“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Ever since it was colonised by the master of colonial powers back in the Stuart era, the United States has been a land of immigration, innovation and industry. Those immortal words, part of a poem by writer Emma Lazarus, have adorned the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor for over a century, since they were first put there in 1903. They poetically remind us of America’s great immigrant past.
America. The United States. The U.S. The Arsenal of Democracy. The global policeman who Theodore Roosevelt said should: “Speak softly and carry a big stick”.
Empires and their influences rise and fall, whether or not they be empires in the truest sense of the word, or not. The Chinese Empire. The Russian Empire. The Soviet Empire. The Greek Empire. The Roman Empire. The Japanese Empire. The French Empire. The Byzantine Empire…the list is almost endless. But right now, one could argue that we are in the midst of an American Empire.
At the time of the British Empire, British influence and culture spread throughout the world…much like how today, American influence and culture does the same. The British brought us language, culture, food, government, schools and tray after tray of delicately-sliced, daintily-prepared cucumber sandwiches. The Americans gave us trash-talk TV shows, Oprah, supermodels, shamelessly expensive designer consumer-goods and a plethora of cheap, fattening, greasy fast foods the likes of which have never been seen or tasted before.
One could say a lot of bad things about America. But then one could say a lot of bad things about almost any country on earth. But America’s history is one of constant hardship, struggle, invention, innovation, creativity, renewal and grudging acceptance.
So. Where do we begin?
Finding the New World
People have been aware of the American continent for centuries. Ever since the late 15th century. Everyone knows that in 1492, an Italian man named Christopher Columbus sailed across the Pond. He reached the other bank and he found a great, vast, untouched country. He called it!…
Columbus was looking for a passage to India and the Middle East. He hadn’t counted on bumping into a huge landmass halfway through his journey. But he did. And since he was looking for India, he assumed that this was India! For that reason, he named the natives who came to greet him…Indians.
They’re not, of course. But today, the term “American Indian” still survives. All because of a simple geographical error.
Eventually, the American continent became known as the “New World”, to differentiate it from the “Old World” (ie: Europe).
Knowledge of this “New World” had been around for a while. In 1583, a fellow named Humphrey Gilbert, from England, found a new landmass off the coast of the American continent. He claimed it for Queen and Country (‘Queen’ being Elizabeth I) and gave it a name which we still have today. His newfound landmass would be named…um…
Yeah, they weren’t very big on fancy, inventive, creative names back in Tudor times.
Attempts to colonise America had been around for a while. A lot of countries wanted to go to America. France, Spain and England particularly, were all fighting for their own slices of this new action. The first successful British colony was established in 1607 during the reign of King James the First.
Jamestowne, Virginia: A Shaky Start
In the early 1600s, a group of daring colonists set sail across the Atlantic. Backing them up was the Virginia Company of London. This company was established purely for the purposes of setting up a British colony, or set of colonies, on the American continent. Many people had tried in the past, but all of them had been failures for one reason or another. But in 1607, they succeeded! Yay!
They named their new settlement Jamestown. And the land around them they named ‘Virginia’, after the company that sponsored their little adventure. They built huts, set up palisades, grew crops, sold discount DVDs…everything was cool!
The colonists needed to choose the site of their new settlement very carefully. Somewhere with wood for building and for fuel, somewhere close to water for drinking, and water-transport, somewhere clean and comfortable, and somewhere free from the savage natives!
To this end, they selected a spot in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia, near the mouth of the aptly-named James River. It was perfect! The peninsula was created by the convergence of two waterways. The James River on the south, the North River on the…um…north…lots of lovely land to the west, and to the east, Chesapeake Bay!
But, best of all these things…there were no savage natives around! wonderful! Perfect! Fantastic!
They thought this was so fantastic that they completely forgot to take into account…WHY…there were no savage natives around.
What at first seemed like the perfect place to set up shop soon became a nightmare. The reason there were no natives here was because it was a terrible place to be. And when the locals don’t go there, it’s best that you don’t, either.
The area had a lot of stagnant, still water all over the place, because of the huge amounts of water from the two rivers that emptied into the bay. This stagnant, stale water was impossible to drink. And it bred mosquitoes that buzzed around all over the place! The ground was so wet and soggy from the nearby waterways that it was impossible to grow anything there. The crops would become waterlogged and just rot in the ground. And what land that there was actually available for settlement was so small that it was considered a waste of time to even try starting!
Just about everything was against them. Too late to go out finding somewhere else to sleep for the night, the colonists had to make do with whatever their poor choice had given them to do whatever they needed to do, with. And that wasn’t much.
To set up a colony, the menfolk would have to chop down trees, de-branch logs, cut planks or beams, or cut notches in tree-trunks to create logs and somehow build simple wooden or log-cabins. They also had to clear land, plow fields and grow crops!
Can you do that?
Neither could they!
The problem was that they’d arrived in America too late in the year. By the time they’d managed to get their settlement together, such as it was, it was already the middle of May, 1607, and rapidly approaching June. The issue here was that there wouldn’t be enough time to plant crops and get them to grow to a sufficient size to harvest for food, before winter came and killed everything!
On top of that, there was not a single farmer amongst them. They were all merchants, tradesmen, gentlemen of means, ladies of leisure, children, and household domestic servants. Even those who were used to hard work could chop wood or cook food or wash clothes. But farming?
They didn’t have a clue.
Conditions got so bad that soon they were all starving. During the 1600s, the world goes through what is called the “Mini Ice Age”, which doesn’t end until the early 1800s. Temperatures get so cold that in England, it’s not uncommon for the River Thames in the very heart of London to freeze over! You could skate from one bank of the river to the other! Or even take a sleigh and horses, because the ice is that thick!
What does this mean for the colonists?
Well, with harsh winter weather, little food and less firewood, they begin dropping like flies. Of the original five hundred colonists, by the end of 1607, there are only 449 left! And by the end of 1610, there’s only 61 left!
The colonists were in really bad shape. Even if they wanted to start farming, they couldn’t, because they didn’t have the skills necessary to do it. The local natives did try to help them out, but local assistance only goes so far. Soon, the colonists were fighting with the Indians. Not a good idea. Mostly because the Indians are armed with bows and arrows, and the colonists with unreliable matchlock muskets. What’s the issue here?
Well, while the bow and arrow is an older technology, it operates at a much, much faster rate of fire than the muskets of the time. In the end, the colonists capture the daughter of the local chieftain and hold her to ransom. The war ends and they sign a peace treaty. But the Indian girl is kinda cute, so one of the colonists marries her and takes her back to England as a sort of walking advertisement for exotic life in the New World. Her name becomes famous all over London.
Her husband was John Rolfe, one of the first successful tobacco farmers in colonial America. They sailed for England in 1616. They would’ve sailed back home to America in 1619 at the end of their tour of England, but Pocahontas died before they could make the journey.
Jamestown struggled on for several more decades. But it was finally abandoned at the close of the 17th century, in 1699.
The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony
The other famous group of settlers in early American history were a group of persecuted religious types. Known today as the Pilgrim Fathers, or simply, the Pilgrims, these English men, women and children followed the Christian puritan religion.
And they weren’t exactly popular for doing so.
Just as the name suggests, the puritans believed in leading…pure lives. This meant that religion was central to their way of acting, living and thinking. Puritans believed that many of the things that we take for granted today, were sinful in the eyes of the Lord, and should be illegal. Things like: Christmas, gambling, games, sport, presents and theater! No wonder they weren’t exactly popular…
So persecuted were they that the puritans decided to leave England and sail for the New World. And they did so on one of the most famous ships in history.
Fed up of the trouble and persecution caused by King Charles the First in England, the puritans decided that they had to escape. To this end, they boarded a ship at the English port town of Plymouth, and set sail due west, for the American continent.
The Mayflower might be famous, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for a transatlantic crossing.
The ship was tiny. About 30m long by 7.5m wide (110 x 25ft), with four decks. The space between the decks was about five feet high! Crammed into this bathtub with sails were about 130 passengers and crew. About 105 passengers, and about 25 to 30 sailors. If that sounds crowded, then be glad the ship didn’t leave with it’s original, full complement of 150 passengers and crew! About twenty passengers got off the ship when it docked at Plymouth, and refused to get back on. On top of this, the ship was not designed to transport people! It was a merchant vessel. A cargo-ship designed to transport barrels of wine!
The Mayflower left England on the 16th of September, 1620. And they were probably glad to be on their way! Two previous attempts to leave, with another ship along for the ride (the ‘Speedwell‘) had been marred by misfortune. The Speedwell sprung a leak on both previous attempts, and the ships had to keep turning back to England. Originally supposed to leave with two ships from the famous English port of Southampton, the pilgrims now left with one ship, from the port city of Plymouth, England. But finally, they were on their way.
The voyage took sixty-six days across the Atlantic. They arrived along the Eastern coast of the American continent in what is modern day Massachusetts. It is the 9th of November, 1620. They dropped anchor, lowered the ship’s boats and rowed ashore. Landfall was made on a large, smooth grey rock on the Massachusetts shoreline. Today, this unassuming chunk of stone is called Plymouth Rock.
Or is it?
The traditional story is that the Mayflower left England, beat a path across the sea, dropped anchor off the American coast, lowered its boats, the passengers and crew rowed ashore and the first of their feet hit American soil, standing on a large rock on the beach. But is it true? Nobody really knows. No accounts written by the pilgrims back in the 1620s make any mention of a rock of any kind. The first written record of it ever existing didn’t show up until the mid-18th century, ca. 1741.
The man responsible for this was Thomas Faunce. Faunce, by then nearly a hundred years old (to be precise, the incredible age of 94!), had been town record-keeper of Plymouth, Massachusetts, for most of his life. It was he who identified the rock which, so his father had told him, was the actual ‘Plymouth Rock’ which the Pilgrims first touched when they arrived in America.
Whether or not it’s 100% true is up for debate. But in America today, you can still go to Massachusetts and see Plymouth Rock. It’s still there, housed in its own special little protective structure by the sea.
Just like the settlers at Jamestown, the Pilgrims had to fight to survive. To try and make this easier, they wrote and signed the first proper legal document in American history. The Mayflower Compact.
The details of the compact listed the laws, rules and regulations which were expected within the colony, and which all signers were sworn to follow and obey, in order for the colony to have the best chance of survival.
The actual Compact is long gone. But copies of what it probably looked like have survived to this day, preserved in the texts of books written and printed shortly after the arrival of the pilgrims. The text of the Compact, as recorded in various contemporary papers and books from the period, read as follows. (The spelling and grammar is modern, but the text is unchanged from the original document):
The Text of the Mayflower Compact (1620)
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, 1620
Despite this nice piece of paper and all that it entails (it takes a while to cut through the incredibly convoluted nature of 17th century English, but it’s not that hard to read and understand!), life for the Pilgrims in Massachusetts was no easier than that for the settlers at Jamestown. Disease and starvation killed several people before the end of the year.
By 1621, the colony of New Plymouth begins to take shape properly. Local native Americans make friends with the pilgrims. They show them where to fish, how to fertilise the local soil so that their crops of corn will grow. The pilgrims hunt for turkeys with their muskets.
In November, 1621, one year after their arrival, the pilgrims hold a feast to show their thanks for God’s mercy, and to show their appreciation to the local natives who had helped them survive their first twelve months in this new and alien world. Today, it is the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
The pilgrims and the Jamestown settlers become America’s first permanent English-speaking settlers.
Early America wasn’t just colonised by the British. Great swathes of the country were colonised by the French, the Dutch and the Spanish, to the south, north and west respectively. You can still see their influences in the place-names today: Louisiana – named for King Louis of France, Vermont – French for ‘Green Mountains’ and the original name of the New York Borough of Manhattan: New Amsterdam.
The Great Migrations
In the period before and after the American Civil War (1861-1865), there were periods of mass migration. The first migration came from within: African-Americans held in slavery in the South fled North. Racism existed everywhere, but in the North, people were generally more tolerant, open, respectful and less prejudiced.
One of the greatest numbers of migrants to the United States were the Chinese.
Fleeing famine and unrest in China, thousands of them swarmed across the Pacific Ocean to American port-cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the 1860s, America is attempting the world’s first transcontinental railroad. Irish railroad workers refuse to do the backbreaking and incredibly dangerous work of boring, blasting, shoveling, tunneling, laying sleepers, gravel, tracks and driving in millions of rivets and spikes. The Railroad is made in an age where old-fashioned gunpowder (‘black powder’) is still the main explosive. Of only moderate effectiveness, the only other alternative is the highly unstable nitroglycerin. It’s so dangerous that it can explode at the drop of a hat. Transporting it is made illegal, and even under controlled circumstances, accidents are common.
The Chinese, lured to the United States by stories of work, money and a stable life, flock to California. Some have already been there since the 1850s when the California Gold Rush spread gold-fever around the world. To this day, San Francisco boasts the biggest Chinatown in the entire United States. One of the most famous Chinese foodstuffs which isn’t Chinese at all, is created there – The fortune-cookie.
The other great migration came from the 1840s onwards. Driven from their homeland by constant crop-failures, the Irish people are starving to death because their staple food is almost nonexistent. During this time, the diet of the Irish poor is made up mostly of beer, bread, cheese and that wonder-crop…the potato.
Yes. The Irish are the world’s biggest per-capita consumer of french fries.
When the Potato Blights started in the 1840s, Irish families starved. Farmers were unable to farm and with no potatoes to sell at market, they were unable to pay rent. And this got them in trouble with the absentee landlords – Wealthy Englishmen who owned estates in Ireland. Called ‘absentee landlords’ because they never bothered to visit their Irish estates. They only paid attention to them when the money stopped flowing, which happened more and more as the 1800s progressed. Poor Irish families were evicted, and landlords would even burn down their houses to stop them from coming back.
The Irish fled to the United States in their thousands. They settled in the big cities and in small towns, blending in with American society.
As the 1800s progressed, more and more people poured into the United States, the oft-toted ‘Land of the Free’. The majority of people living in America today can boast some degree of European immigrant history.
Immigration in America grew from a trickle, to the occasional rush, to a steady flow, into a torrent of humanity, forcing their way in. To regulate the flow of immigrants, the American Government established the world’s most famous immigration check-point in history. This place:
Ellis Island Immigration Center, New York, U.S.A.
As far back as 1855, the United States had been processing immigrants through official arrival-centers. On the Eastern Seaboard, the main one was the Castle Garden Immigration Center.
Previously a defensive fort built on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, Castle Garden (today Castle Clinton) Immigration Center was America’s first immigration-center. The castle or fort had existed since 1808, it became an immigration-center in 1855. It remained one for nearly forty years.
But Castle Garden was not fully-equipped to be an immigration-center. It didn’t have all the proper facilities and it was located on the increasingly crowded Manhattan Island. It was decided that there had to be a PROPER immigration-center, purpose-built for the processing of immigrants.
Ellis Island Immigration Center started operation in 1892. It finally closed in 1954. By the time it ceased to be a functioning immigration-center, it had processed 12,000,000 people.
Today, over 100,000,000 Americans can trace their family history back to someone who passed through the gates at Ellis Island.
Who Came to Ellis Island?
The majority of people who came to the United States through the immigration-center at Ellis island were Europeans. Swiss, Swedes, Spanish, Germans, Poles, French, and as the 20th century dawned, a large number of Eastern European, mostly Russian, Jews. The pogroms (race riots) in the Russian Empire at the time forced many Jews to flee Eastern Europe for their own safety. Some merely moved to other countries within Europe, such as Poland, or Germany, or France. Some moved to the United Kingdom. But more and more were willing to risk everything on a third-class ticket to the New World.
To sail across ‘The Pond’ on a total guess was a big step. Most of these people were going to a totally new country. A country they probably only read about in newspapers, in books, or heard about from friends, or read about in letters. This legendary country called ‘America’, where the streets were paved with gold and where anybody could make it big!
The Immigration Process at Ellis Island
In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, great steamship companies such as Cunard, White Star, French Line, the Hamburg-America Line and so-forth, the big, transatlantic companies, got a lot of their money, not from the wealthy first-class passengers who swanned across the Pond in lavish style and luxury, but rather from the hundreds and thousands of poor European immigrants who fled their homelands to try their luck in the New World, this land of the free, the home of the brave.
To get from Europe to America was a voyage of at least a week. Even the fastest ships could only manage it in about six or seven days (even today, modern ocean-liners will take up to four days). But what happened when the ship reached New York?
The ship would sail into New York Harbor, past the great Statue of Liberty, the first sight of America that any of these immigrants was ever likely to see. Passing the Statue, they would sail past the Five Boroughs to New Jersey. Here, they were offloaded, and they and their luggage were dumped onto ferries. Ferries ran shuttle-services to and from Ellis Island, off the southwest coast of Manhattan.
Once you reached the island, you were shepherded off and sent to the main immigration-hall. Here, your luggage was stacked, and then you headed upstairs to the Great Hall. The hall was broken up by steel and wooden barriers, long benches and barricades. You selected the appropriate line, got into it, and worked your way down towards the desks at the far end. Here, your papers would be examined and cross-checked, such as passports, tickets, visas and so-forth. Interpreters speaking the main European languages were on-hand to assist with any language-barriers.
If everything checked out, you went onto other lines and categories. You would be medically examined, your intelligence checked, and starting in 1919, your literacy as well. This process could take hours…or it could take months! In the end, one of three things would eventually happen:
1. You were passed fit for immigration. You could gather up your luggage from the luggage-room downstairs, and then head to the “Kissing Post”.
The ‘Kissing Post’ was given its current name because this was the exit-passageway from the main immigration-hall. It was where friends, family-members or sponsors waited for their newly-arrived companions or additional family-members. Couples, families and friends would meet here in the passageway, head outside and board a ferry for New York, ready to start their new lives in their new home.
2. You were put into Quarantine.
Not everyone who came to Ellis Island could leave right away. If you were found to be ill, or lacking in any physical or mental capacity, you might be refused entry to the United States, or you might be put into quarantine. Medical officers, nurses, orderlies and doctors prowled the floors of the immigration-center, examining new arrivals. Every single immigrant was given a quick (and I mean QUICK! Less than a minute!) checkup by a doctor to assess their condition. If there were no issues, the person could pass through. If there were, a chalk-mark would be pressed into their clothes. The marks that the medical-officers on Ellis Island employed included:
B – Back (Potential back-problems, spinal problems, etc).
C- Conjunctivitis (Pink-eye. An infection of the eye).
T – Trachoma (another type of eye-infection)
E – Eyes (for potential vision-issues).
F – Face (for potential facial issues).
FT – Feet (for issues with feet, walking, mobility, etc).
G – Goiter.
H – Heart.
K – Hernia (ouch!)
L – Lameness.
N – Neck.
P – Physical (general medical issues).
PG – Pregnancy.
S – Senility or Alzheimer’s Disease.
SC – Scalp and hair issues.
SI – ‘Special Inquiry’.
X – Suspected Mental Illness.
(X) – Certified mental illness.
Depending on the mark made on your clothes, you could be held in quarantine for days, or even weeks at a time, until you were cured. Ellis Island had playgrounds for children, dining-halls, a hospital and dormitories for all its quarantined immigrants. Once you were cured, you would be allowed to leave the island.
3. You were sent back to your home country.
This was the last and worst category that an immigrant could find himself in. You could be sent back to Europe for any number of reasons, from criminal records, not having enough money, or a sponsor (the immigration officials didn’t want people surviving on handouts!) or an unsatisfactory medical report. For many immigrants, being sent back was devastating. Many of them had sunk their life-savings into packing everything up and shipping their family across the Atlantic to the United States to start a new life. The only good thing to come out of this was the fact that the passage back home was free!
Returning immigrants didn’t have to pay for their passage home. It was provided by the steamship company that brought them there in the first place. Because the big liner companies didn’t like giving free passages to immigrants, the immigration process was very strict. Before you even got on the ship departing from Cherbourg, Naples or Southampton, Hamburg or Gdansk, you went through strict immigration processes, as tightly controlled, if not more so, than the one you would get at Ellis Island. This was to ensure that only the best candidates for worthwhile immigration ever made it through, saving everyone time and money.
Of course, some people wanted to get to America at any cost. If their medical examination was unsatisfactory, it wasn’t uncommon for people to wipe off the chalk-marks made on their clothes…or simply take off their clothes, or turn them inside out…and sneak off to the departure area, grab their luggage and board the next ferry leading to the mainland. They’d come this far and sunk all their money into this once-in-a-lifetime chance. They weren’t about to let a stupid white mark on their coat hold them back!
The End of Ellis Island
For sixty two years, Ellis Island was in operation. From 1892, until 1954. Business was steady for about half that time, and over twelve million people entered America through this most famous of all the immigration centers. Ellis Island was busiest between the 1890s up to the period after the First World War. In 1920, immigration restriction acts in many countries saw the end of the transatlantic immigrant trade, and ships from big companies like Cunard, the French Line and the White Star Line, stopped offering cheap berths to immigrants. The ‘steerage’ class on ocean-liners practically disappeared and was converted into a more respectable-sounding “Tourist Class” instead.
Despite the decline of the transatlantic immigrant-passages, Ellis Island remained open until well into the postwar years. It finally shut down in 1954.
Famous Ellis Island Immigrants
A lot of America’s most famous celebrities came to the United States by passing through the gates of Ellis Island. Among them were…
Irving Berlin – The famous songwriter.
Isaac Asimov – The novelist.
Frank Carpa – The film-director.
Cary Grant and Bob Hope (The famous actor and comedian, both from England).
Al Jolson – ‘The Greatest Entertainer of the 20th Century’.
Gus Kahn – The famous songwriter (from Germany).
Bela Lugosi – The horror actor.
Sgt. Michael Strank – WWII soldier. Raised the flag on Iwo Jima, 1945.
The Family Von Trapp – Made famous in ‘The Sound of Music‘.
America’s Immigrant History
America’s history is one of immigration. One of travel, escape, renewal, of multiculturalism and mingling. Without hundreds of millions of people daring to take the trip across the oceans to the New World, America as we know it today would never have existed.
A happy Independence Day to all the Americans reading this blog 😀