On the Water

Liners to America

Millions of Americans have relatives who crossed the oceans in steamships.

Immigrants came in waves, many to find work in the United States, and others to escape upheavals in their own countries. Between 1880 and 1930, more than 27 million people made the journey from around the world. Ocean liners were filled in both directions, as millions also returned to their home countries. A much smaller number of businesspeople and leisure travelers crossed the oceans on steamships.

Online Resources

To learn more about the transatlantic travel, visit the online exhibition, America on the Move

Atlantic Crossings

By 1870, more than 90 percent of immigrants to America arrived by steamship. As vessels grew safer, larger, sturdier, and faster, ocean crossings became less of an ordeal.

In the same period, the American economy prospered and a class of wealthy Americans was eager to travel in luxury. Steamship companies designed their finest accommodations with these passengers in mind. High style and high society made ocean liners famous, but the ships relied on the immigrant trade as their main source of income into the 1920s. Rich and poor crossed the ocean just a few decks apart.

Ship Model, SS Frisia [ca 1975]
Ship Model, SS Frisia
View Object Record

German passenger liner Frisia

Built at Greenock, Scotland, 1872

Passenger capacity as built: 90 first class, 130 second, 600 third & steerage

Crew: 125

Immigrant Ship Frisia

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In 1871, Hamburg-America Line steamers alone carried 4,200 cabin passengers and 24,500 steerage passengers into New York. The Frisia, launched by the company the following year, brought nearly 47,000 immigrants to the United States between 1872 and 1885.

Courtesy of Bob L. Berschauer

From Kratzke to Kansas

Jacob and Maria Magdalena Berschauer were among the immigrants from Kratzke, Russia, who sailed aboard the Frisia in 1876.

A century after many German Lutherans settled along Russia’s Volga River, a group of about 70 left the village of Kratzke for the United States. They were escaping rumors of war and restrictions on land ownership. With half the group made up of children, they traveled by train to the port of Hamburg, then sailed aboard the Frisia to New York. After heading west by train, they established Bender Hill, a village about ten miles south of Russell, Kansas, in October 1876.

Immigrants at the rail of a steamship, early 1900s

Travelers’ Trunks

These trunks and others nearby are transoceanic travelers. They journeyed on ocean liners, to and from the United States, protecting the belongings of people from different eras and different nations.

Pacific Crossings

Starting in 1867, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company established a line from Hong Kong to San Francisco. It carried American merchants, missionaries, and government officials to Asia, but the company made most of its money ferrying Chinese laborers to and from the United States.

The U.S. economy slowed in the 1870s, and competition for jobs increased. Chinese laborers faced growing prejudice and discrimination. In 1882, Congress passed an Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the country and prohibited any Chinese person from becoming a citizen. It was the first federal law to restrict immigration on a racial or ethnic basis.

Online Resources

To learn more about Chinese immigrants, visit the online exhibition, America on the Move

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Chinese Immigrants Coming to San Francisco, California

This contrived view of Chinatown shows streets crowded with men and lined with businesses. Immigrants stream from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and Canadian Pacific Steamship Company.

Exclusion policies limited the numbers of Chinese voyaging to the United States from about 13,000 in 1880 to less than 2,000 a year in 1900. Those who still came had to prove they were not laborers. Of the Chinese people who came to the United States between 1850 and 1900, more than half returned to China.

Engraving from Harper’s Weekly, May 20, 1876

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Chinese Emigration to America—Sketch on Board the Pacific Mail Steamship Alaska

White steerage passengers paid higher fares than the Chinese, in part to cover the cost of more expensive American food. Wealthy Chinese merchants were free to cross the Pacific in first class, but most of them traveled in steerage where familiar food was available on the long voyage.

Chinese Passengers on Deck, 1900–15

Chinese passengers, some eating from rice bowls, crowd the deck of this steamer. After the Exclusion Acts, the numbers of Chinese voyaging to the United States decreased sharply. This image probably shows Chinese laborers traveling to Hawaii.

Courtesy of the Hawaii State Archives

E Pluribus Unum (Except the Chinese)

The U.S. government guards the Temple of Liberty against the Chinese.

Cartoon by Thomas Nast from Harper’s Weekly, April 1, 1882

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

Chinese Immigrant’s Lacquer Trunk [ca 1906]
Chinese Immigrant’s Lacquer Trunk

Gift of Virginia Lee Mead

China to New York

View Object Record

Ng Shee Lee brought this lacquered trunk with her from China after a visit in 1906. Her husband, Lee B. Lok, emigrated from Guangdong Province, China, in 1881. He paid $1,000 to upgrade his identity papers from laborer to merchant status before returning to China in 1896 and marrying Ng Shee Lee. They returned to the United States and had seven children, whom they raised while running a successful store in New York City’s Chinatown.

Painting of SS City of Tokio [1874]
Painting of SS City of Tokio

Oil painting by Alexander Charles Stuart, 1874

City of Tokio: Ikkaisen

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In February 1885 the City of Tokio became an ikkaisen, or »first boat,« because it brought the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. This Pacific Mail steamer arrived in Honolulu after a two-week voyage from Yokohama. Aboard were 944 people, mostly laborers who had signed government contracts to work on Hawaii’s sugar plantations.

Japanese Immigrant’s Trunk [late 1800s]
Japanese Immigrant’s Trunk

Gift of Barbara Kawakami

Japan to Hawaii

View Object Record

Around 1902, Kumataro Sugimoto emigrated from Kumamoto, Japan, to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations. He was about 40 years old. Like many immigrants working as contract laborers, he traveled to Hawaii in hopes of creating a better life for himself and his family.

Courtesy of the Hawaii State Archives


Japanese laborers cross the bridge to the Immigration Station on Quarantine Island, at Honolulu, in 1893. Immigrants were kept in the station for one to two weeks.

Voices from Gold Mountain

After 1910, immigrants arriving on the West Coast passed through the immigration inspection station at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Many were detained there for weeks or months. Rage, loneliness, and joy are among the emotions reflected in these rhymes from immigrants to the United States, or “Gold Mountain.” These verses are from San Francisco’s Chinatown and were written in the early 1910s.

I am a man of heroic deeds;
I am a man with pride and dignity.
My bosom encompasses the height of Heaven
and the brilliance of Earth;
Everywhere they know me as a truly noble man.
In search of wealth—
Greed led me on the road to Gold Mountain.
Denied landing upon reaching the shore, I am filled with rage.
With no means to pass the border, what can a person do?

To chase after a pin-head gain,
I endured the separation from my mother.
Drifting on a voyage of thousands of miles,
I reached the Flowery Flag Nation to take my chances.
Sorrow is to be so far away from home.
I must burden Mother to send me clothes for my stay.
Unable to prepare the homebound whip, stranded in a foreign land,
O, when can I repay her kindness in raising me?

In a sojourn in San Francisco,
Luck and wealth grace me as spring arrives.
With trunks full of yellow eagles, it’s time to head home; *
Right away my boat ticket and visa are prepared and ready.
O, truly wonderful—
I bid farewell to all my good friends.
I am returning home with purses and bags stuffed full.
Soon, I will see my parents’ brows beaming with joy.

* “Yellow eagles” is a term used by the Chinese in America for U.S. gold coins.

Marlon K. Hom, Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown

©1987 Copyright/ University of California Press.

Explore the Ship

Steamships across the Pacific transported large numbers of immigrants and only modest numbers of first-class passengers. From this deck plan you can discover that hundreds of steerage passengers slept in bunks near the ship’s engine first-class, or saloon, passengers slept in cabins farther from the engine steerage travelers had no dining room or leisure spaces first-class travelers had a dining space with skylights, and two social rooms on the upper deck.

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

S.S. Japan, 1868–74

The Japan officially accommodated as many as 190 in 50 first-class staterooms and 908 in row after row of open bunks stacked three high in steerage. The most frequent first-class passengers were businessmen, missionaries, and government and military officials. Steerage was filled almost entirely by Chinese merchants and laborers. In the month-long Pacific crossing, steerage passengers made do with no dining or sitting rooms. The immigrant trade was so profitable that the Japan often carried hundreds of passengers beyond its legal limit. In 1873 the Japan’s captain was cited for carrying 451 passengers above the legal limit on a single voyage.

Photograph by Jack London, courtesy of The Huntington Library

Chinese crews, 1905

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company hired Chinese workers exclusively to crew its ships and run its port facilities. Only its ships’ officers were American or European. “The saving therefrom, in wages, food, &c., will be very great,” wrote the company president. But by 1915, pressure from sailors’ unions and discriminatory government labor rules had begun to force hundreds of Chinese seamen out of their jobs.

In this image Chinese crew handle mooring lines near the stern of the Pacific Mail steamer Siberia. About 227 Chinese crew worked aboard Siberia on each of its 11 roundtrip voyages between Hong Kong and San Francisco.

Wong Hand’s residence and travel documents

Documents courtesy of the Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley

  • Certificate of residence, 1894

    A federal law passed in 1892 required every Chinese resident to carry a certificate of residence. People without one could be deported or jailed, and travelers needed them to return to the country. This is Wong Hand’s certificate of residence, which identifies him as a Chinese laborer and a cook, as well as a resident of Redlands, California.

  • Health inspection card, 1914

    Immigrants and steerage passengers on Pacific Mail steamships were subjected to a daily health inspection by the ship’s surgeon, who recorded each inspection by punching each passenger’s health card. Wong Hand’s card indicates 31 inspections on his 1914 voyage to San Francisco. To avoid detention at U.S. Quarantine stations or on railroads, Wong Hand would have been required to show this card. The rigorous inspection process, intended to prevent the spread of disease and to keep out illegal immigrants, also meant a frustrating, difficult time for legal Chinese residents reentering the country.

  • Alien tax receipt, 1914

    Wong Hand traveled back to China at some point and returned to San Francisco aboard the Pacific Mail steamship Siberia in 1914. As an alien, he was required to pay a tax of $4, a sum that would have been returned to him if he had left the United States again within 30 days.