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


  1. What an informative and interesting post. Do you know that when I came to the US in 1961 I took a ship from Le Havre? And the ship was German. It was called the Hanseatic. Mostly German people were on it, going back to the US after their vacations since it was at the end of August. They were sad to go back home to work and I was excited about going to the US.

  2. Anonymous1:50 PM

    This is fantastic; my great grandfather Wilhelm emigrated to London in the 1860s, probably via Calais or Le Havre. He was from Rudesheim Rhinepfalz.

  3. Very informative. My 3rd gr uncle arrived in New Orleans in 1854. This is the first glimpse for me that he possibly sailed on a cargo ship. Your articles hit a home run for me, thanks.

  4. Thanks for this very interesting article. My great-great-grandmother Kirchner sailed from Le Havre to New Orleans with several children in 1857. The ship was the Mortimer Lovingston. Fortunately, I have a copy of the passport. The family left Schorbach, a tiny French village just north of Bitche near the German border, where German was the common language. I had heard that they had to bring all their food and water with them for the six-weeks journey. Your article confirms this. Rough traveling! They eventually settled on a farm in Dearborn Co, IN, before moving on to Over-The-Rhine in Cincinnati.

  5. It's very interesting to learn that your ancestral village residents spoke German. I've heard that some Germans who lived near the French border spoke French but I assumed it was a second language. Maybe not? Thanks for the information and for posting your message.

  6. Kathy,
    Do you have a copy of John Shea's "Englisch-Amerikanisches Handbuch für Auswanderer und Reisende," which you cite in the post? Perhaps it's available via the LDS Family History Centers.

    At least some of my ancestors emigrated through Le Havre. The Entlassungsurkunde for one specifically mentions his intention to use Le Havre. However, I am only now starting a research project to find the ships of passage for some 7 different departures for America. And these are all from the the Moselstädtchen Igel and Wasserliesch. Most of these emigrées are included in Josef Mergen's studies, and a few are notated as emigrants in the Kirchenbücher for the parish.

    Thanks for the background information for the port. I have long wondered how long it took and how much it cost to travel from the upper Mosel to Le Havre. Your post helps with some answers.

    1. I recently found that Google Books has a reference to "Englisch-amerikanisches Handbuch für Auswanderer und Reisende. Leichtfassliche Methode die englische Sprache in kurzer Zeit zu erlernen." However, I believe it's not scanned into their database.

      The link:

      Otherwise, it appears the book is still available only through the Biblioteque Nationale in France.

  7. Tom,
    I checked World Cat for the title and as I thought, the only library listed as holding it is Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It was my sister who found most of the research information at that source. Whether the LDS library might have a copy is worth trying, but I suspect this is a very rare book. This is the website for World Cat. which shows more info.

    1. I checked also on my own, and found the same disappointing result. Helas! I may ask a friend who lives in Paris if he might request the book and scan it...though that may be asking quite a lot. It has 137 pp, including roman-numeral pages.

  8. Anonymous7:11 PM

    My married name is Zerfahs. My father-in-law stated his family was from Iver-Oberstein? Germany. They were diamond polishers and setters. They continued to do this in downtown Chicago. Would you think the family was from Zerf, Germany? I was trying to get your e-mail address but I could not find it.

    Tracy Zerfahs

  9. Idar Oberstein, which I'm sure is your father-in-law's ancestral town, is in the Hunsruck area, to the east of Saarburg. Idar-Oberstein is a beautiful area in the Rheinland known for minerals that can be polished to make beautiful jewelry. It makes so much sense that the family continued the occupation when they came to the U.S. The customs that were common to Zerf in Kreis Saarburg would be much the same in Idar-Oberstein. There are good articles about it online - your father-in-law just had misheard the place of origin. I'm glad you commented; this may help someone else as well.


  10. Wow,this is great. I am working on some of our genealogy and am really running into a lot of stumbling blocks. One relative, now deceased, thinks that our Miller family came to the US (New Orleans) from Le Havre but I am having a hard time confirming it.

    All indications are that they were from "Kirberg Bavaria Germany" but I can't find a Kirberg in Bavaria, but only in Hesse. Hmmmm....continuing to plod along to see what I can find.

  11. Angie L9:17 PM

    Thanks for the information. Some of my ancestors left from Le Havre and settled in Manitowoc County.

  12. Anonymous7:59 AM

    Thanks for this wonderful article, my ancestors sailed from Le Havre in 1858 to New York. Do you know how long that trip took? I can't find that info anywhere.

    1. Thank you for your nice comment. This has been such a popular topic that it has given me an idea for my next blog post. From what I have read, the trip by sailing ship took about 2 months in the 1840s, six weeks in the 1850s, and a month in the 1860s which is when my Kreis Saarburg ancestors immigrated. If you have found the port of departure in the New York Passenger Lists and have the date of arrival, you can have length of trip information that is specific to your family. That is what I will be writing about. Check back in a week or so - I should be caught up after a late October vacation by then and ready to blog post the information on that subject.

    2. Kerry4:00 PM

      Thanks so much for the great info to my question about the length of travel. They arrived in New York December 13, 1859. I can't imagine how hard it was to travel, when they arrived, she was 3 months pregnant. I will check back to see your newest info.
      (I previously just posted as anonymous)

    3. Kathy,

      I am completing a book about an 1854 ship disaster that originated from LeHavre. Can you tell me how I can obtain newspaper ads that may have listed my ill-fated ship in 1853/1854? Thanks Tom Clark

    4. Tom - I would go to my local library and see where holdings of newspapers of that time period are held and whether there is a chance of interlibrary loan - probablby it would be photocopies - of larger cities in France, Baravia, Switzerland, etc. There is also a chance that the Trier Volksfreund might go back that far. As I've said, my ancestors left from Le Havre and their closest larger city was Trier. Wish you luck.

  13. Hi Kathy, I know this is asking a lot but I stumbled across this wonderful blog and a lot of what you write about rings true to my family history. In 1845, my ggg grandparents left their Canton St. Gallen, Switzerland, village, traveled across France (I have the passport and family papers, just translated) to Le Havre and then on a ship called the 'Rose' for New Orleans with what looks like the final destination of St. Louis. They would have left Le Havre in early April so arrived June / July? Searching the net, I can't find a ship called the 'Rose.' Maybe 'Rose' was only part of the name but that is all that is on their exit visa. Sadly, not many records seem to be available at New Orelans. What am I missing, where am I not looking? I know, I know, sometimes ship's lists are lost. Any ideas whatsoever would be greatly appreciated. Bruce

  14. Thank you so much for this blog post and blog. It is fascinating. And very helpful for picturing what my ancestors lived through. Would you mind if I ask your opinion on two things I'm stumbling on in my family research?

    I've recently found that my third great-grand-father Henn and most of his family emigrated through LeHavre, France. They were from Baden, Germany I've found his wife Phillipina and 9 of his children on a passenger list for a ship named Trumbull arriving September 5, 1853 in New York. Although oddly, the man who is his age and heading the list of the family is listed as "Fr. Freidrich" not "Franz Joseph" as it should be (should I just assume they screwed up his name?) His oldest son Andreas came the year, when he was 20, before by family lore. I've found two possible passenger records for him. Both are the right age and close to the right name: 1) Andreas Hen, Male, leaves from Bremen and arrive in New York on April 1, 1952 on the ship Schiller, or 2) Andreas Henn, indicated as Female (no indicated family grouping), leaving from Le Havre on the Radius and arriving in New York on October 14, 1852. I'm inclined to think that it's the second that is my Andreas and that the person who wrote the passenger list got the gender wrong because I don't think Andreas is a female name and because the rest of the family left from LeHavre the next year and i'm guessing they would take his route. Does that sound plausible? or should I go with the first one - I saw that Bremen is a LOT closer to Baden than Le Havre when I googled it. The family is largely farmers and coopers.

    I'm a beginner on family history research - and on blogging - but I'm doing the 52 Ancestors in 52 weeks Challenge and I would like to put in a link to this blog post when I do my post on my 3rd great grandfather, as a great explanation of the emigration port of LeHavre (and for Andreas' post too probably, even if I talk about both possibilities). Would it be okay if I link to here? If you want to see how I write up my ancestors, the blog is at (Climbing My Family Tree).

  15. It is so nice to know that you liked my blog, Jo. Thank you for commenting. I agree with your assessment of the two Andreas names listed in the passenger lists, mostly because port of emigration was more likely to be determined by available ways of travel than mileage. I am sure I have read that people from the state of Baden found travel to Le Havre easier than Bremen because of rail service which was starting to develop about that time. The discovery that the rest of the family left from Baden makes Andreas' port likely to be Baden as well.

    Kudos for taking on the 52 week challenge; and I am honored that you would like to link to my blog post. The more people who can find answers to their questions by reading it, the happier I will be. I struggled to find most of this material, and I want it to be useful to everyone who has the same questions I had. So I thank you for helping to make that happen.

  16. Anonymous2:06 PM

    Your research and beautiful writing are greatly appreciated as I begin trying to picture my own family's departure from Le Harve. THANK YOU. Brilliant blog. I'll keep reading.
    Lisa Stones

  17. Anonymous10:59 AM

    I am from Calumet Country and my family also came from Germany to settle here. Can you tell me who they were? We may find ourselves related!

  18. Hi Joan,
    Where to start... here are a few surnames: Gosz, Meier, Hauser, Probst, Boehm, Luniak. You can e-mail me at if you have some specific names in your family that you want to check.

  19. Anonymous2:48 AM

    Good morningi
    I have a letter of 1850 carrired by a ship LE LION from Buenos Aires via Le Havres London. I am looking for the hry of this ship.
    Did you ever met this ship?

    1. I'm not familiar with LE LION. Did the ship start in Buenos Aires or in Le Havre.? I'm not clear about that. The best thing to do might be to see what you can find on Cyndi's List under Passenger ships:

  20. Looking for info on:
    Vessel name: Ship Carack
    Port of departure: Le Havre, France
    Port of arrival: New Orleans, Louisiana
    Date of arrival: 28 October 1854
    Paul A. Buechler

  21. Paul, you seem to have most of the information - there are no lists of passengers leaving from Le Havre. Current thinking is that they were destroyed by the Port after a few years. Sorry. Kathy

  22. This is a wonderful blog Kathy! I have recently found that I have two 3rd Great Grandfathers that arrived in New Orleans on the same day in 1849. One from Antwerp and one from Le Havre. This helps to understand a bit of what was going on at the time.

  23. Hi Erika - it's always a pleasure to find out that something I have written has been a help. Thank you for commenting. What a coincidence that you have two great grandfathers that each left from a difference port and ended up in New Orleans on the same arrival day and year. I wonder if they knew each other in some way. Kathy

    1. jeff knapp1:59 AM

      Hello, Kathy. My name is jeff knapp. I have alot of question about life in germany in the early 1800's. I found your email, but can't contact you through this page. Is it alright if i contact you by your gmail account? Have alot of information on my family from Baden germany. Maybe you can help with the polishing of information? I dont even know if i'm doing this correctly?

    2. Hi Jeff,
      It's always a pleasure to get to know people who want to know about how their ancestors lived in 1800 Germany - not very easy, if my experience is any indicator. Go ahead and used my Gmail address - that's why I included it. I'm not sure what you mean by "polishing of information." But I'll try to help if I can.

  24. Kathy, this has been a "Eureka" day for me. I am doing the "Family History Writing Challange" and found out that the ancestor I am writing about left from Le Harve. I have been researching the port and am trying to make my story as realistic as possible. Your info is so helpful. My Catherine and her husband traveled to Milwaukee, WI with 2 young sons in 1856. They left from Villmar, Hessen-Nassau, Prussia. I am subscribing to your blog. Mine is at Thanks again for this blog!

  25. Hi Donna,
    So glad I can help in the writing of the story of your ancestors.

  26. I know you wrote this four years ago, but it's a great post! I found that one of my bohemian (Czech) ancestors came through Havre today - but I didn't know where it was. Now I have another place to look for some of the others whom I can't locate the passenger records for!

  27. Hello,
    My German ancestors (last name was Eis) traveled on the ship "Virginia" from La Havre, France and landed in New York on June 11, 1846. I am looking for a drawing or photograph of the "Virginia". I am also interested in communicating with anyone who may have ancestors who arrived in New York on the same boat or anyone with the last name Eis. My email address is Thanks so much!

  28. Anonymous10:13 AM

    Hi, I've enjoyed reading your blog. I'm conflicted with the location of my ancestor & that caused me to stumble upon your blog. In a German Immigrant Records book at my local library it lists my (5th gen) grandfather (14 at the time) as being from province: Havre. It included a map of Germany in the front of the book showing of the provinces. Is my Havre the same as the Le Havre in France??

    Thanks for any help you can offer!

  29. I'd like to help but your question is a hard one. I've talked to someone who knows more about France than I do. Germany does not have provinces and she says that there is no province called Havre or Le Havre in France. Without knowing the source of those records - when and where recorded and by whom, I don't know how to approach your question. Perhaps you might find someone at a local genealogical society who could help you.