It is interesting to note that my Irish and German ancestors arrived simultaneously during two waves of immigration that marked the fifth thru seventh decades of the 19th century– the 1840s thru 1870s. The migration of a European family could be driven by religious, economic or political reasons. Personal reasons could also factor in to a decision to pull up roots and head oversea. America was depicted as the land of opportunity, possessing everything that Germany lacked: jobs and lebensraum (living space) for everyone, fertile land for farming, and the freedom to do as one pleased. The biggest attraction of all: food and drink, was critical to the victims of food shortages in both Ireland and Germany.

Once a relative, friend or acquaintance successfully crossed the Atlantic, the temptation to follow grew. We saw it with those who followed on the heals of our Pilgrim ancestors at Plymouth, and with those who crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Great Plains. A wage earner might arrive, find a job and report to the homeland that all is well. This good news could stir the whole family or even a village to cross the ocean. This reality is evidenced in our own family. Note the large number of DeKalb County ancestors who once called Braunschweig, Bayern (Bavaria) home. The entire village apparently settled into Squaw Grove, IL.

Emigration occured in seemingly parabolic waves during the 1800s with each wave corresponding to events in Europe. The first wave, 1846-1857, corresponds with the failure of potato crops in Ireland, Germany and other parts of the world. The crop failures were caused by the water mold Phytophthora infestans, a late blight or disease that destroyed the leaves and tubers, of the potato plant. For an objective view of the Irish Famine, including the conclusion by many that the British Government turned the famine into genocide click here.

Civil War in Europe, including what would later become Germany, led to an additional migration of families referred to as the 48‘ers. These were the rebels who stood up to the ruling princes of Prussia and the Austrian Hungary Empire and lost. This was a population of families not unlike the Cavaliers of Virginia, who two centuries earlier had stood up to Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads in England and lost. The Cavaliers and 48’ers tended to be well educated and well to do. They fled their homelands in fear of retaliation for their participation in civil war. And how can war be considered ‘civil?’

The second wave of immigrants occurred between 1864 and 1873. A report by a British Royal Commission analyzes the causes and effects of this particular German emigration. The report highlights low wages, a lack of employment opportunities, and the decline of older industries as reasons for the out migration. Political considerations also played an important role.

The third wave, 1881-1893 was a culmination of the afore-mentioned reasons. But two sources, the East Prussian Association and a German professor who have studied the patterns offer greater insight. The Association states:

“It is much more the wish for an independent life, and for pleasures and amusements which here, in the east, we cannot offer to the country folk.”

And, Professor Dr. Max Sering adds, the cause lies even deeper, and must be sought in

“the ideals of freedom and human dignity, which have produced a striving after a higher social status, even independently of material advantage or of intellectual gain.

The growth of education, and the Age of Enlightenment had a tremendous impact on the thinking of the Common Man.

An emigrant did not have the benefit of radio or the internet for gathering information related to their move. It was important, if one was to survive, to plan ahead. The failures of the Brits to plan ahead at Jamestown and Roanoke were well documented. Certainly, two hundred years separated the first colonies from present migrations but it still remained important to be on one’s toes and travel smart. Thieves, con artists and armies could disrupt one’s best intentions to provide for a family on the journey to a new life.

Investors in the Americas had a long history of publishing attractive, over the top pamphlets selling the European on the idea of a good life in America. Captain John Smith (no relation) and Richard Hakluyt (a grandfather in my wife’s family tree) were the first to push publications promoting life in the new world in the 1600s. Their materials were quickly followed by Edward Winslow (an uncle in Keith Wetherell’s family)  and William Bradford’s Mourt’s Relation (1623) promoting life in New England’s Plymouth Colony.

Pamphlets, guidebooks and newspaper reports provided insight and advice. Travel accounts, novels and stories created the hype needed to promote the brand that the USA was developing: “Put your troubles aside. Come to America.”

The first guidebook for emigrants in Bavaria was published in 1840. Traugott Bromme’s “Handbook and Travel Book for Emigrants” was snapped off the book rack requiring new editions.  A newspaper designed for emigrants, the “Allgemeine Auswandererzeitung”, was published in Rudolstadt from 1846/47 to 1871. Letters from friends, acquaintances and relatives who had already emigrated were considered to be especially reliable sources of information, and provided a true-to-life picture of daily living conditions across the Atlantic. Such letters were passed from hand to hand and, despite their subjectivity, most tried to keep people’s expectations realistic.

There was nothing romantic about the trek and voyage to America. I have spent years with my head buried in family history and have been struck by the similarities found in the stories of travail that relate to the migration. Whether it be the wealthy Slaymakers or Whittingtons, or the hard working Weihermans or Hughes family, the trek from a homeland to America had common ingredients.

For my Weihermans, Temmes and Kopfers, leaving Germany would mean leaving it forever. And if they were to return it might be to live or die on the battlefields of World War I or II.  Visits across the Atlantic – during the 19th century were expensive and arduous. In our colonial history we do find Virginians and people of means in New England who traveled to and from England. These were usually healthy, robust businessmen whose trade required maintaining relationships on both sides of the ocean. Pilgrims, William Brewster and Isaac Allerton, were early examples of entrepreneurs who made voyages out of necessity to maintain the Plymouth Colony. An estate settlement could also require a journey or two, especially if considerable wealth was involved. This does not appear to be the case in the history of my mother’s lineage.

Our German ancestors were less likely to ever see the homeland again and, as fate would have it, the homeland would never be the land from which they departed. “Germany” was not yet Germany and remains, to this day, a nation in transition.

Farewell ceremonies provided the last chance for people to be together. William Bradford in his chronicles of his life as a Plymouth Colony Pilgrim, painted an extraordinary picture of the scene as his entourage departed Leiden in Holland and sailed away from Europe. The prayerful sorrow, the wailing, the fear of the unknown overwhelmed the loved ones who were left behind. Parents left children standing on the pier as virtual orphans, handed over to a member of the parish. It was the same on the docks of Rotterdam and Le Havre in the 1860s for our German ancestors, I am sure.

Farewell songs sung at the loading dock expressed disappointment and anger at the social and political conditions that required emigration, and revealed the hope for a better life in America. The words of a Samuel Freidrich Sauter song could be heard above the din of the busy port: “Jetzt ist die Zeit und Stunde da, wir fahren ins Amerika.” “Now the time and hour have come, we’re traveling to America.” It was one of several farewell songs. Such songs were a popular tool utilized by steamship companies and migration agencies eager to add a little ballast to the cargo hold in steerage. My ancestors could not necessarily afford to ride first class. They were more likely to be found mingling with the Irish so dramatically depicted in the movie version of the Titanic.

Emigration from Europe was always a three stage process: 1) the journey from the home town to the nearest harbour; 2) the voyage, crossing the Atlantic; and 3) the journey from the American harbor to their final destination. In the early 19th century, emigrants had to travel to Le Havre (France), Rotterdam (Holland) or Liverpool (England) to board a ship that would take them across the Atlantic. Uber had not yet entered the marketplace in competition with taxis. Artists of the time drew and painted many a picture of Irish and German families travelling on foot, by wagon or coach, fleeing starvation and/or tyranny to reach the coast. In Germany they might be able to board riverboats along the Rhine, Main and Weser rivers. When the German railway network was extended (1850) it made it possible for my Bavarian Weihermans and others to travel by rail to the German harbors of Bremen and Hamburg. Many immigrants crossed to English or French ports to leave for America. To be honest, I have not yet searched the record books to find the immigration records for our immigrant ancestors. That is a task remaining on my ‘to do’ list.

Once a traveler arrived in a port city there was no guarantee that they would be leaving any time soon, once they had arrived there. One could wait for weeks for their ship to leave port. The Pilgrims waited for ten years before deciding to leave Europe and then waited another 2 years formulating a plan. Once they had a commitment from investors to travel and a ship lined up to go, they waited another nine months beyond their planned time of departure. This put them in harm’s way from the get go.

In any planned migration from 1620 to 1900 one had to travel with the bare necessities. Provisions for the crossing were not provided for the commoner. Con artists worked the harbors at the point of departure for profits or theft. Naive newcomers, unfamiliar with local traffic were easy pickin’ for hucksters. Port cities understood the importance of maintaining a solid reputation.  Legitimate revenue could be made if a city could maintain an image as being friendly to those seeking to migrate out via the shipping lines.

The City Council in Bremen understood the principles of ‘tourism.’ They established an office at which emigrants could find counsel and advice, any information needed for the journey. The office monitored prices being charged emigrants and insured they were fair. Hamburg followed Bremen’s example soon afterwards, and each utilized “emigrant halls” to accommodate the growing crowds seeking passage to America.

Once on board a sailing ship our ancestors had no guarantee they would survive the journey. The trip took anywhere from ten to twenty four weeks to arrive in America. As the decades passed the addition of paddlewheels and steam engines reduced the length of the journey to six weeks on sailing vessels so equipped. Improvements in steamships would reduce the length of a voyage from Bremen to New York to seventeen days.  And I complain after an 8 hour flight to Dublin from Chicago!

Conditions on board ‘sucked’. Letters sent home to Germany warned those with any aspiration of coming to America of the terrible conditions. The odor of an immigrant ship gave it away.  The companies operating the ships were profit driven and ships were miserably overcrowded. Clean drinking water and adequate toilet and washing facilities were the exception, rather than the norm. Rats, head lice, and bedbugs were common, and infectious diseases spread quickly. The issues that plagued the Pilgrims in 1620 were present in 1860. Steamships would shorten the voyage and regulations on ships would correct some of the worst abuses of travelers. Government supervision of sanitation regulations eventually improved the sanitation conditions.

We have all heard of Ellis Island and the tributes to the site as the entry point for immigrants. Our ancestors never saw Ellis Island. It didn’t exist as a Port of Entry until 1892. Most of our Rissmans, Weihermans, Temmes, Kophers and Leifheits had entered the country and established their farms in DeKalb  County.  From 1855 thru 1892 Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, greeted 8.2 million immigrants who arrived there from all over the world. They were processed, inspected and registered, and often hired as laborers or soldiers. Other harbors and immigrant Ports of Entry included Baltimore, New Orleans and San Francisco. None were as significant as New York City.

Despite the hardships, Germans immigrated by the hundreds of thousands to the United States. Only Ireland sent more people to our shores. The Census recorded the birthplace of citizens and their parents. The population in 1860 was 31,500,000. Fifteen percent of that number (4,736,000) were foreign born. Two countries contributed the bulk of that number: 1,611,000 from Ireland, and 1,301,000 from Germany. German documentation indicates that the largest share of their emigrants were from Württemberg, Baden, and Bavaria. The mass migration from Germany peaked in the 1850s, with more than 950,000 immigrants, and the 1880s, with nearly 1.5 million. Our ancestors were among those folks seeking to start a new life.