The Passage: Life at Sea

People below deck on a ship
Emigrant ship between decks
Illustrated London News
August 1850

During the early years of emigration, passengers traveled in cargo ships that were poorly suited for the passenger trade, and little had improved by the 1830s. Most berths had to be shared with up to three other people, which gave each passenger approximately two square feet of personal space, and many adults were too tall to stand upright below decks. Ventilation was normally poor, but during inclement weather, the hatches were closed and passengers had to ride out the storms in the suffocating darkness.

Although the journey was not pleasant, historian Kerby Miller puts the emigrants' suffering in perspective, claiming: "Many peasant emigrants probably found the food, filth, and suffocating atmosphere of the steerage little worse than what they had been accustomed to in one- and two-room cabins back fact, the word which pre-Famine emigrants most commonly used to describe their entire passages was merely 'tedious'."

The Famine caused conditions to worsen. Ships became more crowded and disease became rampant. Seasickness was an almost universal plaque aboard the ships. More worrisome were the contagious diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and typhus that spread easily on crowded ships. Surprisingly, in non-epidemic years, the death rate aboard passenger ships was only two percent, with infants, young children, and the elderly disproportionately affected.

About The Passage

Who Purchased Passage?

Written passenger lilstThe majority of sponsors (those responsible for paying passage) were powder yard workers who had themselves recently emigrated from Ireland. However, not all of the sponsors were workers in the powder yards.

Other Irish-born employees, such as clerk John Peoples, frequently purchased passages, as did John Walsh and Patrick Reilly, the priests at the local Catholic church, and Sarah Donnan, a local tavern-keeper and widow of a DuPont Company employee.

Residents from other industrial villages or farmers from the surrounding area sometimes bought passages through DuPont as well. It seems that DuPont served as the primary contact with immigration agents in the area. Many of these transactions would not have been possible without DuPont making the necessary financial arrangements.

Image: List of passengers from the "Provincialist" found in a letter from immigration agent Robert Taylor to the E. I. du Pont de Nemours Company, April 12, 1838.

The Transaction

Du Pont often helped its immigrant employees bring their families to the United States from abroad. This was often a complicated process that required the attention of multiple parties. Follow along with the steps taken by DuPont to help an Irish worker bring his family to the U.S.:

World Map drawing

Step 1 (Wilmington, Delaware)
The employee who wished to sponsor a friend or relative notified DuPont of their request.

Step 2 (Wilmington, Delaware)
A DuPont company clerk sent a letter to one of their local agents, such as Robert Taylor in Philadelphia, requesting a ticket for passage.

Step 3 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
The local agent then debited money from the DuPont account to pay for the passage and sent the ticket to DuPont.

Step 4 (Ireland)
The DuPont employee then mailed the ticket to the passenger in Ireland.

Step 5 (Great Britain)
The local agent then sent an order to an agent in either Londonderry, Ireland or Liverpool, England reserving a passage on board the next available ship.

Step 6 (Ireland)
The overseas agent then sent a letter to the passenger in Ireland to notify them of when their ship would sail.

Step 7 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
The local agent in Philadelphia notified DuPont of when the ship sailed and sent a list of all of DuPont's subscribers on that ship.

Step 8
Finally, the ship carrying passengers took its treacherous journey across the ocean, which would last between 4 to 6 weeks, and deposit its passengers to an American port.

Once the passengers completed the long journey and arrived at port, they traveled to the banks of the Brandywine outside of Wilmington to be reunited with family members.

Making Payments / Bank Drafts

A draft or bill of exchange was a money order drawn on an overseas account. The value of the draft varied based on the current exchange rate. DuPont employees frequently used drafts to send remittances to their relatives in Ireland, usually to Londonderry, Liverpool, or Belfast. The company began offering employees the ability to send remittances as drafts beginning in the early 1820s.

Receipt pageIn a letter to company agent John Vaughan, a clerk writing on behalf of the company explained:

"Several of our hands are interested in that remittance and we have prevailed upon them to join together and remitt [sic] the money to some merchant in whom they could have confidence which simplify the business. As it is always our best hands who are endeavoring to save money to remit to their parents at home we are anxious to give them all facility for such a laudable purpose."

Money was remitted to Ireland for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the money was used to help feed or clothe family left behind. Other times it financed the journey from a passenger's hometown to the port from which they planned to embark. Remittances of £1 to £3 were frequently sent along with passage tickets for this purpose.

Image: Excerpt from receipt book from George McHenry & Co., 1853-1856

Children's Fares

Letter by Andrew CatherwoodThe price of fares for children became a contentious issue after the passage of an American law that limited the number of passengers a vessel could carry to two for every five tons of ship weight. According to Robert Taylor, babies and young children had been able to travel for free before the legislation was passed. However, once the law was enacted, babies began to be counted as one of the two allowed passengers.

Taylor explained the regulations to DuPont in 1833, stating, "Some of the persons engaging passages expect that children on the breast should pay no passage - but we cannot take, however young they may be, for less than half price."

Other problems arose when parents falsified the ages of their children in order to obtain half-price passages intended for those twelve and under. Andrew J. Catherwood expressed his disgust in a letter to DuPont, exclaiming, "I hate these 12 year olds; they generally are from 14 to 18 - but remind them that if the age is falsely states the £1.4 must be planked up in Derry before starting."

Image: Letter from Andrew Catherwood complaining about the problem of parents lying about their children's ages to get lower passage fares, 21 March 1851.