Destination Amerika

Emigrating from Germany to America


in Features


If German visitors to the United States shop at a supermarket, they will probably notice beer cans on the shelves bearing familiar-sounding names like Pabst, Schlitz, or Anheuser-Busch. But if they ask Americans unfamiliar with modern-day Germany what it means to be German, the answers might surprise them. For many Americans, “typically German” things include Christmas traditions and baked goods, classical music, or brass bands and marches, and they may know a few terms like Kindergarten or Gemütlichkeit. Often, these traces of Germany are just regionally specific cultural leftovers that have managed to survive — in distorted form — into the present.

No other country has exerted such a powerful, centuries-long fascination over German emigrants than the United States. And the German-speaking countries are second only to Great Britain as a continual source of new inhabitants of America. This emigration began with isolated groups in the 17th century and continued in bursts for more than a hundred years, when a wave of mass emigration began. Until this tipping point, however, the number of relocated Germans was never more than a few hundred thousand. In his novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, the famous German author Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote of the “lively impetus toward America in the beginning of the 18th century” that was “encouraged by the desirable possessions which could be obtained.” In the 19th century, immigration patterns reflected the larger transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Between 1815 and 1914, about 40 million people came to America from Europe, including approximately seven million Germans.

There were any number of reasons for emigrating — economic, political, and personal — that influenced individual decisions and gained or lost relative importance during different periods. The population of Europe ballooned from about 140 million people in 1750 to around 255 million 100 years later, but opportunities to earn a living did not keep pace with this growth. The number of people in Germany increased by 130 percent during this period, from just under 25 million to almost 65 million. One result of this population explosion and the massive economic shifts that followed was poverty. Although these conditions played a central role in unleashing the mass migration of the 19th century, even the loss of a large share of the population did not always relieve the tremendous social pressure.

But not all emigrants had economic motivations. German Jews, for example, were treated as social inferiors. In many places, they still did not have full rights as citizens in the early 19th century, and the New World offered a chance to become equal members of society. Other Germans left their homeland to escape troubling political situations in Central Europe.


In the 20th century, many of the German Jews, scholars, scientists, and dissidents who managed to flee the Nazi regime found a home in the United States. But in every era, emigration depended on a number of external factors, from the availability of transportation to national laws and local rules and even to family issues.

There were plenty of reasons not to go: separation from relatives and friends, the loss of social identity, and an expensive journey full of danger and uncertainty on the way to an unknown future. People had to rely on what they had heard or read for information about where they were going. The largest group of inhabitants spoke a different language, and the long years of conflict with the Native Americans were also a concern. But for many, the call of the New World drowned out all these worries. In some cases, emigrants may not have even fully realized the risks they were facing. The reports that found their way to Central Europe were written with the authors’ interests in mind, and they often presented a distorted view of conditions. Since outsiders discovered America, they have projected their fantasies and expectations onto it, and American immigration has always been tied up with the continually evolving ideas the land has inspired over the centuries.

By far the largest share of German immigrants reached America during the 19th century. In some years during this period, the number of German arrivals surpassed the total for the entire century before. Until the first burst of 19th-century emigration began in 1816, aspiring intercontinental travelers faced considerable obstacles, including the Napoleonic Wars in central Europe and restrictive emigration policies in the regions under French control. The number of trade ships was limited. Amsterdam and Hamburg generally offered the best chances for obtaining passage, although smaller ports also played a role at different times. The first small wave of emigrants was drawn mostly from Württemberg, Baden, the Palatinate, and Switzerland.


Failed harvests worsened the existing economic misery. The rural population was increasing, but the work available to the mostly uneducated laborers failed to keep pace, and cities were not yet in a position to absorb the extra people. At the same time, many families in the country had accumulated debt as rulers passed on the cost of the wars by increasing the taxes and interest rates their subjects paid. Between 1820 and 1850, prices for rye, potatoes, and clothing doubled while wages barely grew.

After the first wave of emigration, the number of travelers fell again. During the 1820s, just a few hundred people made the voyage each year. Resources to finance a voyage were tight — in the dire circumstances, property might only fetch a fraction of its normal value, and people who had earned pensions were reluctant to give them up.

Rapid industrialization also made things worse for many people. Home businesses that had provided a livelihood disappeared. Machines could weave linen faster and cheaper than people, although some processes, like dyeing, were more resistant to automation. The strict rules of Germany’s guild system made it difficult for young craftsmen to advance. Other young men wanted to leave their homelands in order to avoid being forced into military service. Under these circumstances, they could hardly expect to receive permission to leave, and often simply set off illegally. Official emigration statistics are unreliable as a result.


In other cases, decisions to emigrate arose from personal or family issues and their financial repercussions. One such factor was the system of inheritance in many places: If property was split among a number of descendants, the resulting farms could end up too small to support a family. At the same time, emigration was also high in states where a single heir — usually the oldest son — got everything. Some emigrants were fleeing family conflicts. Unmarried mothers often had similar motivations: They were tired of being treated with contempt by those around them and went looking for a fresh start. Emigrants also sometimes suffered from “disenchantment with Europe,” a polite way of saying that they despaired about the continent’s political future. Not all these people were poor: Some enjoyed a comfortable financial position in Germany and took their money with them to their new home. America was also an attractive destination for criminals or those who had gone bankrupt. Of course, the desire for adventure was a powerful motivator as well.

Members of small philosophical communities and religious sects continued to arrive in the 19th century. One interesting example is the group that formed around Bernhard Maximilian Müller, originally from Kostheim in Hesse. Müller had big plans. Specifically, he envisioned a kingdom that would last 1,000 years and become home to the world’s aristocrats. When Müller, who went by the name “Proli,” declared himself “Grand Emperor,” the government of Hesse ordered him to leave. In 1831, he and about 40 followers made their way to the colony of Economy, which had been founded near Pittsburgh by the Harmonist sect. After conflicts arose there, Müller — who now called himself “Count Leon” — moved with his people to Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania. But little time remained for him to realize his grandiose plans, as in 1833 he died of cholera.

In the first half of the 19th century, the vast majority of emigrants to America continued to come from southwestern Germany, but the share from the western and northwestern regions climbed in the years after 1850. Poverty had become so rampant in many areas that governments could do little to stop the bleeding. The densely populated industrial regions of Saxony offer one example: According to contemporary reports, people there lived from nothing but potatoes and coffee. Authorities there even commissioned the latest information from North America, Prussia, Russia, and Hungary in order to determine where the opportunities were most promising. In the eastern provinces of Prussia and Mecklenburg, laborers were still practically serfs to the large landowners. In the wake of industrialization, many of them moved to Berlin and Hamburg, while others set off across the Atlantic.


Immigration records paint a clear picture of the declining fortunes of small tradesmen, craftsmen, and farmers. Of the 760 individuals who emigrated from Aachen between 1843 and 1846, more than a third were farmers or their immediate families. One out of seven were day laborers, while the others — in declining order — were woodworkers, miners, weavers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Very few were not craftsmen of one kind or another. In Mecklenburg, on the other hand, the flood of emigrants that arose in the middle of the century was made up primarily of day laborers and servants.

Most of these people chose “wet” emigration across the ocean rather than the “dry” variant within the European continent. Of the almost 50,000 people who received permission to leave Prussia between 1844 and 1848, about four fifths opted for a trans-Atlantic voyage. And of the nearly 62,500 who departed from Baden between 1850 and 1855, more than 59,000 headed for North America.

When communities’ charitable funds ran dry, their poorest members were often encouraged to emigrate and might even receive a payment to help them finance the trip. One example of such community-funded emigration comes from the town of Winzel in Württemberg. In 1832, the entire harvest was destroyed by hail, and a drought ten years later forced the farmers to sell all their livestock for less than its value. The town responded by paying incentives to more than 500 people — over a third of the population — to leave. Authorities in Schwenningen, another locality in Württemberg, offered “free transit to New York and a small contribution from the public funds” in 1847. In the end, 190 people took them up on it.


This official departure could take a number of forms. In one case, all the farmers in the Hessian village of Wenig sold their land to the Count of Solms-Laubach in 1841. The new owner was able to create larger plots that could be farmed more efficiently. To ensure that they actually left Europe, the now landless farmers and their families — 160 people in all — had to travel to the transatlantic port of Bremen to receive their money from Hessian officials working there. A deal like this hardly provided the means for a promising new beginning: Many of these emigrants soon found themselves in American poorhouses, much to the chagrin of American authorities.

The fate of Sespenroth, a village near the town of Montabaur, offers an especially bleak example of these dynamics. Sespenroth consisted of just 11 houses, plus a chapel, a bakery, and a few barns and outbuildings. Its 76 inhabitants earned a meager living as basket weavers, shepherds, and tinkers. A downturn in the already modest conditions began around 1840, and the village fell so deeply into debt that the local government, the Duchy of Nassau, was forced to support the population. In February 1852, nearly all of Sespenroth’s 19 families decided to try their luck in America. The four holdout households were forcibly allocated to other villages in the area. That fall the houses and land were auctioned off for prices that didn’t even cover the cost of the emigrants’ travel to their new home. The families left Sespenroth on Easter Sunday, 1853, and the village was gradually torn down. Ten years later it had vanished without a trace. The Westerwald group sailed with the brig Leander from Bremen to New York and then traveled on to Milwaukee.


In other locations, everyday citizens put pressure on authorities by insisting that entire catalogs of requirements be met before they left the country. In one example, 160 tenants from Engter, a village near Osnabrück, wrote a petition to the Duke of Braunschweig in 1848. Their requests included the complete exemption from the personal tax, the “elimination of military representation,” and the release from a variety of uncompensated duties. Cases of prison inmates being forced to emigrate in the 19th century are also documented. In 1832, the chief of the Hamburg police came up with a plan to send prisoners to America because it would cost less than having them serve their time at home. To qualify, the aspiring Americans had to pledge that they would never return. They set off in the Dorothea the same year. Initially no one mentioned the matter to the American officials, but eventually, the U.S. Consul in Hamburg got wind of the matter. A report submitted after the fact went to great lengths to downplay the threat posed by the Dorothea’s passengers and specifically expressed the hope that the Americans would be understanding about the whole thing.

As travelers from all parts of the country gathered in droves at the port cities, the people in charge realized the full extent of what was happening. The only European exodus to take place on the same scale would occur slightly later in Ireland. Entire communities left their villages in Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria, Hesse Thuringia, and Mecklenberg. In some situations — such as among the winegrowers in the Rhineland-Palatine, in Mecklenberg, and even in Baden — the number of people leaving each year outstripped the number who were born. Württemberg lost about 450,000 people to emigration between 1815 and 1891. This amounts to nearly a quarter of the region’s 1891 population, which was just over two million.


All in all, nearly a million Germans left for America during the 1850s alone. The high point came in 1854. In addition to poor grain and wine harvests, a potato blight played a major role in motivating this exodus. This scourge, which was caused by a fungus, could wipe out an entire year’s harvest, and the farmers of that time were completely helpless to combat it. Later, the farmers who had left increasingly made life difficult for the ones who stayed behind. As cultivation crept across the American prairie, more and more grain was produced, and growers began supplying the European market. In 1875, America was exporting nearly five times as much wheat as it had just ten years earlier, and less profitable German farms came under increasing pressure.

This is an excerpt from Bernd Brunner’s workpublished in the German language: “Nach Amerika — Die Geschichte der Deutschen Auswanderung” (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2009). Translated by Lori Lantz. •

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