "floating waiting room." Some passengers, particularly sick children, died on the ferries to Ellis in the freezing cold on the Hudson River. One doctor estimated that 30% of children with measles died on the ferryboats. Second class passengers, however, were processed at the pier in New Jersey. The extra $20-$40 for second class enabled them to travel in more comfort and avoid the long lines of Ellis Island altogether, but they had to deal with thieving railroad ticket agents and baggage handlers.

After immigrants disembarked from their ferryboats on Ellis, they proceeded up the stairs to the south hall to begin an inspection process which took at least an hour or two. Each presented his medical inspection card, and was given a two or three minute physical exam by a Marine Hospital Service doctor. If the doctor suspected any abnormality he would mark the immigrant’s lapel with a piece of chalk: "B" for back, "C" for conjunctivitis, "Ct" for trachoma, "F" for eyes, "F" for face, "Ft’ for feet, "C" for goiter, "H" for heart, "K" for hernia, "L" for lameness, "N" for neck, "P’ for physical and lungs, ‘Pg" for pregnant, or "S" for senility, "Sc" for scalp, and "X" for mental illness. The most painful part of the exam came when the doctor pulled the eyelids up and over a metal buttonhook to check for trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease common in southeastern Europe. Infected passengers were immediately sent to an isolation area in the hospital or a quarantine station on Staten Island, and deported. Marked immigrants were detained in a holding area for a more detailed exam, which might lead to quarantine or deportation. Some learned the trick of turning their marked coats inside out.

If the immigrant passed the physical he would wait in the Registry Hall on the second floor to be interviewed by a registry clerk. Immigrants were called to a multi-lingual clerk’s desk in groups of thirty, by their ship’s manifest page number. As the clerk reviewed the manifest, he asked the thirty immigrants one-by-one, often through a government interpreter, if they had money and a job. The answer was not easy to give, noted Fiorello LaGuardia, who was an interpreter on Ellis from 1910-12. If the immigrant said he had no job, he could be deported on grounds of being a public charge, but if he admitted to having a job waiting for him, he could be deported for violation of the Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885. The question of how much money was enough to get into America was left to the clerk’s discretion until 1909, when Commissioner Williams required each immigrant to have at least $25.

If the immigrant answered to the satisfaction of the clerk, he could proceed to the currency exchange counter, then to the railroad ticket counter if he did not already have a ticket. He could also send telegrams or eat at the restaurant before exiling down the "Stairs of Separation." The stairs to the right led to rail stations for immediate passage to various cities; the center stairs led to detention areas; and the stairs to the left led down to the ferryboats to New York City. On the ground floor he could arrange to have his luggage shipped, although most carried their bags with them the whole time.

While only 2% of arrivals were deported, about 20% were temporarily detained because they were sick, or without money, or suspected of being a contract laborer or fugitive. Women traveling alone were also detained until officials were assured they would be safe on the streets. Ellis Island provided more and more services for detainees over the years: dormitories for men and for women with iron and canvas bunks, most of which were stacked two or three high and two wide; a 125-bed hospital in 1902 and later expanded to 275 beds; an isolation hospital for contagious diseases in 1911; a nursery; a laundry in 1901; a bath house; a dining room; a school; a library; and a playground. Once a week movies were shown. Detainees often exercised on the roof. On an average day there were about 2,000 detainees at Ellis, but only about 1,800 bunks. The rest slept on wooden benches in the hall. Meals for detainees, which were charged to their steamship company, were served in the dining hall. Around 1904 the restaurant concession was paid 5.5 cents for breakfast, 11 cents for lunch, and 8 cents for dinner. A typical breakfast might include coffee, bread and buffer; lunch might consist of beef stew, boiled potatoes, bread, and pickled herring for Jewish immigrants; and dinner might consist of baked beans, stewed prunes, bread, and tea. Crackers and milk were provided for women and children.

Those unfortunate souls who were awaiting deportation often committed suicide, over 3,000 in Ellis Island’s history. One could be deported for a number of reasons: a medical condition such as epilepsy or tuberculosis; a physical deformity; insanity; having been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; or not having at least $25. Many were deported under the catchall, "likely to become a public charge." A person marked for deportation could appeal before a Board of Special Inquiry at the Island, and then to the federal court. The Board had unique powers since the Supreme Court ruled as early as 1893 that aliens had no inherent right to land in America. The Board ultimately deported 15 - 20% of immigrants who appeared before it.

Back to Chronicle Page    Home Page