The Journey to Iowa

The voyage to America was not an easy one for most immigrants. One out of three died on the way. Only a few had money to travel first class. Most were lucky if they could save enough to travel in steerage. Steerage was the least expensive ticket but often was located in the very bottom of a boat and lacked windows, beds, and sometime even proper food for the passengers. Sometimes there was only money for one person in the family to come to America. If that immigrant found work, money was sent home to help the rest of the family emigrate. After the long sea voyage across the Atlantic, there was another long trip to reach Iowa. These immigrant experiences to Iowa help tell the story.

"I wish to inform you that I have, successfully and in good health, reached the great city of New York. The journey was very hard: five children died on the crossing and many were sick... We arrived here after a sea journey of seven weeks and two days.

"We were quartered above decks so that it was quite healthy for us, but those who were below decks were full of all sorts of vermin, for people from all kinds of places were mixed together there."

-a letter from John Wallengren, who traveled from Sweden to Lyons, Iowa (1856)

"… the friendless emigrants, stowed away like bales of cotton, and packed like slaves in a slave ship; confined in a place that, during storm time, must be closed up, shutting out both light and air. They can do no cooking, nor warm so such as a cup of water."

-a traveler to Iowa (1849)

"Tuesday, May 10th. I would advise anyone wishing to emigrate, if at all possible, to travel first class. I find it is comparatively cheaper that way. Everything is taken care of, unless one wants to take along a little fruit, or fruit juice. Even that can be purchased on board. In second cabin passengers must furnish their own bed clothes, towels and certain dishes, and they get the same food as steerage passengers. One can get along with that, especially the food as served on this ship, but it certainly would not be so tasty, especially when one is seasick… Also regarding privacy it is not so good. I would not want to be there at any price. We have our cabin to which we can retire and do as we please. Our common sitting room (salon) is dry and clean, while in the second cabin water gets in at times."

-diary of Charlotte von Hein, who traveled to Iowa from Germany in 1853

“You wanted to know the best route to take to this country. In the first place, try to get a passage in an American vessel as they are the fastest sailing vessels and the most accommodating seamen. Try to get a passage to Philadelphia, wither Baltimore or New York will do, then to Philadelphia and then by Pittsburgh. Then over the Ohio River to the mouth of the Mississippi River. Then to St. Louis. Then to Burlington in Iowa. Beware and don’t take a passage by New Orleans as many do for it is not the best way and is far from being as healthy and as agreeable.”

-a letter from an Irish immigrant living in Washington County, Iowa (1849)

"If people feel the desire to emigrate here, the best and the cheapest way is to come from Liverpool to New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to Burlington, Iowa, and eighteen miles to the north is the first Welsh settlement in the state at Flint Creek. Twenty-five miles to the north from there is the second settlement, Long Creek, and thirty miles north again is the third settlement, Old Man's Creek."

-a letter from a Welsh immigrant Joshua Jones, Flint Creek (1852)


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “The Journey to Iowa,” The Goldfinch 3, no. 2 (November 1981): 6-7.

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"We were quartered above decks so that it was quite healthy for us, but those who were below decks were full of all sorts of vermin, for people from all kinds of places were mixed together there."

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