An Emigrant Voyage in the Fifties
by H. Cock-Jensen and translated by Karen Larsen (Volume I: Page 126)
[This account by a former sea captain was published in Norwegian under the
title "Emigrantfart for 50-60 aar siden," in Nordmandsforbundet, I:
51-57 (1908), and it is printed here in translation with the permission of the
editor of that periodical. In the translation the supplied title has been
slightly altered; literally it should read "An Emigrant Voyage from Fifty
to Sixty Years Ago." Ed.]
As we look at the large luxurious and well equipped emigrant steamers that
today make the trip to America in six or seven days or less, it seems strange
when we think of conditions fifty or sixty years ago. Then the emigrants had to
be crowded together on board small wooden vessels, very much like cattle
nowadays. They had to do without all comforts and, all in all, suffer so much
that we may well ask ourselves how they were able to endure it. But, the Lord be
praised, things went better than might have been expected. We were in those days
a race that had not been pampered; we were used to enduring privations and to
take the brunt of things.
As far as I can remember, it was in Porsgrund that the emigrant traffic of
this neighborhood began. It was in the year 1850, I believe, that the ship owner
Peter Magnus Petersen of that city, began to carry emigrants in his ship, the
"Amelia," and a little later in other ships, all at his own expense.
At about the same time, the ship-owning company Flood took up the same business
with their ship, "Industry," under Captain Bertel Atzlew. The ships
carried from eighty to one hundred fifty passengers according to their size,
some going to New York and some to Quebec.
At the beginning, several ship owners in the Eastland entered into this
business. In 1852 my brother, H. Quist Jensen of Helgeraa, with the ship
"Columbus" (owner Hans
Moller, Porsgrund) went to New York with
about one hundred passengers, some of whom embarked at Helgeraa, some at
G²teborg and Kristianssand. In 1854 the ship "Norden" under Captain
Rosen (owner Hans Christiansen, Larvik) went to Quebec in the emigrant traffic
at the same time as I carried one hundred passengers to the same place in the
ship "Laurvig" (owner Iver Falkenberg, Larvik).
The arrangements on board were very primitive and inadequate. On the beams
between decks was laid a deck of planks with hatchways down into the hold, where
all the baggage was stowed away on top of the cargo. Two rows of bunks of rough
boards were built up, one above the other, the whole length of the ship from
fore to aft. Between these open bunks there were often put up special berths
reserved for emigrants whose demands were greater. Everything else was used in
common --- no separate rooms for men and women. Light was admitted through open
hatchways and partly through skylights in the deck. There was canvas in the
hatchways, but during storms and rough seas these often had to be covered, and
if this continued for any length of time the air in the room below occupied by
the emigrants often became frightfully bad. There was no first or second cabin.
Each passenger paid twenty-five dollars for his passage, but had to supply
himself with bedding and food for the voyage. The board consisted chiefly of
smoked and salted meat, fladbr²d, and casks of sour milk.
however, had to equip themselves with ample provisions in case the food of the
emigrants should give out during the voyage.
There was only one caboose for all the emigrants in common, but occasionally
the ship¡s caboose was used in addition. Every one cooked and fixed his food
for himself. It is clear that under these conditions the meals must necessarily
be both irregular and inadequate --- the porridge pot was boiling
long. Generally the captain and the emigrants arranged that one or two from
among the latter were chosen every day to supervise the cleaning. This was of
course not much to brag of, especially in the beginning when all had to struggle
with seasickness (yet it was really remarkable how soon seasickness generally
disappeared) or during a prolonged storm when the hatches had to be kept
A definite portion of water was doled out to the passengers every day. Just
as there was no supervision and no medical inspection before starting, so there
was, to begin with, no ship¡s doctor on board. The first emigrant ship from
this neighborhood which is known to have had its own doctor was the
above-mentioned "Norden" of Laurvig.
The passengers were generally landed in New York and Quebec. Upon landing,
they had to go to the quarantine station where they were subjected to a medical
inspection. The sick were held back, the well were allowed to continue at once
their journey inland to country or town and generally they went to Albany and
thence to Wisconsin. As soon as they had disembarked, the ship had nothing to do
with them, neither responsibility nor risk.
In spite of the absence of comforts, life on board such as emigrant vessel
might be quite gay. When the weather was fine and the Atlantic lay clear and
smooth, the deck at times rang with merriment in the evenings. The accordion was
brought out and to its tones the couples whirled about. Games were played --- in
wooden shoes and wadmal skirt many a time --- and here life-long connections
were often formed.
As an example, however, of the sufferings and misery that such an emigrant
voyage might involve, I wish to relate the story of a trip which I took in 1854
with the above-mentioned ship "Laurvig."
The "Laurvig" was an old vessel, somewhat leaky, poorly equipped,
and a poor sailer. Before sailing there was no inspection of the ship or of its
equipment. The captain had
to arrange everything according to his best
judgment, buying a medicine chest and the like. We took on a cargo of about one
hundred tons of iron in the hold, and in G²teborg we took on board about fifty
Swedish emigrants, mainly country folks from Dalarne, but also a few persons of
the upper classes, for example a minister¡s and a merchant¡s families.* From
G²teborg we sailed up to Norway where we took on about thirty passengers at
Helgeraa. They were mainly from the uplands of Drammen. In the later half of
July, 1854, all were embarked, about one hundred persons including the crew of
*Among the emigrants there was also a young Swedish lieutenant of noble
family. He had married below his rank and now, with his wife, he was going to
make a future for himself on the other side of the Atlantic. The newlyweds were
very happy and were constantly billing like two turtle doves. But when the first
genuine high sea began, the lieutenant had to seek the railing and to bend his
back. During this process, there was heard from him a violent ejaculation:
"By all the saints, if I did not lose my teeth!" There was no dentist
on board who could furnish him with new ones, and from that day the billing
There were tears and pale faces on board as we set out to sea. Of the many
who now left their fatherland, the great majority never saw the mountains of
Norway again. All went well and the weather was fine until we were several
degrees west of Ireland. Then began severe storms that lasted a long time,
shifting from southeast to northwest, with a terrific sea that brought great
suffering to the poor people, who were mainly inland folks. The storm lasted
several weeks, off and on like a hurricane. It reached its greatest strength
particularly when from the southeast and improved somewhat when it swung around
to the northwest. This happened regularly in periods of three days.
One can imagine the suffering of the wretched creatures who were shut up in
the dark room night and day, for the hatches were battened as the waves went
over the deck
continually. The room of the emigrants was lighted by two or
three lamps that were burning night and day down there in the poisoned air and
amid all the filth. As a result of this wretchedness an unfortunate contagious
disease broke out, namely dysentery. It began in the upper bunk aft and
continued regularly on starboard until it jumped over to larboard and there
spread in the same manner.
The first person who was stricken was a woman from Dalarne, and the cup of
her misery was filled when a few days after the outbreak of the disease, she was
confined, in the midst of all this wretchedness. The child was cared for by the
other mothers as best they could. On the third day after her confinement the
woman died, was laid in a casket nailed together from boards, and lowered into
the sea. The burial ceremony was simple yet impressive and was performed by the
captain and a Swedish judge (a splendid and genial man who was of great help to
me during the whole voyage). The ship was belayed, the flag hoisted at
half-mast, prayers were read, and the coffin was lowered into the sea. With this
the melancholy act was over --- until the next time. I shudder even today when I
think of the terrible state we were in with so many persons below deck who were
fatally ill. Yet the poor unfortunates were gentle and resigned and bore their
cross with great patience.
The misery increased day by day. The symptoms of the illness were a violent
diarrhea and profuse discharge of blood followed by exhaustion. Finally there
appeared a marked swelling all over the body and then the end was near. All
astringent medicine on board was used, but to no avail, and it got so bad that
the emigrants used crushed brick baked into a pancake, as they imagined this
would help them. It was strange that the longer the illness lasted, the greater
became their appetite, until death occurred on the fourth, fifth, up to the
Now one died after the other till thirteen passengers had been lowered into
the sea. At the same time the crew were
also infected, and the boatswain,
Anders Olsen Bua, died. This death made a deep impression on all of us and the
grief of the crew was great. In the first place, the deceased was a capable and
kindly boy and, in the second place, the working force of the crew was much
weakened, as many were ill. The quantity of sail and other things had to be
decreased and consequently the sailing became less rapid and the voyage longer.
As the sickness was continuing and spreading and the last astringent medicine
had been used up, in desperation and dread of the result, I resorted to the last
expedient: giving the sick laxative oil. For I had heard at home that when
nothing else helped, oil must be tried to cleanse the bowels. And with the help
of God, this remedy did good service, so that from then on, the afflicted
improved noticeably every day and after this no deaths occurred. (Later I was
told at the quarantine station in Quebec that oil was the only remedy to which
one could resort when all others failed.)
After three weeks of storm and misery, the weather improved somewhat and we
had already reached the outer banks of Newfoundland. But here a new grief
threatened us. The provisions of the emigrants were almost consumed. The ship
had, it is true, some provisions in reserve, but entirely too little for so
many, and therefore we faced certain starvation, perhaps even death from famine.
Our only hope was that we might get good weather and a calm so that we could
fish on the banks. Our prayers were really answered when four or five days later
we got a calm on the southern St. Pierre bank, where all fishing tackle was
taken into use and we were so fortunate as to catch four large halibuts and
eighty-six unusually large codfish. There was great joy both among us and among
the emigrants, especially the sick, for now we were plentifully supplied with
fresh food for a long time.
Now we continued with a west wind and beat up the river towards Quebec and
two days afterward we reached St. Paul, where we hailed an outbound Canadian
vessel and were given
two barrels of flour. A few days later, farther up
the river, we met a Norwegian boat, if I remember correctly, the "Industri,"
under Captain August Pettersen of Brevig, from which we were once more supplied
with flour and necessary provisions. With greedy eyes, we noticed a large
butchered hog handing on board in the rigging of the "Industri," but
we did not succeed in buying any of it.
Two days later, after a voyage from Norway of eleven weeks and three days, we
reached the quarantine station, where all --- both the sick and the well --- had
to land for inspection. The well embarked again and continued with us to Quebec
and about twenty sick remained behind. Only a few days later, however, they
joined the rest of us in Quebec.
Some days later the hour of separation came and each went to his destination.
I must say it was touching and pathetic in the highest degree to bid farewell
for life to these patient, kindly people who had suffered so much and were still
able to wear a hopeful smile on their pale faces. God, who guided us so well,
was good to us. In memory of this eventful voyage, the emigrants at parting
presented me with a beautifully wrought silver snuffbox with the following
inscription: "Erindring til kapt. H. C. J. of de svenske emigranterne.
Quebek 20/10 1854."
About the return voyage of the "Laurvig" I can briefly relate that
we loaded in Quebec, and in the first part of November, after ice had already
formed in the river, we sailed for London. On the way back I had a young
Physician as a passenger, Sch²nberg, who had been ship¡s doctor on "Norden"
with Captain Rosen from Laurvig. He was later the well-known Professor
Sch²nberg of Christiania. This genial young man was of great help to us on the
stormy return voyage. On most of the trip we had to tack before the wind to save
ourselves from being crushed by the terrific sea. We often had
also. The ship took in huge breakers and was very leaky. The pumps had to be
kept going night and day. Dr. Sch²nberg helped everywhere and with his good
spirits put vigor and courage into us all. On Christmas day we reached London
and from there I was going home to be married. In the latter part of March,
1855, we came to the shore of Norway, which was frozen way down to Lister.
Finally we entered a little inlet near Farsund, and from this place I had to go
by land to my home at Helgeraa. That winter the ice lay so think along the shore
that in Arendal I met Captain S²rlie of Laurvig who had skated from Arendal to
Laurvig --- outside the skerries, in a straight line --- and returned home the
same day. The winter of 1855 was doubtless the most severe winter within the
memory of man.
About the fate of the good ship "Laurvig" I might add that its
later commander was Captain Jan Christiansen from Laurvig, that it was wrecked
in the Mediterranean and was salvaged at Malta. The wreck was bought by Captain
Peter Dahl of Brevig; it was brought home to that city, but was shipwrecked soon
This in brief is what I recollect about that memorable emigrant voyage in
1854. I am now eighty-six years old and I suppose there are not many survivors
of that large company, perhaps not any. But should these lines reach any of my
sorely tried friends of 1854, I beg them to accept a warm greeting from an old
man who can never forget how closely and intimately he became attached to them
during those twelve weeks of companionship in suffering and patience.
<2> Flatbr²d is a brittle Norwegian "flat bread."
<3> "A remembrance to Capt. H. C. J. from the Swedish emigrants.
Quebec 20/10 1854."