Quarantine, Disease and Other Difficulties

A tall memorial made out of gray stone in the shape of a cross, with a dark gray plaque at the base.
The memorial at Gross Ile

Immigrants from Ireland faced difficulties upon arriving in the Americas. In 1847, especially, some ports were flooded with sick immigrants, and these ports were not equipped to deal with the amount of sick and hungry people who were arriving. Once quarantine measures were put in place, passengers were forced to stay on their ships for eight days so that they could be checked for contagious diseases. The quarantine did not work as effectively as it might have due to the number of immigrants needing to be quarantined; in September of 1847, there were at least 14,000 immigrants stuck in quarantine in the ships they had arrived from Ireland in. On these ships, the dead passengers were not removed regularly, and sometimes the dead would remain in the ships alongside living and extremely ill passengers for days. Sick passengers were sent from quarantine on ships to hospitals on islands such as Partridge Island and Grosse Ile. Even these hospitals were not equipped to deal with the amount of sick immigrants who passed through their doors; they quickly became overcrowded, and at Grosse Ile, the doctors and officials were overwhelmed and many passengers died. The death toll of quarantined immigrants was 50 people per day at one point in the summer of 1847. Additionally, immigrants arrived in North America poor, sick, and starving, and many were initially too sick to find work, which only worsened their lot in life. Even the people who were healthy when they arrived in North America often became sick because the temporary shelters they lived in after arriving were often overcrowded and unsanitary.

There is currently a memorial in Grosse Ile to those who died during the famine, created over a mass grave. It is the largest mass grave of famine victims, including the mass graves in Ireland. The monument claims that 5,424 people are buried in that mass grave; however, this estimate doesn’t begin to encompass the number of Irish immigrants who died while immigrating to the Americas. One scholar estimates that, all told, just under 50,000 people died due to immigration on the coffin ships. Included in this number are people who survived the coffin ships and quarantine, and traveled from Grosse Ile to cities in Canada, before dying in one of those cities in a fever hospital or an emigrant shed. These sorts of deaths are not commemorated by the Grosse Ile memorial, and they are also left out of the typical narrative of the Irish immigration experience. Immigration is typically thought of following the “American Dream” narrative, which not only ignores the fact that Irish emigrants traveled to countries other than the United States, but also ignores the fact that many immigrants were treated poorly or callously, and died of disease and poor conditions, upon their arrival in the Americas.

CLICK HERE to learn more about the difficulties immigrants faced upon arriving in the Americas.

CLICK HERE to learn about other memorials to famine victims.

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