Sunday, October 09, 2011

A Look at Le Havre, a Less-Known Port for German Emigrants

Port of Le Havre in 1856
Gustave Le Gray photo in Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the basic questions for most people who are attempting to tell the story of their ancestors centers on the port of departure for the emigrant family. Early in my family research, I thought that all Germans left their country from either the port at Hamburg (for which there are passenger lists which give the town where the emigrant lived) or Bremen (where passenger lists were destroyed by fire). I became convinced that all of my ancestors sailed from Bremen, since the Hamburg passenger lists did not log any of my ancestors at all.

If I couldn't find the departure point, I decided to take second-best. I began to search the New York Passenger Lists of arrivals. Perhaps I would be lucky and find a ship captain who gave the city or village of birth for one of my ancestors. Since I undertook this project in the days before the internet existed, my search meant hours scanning unindexed passenger lists for the New York port on microfilm. My Meier ancestors, according to their citizenship application, arrived in the US in May of 1861, I started my search with May 1, looking at each name for each passenger list for every ship. It was not a small undertaking! I did find my ancestors arrival from Prussia (no city or county given) on May 9, 1861. I was no closer to finding their village of birth than before I started. But I had learned an important fact. German immigrants left their native land from a number of ports other than Hamburg and Bremen: Antwerp, Belgium and Le Havre France being two of the most important. I later learned that not only the Meiers but also my Probst ancestors from Bavaria had chosen Le Havre as their port of embarkation to Amerika. I started collecting information about Le Havre but, as usual, not much was written about what most US family historians seem to consider a very secondary port.

My sister, with her fluent French, was able to lend a helping hand for the Le Havre information through a a search of the French national library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, on line. I owe most of the information which follows to her efforts.

Le Havre of the 19th Century

The end of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars allowed a revival of commerce and economic and population growth. The city became crowded within its walls and new neighborhoods appeared. But many of the poor were clustered in the unhealthy neighborhood of Saint Francis where the epidemics of cholera, typhoid and other diseases caused hundreds of deaths from the years 1830 to 1850. Rich traders were very much in the minority but increasing in numbers little by little. They built beautiful homes outside of the ramparts, on the “coast”. The settlement of a large Breton community (10% of the population of Le Havre at the end of the 19th century) changed the cultural life of the city. The economic success of the city attracted Angle-Saxon and Nordic entrepreneurs. Italians, Polish and then North Africans worked on the docks and in the factories.

Construction of a commercial center began in the 1840s and there was some gas lighting as early as 1836. In the middle of the century, the old city ramparts became a thing of the past as adjacent communes were annexed. As a result, the population of the city of Le Havre increased dramatically. The period 1850-1914 became a golden age for Le Havre. Business exploded and the city became more and more impressive with large boulevards, a city hall, court house, and a new financial exchange.

The effects of the industrial revolution were everywhere. By 1841, there were 32 steamships in the harbor, and the shipyards develop. The railroad which was built in 1847 allowed the opening up of Le Havre. The docks were constructed in the same time period, as well as general stores.

The harbor remained the port of the Americas: it received tropical products (coffee, cotton). European coastal shipping carried wood, coal and wheat from northern Europe; wine and oil from the Mediterranean. The abolition of the African slave trade brought with it, little by little, a change in that traffic. During the first part of the 19th century, the port maintained the Atlantic slave trade (this pertains to an illegal period because in 1815, during the congress of Vienna, the importing of slaves was forbidden).

During the 1830s, Le Havre also became a resort frequented by Parisians. The creation of seaside baths increased in this time.

"Sadly sitting on their sorry baggage, waiting the time of departure, they have descended into a kind of stupor, overwhelmed by the vague intuition of the immensity of what they were undertaking and by the memory of that which they left behind them. " Theophile Gautier about the painting The Emigrants of Alsace by Theophile Schuler

Le Havre remained a place of passage for those who sought emigration to the United States. The transatlantic trips became important in the second half of the 19th century.  It was the beginning of the era of the ocean liners that turned their seaport into the pride of the people of Le Havre.

A memento of the importance of the port of Le Havre for German emigration to the United States is John Shea's Englisch-Amerikanisches Handbuch für Auswanderer und Reisende, which was published in Le Havre in 1854. It claimed to be "the first book of the kind ever attempted in Havre for the instruction of the English language to emigrants", with a phrase book and a pronunciation guide. Besides reprinting the regulations for steerage passengers to New York and New Orleans in both English and German, it also provided a list of emigration agents, noting "By their endeavors, Havre has become the thoroughfare of emigration from Switzerland and the South of Germany to the United States..." This now obscure work was an attempt to cash in at the high point of the first boom period for emigration via Le Havre, which would taper off at the end of the decade.

To some extent, Le Havre owed its existence to America, since its harbor was constructed by Francois the First in 1519 for colonial expeditions to the new world. Its function as an emigration port took on a new quality after the end of the Napoleonic wars, when mass movement once again became possible. Secondly the developing cotton industry in Alsace required raw material from the United States. German disunity, and the resulting multiple tariffs imposed on Rhine river traffic made it cheaper to do this overland, across France. As elsewhere, the shipment of persons was a by-product of commercial shipments: the docks at Le Havre were enlarged and steamboat traffic on the Seine increased. Emigrants could obtain transport on freight wagons returning from the east. They were at first mainly Swiss and Alsatians. At any rate, according to a letter from Le Havre sent to the prefect of the department of the Moselle on May 20, 1841, "Here, no distinction is made between German and Alsatian emigrants, they are all just called Swiss." (quoted in Camille Maire, L'émigration des Lorrains en Amérique 1815-1870, Metz 1980). Due to the timber trade, a certain number of Norwegians sailed to Le Havre and then boarded ships to America.

As a result, traffic between New Orleans and Le Havre was particularly important, although New York was also involved in the trade in cotton and was of course a magnet for immigrants. The majority of immigrants did not remain in Louisiana, but proceeded up the Mississippi to St. Louis and Cincinatti, at least before the expansion of the U.S. railway system. In 1818, passage from Le Havre to America was 350-400 francs; in the early 1830s it was 120-150 francs. Leaving aside the difficult question of how much this was "worth" in purchasing power, the fact remains that the increase in shipping (including regular packet service) had led to a dramatic decrease in prices for transport. The majority of these ships were American. Since the only emigration lists that have survived are for French ships, this leaves an enormous gap in the records.

The Emigrant Travels to Le Havre

The Meier ancestors booked their passage on a relatively small (197 passengers) American sailing ship called Rattler.  Every passenger is listed as "Farmer" (many were probably landless day laborers) and the majority came from Prussia, although there were also travelers from Baden, Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Hesse and Switzerland with five or less each from France, Italy, England and the United States.

At first, it was necessary for emgirants to make arrangements for passage directly with the captains of the vessels. During the sailing season there were thus always several thousand persons waiting to leave. They could be obliged to wait for weeks, partly in lodging houses, partly outdoors. A German colony of innkeepers, shopkeepers and brokers materialized to service them. Agents began meeting the emigrants on the road to Le Havre to sign them up. After the French government required in 1837 that Germans present a valid ticket at the French border, local offices began to be opened in Switzerland and the German states. Again, as elsewhere, French authorities did not want large numbers of indigent would-be emigrants stranded in the port. Previously, the only document required to cross the border had been a passport.

There is some difference of opinion as to why the number of emigrants who went through Le Havre began to decline. In 1854, it is true, the Prussian government forbade its subjects to emigrate via France, but this ban was lifted in May 1855. Despite growing competition, mainly from Bremen, Le Havre could still have held its own. An economic slump in the USA slowed immigration in 1858, but this applied equally to all European ports. The development of the French railway system also made passage across France easier (one day's travel from the border to Paris). Yet, although the state railway system offered reduced fares and even special trains in the spring, it seems that in general the French railroads were more expensive than German ones. A ticket from Mayence (Mainz) to Le Havre in the 1850s cost 40.65 francs, to Antwerp only 12 and to Bremen 15.50 (Camille Maire, En route pour l'Amérique, Nancy 1993). Jean Braunstein suggests that there were stricter border controls in 1858, due to an attempted political assassination, which was then exaggerated by the German press.

During most of this period, emigrants were required to bring their own provisions. It is sometimes thought that this was disadvantage compared to German ports, where early on, emigrants were provided with meals on board. In reality, many southern Germans were decidedly unimpressed by North German cuisine and such unfamiliar foods as herring, and preferred to bring their own. On the other hand, Bremen and Hamburg did take more steps to protect emigrants from unscrupulous agents and salesmen who sold them overly expensive and sometimes unncessary goods.

Waiting for and Boarding Ships in Le Havre

"The accommodation of emigrants awaiting departure is a serious problem.  The less fortunate sleep in the street, on the floor, or up makeshift tents on the banks of the streets and sidewalks of St. Francis and Notre Dame. Others took refuge in shacks close to the fortifications or in the plain with their baggage.  In 1840, the "Revue du Havre" wrote that "the city is crowded with the poorest Bavarian immigrants...  The floating population began to camp out on the ramparts of the east. They takes shelter under the elms; excavations in the thickness of slope ditches serve as their home ... Those who have two francs a day, can find accommodation among innkeepers of St. Francis and Our Lady, who specialize in taking care of immigrants. There are a dozen in 1850. As the Commissioner of the emigration noted, the high price of rents in the city of Le Havre force the landlords to establish themselves in the narrow streets in areas that are dirty and wet ... " Andre Corvisier

Among the hotels for travelers but with a cost much too expensive for the average German emigrant were Hotel Richelieu: Richelieu Place, No. 2; Hotel de Normandie: Rue de Paris, No. 106; Hotel Helvetia: Quai de l'Ile, No. 3; Hotel de la Marinae: Quai Notre-Dame, No. 7

Known hostels/Inns were the Hotel Suisse (François Merki): Quai barracks, No. 2;  Golden Lion (George Rau): Quai Casimir Delavigne, No. 27;  the Polar Bear (Philippe Gaspard): Rue Dauphine, 46.

There were two distinct categories of travelers - the passengers and the immigrants.  The passengers in cabin class could take advantage to the comfort of ships that became ever faster and more luxurious.  The immigrants were housed in steerage, just like the inanimate cargo they were replacing.  It was usually miserable and overcrowded.  The Meier ancestors sailed on a ship with only one class - steerage.  Obviously the Rattler was strictly a cargo ship, whether that cargo was meant for French and German factories or for emigrants on their way to a new life.

Note: If, after September 18, 1856, your ancestor sailed from Le Havre or from any other port on a ship that was bound for the port of New York AND if you have the name of the ship and the New York port arrival date, you can find the day of departure as explained in my January, 2014 blog post.

Wikipedia Le Havre, 19th Century
"Prosperite du Havre au 19eme siecle" Wikipedia
"Le Havre, port des émigrants" (p. 205-215). Je vous donne quelques extraits des pages 206-207: Legoy, Jean Hier, Le Havre. Tome IIHistoire du Havre et de l'estuaire de la Seine / sous la dir. de André Corvisier. - [Éd. mise à jour]. - Toulouse : Privat, 1987. - 335 p. - (Pays et villes de France).
Dax, Albert de, Guide de l'émigrant partant du port du Havre pour le Rio de la Plata, Montevideo et Buenos-Ayres. - Havre : impr. de H. Brindeau, 1856. - 48 p. (A book that provides practical information for potential migrants to Latin America. It includes, p. 9 and 10, a list of hotels and inns that can accommodate them before they leave.)

Photo by Gustave Le Gray