Saturday, August 02, 2008

When They Stepped Ashore

April 9, 1861. What an unforgetable day it must have been for my Meier ancestors and the other immigrant from the village of Irsch bei Saarburg when they saw their adopted country for the first time.

After more than four weeks in the cramped and dark steerage quarters of the ship Rattler with only the endless ocean as their scenery, land appeared on the horizon. They were nearing the bay of New York where the ship would drop anchor. Soon Johann and Magdalena Meier and their children would set foot on land for the first time in over a month. Magdalena, my great-great grandmother, who was then three months pregnant must have thanked God not only for their safe journey but also for the long-awaited cessation of the rocking motion that had gone on for 34 days. Whether the day was sunny and clear or dark with rain, all the emigrants must have crowded the deck as the sailors were preparing the ship to anchor in the port of New York City.

I don’t have any letters written home to Germany that describe the trip and the first day in the new world. But I have found two stories in The New York Times that allow me to better imagine the minor but fascinating details that can only be provided by a contemporary’s view of the landing, the disembarking, and the first day inside of Castle Garden.

One newspaper piece was written in 1855 by a New York Times reporter sent to provide the paper's readers with an account of the Castle Garden facility that had only recently opened. The second piece was a description provided to The New York Times by a Female steerage passenger on the Ship Scotland which landed in New York Harbor in December of 1866.

Sound-bite reporting and tight editing were unheard of in the 19th century. We may smile at the florid descriptions allowed in the early newspapers, so different from the news we read in our newspapers today. But those verbose stories are filled with the details that give the true flavor of the early days of Castle Garden.

Passenger: “We had seen multitudes of churches, public buildings, factories, stores, and other structures, as we steamed up the Bay, but the one we had now arrived at, Castle Garden, attracted particular attention, principally, in all probability, from its being the emigrants' destination. The eye of a military man would have singled it out first and foremost as a structure pertaining to his profession, while the eye of a civilian or of an ordinary observer would have taken it for a huge reservoir or gas-holder.”

Did my Meier ancestors walk down a gangplank right onto the boards of the pier? Perhaps. But so many ships sailed into the New York’s harbor that not all of them could find a free dock there. Some ships remained out in the bay and their passengers were taken to the shore by barges pulled by steamers; their trunks and boxes came to shore by the same process. Making the transfer to the smaller boats would have been a difficult process, it seems to me, especially for families with babies or very young children.

Reporter: Now passing the heavy door of old Castle Clinton—that was its name until 1823—let us push straight through to the opposite side and out upon the wharf. Here is a busy time. A heavily-loaded emigrant ship has just anchored in the stream, and the barge Pilgrim, towed by a steamer, is now just fastened to the pier with all her company and their luggage. The ship is the Mary, of Havre, and her passengers are of the better class,—stout, clean looking Hollanders (Germans?), hopeful and hearty peasants from France—men who have a trade in their hands, skill in their brawny arms, and money in their pockets, and women who promise to be helpmates for industrious and intelligent men. As they leave the barge, they are examined with reference to their health, and to discover if any of them should be conveyed to the Hospital."

Arriving on land at last, did Johann and Magdalena instinctively draw back as they saw a group of officials waiting for them? Would they have known, as they were formed into a line and started toward a corridor that led into Castle Garden, that these officials only wanted to help them, not to confront them with some unexpected problem or harsh scrutiny? And they must have worried as all of the trunks and boxes of the passengers, including their own, disappeared from their sight to a place unknown.

The eyes of the younger single men in their group must have seen the posters meant to attract these new immigrants as they passed into Castle Garden. The posters offered a way to get what must have seemed a great deal of money to unmarried men with little cash in their pockets. All that was necessary to earn this money was a willingness to enlist in the Union Army - citizenship not required. Men from the Prussian Empire were especially sought after since they were thought to have undergone at least two years of military service in the service of the Kaiser.

Reporter: On Thursday several ... hopeful gentlemen dressed themselves in emigrants’ clothes and tried to gain admittance (to Castle Garden) under the pretense of having been landed in company with those just arrived. But the dodge did not work. Others pleaded earnestly to get in to see a father or a brother, a sister or other relative, who was among the passengers. But they were too well known to palm themselves off on that pretense...These runners have sucked the life-blood of emigrants for so long that they think they have a right to it.

If they encountered a disturbance like the one just described, Johann, Magdalena, and any of the people who did not speak English could not be blamed for thinking that honest immigrants like themselves were being kept from entering the building. Misgiving, fear, and curiosity would have shown on the faces of all the passengers who waited for their own chance to walk into Castle Garden.

Passenger: All being ready, the emigrants proceed in a body up the corridor into the interior of the building, their boxes and baggage being removed to the luggage warehouses, and here they range themselves in order on the seats. In front of them, and in the centre of the building, which is lit by a glass dome, stand a staff of some dozen gentlemen, all busily engaged in making arrangements for facilitating the movements and promoting the settlement of the newly-arrived emigrants. Each emigrant, man, woman and child, passes up in rotation to the Bureau, and gives to the registrar his or her name and destination, as a check upon the return of the Captain of the vessel, who gives the name, place of birth, age and occupation.

Johann and Magdalena, along with the other immigrants from Irsch, look around as they wait to be called forward to an important-looking official who is asking questions. They cast questioning glances at other arrivals who are taking the hard wood seats that circle around the building. One of the people already interviewed comes back to acquaintances who still wait in line. They hear him say, "Have not fear; they ask only what we have already been asked by the clerk of the ship captain. Ja, the questions answer easy."

Passenger: One of the leading officers connected with the Bureau of Information then mounts a rostrum, and addressing the assembled emigrants, tells them that such as are not otherwise provided for, or prepared to pay for their accommodation, can find shelter under the roof of that building; that advice and information of the best and most reliable kind can be had relative to tickets for railway and steamer to take them East, West, North or South; as to the best means of obtaining employment, for which a register is kept in the Intelligence Department of the Institution; also as to the best and most expeditious routes to take, with facilities for corresponding with friends, and of changing money at the Bureau of Exchange.

Do the Meiers and the other families from Irsch already know the route they will take to Wisconsin? Perhaps, since a few of their neighbors already live there and may have sent letters with advice about the best route. If not, they soon find an official who speaks German and directs them to information or to ticket sellers who are forbidden to make unfair charges.
Reporter: If any are ignorant of the routes West an officer points out the peculiarities of each, shows the nearest route to distant places, and informs them of the prices of tickets. Maps of the States and of the routes are hung about the room, and if the officer does his duty, no intelligent man need decide until he knows the general features of the land that lies between the promised land and Castle Garden. This information is what almost every emigrant needs.

Days after day at sea with almost no way to wash. Magdalena and the other women have tried to keep their families clean but it has been impossible. They wish for some of their homemade lye soap and a basin of water. The German families find each other, attracted by a language that they can understand. As they begin to share stories, a man who is dressed in a suit and who is very clean and well-groomed approaches them. To their delight, he speaks their language. Men and boys, he says, should go to the right, women to the left. He smiles. "Don't worry" he says, "You will find each other easily once you come out of the baths. Decide now on your meeting place." Baths? Have they really heard that word?

Reporter: "Next, the emigrant is shown to the baths. We join the crowd of males that flock in to the right. Here we find a large room, in the centre of which hang several coarse roller towels, and along the side is a deep trough of running Croton. This is the wash-room. Soap abounds—we hope no motives of niggardly economy will ever make it lose plenty. Behind a screen that reaches across the room is the basin for bathing. A dozen or two can be accommodated in it at the same time. Indeed, every facility is granted the new comer, whatever may be his condition on entering it, to leave Castle Garden personally clean. The female bath and wash-room were the counterpart of the male, but as it was in use at the time, we consented to take the statement of our conductor and forgo a personal investigation."

The word goes around. Trunks and boxes from the Ship Rattler are now unloaded. They wait on the wharf for someone to claim them. Magdalena waits with the younger children. Johann takes 11-year-old Mathias with him to look for the family's precious belongings.
Reporter: Back now to the Weighmaster on the wharf each head of a family must go, point out his luggage, and receive a certificate of its aggregate weight. Now, if the emigrant desires to stop in the City, he may leave his luggage, to be called for when wanted...But few by this arrival elect to stop here—for they are wise enough to push on where they will be welcomed—to the West. All such are directed to the Clerk in an office at the front part of the building, where they exhibit their tickets, if they purchased them in the old country, or purchase new ones if unsupplied...Most prefer to go on at once. And such need not wait long. The barge is soon reloaded with the baggage, and the steamer again fastening and they are borne in the several depots they are to go by without cost, and deposited just in time to take the next train onward.
After the last few days on the ship, when the weather was stormy and the food supply was nearly gone, everyone in steerage had longed for fresh food; hearty bread, homemade cheese, milk taken from cow to table. Inside Castle Garden, their eyes widened as they saw what had been so longed for, now within their reach
Passenger: In a far corner of each compartment is a kind of refectory, where for fifteen or twenty cents you can obtain a half a pint of coffee, a roll, cheese or butter; but many of the emigrants appeared to prefer purchasing their own tea and coffee, and preparing it in tin utensils in the stoves. There are two water taps and an iron ladle at each end of the division, from which draughts of the Croton are in constant request, nothing in the shape of wine, lager beer or spirits being all owed to be sold upon the premises.
Johann and the other men of Irsch bought food and coffee, grateful for its freshness and surprised at the white flour rolls which required no chewing. Although the Meiers and their fellow villagers were all exceedingly hungry, they paused to pray over this first meal, thanking God for bringing them safely once more to land. Then they ate; and, I think, the men winked and laughed together and agreed that life could only be better if they had a mug of Saar wine to wash it down.
Reporter: A tall fountain feeds a noble basin of water near the spot where the old stage was...The children were rollicking about it--sailing their paper boats, and full of unrestrained glee. The women eat in groups, talking in some of those crooked old country languages that make us wonder how any talking can be done there until the people come of age,—some knitting, some cutting and eating slices of rye German bread and cheese, some patching and fixing up the wardrobes of their family...The whole castle is theirs to ramble in, and none hinder any, wherever they choose to stop in it. The best seats are free, and numbers that at Jenny Lind’s concerts sold at fabulous prices, were open to the poorest.
And what of the children? I picture the three Meier children, Mathias, Anna, and little Johann, growing accustomed to these new surroundings. No longer awed by the immensity of Castle Garden and now unafraid of separation from their parents, they explored. They listened to the foreign words that flowed from each small group of people and imitated the sounds. They splashed each other with water from the big fountain until they were shooed away by sour-faced woman who was trying to sooth her screaming baby. They made faces at the Dutch children; then made friends with them. On this day, they were shabby and pale but very happy.
Passenger: It was nearly evening before all the business connected with the emigrant department was over and the emigrants began to settle down in their new locality, and the building being lit up with gas gave a more cheerful aspect to the interior, and enabled us to survey the somewhat novel scene before us. You could at first imagine, were you not painfully concious to the contrary, that all those human beings seated on the benches had assembled to witness some theatrical entertainment. On looking right and left, an arrangement will be observed to have been effected, once the emigrants marched in miscellaneously---the Germans and Dutch, who form by far the most numerouse body, being parceled off into the eastern portion of the building, which is seperated from the other portion, which contains indiscriminately English, Irish, Scotch and French. Two very civil and intelligent watchmen reconnoitre during the night to keep order...
Reporter: It (Castle Garden) is utterly given up to young and old, lads and lasses, old men and crusty maids to wander at will throughout it, talking about good old times and plotting for future revenue on Western prairies, or arranging for the service of the clergyman, and the quiet cottage and the babies that are to be born.

"Castle Garden: One Lady's Experience," New York Times, Dec. 23, 1868 (see)
"Castle Garden: New Emigrants are Treated on Landing," New York Daily Times, August 4, 1855, Page 1 (see)