The trip to America wasn’t an easy one for many of our ancestors. There was seasickness, less than appetizing food, crowded conditions, and the fear that when they arrived they would be turned away. But it was a life-changing journey for millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island and other U.S. ports. Sometimes stories of that journey were passed on to family members, but too often they were lost to time.
Beginning in 1973, the Ellis Island Oral History Program, created through the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, has been collecting first-hand recollections from immigrants who came to America during the years Ellis Island was in operation (1892-1954). Audio files of the 1,700 interviews can be found on Ancestry.com and they are full of rich stories and details about life in the old country, the journey to America, and their early experiences in their new home.
The Trip to America
Rose Milazzo emigrated from Naples in 1901 when she was seven.
We started at Naples and boarded the ship and… my last meal was in Naples and I got seasick and didn’t eat another meal until we got to Ellis Island… [My mother] had funny ideas that if they caught me seasick, they’d throw me overboard, so she hid me from the authorities or even from a doctor which maybe could have helped me a little bit… We used to be pushed on deck because they’d have to clean the steerage where we come from, so it was easy to hide me under a blanket… We spent Christmas on board. I was under the blanket but I could see that they gave out figs and they gave out delicacies that they wouldn’t give out ordinarily. So we landed at Ellis Island and got a delicious soup with white bread.
Estelle Schwartz Belford, a Jewish Romanian immigrant described her trip in 1905 when she was five years-old.
I remember riding in this wagon to a certain cousin in this large town and that was the first time that we saw houses almost that you could see across from one house to another, and everything was just wonderful… We stayed in a town by the name of Beltz for two days also. We stayed there for about two days also with somebody else that we knew and I had an uncle there who was a politician, and through him we were able to ride across the border because in those days you couldn’t get out of that town…and people had to really steal their way across, but we were able to ride across the border.
And then we got to the seaport…Antwerp. And we stayed there only for about a day or so and then that was the first time my mother saw a lot of people in one room, like in the waiting room and she was telling us this story that when she went into the ladies room and, there was a lot of sinks there from what she described, and mirrors and the toilets on the side and we children were standing by the mirrors. She came in and she saw us. She didn’t see herself, she saw us in the mirror, she never saw a mirror before. And she thought we were there and she started scolding us, “Come over here,” and then she realized, and she was very much embarrassed. My mother was a very, very sensitive person, and all the way through she would make one little mistake and people laughed and then she wouldn’t say another word.
About life on board the ship in steerage, Estelle tells us,
It was terrible, the whole trip… You didn’t change your clothing every day on board the ship… Once, a few people came down from upstairs and spoke to us children and gave us some candy, the first time that we ever saw any candy or sweets and we were so happy to get it….
The meals were brought to you very sparingly. The food was so bad that sometimes my mom would say, “Don’t eat it.” or “Eat very little.” She herself was very sick. She was confined to the bed the whole trip through, and we three kids would stand around her. We were allowed to go out on the deck. And people from first class would look down at us and they felt sorry for us. And many times they would throw down an orange, or apples or some food, and the children would all stand by, and I remember, this one would catch this, and this one would catch that, and you were lucky enough you’d get something, and being as my mother was sick, if it was an orange or so, we’d bring it to her…My mother [had never seen] a banana, none of us ever saw a banana.
Here’s Estelle’s description on their first sight of the Statue of Liberty.
And then all of a sudden we heard a big commotion and we came to America. And everybody started yelling they see the Lady, the Statue of Liberty. And we all ran upstairs and my mother got out of bed. We went upstairs and everybody started screaming and crying. You were kissing each other –people that you didn’t even know before that were alongside of you and you never paid any attention. Everybody was so excited that you see America and you see the Lady with her hand up, you know.
You can almost feel the joy through that passage. These stories and many more can be explored for free on Ancestry.com. For those of us who don’t hit the family history lotto and find an ancestor in this collection, you can still get a real feel for the conditions our ancestors experienced on their way to America. Try searching for interviews of people who share your ancestor’s ethnic heritage to learn more about life in the old country. Search for someone who traveled about the same time to get a feel for ship conditions. Whether or not you learn something new, you will enjoy the time spent listening to these interviews. They are precious pieces of history that will thankfully be preserved for posterity thanks to this project.