Harrowing Ocean Crossing in the 1700s: Suzanne Woods Fisher Schools Us

The beauty of a well-written historical is that it takes you to a long-ago place, and teaches you something you might not have known before. In Suzanne Woods Fisher’s latest Amish romance, the author takes us on a harrowing ocean crossing that just might lead to love in Anna’s Crossing. Our interest was piqued by the topic, so we asked Suzanne to share more about what she learned as she wrote.

Until I started researching Annas Crossing, it never occurred to me what a frightful ordeal those crossing the ocean in search of a better life endured. Granted, most of my research focused on the 18th century, when the typical merchant vessels of the day were square-rigged and beak-bowed. Beating against the wind in such a boxy and slow ship was a painfully inefficient endeavor. No doubt conditions improved in the 19th century when clipper ships, designed for speed, transported immigrants from Europe. If you have an ancestor who came over in the 1700s, here’s what they might have faced: 

Crossing the Atlantic took an average of ten weeks. If a ship’s departure was delayed, it risked more than a late arrival: adverse weather conditions and increasingly cold weather. Any ship on the sea more than 60 days was cause for concern because of the limited, ever-diminishing supply of food and fresh water. 

Greedy captains and ship owners overcrowded the lower deck, where the passengers stayed. One source said, “People were packed into the big boats as closely as herring.” Supposedly, no more than two persons were to be assigned to one bed, but profit-hungry owners and captains were known to assign up to as many as ten per bed.

The passengers were seldom, if ever, allowed above deck. The lower deck was dimly lit with a low ceiling. Anyone taller than six feet would have to bend over. Staying below was intended for the passenger’s safety—the upper deck was a dangerous place, a tangle of ropes, swinging booms, fast-moving sailors, strong winds and high waves.

Soon after departing, most passengers (sailors, too) began to suffer the effects of seasickness. In fact, the word nausea comes from the Greek word for ship. The smells of mildew, vomit and human waste must have been overwhelming. Open vats of urine were collected to fight fires. Filthy food and water were a major source of misery, together with lice, disease and severe storms.

Burials at sea were common. Among the worst report was a ship that left Rotterdam with 300 passengers and arrived in Philadelphia with fifty. A child under the age of seven stood only a 50 percent chance of surviving the ocean journey; those under the age of one rarely survived. One gruesome report, written by Gottlieb Mittelberger in Journey to Pennsylvania, said that if a woman should die in childbirth, the dead mother and the living child were both thrown into the sea together.

On arrival in America, those who could pay for their journey were released first. Those who lacked the money to pay, including the sick, were held on board until their future labor was auctioned to the highest bidder.

As Annas Crossing took shape, it took some doing to weave a love story in among those gruesome facts without offending readers’ sensibilities. I think it worked! I hope you enjoy!

Anna’s Crossing is out now, in print and digital form, be sure to check it out! If you’d like some more factoids, Suzanne has a free downloadable app, Amish Wisdom, that delivers a daily Penn Dutch proverb to your smart phone. And for more inspirational reads, visit our Everything Inspirational page!