Why did Poles emigrated to America at the turn of 19th and 20th century?


21 April 2020

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Why did Poles emigrated to America at the turn of 19th and 20th century?

Did you know that 10 million Americans have Polish roots? If you’re reading this probably you’re one of them. You’re wondering why Poles emigrated to America? How your ancestors had emigrated from Poland? You were thinking many times about their long journey and dreams about living in America. This article is based on our own research in archives and experience gained with tourists.

Immigration to America - The most important decision in their life

Immigration to America was an important fact in Polish history in the times of Partitions. First notes we find in the Civil records from 1796. A huge wave of people moved to the United States as early as the nineteenth century. They tried to escape from hunger, poverty and repression. How did the Poles get to US? What did Polish immigrants do in America?

United States for many decades appeared to be a place where the grass is greener and life becomes much easier.

Usually, less affluent people, peasants, decide to emigrate. Often unable to read or write, living in very bad conditions, working on a farm. They made this difficult decision based on political and religious repressions. Another reasons were overpopulation of their houses and villages, poverty and lack of assessment for a better life. So we can say that most of the emigrants had nothing to lose. They believed that new life is waiting on the other side of the Great Ocean.

immigrants on the Ellis Island in New York

photo: getty images

What religion were Polish immigrants?

At the time Poland was divided by partitions (1772-1918) we can not say that Poland as a state exist. Who lived in the area? Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Prussians, Austrians and Jews lived as neighbors. It was a cultural, religious and language melting pot. Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Jews.

Everyone mixed together trying to live in harmony and prosperity.

Not every farmer had enough of the land to feed the whole family, often multi-generational family. It happened that the peasant had family or friends in America to whom they could go. It made things much easier. They had support from loved ones. For instance they were receiving instructions how to get prepared for a long and exhausting journey. What to watch out for, what to do and how to get a ticket for the ship, as well as what to do after arriving in the States. Sometimes farmers even received money from them for a ticket to American paradise. For one person. So they were going and leaving family in hometown. They arranged their lives in America. Tried to settle down and continue bringing the wife with the children. Sometimes it took up to several years before the family met again in exile.

immigartion office in New York, processing

Agents - guards of the gate to paradise

Very often agents who “portray America” as a land of milk and honey, greeting the open arms of everyone who would like to live in it, “helped” in the trip. The US needed hands to work. The turn of the century was the moment when industry developed. Factories, mines and other companies needed employees. Desirable were young engineers and ordinary, even illiterate workers (peasants). Agents helped in purchasing tickets for the ship and train to get to the port. They also arrange accommodation and meals while waiting at the port for departure. There have been frauds. Sometimes happened that agent took money and disappeared! They ordered extra payments for every small service. Some of them were even accused of human trafficking. Agents were often employed by shipowners or companies who needed employees in America. But also they opened travel agencies with the appropriate permits from shipowners to sell the tickets.

ticket for steamship to America from 1891

photo: www.gjenvik.com

Journey through the Ocean

For many emigrants journey to America was the first in their lives. They never went outside of the village or the nearest town. The first challenge after buying a ship ticket was to sell property and belongings. Money were needed to travel and start living overseas. Those funds were checked by immigration officials already in New York. So the reason was to allow the immigrant live on their own without support of the government. The challenge was also to reach the nearest railway station. The goal was to reach the nearest seaport, with the possibility of sailing out to a new life. This rail journey to the port lasted up to 4 days. Then a few days had to wait in the port for departure. The trains were very crowded, travel conditions were very difficult, accommodation in the port was in Spartan conditions but the worst was waiting on the ship …

Before boarding there was first inspection. It was “sifting” sick, criminals or disabled people. Everyone except the ones just mentioned could get on board and very often see the sea and ocean for the first time. Poor immigrants were third-class passengers, and their deck was usually below the waterline. The decks above were reserved for middle and upper class representatives. Luxury and wealthiness of the first class contrasted with the conditions in the place where poor immigrants from Europe spent their cruise. Poor food and sanitary conditions made the transatlantic cruise a truly traumatic experience. Fortunately for emigrants, travel time from Europe to America was shorter almost every year. In 1912, the average transatlantic traveled this route in about 7-8 days. (Do you remember movie Titanic? Recall the scenes with Jack and Rose dancing on the table or trying to escape the water on the lower decks? You see more or less how immigrants spent their journey. By the way Titanic sank in 1912.)

crowd on the ship The Imperator to America 1913

photo: Shutterstock

Arrival to Ellis Island

Arriving into the New York Bay the eyes of travelers turned on the horizon with Liberty Island and Manhattan skyscrapers. For a Polish peasant from a village, such a view was indescribable. Like from another world. But neither Manhattan nor Liberty Island were the places they had to go first. Immediately after arriving to the United States, they were transported to immigration station.

ferry from the ship to the Ellis Island to immigration office 1910

photo: Shutterstock

The port that most immigrants approached was New Yorks Ellis Island. An island of tears, on which an immigration office was located and every immigrant had to go through them … not always with success. The office on Ellis Island was established in 1892 and operated continuously until 1954. This office received about 12 million immigrants at that time! That was the place where all the documents, health condition (physical and mental) was checked. There was even a literacy check where ability of reading and writing was checked. Usually, the entire immigrant screening process lasted 3 to 5 hours. However some had to stay on the island for longer, several weeks or months to undergo treatment. Only 2% of all visitors were sent back to their home country. It was mainly due to illness (mental or physical) or criminal past.

indications of diseases

photo: Shutterstock

Today the National Museum of Immigration commemorates all those who came to America for seraching a new life. And the Ellis Island Foundation provides thousands of passenger lists of ships. You can find your ancestors and by putting some effort to trace the fate of your family.

old Great Hall in Ellis Island, New York

Great Hall in 2016

New life in America

Ellis Island worked a bit like today’s airports. After checking documents and health condition, it was possible to go to the exchange office. People could exchange the money without any commission. There was also a ticket office where immigrants could buy a train ticket to their destination.

Some immigrants stayed in New York and looked for their happiness here. Part of them joined a family that had settled elsewhere in the States and began a new life there. Some immigrants directed their first steps to industrialized places. It was easy to get a job in a steel mill, mine or factory.

Money exchange in 1910

photo: Shutterstock

I believe that most of them never regret their decision about migration. They had a hard life but better then in their homeland. They settled down, they had kids and families in United States. These people created this country and Americans customs, traditions and lifes.

Do you imagine your grandmas and grandpas travelling overseas? Wearing elegant suits, handling bags with all they possessed. Do you think that they had sparkles in their eyes seeing Liberty Statue on horizon or their eyes were full of fear?

We found a unique movie about immigrants, sit and watch here… (it is only 30minutes :))

If you would like to reveal your ancestors story – contact us. We will help!

Aneta and Daria

Psst… here you can learn how to prepare to your perfect heritage tour 🙂