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America's First Immigration Law Tried (and Failed) to Deal With Nightmarish Sea Journeys

March 1, 2019 in History

By Dave Roos

Opportunity in the United States beckoned—but first immigrants from Europe had to endure a grim journey.

Record numbers of 19-century immigrants arrived in American port cities from the UK and Western Europe following the War of 1812—but that’s only if they managed to survive the journey. Many of the new arrivals were desperately poor, paid very little for their passage and were treated as nothing more than cargo by shipping companies.

One of the United States’ first immigration laws, the Steerage Act, passed on March 2, 1819, was a half-hearted attempt to improve such transatlantic travel conditions. But the regulations it introduced did little to address the horrors of 19th-century travel in steerage—a catch-all term for the lowest class of sea travel. In 1847, alone, close to 5,000 people died from diseases like typhus and dysentery on ships bound for America.

Disease thrived in the squalid conditions of steerage travel, where, depending on the size of a ship, a few hundred to 1,000 people could be crammed into tight quarters. Wooden beds, known as berths, were stacked two- to three-high with two people sharing single berths and up to four squeezed into a double. The only ventilation was provided by hatches to the upper decks, which were locked tight during rough seas and storms.

Men, women and children in bunks between decks on board an immigrant ship in the mid 19th century.

READ MORE: Timeline of Immigration to the United States

Since the only bathrooms were located above deck, passengers trapped below during stormy weather were forced to urinate and defecate (and get seasick) in buckets, which would overturn in the churning waves. The stench was unbearable and the spread of deadly diseases like typhoid, cholera and smallpox spread unabated.

Food was also in constant shortage. Some ships required passengers to bring their own meager provisions, while others provided only minimum rations meant to keep passengers from starving. A lack of clean drinking water and rancid food resulted in rampant bouts of dysentery

Congress professed to respond to these inhumane conditions with the Steerage Act of 1819, which was supposed to set minimum standards for cross-Atlantic travel. The act imposed a stiff penalty—$150, or $3,000 in 2019 dollars—for each passenger in excess of two people for every five tons of ship weight. It also laid down minimum provisions—60 gallons of water and 100 lbs of “wholesome ship bread” …read more

Source: HISTORY

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