Crossing the Atlantic in the 1850’s

Reprinted by permission from “Williams-Nelson Family History” pages 27-29, self-published by Deana Williams in 1992

The three-masted barks that brought the early immigrants from Norway were powered only by the wind.  It was still the era of sailing ships. These ships were usually only about 120 feet long. Although some ships had one or two “guest cabins” available, the primary purpose of ocean-going vessels at this time was moving cargo.   The idea of a ship dedicated solely to transporting passengers was still a decade or two away

To accommodate immigrants, the cargo hold of the ship was modified and held a row of wide (holding 3-4 people) bunks stacked two or sometimes three high against each wall of the hold. Larger ships might also have a row of bunks down the middle.   The ceiling heights varied from slightly less than six feet to as much as eight feet.  Access to the remodeled cargo hold (renamed the “between deck”) was usually down long ladders that extended up to the deck through the cargo hatches.

The journey was estimated to take ten weeks, but unfavorable winds or stormy seas could extend the voyage to three months or longer. A one way ticket typically cost from $20-$30 dollars. The ship provided straw mattresses (an ideal home for lice and fleas) on the wooden bunks. Passengers were expected to bring their own bed clothes, cooking utensils, and food.  Water and wood (for cook stoves) was included in the price of passage, although there were often reports of water shortages when winds and storms extended the crossings. 

Every traveler was responsible for bringing enough food for the 10 week voyage, – a typical list might include loaves of bread, a large cheese round, butter keg, coffee or tea, a sack of flour, and a hefty chunk of salted sausage, salt pork, and perhaps a smoked sheep shoulder.  Some captains allowed a stove in the between deck; most, because of the fear of fire, insisted that all cooking be done in a galley on deck. Since each family cooked for itself, there were often long lines waiting to use the cooking facilities; some families simply gave up on cooking and ate all of their meals cold.

Each passenger was allowed one trunk. The charge for excess baggage was dear and few could afford it.  Trunks were usually made specifically for the voyage. Along with the owner’s name, many included the year of immigration, and some were beautifully decorated with rosemalling. The trunks contained the food and utensils required on the trip along with the most necessary and most important of his or her possessions. Everything else had to be given away, sold, or thrown out.  The child’s rocker that Great-great Grandma Nelson is said to have brought with her from Norway would have been packed in her immigrant trunk.  We can only imagine what she chose to leave behind, and how valuable this treasure from her childhood must have been for Guro to have given it so much precious space in her trunk! 

On some ships, provisions and trunks were kept in a cargo hold beneath the between deck.  The cargo hold was often tightly packed, with the immigrant trunks stacked on top of regular cargo.  It was sometimes very difficult for the passengers to get to their provisions and possessions, and only a handful of them might be able to descend to the cargo hold at one time.  On some ships, trunks were kept on the between deck.  That made access much easier, but could create serious problems in stormy weather.  Passengers often reported that the trunks, which were not always tied down, were tossed around in the dark of the between deck, seriously injuring passengers who had the misfortune of being in the path of sliding or flying trunks!      

Ventilation was usually a serious problem. Most passengers spent as much time as possible on the decks of the ship.  Because a between deck was just a cargo hold filled with bunks, on most ships the only openings through which fresh air could pass were the cargo hatch and a small number of vents.  Bathroom facilities were often just a pail in a corner that was to be brought up on deck each morning and dumped over the side.  During bad weather, the hatch and vents were closed to prevent the between deck from filling with water. Although lamps were usually allowed during calm seas, they were forbidden during storms.  Imagine being in almost total darkness, with the “Johnny can” sloshing all over and people vomiting from seasickness.  The stench could be almost unbearable. 

Water was brought onboard for drinking, but many ships depended on rainwater collection for water for washing both passengers and crew and their clothing.  When a water shortage developed, personal hygiene was the first thing to suffer.  This only added to the odor problems suffered by the passengers.

Most captains required that passengers organize cleaning parties so that, at least once a week, the entire between deck was scraped and cleaned.  The most effective room deodorizer for the space was an often daily visit from one or two crewmen who brought red hot pokers down from the deck and dipped them in tar.  The smoke and steam from the tar covered the most offensive odors.

The voyage was considered extremely dangerous. The possibility of a ship sinking was always there, although it did not happen often. Many people did not survive the crossing because of disease and accidents. The tight quarters were the perfect breeding ground for diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and measles, and the accumulating filth from extended periods of bad weather, coupled with the weakness brought on by bouts of seasickness, often proved a death sentence.  Children and the elderly were often the first to be lost.  Ships of that era did not have a staff doctor or an infirmary on board. Most often the passengers had to look to each other to fashion home remedies and provide care for the ill. There was no way to isolate the sick from the healthy, so disease spread easily.

Those who died were very quickly buried at sea.  Services were held on deck, by a clergyman among the passengers if one was onboard or the ship’s captain.  Bodies were wrapped in canvas or, if wood was available, placed in simple boxes built by the ship’s carpenter. After a few words and a prayer, the body was sent over the side into the ocean. There are many reports that such burials often attracted sharks that would then continue to circle the boat waiting for their next meal to hit the water. When there were a large number of deaths and burials, the sound of the sharks’ feeding frenzies as passengers and crew held the somber funeral ceremonies created nightmares that would haunt parents, children, siblings, and spouses of the departed for a lifetime.

Certainly few could have imagined what was in store for them as the ships set sail from the Norwegian ports, and few wanted to speak about it when the ordeal was over.  Conditions improved on the steamships that replaced the sailing ships, but for the Norwegian immigrants of the 1840’s and 1850’s, the cost of seeking a better life in America was paid in more than dollars. 

Reprinted by permission from "Celebrating Our Norwegian-Minnesota Heritage" pages 2-4

© 2008 Norwegian Statehood Pioneer Project, Laporte MN


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