Coming to America

By the latter decades of the 19th century, the already marginal economic situation of the Carpatho-Rusyn people in Europe had become even more precarious.  The old peasant way of life, which in the best of times provided only a meager living, irreparably broke down under the strain of a changing economy.

The former economy which was based upon feudal notions of barter and service was replaced by a modern cash economy. Since they had no money, these peasants found themselves increasingly unable to purchase basic necessities and to pay ever higher taxes.

The lack of available land also increased their economic plight.  Although serfdom had been officially abolished in 1848, the ownership of the land remained concentrated in the hands of the ruling Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. While they no longer were serfs, the peasants were forced to continue to work as either poorly paid or indebted agricultural laborers under the same landlords.

Then came the Industrial Revolution. Factories produced new labor-saving machines and modern farming techniques were introduced. The need for the agrarian labor supplied by the Carpatho-Rusyn peasantry decreased drastically. Since there were no manufacturing or heavy industries located in their regions, their agricultural work force could not be absorbed into the local economy.

The economic pressures upon them were further exacerbated by their practices with their own limited land holdings. Rather than the land being inherited by the eldest son only, the estate was subdivided among all of the male children. As the population grew, the limited land holdings became continually subdivided into such tiny plots that they could no longer support the basic needs of their owners.

Thus these people sank deeper and deeper into poverty with no immediate hope of improvement in their situation. Faced with these grim prospects, they could only look to better their fortunes by emigrating abroad.

Word of the opportunities to be had in America began to spread throughout southern and eastern Europe by the 1880s. Relatives and friends there encouraged them to leave, and agents of the steamship companies and recruiters of the rapidly growing American industries also sought them to come.  The recruiters traveled from village to village in search of cheap labor. Not surprisingly, their message of readily available land and steady employment at substantially higher wages found a receptive audience among these impoverished people. Before long, the exodus of destitute peasants in search of economic improvement and a better life in America began.

For the most part, the journey westward to America for the average Carpatho-Rusyn peasant followed a common course.  After a heart-wrenching goodbye with weeping loved ones and a final blessing under the wayside cross at the head of the village, the prospective traveler went by horse-drawn cart or on foot to the nearest major city. From there, the immigrant rode a train to a distant coastal port where he or she would board a ship for the journey to a new life.

Those who lived in the counties of Szepes (Spiš), Sáros (Šariš), Zemplén (Zemplin), Ung (Už), Bereg, Ugocsa (Ugoča) and Máramoroš (Marmaroš) departed for America from two different routes. One was from the North Sea ports of Bremen and Hamburg in Germany; the other was from the ports of Trieste and Fiume on the Adriatic Sea.

Arranging for overseas travel for them was a large scale enterprise, and two companies shared control over this lucrative passenger trade. They were the Cunard Lines and the Hamburg-Amerika Line. It is likely that the immigrants traveled in steerage class to America on such ships as Hamburg’s “Berengaria” or Cunard’s “Pannonia” or “Carpathia.”