On March 30, 1904, my paternal grandparents arrived in New York with two very young children -- my uncles (one was 2 yrs old, and the other was 3 months old). They arrived on the SS Finland, which left Antwerp, Belgium 11 days earlier. The ship's manifest shows that they were able to read and write, that they were in possession of $42, and had tickets to travel to Iowa to join grandma's brother. The manifest also shows they were traveling with grandpa's brother--and his wife and daughter. Also in the group was grandpa's sister.

These are the bare essentials, all found in Ellis Island records online, together with a picture of their ship--painted in military gray, with this brief bio

Built by William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilders, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1902. 12,188 gross tons; 580 (bp) feet long; 60 feet wide. Steam triple expansion engines, twin screw.  Service speed 16 knots.  1,162 passengers (342 first class, 194 second class, 626 third class). Straight stem, two funnels and four masts.

Built for Red Star Line, British flag, in 1902 and named Finland. New York-Antwerp and later New York-Liverpool service. Transferred to American Line, in 1916. Used as US Army transport 1918-19

Without any background  information, the details are as bleak and cold as a March day. Unfortunately, for quite a while this was all the information I had to tell a family story ... but since this is about people who mattered to me, I was determined to dig for more.
50 years of marriage
44 years in America
This picture was taken on the day of their 50th wedding anniversary in 1948. The two middle-aged men are my uncles who were also immigrants. The two women, my aunts, were born in America, but before citizenship was granted in March of 1911. My dad is the tall (6'4"!) young man--born in 1918.

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Unless you were there, understanding your family's immigrant experience is fraught with difficulties -- language barriers, time, no personal pictures/videos/tape recordings/diaries, compounded with intervening historical events such as wars, floods, etc. can leave you with only bleak facts such as those recited above. In my case, I don't speak or read Dutch so puzzling out vital records from the old country is an issue. My grandma died when I was a baby, so I have no memories of her. Grandpa died at the age of 92 (when I was 8), but he suffered from Alzheimer's so my impressions of him are hazy -- unfortunately, grandpa's illness caused him to destroy many old pictures and letters (the reason he gave was that they were "no good any more-they were from the old country"). Toward the end, he spoke only Dutch and believed dad was his younger brother. So much of what I had to go on was the oral history gleaned from reminiscing at family gatherings. And being a typical little kid, I didn't write any of them down until it was too late.

My dad told me what town his folks were from, and about when they arrived in America to start farming in Iowa, where he was born. He knew that they moved to Wisconsin when he was two, and he said he himself did not speak English regularly until he started school at the age of six. He said he asked his dad why they left Holland, and he was given a reply which translated roughly to "America was where pigeons would fly into your mouth" -- which dad said meant really that America was where there was opportunity and hope.

In addition, dad knew that grandpa had served in the military -- a rich kid in his hometown purchased his very high draft number to avoid service (a very common practice at the time). Later he did lots of day labor types of jobs (on vital records I've found from The Netherlands, his occupation is always listed as "dagloner" or "day laborer"). At one point he worked just over the border in Germany on some mysterious building projects (after WWI, he realized he must have been working on building u-boat base facilities). Another time he worked on laying transatlantic telephone cable--the ship he was on had an accident and sank in the North Sea. In the picture above, you can see that part of the ring finger of his left hand is missing--that was the lifelong reminder he had of that experience, and it may have been the catalyst to decide to try to find a better way in another land.

I found an article from an Iowa newspaper from 1911 which talked a bit about recent Dutch immigrants, which echo the family tales I'd heard from dad:

They come here as a land of refuge from conditions which have grown intolerable in their home land. There opportunity has departed, and to remain means that a man must ever be a plodder. Of course, over-population enters into the question. In such a crowded country there is no chance for that spirit which we call over here "get up and get". There is no chance for fortune to smile, and there is no incentive to develop the land which one does not own.
     Holland is becoming a country for the well-to-do. The rich own much of the land. The land is nearly all in their hands. If by chance there is a piece of land, the farmer must bid for it. When a piece of land is vacant, which is not often, it is advertised for about a week and a date is set for renting it. The lease is then practically sold at auction. One farmer will make an offer for the property and another will raise the price a bit. And so it will go until finally it is a question whether the man who obtains possession is really the fortunate bidder. The price is run up to such a figure that one may perhaps make a living, but as to making more, never.
But still, what was experience of emigrating? And the SS Finland, of the Red Star Line, what was that like--and what did it look like when it wasn't painted military gray. I did find a promotional postcard -- my family sailed on it when it was only two years old, so I'm thinking this may be closer to what it was like in 1904:
SS Finland promotional post card
Promotional brochures were fairly optimistic
SS Finland promenade deck, promotional brochure
Captain Apfeld of the SS Finland
but my family was in steerage, not traveling in luxury. There are a lot of sites out there that discuss the history of this ship company, but I found the following at archives.gov:
The immigrant trade was very profitable for the Red Star Line company and its managers paid particular attention to the facilities offered for these patrons. It was also a major expense for immigrants. A typical second class ticket to cross the Atlantic would cost around $143 and steerage around $25 - $35, the latter being two to three weeks salary for a worker. The Red Star fleet became well-known to the knowledgeable traveling public, whether first and second class or steerage. However, like other shipping lines, the Red Star was hit hard when Congress passed more restrictive immigration regulations starting in 1921 by setting quotas as a result of fears about immigrant political radicalism and labor unrest over exploitive working conditions.
And then period videos started coming up in my searches, including some from a new museum which is being billed as the Ellis Island of Belgium:

Ok, this one is all in Dutch, but focus on the images and it is easy to understand.

Here is another film, in English, which talks about Eastern Europeans who fled just before WWI started ... so their stories were somewhat different, but they must have had similar experiences to my family in steerage class.

Red Star Line - People On The Move from Mario De Munck on Vimeo.

And this a classic on the Ellis Island side, with arrivals 1903 (the year before my grandparents arrived).

Well, this is not the whole story, but it puts some context around family stories. Thanks for sharing part of grandpa & grandma's journey with me.

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