In light of the recent discussions concerning what to do about illegal immigrants in our community, I am compelled to share the following. Most of us have stories like this in our family histories, if we take time to look them up. The heartbreak and struggle our ancestors endured in traveling to these shores are instructive; similar stories are unfolding today, right under our noses.
The following account, written from memory by my great-great-grandfather, Niels Larsen of Denmark, suggests to me that we need to show a little kindness to the hard-working folks who make a difficult journey in search of a better life among us. Larsen was around 12 when his family made the voyage by ship across the Atlantic in the mid-1800s. Most immigrants showed up without documentation, but someone must have shown your ancestors some kindness, or they wouldn’t have made it. Here’s Niels Larsen’s story:
“We left the dock at Copenhagen. The ‘KAVOA’ was a three-masted ship carrying two hundred and five souls. We eventually arrived in New York harbor after a crossing of two months and 11 days. Cholera broke out among us, and the horror and distress is hard to describe. There were numerous deaths, among them, my mother, brother and our hired man. Our grief was too terrible to endure. When we docked, three inspectors came aboard, examined the sick and sent them to Ward’s Island, now Ellis Island, where we were hospitalized. The last I saw of my little sister was when she was taken away by a hard-looking woman. The men and boys were put in a large ward together. Our food consisted of gruel two times a day. At noon, we were given rice, no sugar, and a piece of bread thrown to us as if to dogs. The doctor came in two times a day, but he paid no attention to the complaints of the sufferers. As deaths occurred, coffins were made in 20 minutes’ time of rough wood, the corpse was wrapped in its bed sheet, then taken to the death house. Later, it was dumped into a pit at the end of the island.
“The only ones remaining in our family were my father, my little brother and I. Our beds were not near to father’s. I got out of bed and lifted my little brother up so father could see him. Father cried out, ‘Is that you Niels?’ The other sick people shouted to me to leave my brother alone. We watched father die and he was buried as I have already described.
“When my brother and I were well, President Miles, of the Eastern States Mission, came to take us away from Ellis Island. He did this with the money left us by father. We lived for two and one-half years in New York before we started for the West.
“I worked in a brush factory as an errand boy. When we had enough money we two boys went by railroad to the North Platte River, then we waited three weeks for ox teams to go to Utah. We were assigned to a wagon with a family called Pettigan. We owned only two little blankets and very little clothing. At night we had to sleep under the wagon, with our two blankets to cover us. Our food consisted of flour, dried beans, dried peaches, and rice. We had no cooking utensils. Our bread was hard on the outside and soft on the inside.
“At this time the railroad was being built toward Salt Lake City. I talked with two railroad men and they offered me two dollars a day and board to work for them. I could not take care of my little brother on the work I would do for the railroad, so I bid goodbye to him. Captain Mumford let him go to Salt Lake City with the Beesley brothers. I shall never forget my sorrow upon leaving my little brother—my last relative in this world. I went back twice to comfort him and say goodbye, and each time I found him walking behind the wagon, crying.
“I reached the Great Valley in December, 1868, and advertised for my brother in the Deseret News (Salt Lake City). I saw a boy whom I had known in New York who told me where to find my brother, so I walked 11 blocks to Butcherville and found the house where he lived. He was not there! He had gone for a load of wood, which he hauled on a sleigh pulled by a spotted bull dog. I can not put into words our joy upon seeing each other again.
“Shortly after arriving in the Valley I was interviewed by Brigham Young. He called to H.G. Park, a worker in his stables, to take me to Sam Sudbury, a miller. I worked for him for one year, then Brigham Young, taking a liking to me, sent me to the University for nine months. I can not say too much in praise of him. He was the greatest character I ever met. He was kind, but firm, and when he put his lips close together you knew he meant what he said. He gave me a suit of good brown cloth, made by his own tailor. I shall never have a better brown suit than that one.”
Niels Larsen got some good breaks in spite of his troubles (he later lost his sight when a temporary case of snow blindness was followed by a botched attempt at ophthalmology, but he found work anyway, owned property, married and had children). So I’m now here to share his story. And if you’ve been feeling a little hostile toward today’s immigrants, try to remember: Unless you’re Native American, your people aren’t really from here, either.
[Susan Andrew is a forest ecologist, writer and mother to twin 5-year-old girls. She immigrated to Asheville in 1995.]