In the long-ago year of 1910, my 20-year-old grandfather left the coal mines around Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, boarded a large ship, and headed to the land of opportunity – the U.S. of A. I’m reasonably certain he did not purchase a First Class ticket to do so. Remember those folks who were with Leo DiCaprio’s character, Jack, below decks on the Titanic? Grandpa and Jack could easily have been sharing a crowded stateroom.
Fortunately, unlike the Titanic, Grandpa’s ship emptied much of its human cargo at Ellis Island. If you’re an historian, you may well remember that Ellis is just a short distance from Liberty Island, on which is located the Statue of Liberty. At the time, Ellis Island served as the main immigration complex for all those wishing to start a new life in America.
Not everyone hoping to get in did. All immigrants had to be cleared by medical personnel of infectious conditions such as tuberculosis, venereal disease, trachoma (an infection of the eye), and favus (a fungal skin infection, most notably apparent, it seems, on the scalp). Then there was a test that everyone had to take. It included questions such as:
What is your name? How old are you? Are you a boy or a girl? (Probably couldn’t ask that one today.) Are you married? (Probably couldn’t ask that one either.) What is your job? What country are you from? Where do you plan to live here in the United States? Who paid for your passage? How tall are you? What color are your eyes and hair? Do you have any birthmarks? What do they look like? Where were you born?
But that wasn’t all.
Everyone also had to answer these queries:
- Can you read and write in your native language?
- Can you read and write in English?
- Do you have $50 or more?
- Have you ever been to America before?
- Have you ever been in prison?
- Are you sick?
- Do you already have a job here in the United States?
- Do you have a place to live here in the U.S.?
- Do you have a ticket to get there?
- Do you have family here in America?
Immigrants got points for their answers. The more points they accumulated, the better their chances of getting to stay in America. A lot of people got a quick return trip on the ship they had come across on because they failed these basic tests.
It helped greatly to have a sponsor in the country. A financial sponsor who would vouch for the individual. Not a whole lot of American citizens in 1910 were keen on having immigrants become wards of the state. In my Grandpa’s case, his brother was already working in a coal mine in Pennsylvania and thus became Grandpa’s sponsor. Those Welsh coalminers stuck together and developed community enclaves to help each other. His brother was the only family Grandpa had since his parents had died when he was quite young. (He was raised in the house of his first cousin.)
Most likely, no one gave my Grandpa food to eat upon arrival in New York. Nor a place to stay. Nor was there an offer of transport into the interior of the country. And I can state with great certainty he was not given a cell phone.
After living in Pennsylvania for a short time, Grandpa struck out for Indiana where there was a promise of better coal “diggings” for him. It was there he met my grandmother (the daughter of a Welsh coalminer, surprise, surprise), got married, and had a family.
Even though he was fluent in English and Welsh (the latter was spoken in his growing-up home), he refused to speak his native language in his new country. “I am an American,” he would tell my dad. “And in America, we speak English.” Grandpa proved his loyalty to his adopted country by quickly becoming a citizen and serving in the U.S. Army in World War I.
Immigration policy, it seems, has changed since then. Ellis Island is long closed. And I’m pretty sure the questionnaire that was integral to embarkation in 1910 has been updated just a bit (assuming one even exists).
Grandpa was still working in the coal mines of Indiana until the day he died. He was proud of his adopted country and was determined to be a productive citizen during the early-mid 20th century. His experience was certainly a refreshing way to start a new life in a new country.
©MMXXII. William J. Lewis, III – Freelance Writer