Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source

Letters from America

Immigrants Write to Families Back Home

Even after getting settled, most migrants had strong ties with "home" -- whether across the ocean or across the Mason-Dixon line. Letters passed back and forth between those that left and those that stayed behind. The letters that survived give insight into why some people choose to migrate, why some stayed, and why some returned.

Go to the source

  • What hints do these letters give about immigrants' personal "push" factors? ...their "pull" factors?
  • How well has America lived up to their expectations? What has been a disappointment? What has turned out better than they expected?
  • Is there such a thing as a "typical" immigrant experience? Why or why not?
  • Which letters show the strongest ties home? How are they staying connected? Where do you hear homesickness?
  • In which letters are the ties loosening? What are the "symptoms" of loosening ties?
  • What advice do relatives in America send to their families back home?

Take it further

  • How has the process of leaving home, traveling to the USA, and settling-in changed for today's immigrants? What parts of the process have stayed the same?
  • What goals, values, and emotions do most immigrants from any time seem to share?
  • Verify your theories by interviewing someone who immigrated to the USA.

Writing Home: From the USA to Poland

William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki published the following excerpts of letters from immigrants in America to their families in Poland in their book The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, volume 1.

Johann Bonkowski to his family in Poland

April 26, 1891

Dearly Beloved Parents,

I take my pen to tell you the good news. I am safe and sound, thank God. I received your letter on the 24th of the month, in which I learned that my sister Marianna wants to come to me here. Well, it is good sailing time now. She should have at least 80 rubles. She will get a job here as a domestic for which she will be paid 8 dollars, 10 dollars, 17 dollars a month. If she will be able to understand everything that is said, she will be paid more. If she were here now, she would be getting the same pay as she does now working for the Germans. . . .

Dear Sister, do be careful on the streets [on the way]. When you arrive at Castle Garden telegraph me. Stay in Castle Garden until I come and fetch you. When you get here, you will not be digging for potatoes or pitching hay.

When you are ready to leave, travel to Bremen. There, buy yourself a steamship ticket. In Torun, sit only in the back [of the train]. You must have at least 25 marks to pay for the train and for the food. From Torun to Hamburg,, the train costs 13 marks 73 pfennig, but I do not know how much it will cost to Bremen. If sister does come here, I have made up my mind to stay here two more years.

Dear Parents, write me if Mary took my address, if she will come to me or not, and when my sister will depart. Write me a letter as soon as possible. You can give her some money and when she gets here, we will send it back to You. If the steamship tickets had not been sold out, I would have sent her one but that would have caused me a great deal of trouble.. If you do not have the money, then write and I will send a steamship ticket to Jacob for her. If she wants to, she can come now because it is warm and the trip would be pleasant.

Dear Sister take care of yourself and pay attention to what I have written.

Best regards to father and mother, to my sisters and brothers, to my friends and relatives, and to all acquaintances. I remain your faithful son until we meet again happily. Please send me a speedy reply because I want to know if she will come or not.

Johann Bonkowski

Travel instructions from Abraham Tangruza to his wife in Poland

New York,
November 1890

To my wife, Toba,

Every Thursday there is a ship sailing from Hamburg to New York. I wrote in the papers that Maier is 3 years old and Anna is 1. This, you will have to tell them in the office in Hamburg. You have to hold on to that ticket with the address of the travel agency. When you get off the train in Hamburg, a policeman will show you the way to the office. Everything from Hamburg to New York is prepaid. Do not pay any more. And should You have to pay any way, then ask for a receipt because in Hamburg they are all robbers and thieves. And my dear, take from home the kinds of things that do not spoil easily. Everything else you can get in Hamburg. Do what the others will do. And we will meet You in Castle Garden. All we need to know is when the ship sets sail from Hamburg. Even though You may have a hard time in Hamburg, You must manage somehow with the money You have because I am not able to send You any more. Otherwise You will have to remain in Europe longer. Let my father take You to the train and send You off. I shall be grateful to him. The end.


Travel instructions from John Cybulski to his wife

Baiting Hollow,
February 16, 1891

Dear Wife,

I received your letter today in good health, which I wish for you too, from God, from the depths of my heart. You wrote that I should send you a steamship ticket. I hurry to answer to tell you that I have done as you requested. I will mail that steamship ticket from New York on the 20th of February, that is, four days after this letter. Later I will also send you a little money for the trip. The steamship ticket I will send to you myself in a registered letter, but the money I will have to send to you through an agency. The steamship ticket and the money may not arrive at the same time. But you can wait a few days for the money. The steamship ticket will probably arrive first because the money has to be exchanged many times over in the agencies, so don’t worry and do not listen to anyone. As soon as you receive the Steamship ticket and the money, get ready and come to America to me. Don’t wait for anything. You do not need to take with you any packsaddles, that is, any traveling bags aside from clothing for the trip. If you have any bedding, then sell it. And now I remind you, dear wife, that when you receive everything from the post office that I will send to you, then remain sober and wise because there are many who don’t respect the property of others, especially so in Poland.


August Gar to his parents in Poland

January 4, 1891

My dearest Parents,

It has been a long time already since You received a letter from me. I wanted to send You some money but I still do not have any extra because I did not work very much during the summertime. And now it is not going too well either. I worked today but I do not know if I will live through tomorrow. I have to try to put some money aside in the event that there will be no work; but I am unable to put aside much money. I make 8 dollars a week, but I have to pay 3 1/2 dollars a week for room and board and you know how much I have left. If I will work throughout the winter, then I will send You some money for the trip, but not until spring. I cannot be without money because one cannot tell how things will be like here.


M. Goodstein to his Aunt in Poland

San Bernardino,
November 28, 1890

... This past 4 November, it was exactly one year since I left home. On 4 December I arrived in New York and on the 12th I reached San Bernadino. I can tell You for sure that I should have left home 15 years earlier. It would have been much better for me, a thousand times better because I am not able even to describe it to You, how I looked at first and how different I look now. I do not want to write about it because if I start I may never finish with it. I would like to ask the people at home just this one question: why is it forbidden for a young man to take a walk with a girl, to talk to her and to become acquainted with her. I do not consider it a sin, and I did not find it in the Gemora to be a sin either. Only You, the Polish people, are so backward and as a result when this type of young man arrives here, he is called a “greener,” and in Germany, “Polish” or “Russian pig.” This is the truth.

I do not mean to insult You, but it is especially true that in Your small towns within a half hour everything is known all over and becomes gossip. And so when a young man from there arrives here, what kind of an impression does he make? First, he cannot open his mouth because he does not know the language. Then, when he gets together with people, he does not know how to behave and how to have a good time. So people make fun of him. I can understand it because first, he is not able to talk, and then, he is not able to eat because he is not used to this kind of food . He also does not know how to hold a knife or a fork or a table napkin. And he does not know how to sing or raise a toast in company. At home we only used to say, “Lehayim.” At home we only sang zmires. And he does now know how to dance because I have never seen anyone dance or play at home because people would open their mouths in wonder. They would not go to the theater because this, too, was considered a sin. And as far as dress at home – one used to put on a shirt and a scarf around one’s neck and this was all. Here, however, one has to have different clothes for the summer and for the winter. The same is true for women.

In our store, we also sell women’s dresses and even underwear. And it may happen that a young man has to sell to some young girl some such things or whatever. We also sell, here, undershirts, shirts, collars, fine ties, pocket watches, top hats and overcoats. All this the young man was not acquainted with at home. So here he is shown everything like a small child. And people laugh at him. I am not telling this, God forbid, about myself. When I arrived here, I was already different. The only thing was that I could not speak English, but now this is all already behind me...


Rachel-Lea Gottlieb to her brother

New York,
April 6, 1891

...You should not think that the streets in America are paved with gold. One must work much harder there than in Poland. The only things is that if one is not lazy, one can have a much better life here than in Poland.


Kazimiz Graboski to his parents regarding his sister's trip to America

March 15, 1891

...Now you, our dear parents, write that my sister, your daughter Marianne, is going to leave for America, but only under the conditions that you find out how much money she will need for the trip. If father is of that mind, to give her money for the trip, then you can have her leave, she will need 80 rubles. You ask, dear parents, if she will have it good here and if she will live a good life here, You need not be worried about that because there is no comparison between America and that foul Russian country. And when she is going to get ready to leave for America, then she must take whatever bed linens she has and whatever clothing she has because one can wear everything in America, the same as in the old country. She should bring a large shawl for me and for herself, and a parasol for me and for herself, and my books, especially the prayer books. In one word, all that I left behind.


S. Kazmirkiewicz to his family regarding travel

St. Vincent Seminary (Westmoreland, PA)

Now dear szwagier, take with you about two cooked geese, if you have them, for the trip, a few ducks or roasted chickens, and about 2 loaves of brown bread because on the ocean liner you will not be able to eat that which they will give to you. Also, take about 2 long homemade sausage – well smoked, peppered and made with garlic and if you like, the fresh sausage, then take the fresh. If not, then cook the smoked; but, it must be smoked first of all because it would otherwise spoil on the steamship. Take a few hard cheeses, and when you arrive in Bremen near the ocean, then buy for yourselves about 2 quarts of good vodka which will be like medicine for you on the steamship. On it you will not have an appetite for eating. Take about one bottle of drops, but you can do all of that before you board the steamship...

You must hurry as quickly as possible for the ocean liner or the steamship, so that you will pick out for yourselves a good spot. As soon as you board the ocean liner, the first steps down you will see shelves like footbridges on one side and on the other side there are beds. Pick out for yourselves the very first beds near the steps on which you descend. Take the lower berth of the footbridge because on top all of the smells linger on , that is, on the highest bunks. Hurry quickly, take the straw mattresses from the floor if there are none on the beds and put them on your bed, because near the end of the ocean liner it rocks the most.


Mattaus Kowalski to his wife, instructions for travel

February 23

...For the ocean liner, take with you only sugar. tea and anodyne so that you will be able to care for yourself when you are unable to eat the food provided on the ship. As to clothing, do not take with you too many things, only the best and also two pillows. You should not burden yourself with too much because I do not know how you would run to the border.


Maker Kroneski, to his mother on misery in America

March 16, 1891

Dear mother,

Stay in the old country and once a day you will eat and you will be healthier than in America. For me, if the Lord God bestows health on me, then I will come back to the old country in the fall. In America, too, there is much poverty developing and it will get even worse. Many people are without work; there is no work to be had. The one who works, works and the one who is idle curses his life. It would have been better if I had gotten lost; it would have been better if I had drowned at sea; that is how it is in America.


Julian Kszseszowski to friend on work in America

February 10, 1891

Here they select workers just as they pick out beasts at the market in the old country, or as they do for the army – just as long as they are strong and healthy; that is how they deal with people. But it is true, that if one is strong, young, healthy, and industrious, then he can make 100 rubles a month; but he also has to know how to speak American. One can make a ruble here much faster than one can make a half ruble in an entire summer there [Poland]. And one does not reach one’s goal quickly, because one does not know the language, and that is important for everyone. But if someone has the desire and he can afford to, he should not be afraid to come. But he must be strong and energetic, and he must live in a good neighborhood, have a good address, and have a friend so that he would not make out as I did... America is the richest country [in the world], but all of its wealth is in the earth; that is why work is so hard everywhere [here]. . .But everyone can come here without any hesitation and can make a grosz more quickly here than there...


Marcianna Dwiatkowska to her daughter, travel instructions

April 24 1891

... When you are traveling, Dear Daughter, do not buy yourself any arak for the trip, only buy yourself some dishes, a small pot and a small cup. When you arrive in Hamburg, agents will want a great deal of money from you yet. Even if you have it, do not hand it over; just say that your tickets are already prepaid, “my mother paid.” If they will absolutely not yield, then pay at the most 2 marks. As to the rest, do not let on what you have to anyone. Whatever clothing you have, take with you, even your everyday shawl because it will come in handy for you on the ocean liner. Thus, you would not wear out the new one because you will need it here in America, just as in Poland. Now, dear daughter, If you sold the featherbed and not the pillows, then bring the pillows with you . . . buy yourself a pair of shoes with buttons, if you have good ones, then do not buy any. Do not worry about money because I sent some for you to Karpinska where the steamship ticket will be, this is in Golub, I send you 24 marks and you will have enough.

Now, Dear Daughter begin the journey with God, prepare yourself with confessions because it is a horrible journey. You will have to travel across several thousand miles of water, but do not be afraid of anything; always keep God in your heart and God will guide you safely to me ...


Joseph and Josephine Lipinski to her sister and brother-in-law

February 21, 1891

...perhaps it will be possible for us to see each other at least once a year. However, it will be difficult as it is not a question of [spending] those few dollars; but rather it is that great horrible ocean which is frightful for us, because at the very thought of that water, death looms up before our eyes. I do not know how to tell you what terror and misery we had suffered before we reached America. But now that fear is already over. Only we are still afraid to go back to the old country because, as of now, we are getting along fairly well in America. A man does not have to work as hard as he did in the old country; and he can live better and earn more money here than with you in the old country. I work in a coal mine (i.e.?) deep. I work very deep under the ground – several hundred lokiec – from 7 in the morning until 2, and sometimes 3 in the afternoon. I earn two dollars and ten cents. But the work that I do, well, if they would really let me work at it and not let me sit around, I could finish it in four hours at the most. It is the kind of work that if you really hustle, then in five minutes you can earn 35 cents, and a cent is worth two kopiejek. But right now, during the winter, we do not work every day; however, from 1 March work will proceed at full speed. So if Grezlik and Anthony would come in March, or at the beginning of April, they will arrive at a good time because they will not have to look around for work. In any event, they will find a job if only they will want to work. But, I think that in a short time they will tire of America because, if I feel lonesome, certainly they will be lonesome too. I am not talking any of you into coming to America, nor am I praising America to you because there are others who have had greater misery in America than they did in the old country.

Joseph and Josephine

Leon Makowiecki to his mother in Poland

Gallitzin, PA
January 21st

Dear Mother,

I am informing you about my work, From the time I received your letter, work has stopped. The men did not want to work for those wages, they wanted higher pay, so we stopped working for 7 days. But this company did not want to give any more increases. We went back to work for the same money, but we are now working only three days a week. I do not know how much longer the work will go on like this. Right now a man hardly makes enough to live on. But perhaps that will not last long. Dear Mother, I am letting you know that in America, it is very cold and there is much snow. Dear Mother, you ask where I like it the best. I like it better in America because I can earn money more quickly, and if I were in the Old Country I could not help you out at all. But in America, if God gives me health, Dear Mother, then I will be able to send you a few rubles more easily...



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