Steerage Act of 1819

When on March 2, 1819, the United States Congress passed an act Regulating passenger-ships and vessels, the legislative branch of the United States Government doubtless had in mind a first step toward reforming the passenger trade to America, which for many years had bordered upon the chaotic. With the Peace Treaty of Vienna an accomplished fact, Europe began settling down to a relatively peaceful period and emigration to the emerging republic in the West, for many years interrupted by war, again picked up speed. Unscrupulous ship-owners and greedy captains saw in this growing traffic a chance to cash in on a commerce which up to this time had for the most part been confined to a one-way trade, specializing in the shipment of timber and wood products from the New World to the Old. By ferrying eager emigrants to the United States and Canada, shippers could assure themselves of a two-way traffic, which would not only keep the vessels fully utilized, but also bring in added revenue to shipper and skipper alike.

Greed begets greed and it was not long before masters and ship's agents, as well as ship-owners, were cramming their vessels to the limit with human cargo, without much concern as to what happened to the miserable passengers when storms and contrary winds lengthened voyages and caused shortages of both food and water. Lack of a nutritious diet, as well as the absence of fresh air in the holds, particularly when storms forced the battening down of hatches for days on end, speeded the outbreak of disease, and with disease often death. When some of the immigrant vessels arrived in American ports, the poor and unfortunate immigrants were often more dead than alive, i.e. those who had survived the ordeal. Many had succumbed on the passage.

Reports of these conditions soon reached the ears of the authorities in Washington, and, as a consequence, the legislators, realizing that something had to be done in order to rectify the situation, passed the Act of March, 2, 1819, specifying that as from January 1, 1820, every vessel which arrived at an American port could not carry more "than two persons for every five tons of such ship or vessel, according to customhouse measurement." The penalty for an infraction of this law was severe. The master of such a vessel had to pay a fine of $150 for each person carried above this fixed number.

Although the Act of March 2, 1819 did not cure all the ills which had beset the growing immigrant traffic, it was nevertheless the first in a series of such acts passed by the Congress during the 19th century and which, little by little, succeeded in bringing about a more humane treatment of the immigrant. One part of the Act of March 2, 1819 which the founding fathers doubtless never expected would attain the importance it has since achieved, was its fourth section which specified that "the captain or master of any ship or vessel arriving in the United States, or any of the territories thereof, from any foreign place whatever, at the same time as he delivers a manifest of the cargo, and, if there be no cargo, then at the time of making report or entry of the ship or vessel, pursuant to the existing laws of the United States, shall also deliver and report, to the collector of the district in which such ship or vessel shall arrive, a list or manifest of all the passengers taken on board of the said ship or vesscl at any foreign port of place, in which list or manifest it shall be the duty of the said master to designate, particularly, the age, sex, and occupation of the said passengers, respectively, the country to which they severally belong, and that of which it is their intention to become inhabitants; and shall further set forth whether any, and what number, have died on the voyage; which report and manifest shall be sworn to by the said master, in the same manner as is directed by the existing laws of the United States in relation to the manifest of the cargo; and that the refusal or neglect of the master afore-said to comply with the provisions of this section, shall incur the same penalties, disabilities, and forfeitures, as are at present provided for a refusal or neglect to report and deliver a manifest of the cargo aforesaid."

As time went on, the main provisos of the Act of March 2, 1819 were either changed or amended, but Section Four remained in force until 1855, when it was restated almost unchanged as Section Twelve of the Act of March 3, 1855, with the addition that the master of the ship should indicate in the manifest "that part of the ship or vessel which the passenger had occupied during the voyage." This section, therefore, which goes back to 1819, and was confirmed and amended in 1855, actually remained in force until 1897, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the Department of justice took over the responsibility for controlling the entry into the United States of all passengers.

Beginning on January 1, 1820, each ship's master arriving at an American port was thus obliged to deliver to the Collector of Customs at that port a sworn manifest containing the names of the passengers who had arrived aboard his vessel. These manifests were then processed for a quarterly report which was sent to the Secretary of State, who according to the Act of 1819 was required to present the arrival figures to Congress at each session. On May 7, 1874, another act was passed which provided that instead of sending copies of the passenger manifests to the Secretary of State, the various collectors were to submit such reports to the Secretary of the Treasury as he might direct.

After having been stored at the various customs houses from the beginning, these records, which were still intact, were eventually transferred from the Bureau of Customs, Department of the Treasury, to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where they are now housed and where microfilm copies can be consulted. Thus the National Archives has in its possession virtually unbroken series of original passenger lists for the following cities and years:

Though the original lists for other American ports have been lost through fire and destruction, copies and abstracts of them as well as Department of State transcripts exist for a number of other cities. These are also in the collection at the National Archives.