When most people think of Galveston, sunshine, beautiful beaches being lapped by warm waves, many dining choices and family activities are what usually come to mind. While that’s all true, Galveston is rich with history and offers a fantastic and fun teaching opportunity for the whole family. This glistening city was once known as the Ellis Island of the South, because of the large number of immigrants that passed through the port in the early 1900’s.
Texas, at least to my mind, was a destination west for immigrants as they left their port of entry on the East coast, and set out to find new opportunities. Galveston however, was the first place thousands of immigrants, mostly from Europe, would touch U.S. soil. Regardless if they were seeking refuge from persecution, or just the opportunity for a better life, numerous boatloads (literally) of people found themselves standing on the dock in Galveston, waiting to find out their fate – venture forth into a brave new land, or be immediately turned back.
Just to set out on this journey was a massive undertaking, considering sea travel in the early 1900’s took anywhere from six weeks, to as long as fourteen weeks to get from Europe to the United States. This was no Carnival cruise either. We had the opportunity to visit the Tall Ship ELISSA, now docked at the port in Galveston, to get a glimpse of what sea travel was like at that time.
The Elissa is a beautiful ship, but she provides a perspective on how minimalist, and potentially cramped the living conditions, even on a ship as wonderful this was. When you stand on the deck, you realize how even somewhat rough seas would make the trip a challenge. Once below deck, it’s clear that personal space was reserved for the Officers and perhaps a fortunate few.
Once you arrived, there was no guarantee you would be able to stay. Each immigrant had to go through a screening process to determine if they would be allowed to stay in the United States. To make things more complex, the officials conducting the screenings, as we learned at the museum, tended to interpret the laws differently. Sadly resulting in significant discrimination.
Your future was based on the luck of the draw as far as who you interviewed with, and how they interpreted. It had to be remarkable to realize the power one person held over your fate. It struck me the lengths many women – some single, some joining a husband or fiancé who was already here -went to, to help ensure their chances of being allowed to stay. Many would join with a family as their nanny or sibling to reduce the chance of being accused of being a prostitute or a woman of loose morals and turned back.
The stories outlined on the walls of the museum offered a transparent, raw and frequently heartbreaking glimpse at the discrimination suffered by those who had just arrived.
I can’t imagine the heartbreak of having spent weeks at sea, in overcrowded conditions, with access to only very limited food and fresh water, only to find that you were to be sent back to where your voyage originated. Yet this was the case for many of those who passed through this port. In the stories of these brave souls, it wasn’t uncommon for them to attempt to enter the United States several times before they were finally allowed to stay.
This entire experience was a great conversation starter for the family, to discuss the lengths people will go to, in an effort to create a better life for themselves and their families.
As a parent who homeschools, Galveston gave our family a wonderful opportunity to experience history in a very hands-on way and provided a fantastic and in-depth learning experience. If you’d like to learn more about the history of Galveston or the Tall Ship Elissa, I’ve included some useful links below.
Galveston has put together a helpful homeschool curriculum to guide your visit, a map of the locations and more. Make sure to check it out here:
When you visit Galveston, you can write your own essay about your visit and share it.
The best way to experience this rich history is to plan your own Galveston trip.
Shared by TTT member Jennifer Hatton.