Archive for Monday, February 10, 2014

Immigrants in early 1900s also ‘pioneers’

February 10, 2014

Normally when we think about the hardy pioneers who settled in Kansas, we have a vision of an ox-drawn, covered wagon rumbling slowly through the wilderness. Certainly, these pioneers were a hardy breed who settled the state and faced tremendous dangers and challenges. They deserve our respect and appreciation.

Yet there was another hardy, heroic breed of pioneers who faced tremendous challenges and contributed to our state. The immigrants who came to the United States and to Kansas at the turn of the 20th century were equally hardy and also faced unbelievable hardship. Despite the odds they survived and flourished adding a great deal to the Kansas heritage.

I got interested in the plight of the early immigrants when Jean began tracing her family history. Like so many immigrants, they left everything to come to the United States and work to grasp the American dream. It was a tough challenge and not a trip for the faint of heart.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Europe was in turmoil and tumbling toward the horror of World War I. There was a clamor for freedom and greater opportunity, but that certainly wasn’t available in the Old World. The only hope for many was America, if they could survive the journey.

From what I discovered, the movie “Titanic” accurately portrayed the plight of the steerage passenger correctly. The steerage class or low fare passengers were herded to the lower area of the ship where ventilation was terrible and sanitation was non-existent. It was musty, cramped and damp.

Of course the fare was cheap enough. I read that the steerage passengers paid $25 for the trip to America. On the other hand, first class passengers might pay $2,500 but they received royal treatment with plush surroundings and excellent food and service. The second class passenger didn’t have it quite as good, but still received good service. It was interesting to me to find that the steam ship lines made more profit from transporting steerage passengers.

The steerage passengers had to be hardy individuals just to make the crossing. Over the years laws were passed to try to improve conditions but they seemed to have had relatively little effect. For example, ships had infirmaries but they did not regard seasickness as a bona fide illness. Those in steerage had to live with vomit and filth.

They brought most of their worldly goods with them, but there was no storage available to steerage passengers. They had to figure out a way to keep their possessions in the space allotted to them which was a bunk two-feet-wide and six-feet-long. There was a space only 30 inches between bunks. Male, female and family quarters were segregated. When they boarded the ship they were issued a tin plate and a crude wooded utensil. After they ate, they had to line up at the single warm water spigot to wash their dishes.

Arrival in the United States wasn’t that pleasant. They were herded onto Ellis Island and if they had no diseases and could survive the nearly cruel treatment, they were allowed to enter the strange new world. Sometimes a supposed disease or physical defect would cause families to be separated.

It was often a hostile world where they didn’t understand the language or customs. They faced a society that didn’t want them here and signs such as “no Irish, Germans, etc. need apply.” But they survived and became good citizens and enriched the American culture. For some, it meant traveling another half continent to Kansas to become farm workers or settling in ethnic communities and accepting the lowest paying jobs with terrible working conditions.

Yet, they overcame hardship and prejudice to become loyal and patriotic citizens. They, like all pioneers, are true heroes.


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