Assisting the Saints: was non-Mormon Gibson just doing his job?

July 10th, 2012, by Kent Larsen

In the winter of 1887-1888, the Church made a significant change to how it handled immigration through New York City. Before this time Mormon immigrants to teh United States were met by an immigration agent in New York City, one of a network of agents at each transition point whose responsibilities were to help the immigrants on their way. But starting with immigration companies in 1888, there was no longer a Church immigration agent.

Church immigration agents were introduced early in the 50-year history of immigration from Europe to Utah. By the 1860s, the immigration agent in New York City was William C. Staines, who spent most of his time in the city awaiting the arrival of ships on a nearly monthly basis. Staines was eventually succeeded by John Hart, who was the agent up until 1887.

But in 1888 the Church’s immigration outsourced the job. For 20 years the Church had used almost exclusively the ships of the Guion line, which operated between Liverpool and New York City and is easily identified because its ships bore the name of the states of the United States, including the S. S. Wyoming, S. S. Wisconsin and the S. S. Nevada.

After nearly 20 years apparently the Church believed it could trust the Guion Line to do what the Church Immigration Agent did, and that responsibility was passed to the Gion Line’s Passenger Agent in New York City, P. W. Gibson, who, by all accounts, did an exceptional job in handling the Mormon immigrants.

The president of each company of immigrants was asked to write letters to the European Mission President reporting on the travel — usually one letter before leaving Britain, another from New York City, and a final letter from Utah. The letters were then published in the Church’s European periodical, the Millennial Star. And in contrast with the crew of some of the ships, and the customs and other officials met in New York City, the praise of the Guion Line’s agent P. W. Gibson was uniform and laudatory. For three years Gibson essentially took on the duties of the Church’s Immigration Agent in New York City, and never received a complaint as far as we can tell.

Was Gibson just doing his job? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was just his personality—some people love their work and are naturally good at providing the needed service. It could also be that Gibson saw the importance of Mormon immigration to his company. By the late 1880s, the Guion line had 5 ships, and depended mostly on “steerage” class customers — those who paid the least. Mormon immigration was likely a significant portion of Guion’s business. In fact,  in 1892, soon after the LDS Church stopped sponsoring immigration (and perhaps for similar reasons), the Guion Line went out of business, a victim of U. S. Government regulations that made it more difficult for steerage passengers to enter the U. S. By this time, P. W. Gibson had been with the firm for 25 years.

While Mormon immigration didn’t return, Gibson stayed with passenger ships. In 1899 he was the head of the passenger department for a new Liverpool to New York line started by Frederick Leyland & Co., which already serviced Boston. But with Leyland Lines’ inclusion in the J. P. Morgan-financed Shipping Trust, International Mercantile Marine Co., the New York to Liverpool service was discontinued in 1903. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any additional information about P. W. Gibson.

So, I’m left wondering about this man. At the least, the Mormon immigrants that passed under his care believed him a friend and ally. And they regularly praised his help in the pages of the Millennial Star. Could it be he was just doing his job?

2 Responses to “Assisting the Saints: was non-Mormon Gibson just doing his job?”

  1. Julie Del Vecchio Says:

    Appreciate the look back at this nearly forgotten bit of history. Question–It was my understanding that my great great grandfather James H. Hart was an immigration officer in NYC about the same time frame that you have for John Hart–could this be the same person?

  2. kent Says:

    That could be, Julie. I’ll have to look into it. I do remember reading the name James H. Hart in this regard, and it could easily be that I just got the name wrong in this post. I’ll try to look into it.

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