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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
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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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (23+ / 0-)

    "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

    by klompendanser on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 08:55:15 AM PDT

  •  Wow. Great diary, 'danser! (10+ / 0-)


    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

    by Youffraita on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 09:12:51 AM PDT

  •  Nice job! (8+ / 0-)

    I very much enjoyed this.

    I love nature, science and my dogs.

    by Polly Syllabic on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 09:23:30 AM PDT

  •  Wow (8+ / 0-)

    This wonderful diary is typically awesome of you, cuz!

    I have done some research on the experience of various branches of my family's immigrant experiences, from 1620 to the 1870s. I've had the best luck, perhaps not surprisingly, tracing those who arrived in the 1840s and '50s as part of the Mormon migration to the Great Basin (because those Mormons were/are such prodigious record-keepers).

    I'd really like to learn more about my most recent immigrant ancestors, who came from Germany to Chicago in the 1870s, but of course that's the only branch of my family that wasn't Anglo-Saxon so I have the language barrier (I have a tiny bit of German, but not nearly enough for the task).

    Anyway, thanks for the fabulous diary with its fabulous pix.

    There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

    by slksfca on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 09:25:09 AM PDT

  •  Fascinating! Thank-you so much for this. My (5+ / 0-)

    grandparents came to Canada about the same time as yours. They were so brave! I cannot imagine what they went through.

    You cannot cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. Rabindranath Tagore

    by Thomasina on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 11:03:47 AM PDT

  •  There's something about (6+ / 0-)

    those films and pictures of all the people leaving one life behind and arriving to build a new one that always make me breathless with anxiety and admiration. And a sense of happiness when I see the later pictures when this big old foreign land of ours was finally safe home' for them.

    So far I've had no luck tracking down the ship my early paternal Irish (1852) sailed on - though I was pleased to find the record of my Mother, her baby sister and my Grandmother's trip back home to Ireland in 1910. I love that Grandma got to take her 2 firstborn home.

    All Mom recalled  (she was about 3) seemed to be that she cried when she found out she couldn't bring the little white donkey back to NJ. And when we'd bake potatoes, she'd often say the smell reminded her of the peat bogs.

    Thanks for sharing all this with us today. {{weekend hugs}}

    “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Republican. But I repeat myself.” ― Harry S. Truman

    by brook on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 11:24:04 AM PDT

    •  It's so frustrating to be (5+ / 0-)

      looking for a record that you know has to be squirreled away in some in some dusty office in Ireland ... if you just knew the right official to ask to dig it out.

      So great that your Mom had such a memory to share - a 3-yr old's disappointment over leaving a donkey behind would as strong to her as your Grandma's feelings about leaving her family a second time...

      Good to see you here {{brook}}

      "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

      by klompendanser on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 12:36:29 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hi, klompie. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    klompendanser, edwardssl

    Better late than never, eh?

    The blockquoted section starting with ...

    Holland is becoming a country for the well-to-do.
    ... stopped me in my tracks. Our grandparents had this country to come to for hope and opportunity. What will our grandchildren do? As they say, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

    $42 along with a stubborn tenacity, courage, strength and wits were all they needed to make a whole new life for themselves halfway across a huge expanse of land that must have made them believe that pigeons really would fly up their noses. Amazing.

    Loved this story, klompie. The photos are wonderful. The snap of your kin with the remains of the black scrapbook pages still visible is so familiar to me. It could have been taken from the pages of one of my own family's books.

    Most excellent work! TYVM for bringing us along on your journey.

    Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it. --- Bob Dylan.

    by figbash on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 05:11:51 PM PDT

    •  thanks, figgy (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      edwardssl, figbash

      ...and the irony stopped me cold as well. That's why I like studying this stuff, makes me remember what they fought for we need to fight to keep.

      The old photos are precious, and there are precious few people left to identify everyone in them ... at the funeral a couple of weeks ago, some of us cousins made plans to get together this summer to pool photos and ideas. Something we've put off too long.

      "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

      by klompendanser on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 07:19:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  A cousin reunion! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        That should be wonderful and a genealogist's dream. Going over all your photos will be great. I'm sure some of them will have names on the back and lots of identifications can be made, too.

        Many hugs and healing wishes to you, dear klompie!

        Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it. --- Bob Dylan.

        by figbash on Sun Mar 31, 2013 at 07:19:41 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Happy Anniversary! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Yes, what is it that compelled to many to leave their homeland and families.  I can't imaging how hopeless their situations must have been to leave everything they'd ever known their entire lives behind.

    I was recently reading some letters from the mid to late 1800s written by Germans emigrants (Auswanderer) about why they were leaving for America.  Almost every one said they were leaving in search of a better life.

    As with so many other immigrants, my ancestors lives were much better in America than they were in Germany.  They all had some success (though their children didn't always do quite so well).

    Funny thing is, once so many Germans left for America, those who were left behind did much better, too.  The labor force thinned out, land available for purchase freed up, and wages and living conditions improved

    Anyway, I'm sorry I'm so late.  My daughter had a gathering here this evening and I was helping her clean and prepare all day.  I finally just  had a chance to sit down (my feet are killing me!).

    Love the diary.  I was just typing up the immigration story of my g-g-grandparents last night, so your diary was very timely.

    •  s'alright, holiday weekends are busy (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      enough ... glad you were able to stop by.

      My own day was sort of blah ... the warm weather has finally seriously melted the remaining snow on my roof, and it has been a surprisingly noisy process (waking me up several times at night), so I'm not getting as much done with my spring cleaning project as I thought. Some things just never seem to get done.

      "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

      by klompendanser on Sat Mar 30, 2013 at 08:49:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Alzheimer's (0+ / 0-)

    my maternal grandmother did the same thing - destroyed old photos and documents in her later years. It's really sad.

    Sorry to be so late. Busy Easter weekend capped off with a revelation that my 2 boys and Mrs. H. were infested with lice! And of course we don't discover this until AFTER the big Easter brunch with friends. Oops, sorry everyone... Makes me glad I went bald. Spent last night shaving heads.

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