Sunday, November 14, 2010

How Immigrants Paid for their Ship Voyages

We made it back from Philadelphia last night. I did four batches of laundry today. How is it that we were only gone three days and I still had four batches of laundry?

I enjoyed my visit to the American Swedish Historical Museum. I had great intentions to take a picture, but for various reasons, it didn't happen.

At my lectures, I have noticed themes in the questions people ask. There is one question in particular that I get asked about two-thirds of the time when I give my “book lecture.” Yesterday, I just focused on my Swedish “journey taker” or immigrant, Karsti Nilsdotter Karsti left Sweden alone at age seventeen to come to America. At some point during my story of her immigration, someone in the audience usually raises their hand and asks some version of this question, “How did Karsti pay to come to the US?” or, more generally, “How did our ancestors pay for the ship voyage to America?”

I thought I would answer that question here. First, keep in mind that while we often think of the “tired” the “poor” and the “huddled masses” (from Emma Lazarus’s famous poem) coming to the US, the poorest of the poor, generally, did not come. They couldn’t afford it. In the 1700s, some of the poorest, particularly from the German states, came through the redemption system, where they basically sold themselves into servitude. This had long since come to an end by the mid to late 1800s, when my “journey takers” made their voyage across the ocean. For many immigrants, crossing the ocean was a huge effort that sometimes took years of planning and saving. Sometimes immigrants sold all they had to pay for the voyage, essentially arriving in the US with next to nothing. (The Irish were a special case, as during the potato famine of the 1840s, they really were the “huddled masses” arriving in the US in desperate conditions. Often, landlords paid to send these immigrants to North America- basically, just to get rid of them. You can read more about it here.)

Karsti came after joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS Church. The LDS Church had a program that helped its members to make the trip to “Zion,” or what would become the state of Utah. This program was known as the Perpetual Emigration Fund (or PEF). Converts could borrow money from the Church. Careful records were kept, and these members were expected to pay the money back in full. The money they put back into the system was then used to bring other members over. You can read more about it here.

Of course, immigrants outside the LDS Church received financial aid to make the trip. Some received aid from other religious or benevolent society groups. Others received aid from family or friends.

Karsti did not receive aid from the PEF. Records indicate that she paid for the trip independently. I have a theory on how she was able to do this. By the time Karsti immigrated, she had lost both of her parents. Her father had passed away a couple of years earlier when Karsti was 14. Karsti probably received a portion of his inheritance when her father died. I assume she used this to fund her journey to Utah.

On an unrelated note, my computer crashed while we were in Philadelphia. It has been on its death bed for a while (although it is only two years old), so I had been careful to keep back-ups. In fact, just a couple of weeks earlier, I had invested in an external hard drive. I am currently typing on my husband’s old computer while I decide what to do. A computer crash is always a pain, but I am very glad I had recent back-ups, or it would have been a lot worse. If you don’t have your files backed up (in more than one place), do it tonight!

1 comment:

  1. Sadly - I can relate to your laundry issues....
    Where are those little helper elves when you really need them. :-)