Monday, January 23, 2012

Travel Tuesday - Emigrating from the Rhineland

Emigrant Agent recruits travelers in 1855;
Exhibit at Kommern Museum, Rhineland
Have you ever thought about your ancestors' last weeks in their homeland before they set sail into the unknown? Just moving from one city to another because of work or marriage or retirement is a wrenching change for most of us. However, we live in a world where going back now and then to what we left behind is usually possible. When our 19th century ancestors left, they were very aware they would never see their birthplace or the remainder of their family and friends again.

It was pure serendipity that I found a German website for a museum in the Northern Rhineland that spelled out in great detail the drama of the days before departure.  Descriptions of exhibits at the museum in the village of Kommern, gave me new insights into the reasons that people left, the process of making travel arrangements, and the days of "farewell."  The following is based on an excellent overview written by the Museum staff and loosely translated by me.

Poverty and Famines in the 19th Century

The majority of the population had always lived in difficult circumstances. In the 19th century, however, the poverty was often so oppressive that fundamental nourishment was lacking in many families' diets. While the population grew steadily, the area of land available for cultivation stayed the same, and more and more people had an amount of food that stayed the same from year to year but was much less than they needed. Their principal foods were potatoes and bread. In years of crop failures, disaster struck.  The famine years were at their worst in 1816/17 and again in 1846/47;  many could not feed themselves and their families.

Although serfdom, compulsory labor and taxes in kind were abolished during the years of Napoleon's rule of the area, high transfer fees were paid to the aristocratic landowners who still held the majority of the land. The farmers, now free to own land, had gone into debt. Thus the agricultural economy was deprived of the means which it needed for improved farming methods and new equipment.

Due to the spread in the west and southwest of revised inheritance laws that allowed all children of a family to divide the land for inheritance, farms were fragmented.  Many farmers added craft work such as weaving to supplement their family's income.  At the same time the industrial revolution, which was spreading through Europe, made it impossible for craftsmen to compete with cheaper industrial goods, especially from England.  Mass poverty and political hopelessness after the revolutions of 1830/33 and 1848/49 impelled more and more people to emigrate.

"Selling" Life in the United States

America offered the hope for an income sufficient to survive and even prosper.  With the increase in the number of emigrants from Germany to America, the population's need for information about the United States also increased. "America letters" from settlers already in the United States, sent back to relatives in the Rhineland, served as the first guides for likely emigrants.  Very soon promotional literature about the American states as well as specially created "guides" for emigrants appeared. In bright colors, some fabricated pamphlets, which promised a land flowing with milk and honey and roasted pigeon on every table, began to circulate.  For many who were dissatisfied with the economic and social conditions of their country, it seemed that the promised land was no longer "three miles beyond Christmas,"  Rather, it was obtainable by anyone who was ready to leave and wanted to make his fortune.

Many times the agents of the shipping companies deliberately exaggerated the living conditions in America, describing America as a kind of paradise, in order to win over the doubters and have a lucrative business. Ship brokers were located not only in port cities, but maintained many offices within the country. In the Rhineland agencies were located in Koblenz, Cologne, Trier and Dusseldorf. There were also numerous part-time agents working in smaller villages who recruited interested potential emigrants.  Many a man booked his passage to North America in the Gasthaus tavern.

The agents earned money according to the number of bookings they made.  Fraud occurred, most commonly in the early days of emigration fever.  Eventually the authorities issued warnings, and newspapers presented realistic descriptions of the new world so that the situation improved  in the second half of the century.

Farewell and Departure

The farewell to relatives and friends was the hardest step in the process of emigration to America.  Much as birth, marriage, and death involved ceremony, emigration was perceived as a similar profound turning point in life.  Symbolic ways of coping with such a momentous event came into being.

In many places the departure for America was made festive. Where possible the emigrants who were about to leave, along with their relatives and friends, celebrated in the home that soon would be left behind. Some of the wealthier emigrants donated memorial crosses to the village in order to preserve their remembrance in the Alte Heimat.  On the day of departure, the emigrants with possessions loaded on wagons or carried on shoulders, were often accompanied to the border of the village by all the residents staying behind.  The song and music was a way for those staying behind to express solidarity with the travelers. This almost joyous farewell thus offered a positive outlook to the present and also future immigrants.
Cemetery at Beurig, Kreis Saarburg

One last visit that was commonly made before the day of departure was to the cemetery where each person took leave of departed parents or grandparents. Often they filled some earth from the grave into a small bag. This soil was meant to be placed in the emigrant's grave in America  It was a way to symbolically reunite with the family that lived across the ocean.



  1. I really enjoyed this article and in particular, the farewell. My 3rd gr grandparents came to America in 1857, fortunately, they were wealthy.

  2. This is an informative post. I did not know why so many Germans immigrated to the US at the time. I immigrated to the US to travel and be able to work for a couple of years. I did not intend to stay but here I am. My father left Turkey not because his family was poor, as they were not, but because he was an Armenian and his family was afraid for him to stay in Istanbul, that is why he immigrated to Paris, France. He never went back. When I was a child my mum and I went to Turkey to get my grandma but she only survived a few months with us in Paris as she had been starving in Turkey and was too weak to recover.

  3. I have taken the url, thanks for that.
    Amerika war das Schlaraffenland, wo die gebratenen Tauben in den Mund flogen!

    My grandfather was a weaver in the Lower Rhine area at the turn of the previous century.

    I shall have to explore the time because I'd like to write about him.

  4. I want to share the fun of that German comment, Friko. As the ancestors in the 19th century quickly learned, America was not the place where pigeons, already roasted, flew into one's mouth. Since reading that, I've wondered if there is any restaurant in Wisconsin that serves roasted pigeon. I suddenly have a craving...

  5. Hi there. My father's side of the family has connections to the Rhineland, with ancestors coming from the villages of Buchel and Hartlingen. When arriving in the USA, these people married into families who were from Saarland, Alsace-Lorraine, and even the Netherlands. Grew up in a German Catholic parish in northern Michigan where these ancestors settled. The parishoners (my family included) were very proud of their roots until WWI, when it all ended. The priest would even deliver a sermon in German up until around this time. I am learning so much from your blog. Would like to find more information on the villages of Buchel and particularly, Hartlingen as the family who came to USA from there were very much Catholic, but there is no parish church in this rural village. I am wondering if maybe they attended Mass at a neighboring village? Hartlingen is very rural.

  6. Adam - I'm glad that my blog is helping you understand the life of your ancestors when they lived in the Rhineland. Your idea that the church they attended might be in a larger village is a good one. If you search the Internet for "Hartlingen" you'll find that they have their own website. It is in German but using a translator like Google translate to copy the German to the translator website (cut and paste) will solve that problem. Try the tab on the left side of the Hartlingen site called "Geschichte" (history). It looks like it will tell you a lot about the larger villages in the area. Hope this helps.