October 15, 2012

Castle Garden Immigrants, 1882

More often than not, as I scroll through microfilmed newspapers looking for information on my ancestors, I get distracted by the other interesting things I find. Even though they have nothing to do with my original task, I find myself engrossed with the articles and ads. Many of them offer a fascinating glimpse into the events and thinking of the day. After all, newspapers are a great source of social history to fill out our family stories.

This article, which was published in the Ohio State Journal on Friday, June 23, 1882, describes the immigrants arriving at Castle Garden in New York City. The story isn’t a local one; it probably came as a wire report, with no indication of the author, as was the practice then. Although it reflects some of the ethnic biases of the times, I thought it made interesting reading. Those with Swedish or Danish ancestors may find it especially helpful.

Scenes and Incidents Among the
Hordes of European Emigrants

Castle Garden, on the whole, is a sad place. Among the myriad of swarthy faces which meet one’s gaze, it is rarely that one encounters a smile or a laugh; the immigrant, though he has just set foot in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” is still an immigrant, without a home, and among strangers. The Italians, of whom vast numbers are now crowding in upon us, have a pensive look, especially the women, that is especially touching.

The Swedish and Danish immigration this week is beyond all precedent. As a rule, the women are as strong and as sinewy as the men; if poor, they are generally neatly and comfortably dressed, and there is a frank, open expression in their countenances that at once informs one that they have escaped the centuries of serfdom which have taken the spirit of independence from other populations that have been less fortunate. They can look you right straight in the face without being ashamed. Their children, with which every family is liberally provided, look as tough as pine knots and are just the kind of human machinery that is needed to develop a new country. Swedish girls, for domestic service, are in active demand by city people, and all that offer are readily taken at wages ranging from $12 to $16 a month. Their imperfect knowledge of the vernacular is a serious drawback, as it necessitates frequent pantomimic performances in the kitchen, and at the dinner-table, but then as they soon learn, the little difficulties are soon forgotten. The Norwegians are a people of a coarser fiber than the Swedes and Danes. Their industry is almost a match for that of the heathen Chinese, but it is not a skilled industry, and must find its appropriate sphere in the field and the forest rather than in the workshops and manufactory. Hence, the great majority of them push on “out West” as soon as they leave the ship.

Can’t you just imagine those “pantomimic performances in the kitchen”?

I had an ancestor from Germany who may have passed through Castle Garden two years earlier in 1880. Guess I’ll just have to keep looking until I stumble upon an article that describes those immigrants. Does anyone else get sidetracked in old newspapers?


Source: “Castle Garden,” Ohio State Journal (Columbus, Ohio), 23 June 1882, p. 2, col. 4.


  1. Great blog. I like looking at the newspapers too. My ancestors were all Irish. One family arrived on July 8, 1861. I found an article in the NY Times that day on the emigration statistics.

    "The falling off in the Irish element lately may, perhaps, be accounted for, in part, by the extraordinary news from America, which is circulated among the British and Irish emigrants at the various points of embarkation, as well as among the peasantry of the agricultural districts. It is believed by everybody over there, (according to the accounts of venturesome Hibernians lately landed here,) that the people all over America are slaughtering each other like savages, and that they were fighting furiously even in the streets of New-York; while the very latest intelligence at the emigrant head-quarters in Liverpool was that the inhabitants of New-York had all taken to their heels and were running for their lives -- no one knew where. Of course no son of Erin would ever think of going over to America, or New-York -- which is about the same thing -- after he heard that; for, though Pat is proverbially of a belligerent turn of mind, and has lately shown himself as happy to wield a rifle in Virginia as heretofore a shillelagh at Donnybrook, it could hardly be expected that he would emigrate, with his wife and his brood of young ones to a country where a general scrimmage ended in a universal flight for life."

    There's more about other immigrants including the Germans who were considered to be better informed.
    I don't know if this link will work:


    1. That's an interesting perspective, isn't it? I didn't realize that America was perceived as such a rough country by the Irish. It's neat to go back and read these accounts now as little historical time capsules. Thanks for reading and sharing this piece!

  2. A colorful article, in spite of (maybe also because of) all the ethnic stereotypes the writer repeats and embellishes so liberally. It's well crafted as prose: "They can look you right straight in the face without being ashamed." Whatever else, the writing is as you say ... vivid and descriptive. I'm surprised that so many of these stereotypes are still "going strong" in our culture--at least for Swedes, Norwegians, and Italians. If you find an article describing German emigrants, I wonder if it will be a composite of stereotypes as well. Thanks! I enjoyed reading this.

    1. It is a colorful article, and I actually think the writer intended it to be complimentary, at least for the most part. He seems to have a good bit of admiration for these immigrants who can stand tall and proud, despite the fact that they're strangers in a strange land. I can't even imagine the challenges they must have faced. Thanks for commenting, Mariann!


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