As the Church grew in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, Saints outside the United States were encouraged to immigrate to the United States and join their fellow Saints in Nauvoo, Kirtland, and, later, Salt Lake City, to “unite with [them] in the great work of the last days” (Millenial Star 1:273). Thousands of Saints in the British Isles and Europe sold most of their possessions and left their homes, friends, and families to make the trip. Most of them made their way to Liverpool, England, where they booked passage on ships to the United States.
Millions of emigrants flowed through the streets of Liverpool in the mid-1800s, waiting to board ships sailing to other countries. Many of these people paid high prices for beds in dirty, overcrowded rooming houses. Some emigrants encountered “runners,” who offered to help carry their belongings and find them housing, then robbed them by requiring them to pay huge tips to get their luggage back or to insure that they wouldn’t be beaten up.
Ships provided only minimal amounts of food and water, if any, for each passenger during the trip, which took thirty-five to fifty-five days. The cramped living quarters and the lack of food and sufficient water often led to theft, bad feelings, and the spread of serious illnesses.
Steerage was the least expensive way to travel by ship. Passengers in steerage slept three or four to a bunk and head to toe (to give themselves a little more room) just below deck in a crowded room filled with bunkbeds, trunks and packing cases, and dining tables!
In order to help its members avoid these unpleasant experiences, the Church organized a headquarters in Liverpool and helped the Saints prepare for the trip. It chartered ships, booked passage for any “industrious, honest and well-disposed persons,” obtained additional and inexpensive food, and arranged for the travelers to be housed in decent rooming houses, aboard ship, or with other members until departure. Because the Church chartered the ships, even the poorest passengers sometimes had a little more room to live in than the average steerage passenger, although quarters for everyone were still cramped.
Once on board, the Saints again organized to make their journey as safe and pleasant as possible. They were divided into wards, which often cooked their meals and ate together. Each man in the company would be assigned watch duty to ensure that the Saints and their belongings were protected throughout the night from unscrupulous passengers or crew members. Adults also took turns nursing the sick. Even though the Saints took precautions, some—usually young children or the elderly—died and were buried at sea.
The Saints were given lectures during the voyage, not only on spiritual matters but on cleanliness, cooking, organization, and what to expect when they arrived in the United States. Some companies spent their days on deck, sewing clothes or tents for the later trek across the plains.
During storms, the passengers were confined to steerage with the hatches tightly battened. The stuffy room was dimly lit by a few lanterns. The closeness of the room and the swaying of the ship made many people suffer greatly from seasickness. When the storm was over, the hatches were opened to let light and air into their living quarters, the area was cleaned well, and everyone spent as much time as possible on the open deck above.
The Saints awoke in the morning to a bugle call. They washed, dressed, and straightened their quarters, then had morning prayer. In the evening another bugle call gathered them for evening prayer. Although there was much sickness and at times very little food and water, the Saints kept their spirits up by singing and dancing and playing games. Some companies formed bands to play. Archer Walters wrote that his ship had a “band of music aboard and [were] all merry as crickets.”
When the Saints finally landed—usually at New Orleans, New York, or Boston—they still had a long journey ahead of them and more preparations to make. But for many of them, the most trying part of their journey was over.