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Your German Migrant Ancestor

Pens at Ellis Island, Main Hall. New York Public Library. Flickr the Commons.


By Jean Wilcox Hibben, PhD.

If your ancestor was an auswanderer – one who left the area now called Germany – with a group of other like-minded individuals, he/she was an emigrant and might be found in any number of locations.

You are probably already familiar with the phenomenon of “push-pull” when it comes to emigration/immigration. North America was hardly the only option for those seeking a better life. For some, it was a “stop along the way,” giving them a chance to perhaps make some money or reunite with family before traveling on to Canada and Nova Scotia, South and Central America, the West Indies, Asia, and even Africa. All of which eventually had German settlements. Possibly, after coming to North America, some of your ancestors elected to return to one of the ports of call along the way on their initial trip. But, of course, large numbers of German immigrants populated the big cities in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, etc. And full colonies of Germans began to populate the Southern states, such as the Carolinas and Georgia, and throughout the Appalachian territory.[1]

In 1822, a German encyclopedia explained German emigration as follows (giving us a perspective of how this phenomenon was viewed in the first quarter of the 19th Century):

It was not overpopulation alone which was the essential cause of emigration, but rather the hopelessness that conditions would ever improve, the fear that still more adversity was approaching, and the total lack of trust in the government to provide any relief.[2]

In the approximately 40 years between the 1840s and 1880s, four million Germans emigrated to America and between the 1880s and the 1920s, another four million Austro-Hungarians joined them. The former group was fleeing recession and political unrest while the latter group departed to remove themselves from poverty and oppression. [3] So between the 1840s and the first quarter of the 20th century, Germans, or those from that general area of the world, contributed the largest number of immigrants to the American economy, workforce, and military.

For researchers in North America, there is a tendency to focus on Germans who settled in specific communities in most of the earliest states as well as the ones who gravitated towards the west, many making up some of the first residents in the most western territories and states. But Germans emigrated to other locations as well and your family research may need to include some of these places to find correlating lines, the location of departure for your North American German immigrants, or even living cousins who can provide needed family information. Unfortunately, passenger departure lists have not survived as well as the lists of arriving passengers in the port of disembarkation. Hamburg has the most complete departure lists, but, many found less strict port departures, such as LeHavre, to be preferable when leaving German communities. Many traveled a great distance to avoid the “red tape” involved in emigration, leaving from locations as far away as the Netherlands (Rotterdam) and Denmark (Copenhagen).[4] If you are fortunate enough to have found your ancestor on a passenger list as an immigrant, that document should identify the port from which the ship sailed, giving you a possibility of finding your ancestor listed on a departure list, if it survived. Keep in mind that as more people departed their home country, the information on the lists, as well as the requirements for emigration, became more detailed and strict.[5]

So when did the emigrants leave? Certain events caused the exodus to occur more heavily in some time periods than in others. To understand the timeline, it helps to understand those events:

  • From 1683 to 1820: destinations were North America, England, Scotland, Ireland, Southeastern Europe, and Russia. Following the Thirty Years’ War, Germans were affected by both religious persecution and economic stress making departure look like a better alternative.[6]
  • From 1820 to 1871: destinations varied and were caused by the continued economic issues as well as agricultural and occupational hardships. The government supported the exodus, especially by the poorer class, even though many left to evade military conscription.[7]
  • From 1871 to 1914: destinations varied. The German Empire had been formed and even more of the population evacuated, especially since the process of traveling to other countries had become less costly, even though the requirements to get permission to leave were more stringent (specifically in Hamburg).[8] Likely, communication from family and friends who had already made the journey enticed those who were feeling the financial stress “at home.”
  • From 1914 to 1945: in North America because of the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 (limiting the influx of immigrants, including Europeans) into America, numbers were reduced.[9] While this did not have an immediate effect on immigration in other countries, it did change the destinations of many Germans. The desire was to escape the political situation and for those concerned about World War I many sought asylum in neutral or more politically favorable countries.[10]


**Excerpted from the course Germans Outside of Germany by Jean Wilcox Hibben, PhD.

[1] Marianne S. Wokeck, Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America, University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1999, pp. 221-230.

[2] Allgemeinen Deutschen Real-Encyclopädie, as quoted in Sigrid Kiedel, Bremerhaven: Die Stadt am Meer, Edition Temmen, 1999 and reprinted in “Mischmasch,” Der Blumenbaum 20:4, April-May-June, 2003, p. 186.

[3] Richard L. Hooverson, “Musings and Gleanings,” Heritage Quest, May/June 2001, quoted in “America’s Melting Pot,” Der Blumenbaum, 20:4, April-May-June, 2003, p. 158

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Immigration Act of 1924,” Wikipedia ( accessed 6 June 2017).

[10] “Germany Emigration and Immigration,” FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki ( accessed 6 June 2017).

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