[From my immigrant oral histories collection: This is the story of Helen, who sailed from Glascow, Scotland, in 1921. She was 14 and traveled with her mother and three brothers to rejoin her father who had left for America a year earlier.]
“It may sound terrible, but I have no love, no feelings at all for my home country. Life there was hard. There were no jobs. It was survival of the fittest. You had to fight for everything you got. That‘s the way it was. My father did all he could to provide for us, and my brother and I worked too, both before and after school. We scraped by as best we could. So when the opportunity came for him to go to the United States, he jumped at it. It was the only solution. So he left for America in 1920. The people over there that he worked for knew that he was saving to bring over his family, so they loaned him the rest of the money to do that and he booked our passage. Otherwise, it would have been another year or more before we could go.
“We were booked on the Columbia, which was an old tub, really. But, for people like us, we didn’t know any different. It was a boat and it was going to take us to our father, so it was all right with us. We learned later that this ship had the reputation of being top heavy, which meant that for those of us down in steerage, the discomfort was incredible: the swaying of the ship, the vibration of the motors, the seasickness, the lack of facilities, no privacy, and nothing to do but endure it as best we could.
“We’d be sitting at the table in the dining hall and the food would suddenly leave you because the boat lurched so much that you had to sit there hanging on to what you were eating so that it wouldn’t leave you and go down to the other end of the table. The crew was not the best. You know, they were used to dealing with people who came from nothing and so they gave you nothing.
“Well, we chugged along for seven days and finally came to the harbor. We stopped outside the harbor, the ship did, and at six o’clock in the morning we were told to gather our few belongings and get up on deck. We knew nothing, nothing about Ellis Island—absolutely nothing. We didn’t even know it existed. Nobody had said anything about it because evidently the people that we knew who had come to America never came steerage.
“Anyway, we get up on deck—it’s now about seven in the morning with all these little kids, starving practically, because we didn’t get any breakfast and at ten o’clock they took us off the ship. We were herded onto a tender, which took us to Ellis Island.
“Then the nightmare began because all the other ships were disembarking their passengers too, from all different countries from all over the world. We always considered ourselves not foreigners. We were British subjects. We could speak English and thought we weren’t foreigners. We learned differently.
“When you get on the island, there’s no distinction whatsoever whether you speak English or if you don’t. You’re a foreigner. So, anyway, we get onto Ellis Island and there’s this crush of humanity from all over the world. And we’re looking around at all these women with scarves on their heads. We had never before seen people look like that. We all wore hats, not scarves. Back home, my grandmother wore a bonnet, a black bonnet, but never, never did any of us ever wear scarves. So we’re looking around at all these strange-looking people, at least to us. After all, we were kids and our eyes must have been like saucers.
“If that first sight was strange, it was nothing compared to what we experienced next on Ellis Island.”
[Helen’s story continues next week. To read more about the immigrants and Ellis Island staff in the 1890s, I invite you to read my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]