A Practical Guide for Emigrants

What was it like to emigrate from England to North America in the mid-1800s? How would you travel? What kind of supplies would you need? How would you go about planning for such a trip and where would you go for answers to these questions? These are questions that Thomas Casbon faced when he decided to leave England to find a new home in Ohio, U.S.A.

I’m pretty sure Thomas and his wife Emma (Scruby) were getting letters from Emma’s older brother, James, who settled in Ohio in the 1830s. These would have offered words of encouragement and practical guidance, and perhaps even some money to help cover expenses. But another source might have been a printed guidebook. I’ve recently learned that many of these were printed throughout the 1800s. They are brimming with practical advice and generally written by men who had first-hand experience, being recent immigrants themselves.

One such book is A Practical Guide For Emigrants to North America, including the United States, Lower and Upper Canada, and Newfoundland …, by George Nettle, published in London, 1850.[1]

Title page of A Practical Guide for Emigrants … (1850).

Although Thomas left England in 1846, four years before this book was published, it is representative of the types of guidebooks available at the time. It addresses many matters that would have been of concern to Thomas and his family. It also gives us greater insight into what the experience of emigrating to America would have been like.

In the opening paragraphs, the author describes “who ought to go” to America. His description fits Thomas perfectly: “America being a growing country and a land for labour and industry, the poor industrious laboring man, with a wife and two, three, or more sons and daughters [Thomas had three sons and one daughter] fit for labour and of sober habits, would do well to emigrate.”[2]

He goes on to explain how much a man can earn and what his earnings can purchase in America.

A laboring man and his two sons, for instance, may earn 18s. per week each, making together £2 14s., whilst the common necessaries of life are generally less than half the price paid for them in this country. This amount brought to a careful wife, would, at the end of a year or two only, place the poor man and his family almost above the world’s perplexities; and his table would be plentifully supplied with such necessaries of life as he probably never before had the privilege of enjoying.[3]

The opportunity for financial independence would have been a strong incentive for Thomas, whose future in England did not offer much hope for improvement or relief from a life of economic hardship.

The book goes on to address practical matters concerning the voyage, starting with expenses. He explains that “London and Liverpool are the principal ports in this country for emigration” and that the steerage fare in a steam vessel from one of these ports is between £4 and £5. On the other hand

there are other ports from which merchant ships, principally in the timber trade, sail during the spring and summer months, to Quebec and other places in North America, in which the passage-money charged is generally under £3: and should a family, or a company of friends or neighbors, emigrate together, the cost to each individual may be considerably reduced by contracting for the whole.[4]

We know that Thomas sailed from Southampton to Quebec aboard the Parkfield, described in one source as a Canadian lumber boat.[5] He would not have been able to afford anything better than steerage, so this gives us an idea of what they voyage cost. He traveled with a niece and probably with another Meldreth man, James Wing, so maybe they were able to negotiate a cheaper price.

“Emigration Vessel—Between Decks,”The Illustrated London News, vol. 18, no. 483, 10 May 1851, p. 387; Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000520935 : accessed 5 February 2019) (Click on image to enlarge)

On ocean voyages today, the fare usually includes the cost of meals, but Thomas probably had to bring his own provisions for the voyage. What would you need for a long ocean voyage in the 1840s? Here’s what the author of A Practical Guide advises.

It will be necessary to procure bedding, provisions, cooking utensils, and a little medicine. The cooking and table utensils should be the most simple and useful, made of tin, and in quantity according to the circumstances of the emigrant. The provisions should, by all means be sufficient in variety, the time occupied on the passage being very uncertain, averaging from four to six weeks, and not unfrequently extending to eight weeks. The stock for each adult ought to be, at least, as follows:—[6]

Provisions recommended for the voyage to America.[7] (Click on image to enlarge)

Try to imagine the preparations needed for this voyage, and then the voyage itself. The foodstuffs had to be things that wouldn’t spoil on a long voyage; no milk, no fresh vegetables or meats. The author says that “about £2 5s. will, however, purchase the stock above enumerated,—if judiciously laid out.”[8]

The author then waxes philosophical, warning the traveler about the feelings he is likely to experience:

As the emigrant leaves “the lessening land,” and passes over the “trackless deep,” a medley of feelings and sensations will naturally occupy his mind: he will feel that he is parting from his associates and friends, and from those endearing ties and circumstances of his childhood, the comforts and enjoyments of which he was not before aware of, for the true value of friendship is never properly estimated until it becomes lost for ever. These observations are not designed to intimidate or to create unpleasant feelings, but merely to forewarn the emigrant of what will occur before he leaves his county, that he may not regret his departure, as thousands have done when it has been too late.[9]

What thoughts did Thomas and Emma have as they left England behind forever?

The book then describes the approach of land and information about the city of Quebec. The Casbon family would have had to disembark at Quebec and secure transportation along the Saint Lawrence River to Montreal. “He has the choice of two routes, the one by steam vessels on the river St. Lawrence, and the other by canal and land carriage. The former will be preferable.”[10] I’m pretty sure Thomas took the river route.

From Montreal, the family would have next proceeded to Kingston, on the eastern end of Lake Ontario. And from there they traveled across the great lake to Niagara. “At Niagara the family made the transfer in the horse cars then in use, and all had time to enjoy the spectacle of the mighty falls. From Buffalo they took another boat to Cleveland.”[11] “Thomas Casbon then walked on to Wooster, Ohio, … and having obtained a horse and wagon returned to Cleveland for his family. By this means they all arrived at a place ten miles from Wooster … where Thomas Casbon began his career in the New World.”[12]

Detail of map insert from A Practical Guide For Emigrants, with Thomas Casbon’s route added in.
(Click on image to enlarge)

The previous paragraph quotes from biographies of Thomas Casbon’s sons, Sylvester and Charles. Returning to A Practical Guide For Emigrants, the book has much more to say about what a new immigrant should do once he arrives in the new land, along with various observations about life in America. Towards the end of the book, the author offers these words to the potential emigrant.

The English emigrant will not be a month in America before the aspect of things will seem strange and unpleasant to him; and unless the country which he has left has been “too warm for him,” he will long for home, “with all its faults.” He will see no green hedges adorned with sweet-scented flowers … If, however, a man with his wife and family are living as they ought to do, their best home is in any civilized country where they can procure the greatest amount of the comforts and necessaries of life, and make a provision for old age.[13]

In other words, although homesickness and regret are likely to occur, given time, most will realize the advantages of life in the new country.

Life in Ohio would have been a huge adjustment for Thomas and his family. They would never see their families in England again, nor any of the things they loved about the old country. But, within a few years, they were on firm ground financially and well on their way to having comforts of life they would have thought impossible had they remained in England.

[1] George Nettle, A Practical Guide for Emigrants to North America, including the United States, Lower and Upper Canada, and Newfoundland … (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1850); image copy, Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100008573 : accessed 28 February 2019).
[2] Ibid., p. 7.
[3] Ibid., pp. 7–8.
[4] Ibid., p. 9.
[5] History of Porter County Indiana: a Narrative Account of its Historical Progress, its People and its Principal Interests (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Co., 1912), vol. 2: 483; image copy, Hathi Trust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011679885 : accessed 28 February 2019).
[6] Nettle, A Practical Guide for Emigrants …, p. 10.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., pp. 10–11.
[10] Ibid., p. 17.
[11] History of Porter County Indiana, p. 483.
[12] Ibid., pp. 459–60.
[13] Nettle, A Practical Guide for Emigrants …, pp. 51–2.

11 thoughts on “A Practical Guide for Emigrants”

  1. Fascinating post! I had no idea that emigrant guides existed, but of course it make perfect sense that they would. How did you happen to find the guide in Hathitrust? Were you looking for it, or did you just happen upon it while looking for something else?

    1. I’m writing a book about the two Casbon brothers who eventually settled in Porter County, Indiana, and their descendants. I discovered the guides while doing background research.

      1. I was telling a colleague at work yesterday about this post and how digitized books, records, and ephemera are providing insights into our ancestors’ lives that we never would have thought possible. I’m really quite awed by it. I didn’t realize you’re writing a book!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I don’t know what kinds of limitations were placed on steerage passengers regarding what they could bring along. Were their goods packed in the hold or did they stay in steerage with them? I’m pretty sure my Casbon ancestors were too poor to have anything of much value.

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