January 20, 2023
Lately, I have been looking into several of my ancestors’ voyages to America. My Swedish ancestors all arrived in New York City between 1865 and 1880. I have found their passenger lists and wanted to find out more about what their trips to America were like.
Thanks to an autobiographical sketch, I knew my great grandfather Charles Fernelius sailed on the SS City of London in December of 1867. I wanted to add more details.
According to Charles’ story he had traveled by train from his home village to Gothenburg, which was the most common port of embarkation in Sweden. From there, he sailed on a small steamship to Hull on the east coast of England. After a train journey to Liverpool, he boarded the City of London for the transatlantic crossing to New York City.
Google to the rescue! A quick search revealed an astonishing amount of information about the transatlantic immigrant experience. I soon reconnected with a website I’d used before: www.norwayheritage.com.
Don’t let the name mislead you. Norway Heritage is an amazing free resource for anyone who has ancestors who travelled across the Atlantic in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Its focus is Norwegian immigration, but there is a lot of information that applies to any European travel to America during that time.
Once you know the name of the ship an ancestor sailed on, you can search the site for pictures of the ship. Many of the earlier ships were hybrids with both steam engines as well as sails, and it’s often possible to find pictures which show this configuration. There are also diagrams of the layout of ships. I especially like the pictures that show life on board.
In addition to the pictures, there are charts detailing the history of the various Atlantic ships. My great grandfather’s City of London vanished about a decade after his voyage. The Colorado on which another set of ancestors sailed, sank in the Mersey River on its way out of Liverpool. The voyage to America, it turns out, was sometimes less than routine.
Your ancestor may not have left a memoir of his journey to America, but other immigrants from the same era probably did. Norway Heritage has a collection of articles describing individual trips to America. In addition, there are articles and reports written by governmental and shipping company officers that can help fill in the blanks about your ancestor’s travels.
Maybe you’ve never really wondered about the sanitary facilities on board the ships. I’m always curious about things like that, but it’s not something that is usually discussed in travel memories. This morning I ran across a couple of articles that gave me all sorts of information about where the lavatories were on board, how many there were and exactly who used which ones. I even learned about the guest houses who provided a meal to the immigrants after they landed in England and before they caught their trains to Liverpool. The meals were apparently hearty and tasty, but the immigrants were encouraged to leave as soon as they finished eating. The guest houses just didn’t have the facilities for so many folks, but the train station had large restrooms. Hence the rush to get the passengers to the train station.
While you may not want to know the nitty gritty details of your ancestors’ trip to America, the Norway Heritage site is worth checking out. Best of all, it’s free, although they do accept donations.