Immigrant Children

Immigrating as an adult in the 19th century would have been challenging enough. Can you imagine what the trip might have been like for a young child?

Kathleen Ernst Collection

(Kathleen Ernst Collection)

Or for a parent needing to keep a toddler safe—or an infant relatively clean and comfortable—during the journey?

(Kathleen Ernst Collection)

(Kathleen Ernst Collection)

While collecting accounts for A Settler’s Year:  Pioneer Life Through The Seasons, my primary focus was the New World experience. I wasn’t able to use most of the travel accounts I found—but they’re part of the big picture.

The upheaval of leaving one’s home and everything familiar must have been enormous to a child.

Exhibit, Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum

Norwegian children preparing to immigrate.  (Exhibit, Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum)

Ingeborg Holdahl (Alvstad) was four when she left Valdres, Norway with her parents and five siblings. “My mother was not well and could not cope with all of us all the time,” she wrote later.  Their ship began leaking so badly that all on board might have drowned had not a Portuguese cattle ship come to their aid. “I was let down in a basket [to the life boat] all by myself. There had to be haste and no attempt was made to keep members of a family together.”

Once safe on the Portuguese ship, “What a hubbub on board. No one having any definite place to go. Parents hunting for their children and children trying to find their parents. …I remember being jostled around in a dense crowd of people almost smothering me…  Finally someone picked me up and set me on a long table where I sat, tired and not daring to move. It seemed an endless time of waiting until my father came and found me.”

By 1899, when these women and children from eastern Europe immigrated, they at least had a faster journey than those traveling decades earlier.

LC - [Group of emigrants (women and children) from eastern Europe on deck of the S.S. Amsterdam] Johnston, Frances Benjamin, 1864-1952, photographer Created / Published [1899]

(Photo by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress)

In big families, older children were expected to help tend younger ones. Given the perils inherent in the journey, those eight- and ten- and twelve-year-olds shouldered a lot of responsibility. This Polish mother of nine clearly relied on her oldest girls.

Polish Mother and 9 children. NPS - Ellis Island

(National Park Service, Ellis Island National Monument)

Three of these Dutch girls are holding younger siblings.

Dutch Familys - Version 2

(Interesting that the parents are dressed in current fashion, and the children in traditional attire.)

Still, children are resilient. Perhaps many of those old enough to keep themselves safe enjoyed the adventure.

(National Park Service, Ellis Island National Monument.)

And parents needed only to glance at their children to remember why they left everything familiar behind: to create a better life for future generations.

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4 Responses to “Immigrant Children”

  1. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    This posting is very relevant to today’s immigrant crises across the globe. Thank You.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Some things have not changed, sadly…like the desperation that has driven people to search for a new home.

  3. W. ten Napel Says:

    (concerning the photo: “Interesting that the parents are dressed in current fashion, and the children in traditional attire.”)

    This picture shows the harbour of Marken, an Island in the northern region of Holland. The House on the right belongs to the harbour master (at this period my great grandfather). Those people are not the parents of the depicted children. None of the locals dressed this way. Some officials from the mainland did, but they would never dress their children in this fashion.

    These people are probably tourists, children went on pictures with them all the time. And the fact that the people on the Island
    were dressed in, their own made, traditional clothes was even then very special for the visitors. (In the seventies half of the locals were still dressed this way -remember: not for tourists- and now, in 2016, there is only one, really old lady left, who still wears her traditional clothing. The way she did all their life…

    These children are all not all brothers and sisters; the style is different, some of them have accents of mourning and others don’t. Within a family this would not differ. Interesting note: not all the children with skirts are necessarily girls. Till the age of seven boys also wear dresses/skirts.

    Then again, in this period, there were “Merekers” (How the locals call them self) who migrated to the United States (also to New York..I myself found a, newly printed, postcard in a stand on Ellis Island which showed a young arrival in her traditional outfit from Marken.)

    I hoped you liked to hear about the photo. It is still a nice one..
    Greetings and success with your interesting writings, W. Napel

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