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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. {2} The ships, 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 all day 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 covered.

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 twelve men.

*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 decreased noticeably.

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 eighth day.

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." {3}

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 heavy fogs 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 after.

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." Ed.]

<3> "A remembrance to Capt. H. C. J. from the Swedish emigrants. Quebec 20/10 1854."

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