Friday, February 28, 2014

Emigrants Setting Sail: Questions and Answers

City and Port of Antwerp Belgium

Steamship Leaves Le Havre (ebay postcard)
Ever since I wrote blog posts about the trip to America from the Port of Le Havre in France, I have gotten related questions. One reader asked how long it would have taken his ancestor to reach New York after setting sail from New York. Another reader wondered how an immigrant ancestor might have gotten from Kreis Saarburg to the port at Antwerp. There was a question about what conditions German immigrants encountered if they arrived in New York before the immigrant station at Castle Garden was created. 

Why not answer some of those questions from letters that immigrants sent back home to family and friends. I have chosen to take excerpts from a few of those letters which touched on the questions I had received. Who better qualified to write about their experiences than the individuals who made the trip to the New World. 

Two of the letter writers traveled by sailing ship in the 1840s when Antwerp was the most convenient port of departure for emigrants from Kreis Saarburg and the Rhineland.   Many other letters from this time period must have been similar.

Letter 1 

Excerpts from the first letter were written by Michael Rodenkirch, a German emigrant and one of the first settlers in the Village of St. Michaels, Wisconsin. The unincorporated community of Saint Michaels is located partially in the town of Kewaskum in Washington County Wisconsin. You can read the full text at: 

"State of West Konsin 
December 26, 1846 

Dearest Mother, All Sisters and Brothers, Brothers and Sisters-in-law, relatives and Acquantances: 
Sincere Greetings to you All! 

Thanks to God we are all well and hope the same of you. I do hope that by now you have received my letter of Oct. 22, telling you where we have finally landed. Should you have received this letter, I hope that news from you is on the way. I will tell you again briefly about our trip... 

Emigrants to America generally pay half fare from Cochem to Coblenz, 10 silver Groschen; from Coblenz to Coeln, 20 silver Groschen; from Coeln to Antwerp by railway, two dollars per adult person, older than 10 or 12 years, children below that age pay half fare, and babies under one year travel free. From Antwerp to New York adults pay 80 francs while minors pay 70 francs... 

Should you plan to undertake the trip to America, make sure that you are on time at the depot or dock, as neither ships nor train will wait a minute for you - they are gone like a shot. Whoever makes the trip will be impressed with the omnipotence of God. It is still impossible for me to describe our voyage adequately. We were enroute 75 days. Back home we always thought that England was far, far away, but after five days of travel we were nearing the English coast and after 10 days we were alongside Scotland and Ireland; after that we were soon out in the open sea. This shows the speed of our ship. On the ocean we were for 55 days. High waves often dashed our ship. The slant of our ship often made it impossible to stand without hanging onto something. At times gusts of wind almost threatened to overturn our ship, but like a floating egg, it would always right itself. The last ten days we sailed along the American shores and then entered the world famous, beautiful New York harbor. We remained in New York for a day... 

For your sea voyage make your own "zweiback" and take along sufficient oatmeal and wheat flour. If you can obtain potatoes, use them for your vegetable. Also carry along ham, butter, brandy, spices, coffee, sugar, and whatever else you might like to eat on your trip across the sea, for on the sea your money will not buy you anything. If you plan on traveling through the woods here, bring several pairs of boots and shoes and durable clothes; also bring waffle iron and cake pan... 

From New York you should acquire passage on steamship to Albany. From Albany to Buffalo you may travel by "Ralter," perhaps ferry or railway. From Buffalo you travel again by steamboat to "Milwaukee in West Konsin." Trip from New York to Albany costs 4 shilling, or 20 silver groschen; from Albany to Buffalo costs 5-6 dollars, from Buffalo to Wisconsin by steamship costs 6 dollars. At each place "veradkirdiert," [register or be recorded?] anew and do not trust every German thieving trickster approaching you as exchange agent; these people are usually bad characters... 

We had made arrangement for passage to Chicago, however, we went ashore at Milwaukee on Lake Michigan, 80 miles above Chicago. We live now 40 miles northeast of Milwaukee in Town 12, Range 19, Section 13. We are all well satisfied here, have good land, and none molest us... 

The trip across the ocean took 52 days; despite storm and high waves, thanks to God, all went well. The trip through America to Milwaukee took us 18 days. Whoever makes this trip had better take good care of his money. With us there were people from Brohl on the Maihfeld who were robbed of 2,200 dollars in Albany. Their plight was great as they could only travel a short distance... 

I greet you a hundred thousand times and remain. 

Your sincere brother, 
Michael Rodenkirch" 

Letter 2 

This letter was transcribed verbatim by historian Josef Mergen, a dedicated researcher on emigration from the Rhineland to the United States. The source is the book 
 Copies are in German and are available on interlibrary loan at public and university libraries.  

Milwaukee, Wisconsin 1846 
Dear Cousins, Brothers, Sister-in-law! 

Because we are so far from one another, so that we may no longer talk with one another, I have decided to report my words to you in written fashion and to describe my journey, my present situation, the land, the crops, how house and homes are built, to the best of my ability. 

I will tell you about the pleasant, as well as the unpleasant, exactly as I have experienced them. 

We departed from Antwerp on the 21st of May (1846) and went as far as Vlissignen (Netherlands). Here we anchored and made a brief pause. From this point on, we could no longer anchor due to the depth of water....dear God, what an incredible amount of water! Here one sees nothing but sky and water, it appears as if the entire world were water. 

On the 30th of May, we had a beautiful day. We caught a shark and I had ever so much fun. But my fun was soon found an end. From the 1st to the 4th of June, we had storms. The ship began to roll; all chests had to be tightly bound; pots rolled from one corner to another, beds fell together, one couldn't walk or even stand. The incredble waves threatened to overwhelm us. Then we were all sick. This lasted until the 14th of June. Then we were again revived. Your brother Joseph was perfectly healthy. He had to take care of us and cook. 

On the 1st of July (the 40th day of our ocean journey) we first saw the American land. The joy that I felt then, I will never be able to describe to you. At about 9:00, a ship came to get us and by 12:00, we were in New York. As I left the ship, I wanted to walk on land. I felt as if the earth moved, I mean America, swung (he still had sea legs) 

Now we have passed one station of suffering (by that, I mean the difficulties of the ocean journey), which I will never be able to fully describe to you. 

We were now in New York, a big, beautiful city which encompasses more industry than did all of Prussia.

On the 21st (of July) we left New York by steamship. On the 3rd (of August) we arrived in Albany. There we got into a train and rode until Buffalo. There we waited one day. we again left via steamboat and journeyed over Lake Erie and Lake Michigan until we arrived in Milwaukee. On the 16th we arrived in Milwaukee. We had achieved our goal...

Johann Schroeder, Milwaukee
Territorium Wisconsin, N.A

There are three reasons that I chose the last two letters.  1) The emigrant in each case was young and single, 2) the voyages to America took place by steamship rather than sailing ship, and 3) The true ocean travel of each emigrant's journey was out of the port at Le Havre, but Le Havre was reached by an unusual circuitous route.  In one case, the New York Passenger List for the ship probably stated that all passengers left Europe from the port of Hamburg but did not mention a stop in Le Havre.  Did this steamship pick up additional passengers there? If so, were those people listed as starting their journey in Hamburg?

Letter 3

Barbara Klinger was a 20 year old country girl who wanted to go to New York and find work as a domestic servant.  In letters exchanged between Barbara's father in Wuerttenberg and his son-in-law, Franz Schano who lived in New York and was married to Barbara's sister, the young woman's trip was carefully arranged.  Packing details and travel options were discussed in an exchange of letters.  In one of the letters, Franz Schano told Barbara's father that there was a choice of a ticket - with food provided or a passenger bringing food themselves.  He did not know which would be more economical and left it up to Barbara's father to decide.  It was decided that Barbara would bring her own food.  Barbara's sister instructed her to fill two potato sacks with enough food for a "simmen" which was about the measurement of two bushel baskets. The brother-in-law in New York arranged for Barbara to get her passage and sent her a ticket document and 15 gulden which would pay for extra fees she would encounter as she traveled.  She was to give the ticket document to the travel agent in Mannheim.  In return she would receive three travel tickets, the first was for the steamship from Mannheim to Rotterdam, the second from Rotterdam to Havre, and the third from Havre to New York.  As complicated as the land travel was, Barbara had no difficulties.  Safely in the home of her sister, she wrote the following: 

New York
July 16, 1851

Dear parents and brothers and sisters,

I want to let you know what kind of journey I had to New York.  On the 18th we boarded a sailing ship, from Havre to New York.  I was at sea for 26 days on the ship, there were 725 persons with the sailors and we only had a storm once.  But it was nothing compared to the voyage Mari had, the ship had 3 decks and one cellar completely under water, the people slept in the 2 lower ones and in the two higher ones there are two kitchens, two toilets, two stalls, and another stall for cows, there was one cow and in the back there is another small room, where the mates and the 3 cooks who cook for the sailors they were blacks, one had his wife along, she was a black too, and the ship was named Wilhelm Tell, it is one of the biggest ships that go between Havre and New Jork and even when the wind was strong it can't throw it around like the little one, it also rolls more, such a big ship on the ocean is like a nutshell swimming in the lake at Korb.

Letter 4

Wilhelm Buerkert was a teenager of 16 when he left his apprenticeship in his home village of Waldenburg in Wuerttemberg.   Both of his parents were dead but his father had been relatively well to do.  Now, with only a stepmother and a guardian, he seems to have been at odds with his stepfamily and he was permitted to emigrate to America.  It seems that the money for a ticket and some additional cash were given to him.  His youth comes across clearly in his rambling first letter home.  The excerpts I chose are a very small part of what he wrote.

New York, 
IX 29, 1875
Dear mother, grandparents, sisters, and honorable guardian,
Praise be to the Lord, etc., that is the first hymn that we can strike up, for you can count yourself lucky to have arrived here safely, especially when you hear that at the same time our ship left, on the same water, no less than 3 ships sank from running into one another in the fog.

So, let us turn our attention to the journey. In Heilbronn there was a one-hour stop, then straight on to Heidelberg. Here there was time to see the main sights. Then on, after refreshing yourself, to Frankfurt. Here after getting all your things at Mr. Treschof's, the emigration agent's, which cost a lot of money as well, you were taken to an inn, "zum goldenen Adler" (Golden Eagle). Oh, to hell with that food and those beds, bedbug covers, not featherbeds, just a miserable mattress with torn sheets, and awfully expensive...

In Frankfurt we left on a Sunday at 8 o'clock in the morning and arrived the next morning at 3 o'clock at a station where we had to spend the night sleeping on the benches in the waiting room, until the train left at 6 o'clock the next morning...

We were in Hamburg in 2 hours time. We were brought by coach to our inn to the Gasthaus zum suddeutschen Hof (South German Guesthouse). Here we spent 2 nights...

On Wednesday the 15th of September...we got on a nice small steamship. In two hours we were out of the Elbe...we were met by a ship like you can't imagine, with 2 big smokestacks...The next morning everyone was already seasick. For on the open sea the ship rolls terribly. It goes as fast as an express train...

On the 17th of September we arrived in the French city of Havre. In this port there was a 24-hour stop. We were allowed to get off. We looked around this really lovely, large and luxurious city. On Sept. 18th at 10 o'clock in the morning, we departed. But thenout on the Atlantic Ocean the ship really started to roll and the waves went clear up to the helmsman...

The last few days we had such a storm that you couldn't stand up or lie down. The trunks we had with us were tied down. The last night we had fog. On the 27th of Sept., or on the Monday, you couldn't see anything at all for 2 nights, the ship went very slowly. The steamwhistles were blown a lot. All at once at 9 o'clock they called out excitedly, Hurray, the pilot. He was coming toward us in a small boat. He had to guide us through the reefs off shore and in through the straits. It was a chief helmsman--almost like a ship's officer. At 4 in the morning we heard land-land. And that is a sight, oh splendid. We were in Stett-Neuland (Staten Island). Here the anchor was cast...

(Wilhelm Buerkert did not sign his name to the letter but ended it with "Your thankful son, grandson and brother.--Greetings, too, to Gustav

These last two letters were taken from a 1991 book entitled "News from the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home" edited by Walter D. Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Helbich, and Ulrike Sommer and translated by Susan Carter Vogel.

To the best of my knowledge, none of my immigrant ancestors wrote home, but I still dream that someday, somewhere in a German archive or attic, there will be letters like these to people still living in the villages of Kreis Saarburg, and I will find them!

"News from the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home" edited by Walter D. Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Helbich, and Ulrike Sommer and translated by Susan Carter Vogel, Cornell University Press, 1988, 1991

Mergen, Josef, "Die Amerika-Auswanderung aus dem Kreise Saarburg" (The American Emigration from the County of Saarburg).  Part of the book, Die Amerika-Auswanderung aus dem Regierungsbezirk Trier / 2. Die Amerika-Auswanderung aus dem Kreise Saarburg.  Metzdorf, 1952


  1. The huge difference in transatlantic passage between the 1846 accounts (letters 1—10 plus 55 days—and 2—40 days) and the 1851 and 1875 accounts (letter 3—26 days—and letter 4—10 days) may come from the sudden availability of steam ship travel. Almost all of my forebears traveled between 1855 and 1878, within the steam ship era. Most from the middle Mosel area (Igel and Wasserliesch) embarked at Le Havre. I don't yet know where the others embarked, as their homes were on the Rhein (Breisach), Nysa (Grüben bei Falkenberg), and more "landlocked" areas (Höxter and Königheim bei Tauberbischofsheim).

    I've long been searching for information on the trip from the Mosel to Le Havre. Thank you for the letters and leads!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Tom. That's it in a nutshell. The availability of rail travel starting in the 1850s in some area will also have an impact on the port of departure. Until 1860, most of the people in the Saarburg area left from Antwerp, but the railroad changed that pattern. Good luck in figuring it out. It's never easy, is it!

  3. Hello. We had a german kirk in Le Havre. It was builded in 1869 and destroyed in 1970. A lot of german people passed Le Havre.

    This blog of a friend watchs you a picture of the old kirk.

    Have a good day !

  4. Thank you, jean-michel, for the web address of the website of your friend that shows the Catholic Church that was built in Le Havre in 1869. The picture of the old church is beautiful. It is sad that it was destroyed in 1970. I will ask my sister who speaks French to translate the text for me.

    I wish you a happy day as well.