The Museum of Family History
 Education and Research Center
Thinking Exercise

What Was it Like to Emigrate?

Immigrants on a ship that would cross the Atlantic Ocean
and arrive at the Ellis Island inspection station.
Photo courtesy of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.


Why is the United States called a "Nation of Immigrants"? Millions of immigrants crossed the Atlantic Ocean between the mid nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of them entering the United States through the port of Ellis Island. Most had high hopes of settling in the U.S. and beginning their life anew. Perhaps they were the first in their family to emigrate; perhaps they were sent for by another family member who came to the United States before them, in order to pave the way for others in their family. Maybe the whole family traveled as one. To be sure, every family had their own unique story.

The journey from one's hometown to the port where the ship was located and the long sea voyage began were often very difficult. Yet the hardships experienced by the emigrant during these ordeals were usually worth the risk.


The Journey by Sea
From the Pale to the Golden Land: How Our Families Came to America, Main Floor

Each person who left their country and boarded the ship was called an emigrant; each person who would successfully arrive at their eventual destination and was allowed to enter through that port was called an immigrant. Those who chose to emigrate, to leave their home town and often their own family, had their own reasons for doing so. Since most of us have never had such an experience, we can only wonder what it must have been like to leave the only home we knew and start all over elsewhere. Most of us who once had family members who at one time emigrated, no longer have the opportunity to ask them the question, "What was the experiene like?" 

What kind of questions might you have asked someone who immigrated to the United States (or elsewhere) in the late 1800s or early 1900s? Perhaps you'd like to exercise your imagination and play the role of a would-be immigrant, whose family, with careful thought and planning, had made the decision that the entire family (including yourself) will leave their home country for America (the United States).

Ask yourself (perhaps you'd like to involve your family members in this exercise) to participate in this exercise. Each should ask themselves the following questions. If your family accepts your offer to participate in this exercise, let them play the roles which they currently play within your family's structure. You can also make up your own questions.

Perhaps you might like to get started by asking yourself the following questions:

Why did you leave your hometown and country?

What was it like to leave your family or friends behind?

Were you the first one in your family to leave home?

How did you get from your hometown to the ship?

Do you have your own small suitcase? If so, what did you take with you?

What were the conditions like on the ship during your voyage?

Where did you sleep and what did you eat? Did you get seasick?

Did you travel in first-class or in steerage? If so, what was it like?

How long was the ocean voyage?

How did it feel when you finally arrived at your destination?

Did you have anybody waiting for you when you got off the ship?


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