Steve Woods

The Song of Liberty’s Muse

In What Day is it? on October 28, 2009 at 5:50 am

The U.S.S. Madonna

It was a cool morning on board the U. S. S. Madonna, the quiet of the day broken by the revving tug engines straining the mooring ropes, pulling the gray ship into the dirty, crowded piers of Ellis Island.  On this day, March 14,1911, my great-grandfather, 40-year-old Manuel Bettencourt, stared up at the Statue of Liberty, like so many before him.  Manual was ready to step off the sea-worthy home he had spent the previous two long months aboard, on his great journey that had begun on the Island of Pico, Portugal.

The Statue of Liberty


Rare photo of construction of Lady Liberty

Today is Statue of Liberty Day, the 113th anniversary of our Nation’s ultimate icon of freedom and acceptance, of transition from a nation of relatively homogeneous settlers to a home for immigrants far and wide, whose journey under Lady Liberty’s great shadow welcomed over twelve million of them into our melting pot.

Sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned by the French and American governments to create a statue to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  America was to create the sturdy foundation, and France would make and deliver the statue.  Lotteries, concerts, and art exhibits were among the methods used to fund the work.  Prize-founder Joseph Pulitzer used his newspaper The World to extol the virtues of donating to the cause.

The statue was completed in July of 1884 and delivered to American soil in June of the next year on board the French Frigate Isere.  The pedestal, however, wasn’t finished until April of 1886.   To transport the enormous copper statue, it was cut apart in 350 pieces and shipped in 214 crates, carefully lifted piece by piece and reassembled on its new foundation over a span of four months.  In 1956, the island where Lady Liberty resides was renamed Liberty Island.  In May of 1982, a daunting 6-year, $87 Million restoration of the statue and foundation began.  Following the horrific events of 9/11, concerns regarding terrorism closed the extended arm and crown of the statue until earlier this year.

Ellis Island and America’s Journey to the Face of Liberty

Ellis Island

Ellis Island

Next door, only half a mile from Lady Liberty’s visage, sits the small 27-acre Ellis Island of New Jersey.  Three Million visitors stop through Ellis Island each year to take pictures, stare across the water at Liberty, and think about their roots. It is believed that 40% of all Americans can trace their lineage through Ellis Island’s immigration station.  On this day let us ponder a bit on the difficult journey so many of our ancestors took to this great land.

Why Did People Make the Journey?

Immigrants made the decision to come to America for a variety of reasons, including famines, disease, civil unrest or wars, natural disasters, or to simply join family members already there.  From the Potato Famine to the Jewish Pogroms of Eastern Europe, as many came to American fleeing nightmares as those that pursued dreams.  Stories of family members becoming wealthy through hard work or obtaining religious freedoms sang to them like the muses calling to Odysseus.

How Often Was Separation From Family Involved?

Immigrant family on board their ship

Immigrant family on board their ship

Most families immigrating to America lacked sufficient funds for the entire family to make the journey.  In these cases, quite often the father and oldest sons came over and worked at whatever jobs they could, scrimping and saving enough for the mother and rest of the family to join them.  Often it took long years to bring families back together again, and no small number of marriages did not survive the ordeal, as men fell under the spell of America’s often more liberal ways…

What Was Considered a Carry-On in Those Days?

Due to space considerations on the ship (and often for profitability’s sake,) the amount you could carry onboard a ship largely depended on how much you paid.  Those with First- or Second-Class fares typically had a storage location for crates of possessions, as well as in their rooms.  Steerage passengers (the majority of all who made the journey) typically stored what they could rolled up in bundles under their tiny bunks, or shoved in corners, carefully watched by family members or new-found friends.

Were There Physical Requirements to Make the Journey?


Immigrants sitting topside during their journey

Because it was a requirement that shipping companies pay the return voyage for all passengers who were turned down at Ellis Island, many had their own doctors inspect closely for diseases or other conditions that would disqualify them in America.  Most shipping companies required the hair of boys to be close-cropped and girls to undergo fine-tooth combing to prevent the spread of lice.

Despite precautions, over 2% of all passengers were returned to their country of origin for either health reasons or due to lack of finances to adequately begin their lives in America.

Where Did People Sleep and Eat During the Journey?

First- and Second-Class fare holders had their own rooms and beds to enjoy during the long journey, and a dining area for their meals, with a comfort and culinary level commensurate with the amount paid.  Steerage passengers slept in three-high suspended cots, seasick for weeks as they bobbed about in rough waters.  They ate on the floors in the same cramped compartments in which they slept.  Food served tended to be slightly warm soup, near-rotten boiled potatoes and mottled beef.

How Did People Keep Themselves Occupied?


Families awaiting processing at Ellis Island

If the ship stewards allowed it, the children of steerage customers would play topside in the open air, simple games like dominoes, cards, marbles, and other diversions taken from back home and altered for a shipboard environment.  Some people, unwilling to simply lie down for the entire journey, helped the sailors care for the ship, scrubbing and mopping surfaces and repairing damage.

How Dangerous Was the Voyage?

Although death from other than natural causes was relatively rare during the journey, it happened.  Untreated illness, food poisoning, falling into open spaces (or overboard) were examples of hazards if one was not careful or unlucky.

What Happened When You Arrived at Ellis Island?

After arriving at the Hudson or East River piers of New York City, steerage passengers gathering up all personal items, and were shuttled by barge to Ellis Island to be documented, inspected by doctors, and finally sent on their way.  For many, it was the ultimate in “sink or swim.”  First- and Second-Class citizens were cursorily inspected on the ship and sent off into New York without further question, as it was assumed that they were unlikely to become a financial ward of the state.

Back to My Beginnings


My Great-Grandfather's Ellis Island Registry

As the tugs cast off lines and chugged away from the Madonna, Manuel Bettencourt didn’t know what future lay ahead of him, how successful he might be.  Perhaps he turned and stared at Lady Liberty and said a prayer.  Perhaps he kept looking straight ahead with purpose, and began his journey.

Manuel was lucky in that he travelled with others from his community, including neighbors, brothers and cousins.  They worked together to protect each other in the bustling culture of New York.  A farmer by trade, and desiring to join family far west, Manuel and his group began looking for ways to cross our land of opportunity, to the rich, fertile farmland of California.  That’s another story…


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