The Emigration Commission and its Work

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER X (5) start of chapter

Private hospitals, or poor-houses, were established by the brokers on the outskirts of New York and Brooklyn; and from the results of an inquiry instituted by the Board of Aldermen of New York in the year 1846, an idea may be formed of the treatment received by the wretched emigrants whose hard fate drove them into those institutions. The Committee discovered in one apartment, 50 feet square, 100 sick and dying emigrants lying on straw; and among them, in their midst, the bodies of two who had died four or five days before, but who had been left for that time without burial! They found, in the course of their inquiry, that decayed vegetables, bad flour, and putrid meat, were specially purchased and provided for the use of the strangers! Such as had strength to escape from these slaughter-houses fled from them as from a plague, and roamed through the city, exciting the compassion, perhaps the horror, of the passers-by(4); those who were too ill to escape had to take their chance—such chance as poisonous food, infected air, and bad treatment afforded them of ultimate recovery. Thanks to the magnitude and notoriety of the fearful abuses of the system then shown to exist, a remedy, at once comprehensive and efficacious, was adopted —not, it is true, to come into immediate operation, but to prove in course of time one of the noblest monuments of enlightened wisdom and practical philanthropy. In the Preface to the published Reports of the Commissioners of Emigration, from the organisation of the Commission in 1847 to 1860, the origin of the good work is thus told:—

This state of things was becoming more distressing as emigration grew larger, and it even threatened danger to the public health. A number of citizens, to whose notice these facts were specially and frequently brought—to some from their connection with commerce and navigation, to others from personal sympathy with the children of the land of their own nativity,— met about the close of the year 1846, or the winter of 1847, and consulted on the means of remedying these evils. They proposed and agreed upon a plan of relief, which was presented to the Legislature of the State of New York, and was passed into a law in the Session of 1847. The system then recommended and adopted was that of a permanent Commission for the relief and protection of alien emigrants arriving at the port of New York, to whose aid such emigrants should be entitled for five years after their arrival, the expenses of their establishment and other relief being defrayed by a small commutative payment from each emigrant.(5)

Figures, however gigantic, afford but an imperfect notion of the work, the self-imposed and disinterested work, of this Commission—of the good they have accomplished, and, more important still, the evil they have prevented. When it is stated that from May 1847 to the close of 1866, the number of passengers who arrived at the port of New York was 3,659,000—about one-third of whom received temporary relief from the Commissioners—we may understand how wide and vast was the field of their benevolent labours. But in order to appreciate the protection they afforded to those who had hitherto been unprotected, and the villanies they successfully baffled, it is necessary to describe some of the dangers which dogged the footsteps of the emigrant after landing in New York.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America