Family historians generally know that federal immigration records begin in 1820, but has anyone stopped to wonder why? Well, it all began with the Steerage Act of March 2, 1819 (which went into effect on January 1, 1820). Traveling conditions aboard ocean-going vessels were anything but good in the early 19th century, especially for general passengers (it was essentially an unregulated industry). Concerned about overcrowded conditions on foreign vessels coming into the U.S., Congress decided to impose regulations to ensure the safety and well-being of immigrants. Specifically, the Steerage Act limited the number of passengers aboard incoming vessels to 2 persons per every 5 tons of ship burthen or weight. A $150 fine was imposed for every passenger exceeding a ship’s legal limit, and a vessel was subject to outright seizure by U.S. authorities if it carried more than 20 passengers illegally.
An early Baltimore Ship manifest from June 1834, showing the passenger information required by the Steerage Act of 1819.
Concerning health issues, the Act called for each vessel entering the U.S. to carry a specific quantity of provisions for each passenger, above and beyond any supplies already stowed on board by the master and crew. The enumerated supplies included 60 gallons of water, 100 lbs. of salted provisions, 1 gallon of vinegar, and 100 lbs. of wholesome ship bread. If supplies proved deficient, each passenger was entitled by law to $3 per day compensation. After all these regulations were spelled out, the final section of the Act required vessel masters to report specific information about each passenger to U.S. Customs agents, including their name, age, sex, occupation, country of origin, and place of destination in the U.S. The Steerage Act regulated immigration into the U.S. until it was essentially replaced by the more comprehensive Immigration Act of 1882 (more on that next time!)