|The Trip to a New Home
|According to Norse sagas, the first German to set foot in the New World was Tyrker, German
foster-father of Leif Ericson who accompanied Leif on his 11th century voyage in the year 1000.
Later, British explorers often took Germans with mining expertise on their voyages to perform labor
and to manage and/or supervise assay work and a German was the only non-English person in the
very first group of settlers to land on Jamestown Island in May 1607. In 1620, there were even
Germans on the Mayflower, among them more German mineral specialists and saw-millwrights from
Hamburg who opened the first sawmill.
The Bible was printed in America in German before it was printed in English! But it was settlers from
Krefeld who established the first sizable, distinctly German settlement in America at Germantown,
Pennsylvania in 1683. The unfortunate refugees from Rhineland Pfalz, or "the Palatinate", in the
early 18th century flooded out of Germany and into America in droves. By the mid-18th Century,
approximately 10% of the colonial American population spoke German, the Salzburgers in Georgia
By the time there were sizable German elements in Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere, immigrants from
Germany soared to 1,275,000 from 1845 to 1860 as people fled the chaos of the mid-19th century
revolutionary years. Coming to America was more than simply a voyage, it was a whole set of
adventures which could prove dangerous, even lethal. For most German emigrants going to America
during these years, Bremerhaven was the major port of departure. It would become port to 7 million
emigrants leaving Europe between 1832 and 1874. The first leg of an emigrant's journey would have
been the trip to Bremen itself by train or in a coach. Some poorer emigrants had to reach Bremen by
foot. Many had never even set foot out of their small villages before, and this in itself was a
Once in Bremen, most would stay at an inn and take in the sights, such as the huge statue of Roland
the Giant. Created in 1404, the Roland statue in the Bremen market place symbolizes freedom and
justice and commemorates the death of Roland who was killed by Muslim and Basque forces
attacking Charlemagne's army. Bremen, on the banks of the river Weser that flows into the North
Sea, was founded in the 9th century and was an important and lovely member of the Hanseatic
League. When silt on the Weser began to reduce access to Bremen's docks, Bremen's mayor
purchased land 30 miles away near the mouth of the river from Hannover in 1825 for use as a new
port. The new harbor of Bremerhaven received its first customer in 1830, the American schooner
'Draper'. When Bremerhaven first opened, passengers would have to travel for miles down the
Weser River from Bremen to Bremerhaven on crowded river barges, a journey taking three days,
until they were brought to the side of their large sailing ship.
The final stretch to the ship could only be taken during ebb tide, when water from the arm of the
Weser flowed in the direction of the North Sea. In the 1840s, a steam-powered tugboat towed barges
to the mouth of the river, shortening the journey to a day.Although a massive re-routing of the Weser
above Bremerhaven eventually solved the problem of accumulating silt, Bremerhaven remained the
busiest emigrant port in Germany and soon became the embarkation point for most emigrants leaving
Germany through Bremen. The city council of Bremen passed ordinances in 1832 that required
companies transporting emigrants to file passenger lists containing emigrants' names, ages,
occupations, and places of origin.
It was not until 1862 that a rail connection between Bremen and Bremerhaven was completed to
make the trip easier. Once in Bremerhaven, many emigrants prayed for their safety in the port city's
beautiful old churches until they set sail. Their passage was often paid for with their life savings, and
there was no turning back at this point. In 1847, crowded passage in 'steerage' from Bremen to
America started at $16.00, a hefty sum to many.
It is said that as they departed, most emigrants stood in eerie silence on the deck of the ship watching
their Fatherland slowly disappear. With differing degrees of sadness, joy, fear and optimism, they
faced several weeks at sea from Bremen to America, barring any emergencies or accidents. Once
they left land, they sailed into the North Sea and on to the English Channel, then out into the Ocean.
Finally, many long weeks after the Bremen departure and halfway around the world, America would
be before their eyes. Despite this grueling adventure, more and more people made the trip.
Between 1847 and 1853, at least 49 emigrants' ships, each carrying between 600 to 1,000
passengers, were lost. As new ships were being hired to accommodate the swell of emigrants, many
exceeded the legal load limits and this led to tragedy. The ports of Europe were already strained and
the immigrant ships of the 1840s could barely handle the sheer numbers of people seeking refuge on
foreign shores, the approximate size of an immigrant ship being only 124 x 20 x 15 feet.
Some sailed on a "bark", a three-masted vessel with foremast and mainmast square rigged and the
third mast fore and aft rigged. Others left on a "brig" having two square-rigged masts, fore and
main.There were very few laws governing safety, feeding, or cleanliness, and storms were frequent
and often fatal. Ship fires were common, as were other accidents and collisions. Passengers, some
with many children, were crammed into steerage, often sharing an uncomfortable wooden bunk with
two or three other passengers for weeks.
If there were toilets, they were usually up on deck and hard to reach for the young, old, ill and
everyone else in stormy weather. The usual facility in steerage consisted of a few buckets with
privacy screens. Cooking grates were set up on deck for steerage passengers who had to take turns
using them in order to prepare a meal and they had to provide their own food. Diseases and illnesses
spread quickly. The legislation governing slave ships from Africa was often more humane that the
legislation governing these emigration ships. The same ships carrying in excess of 700 emigrants
would only have been allowed by law to carry 500 slaves.
For those who could afford to travel first or even second class, an emigrant ship was not too bad, but
steerage was horrible, with some ships taking 750 or more passengers. A child under eight was
counted as half an adult, with half rations, and infants were not counted at all. The ships would be so
crowded that people sometimes had to sleep in the gangways, and when this space filled, shacks
were thrown up on the top deck where they were exposed to the elements. The ship's quarters below
the upper deck was made of rough sawn lumber fastened together forming compartments, each one
holding four people.
One couldn't sit upright in the upper compartment, or berth, which was located at the sides, with
trunks and baggage filling the center of the dark, windowless hold. One reached the upper deck by a
steep ship's ladder. Many of the vessels were "plague" ships, quarantined because of cholera or
yellow fever, and up to one in six Germans on such a ship died from the long voyage. It was not
uncommon for immigrant ships to arrive with an entire ship full of ill, dying or dead passengers, or
for the passengers to die while anchored in the harbor in quarantine. The odors aboard these
immigrant ships were so foul that people on land claimed they could smell them coming.
Bremen was one of the better ports to ship from. As early as 1832, Bremen tried to improve the
quality of life for emigrants and it established a reputation as the most favorable place from which to
emigrate. The Bremen Senate set up rules regarding sea-worthiness of the ships departing from her
harbors, minimum space requirements and enough adequate provisions for three months at sea. They
required that a doctor be on board each voyage and mandated sanitary inspections. They further
required passenger lists be supplied to Bremen authorities by the ship owners for each voyage and
that any emigrant not admitted into the United States by American authorities would be transported
back to Germany at the ship owner's expense. This made Bremen a leader in the emigration trade for
all of central Europe, and the Bremen shipping industry was prospering by consequently importing
American goods to Germany, tobacco and flour from Baltimore and tobacco, cotton and sugar from
New Orleans. The port of Hamburg didn't begin to improve conditions for emigrants until 1851.
Some immigrants had been tempted by misleading recruitment ads and dishonest speculators, only to
find out once they arrived that they had been duped and were now penniless, homeless and at the
mercy of the elements and of strangers.
Between 1860 and 1890, over 2.8 million German-born immigrants lived in the US, mostly in the
"German triangle," whose 3 points were Cincinnati, St Louis and Milwaukee. It actually stretched
from Albany westward along the Erie Canal to Buffalo and farther westward through Detroit to St.
Paul and the Dakotas, then south to Nebraska and Kansas, back to Missouri, and eastward along the
Ohio River to Baltimore. Reaching their final destination could take weeks, even months after they
first set foot on American soil.
For those landing in New York City before 1855, there was no immigrant processing center as of yet.
The shipping company presented its passenger list to Customs, and the immigrants made a Customs
declaration and simply went on their way. They were suddenly confronted with an alien civilization,
crowds of people they could not understand and, if they did not have family or connections ready to
receive and assist them, they were quickly overwhelmed by culture shock, fatigue and were again at
the mercy of robbers and the unscrupulous. Between 1836 and 1871, 83% of Bavarian emigrants
went to the USA. Some, like the settlers bound for Frankenmuth, had fairly sound itineraries and
pre-arranged travel plans with people in place to assist them, but even then things went wrong.
The danger was far from over for the immigrant once he reached the USA. Other ships on inland
waters which carried the immigrants from their ports of arrival to other regions of the USA had
horrible disasters. One such "appalling calamity" occurred on Lake Erie during the season of 1841,
with the burning of the steamboat Erie on the night of August 9 .Over 100 persons were drowned,
many of them German immigrants with an estimated $180,000 of gold coin to start their new lives.It
all went to the bottom of the lake.
Another memorable tragedy took place on June 17, 1850, when within feet of Lake Erie's shore, a
wooden, 600 ton steamship named the G. P. Griffith caught fire and sank, killing 286-300 mostly
German and Scandinavian immigrants. Only 37 people survived. Many of the immigrants were said
to have drowned because of the excessive weight of their money belts, or coins sewn into their
clothing. Local residents rescued those who survived and then retrieved the dead. They buried 47
men, 24 women, and 25 children in a mass grave on a knoll overlooking the spot of disaster. It was
Lake Erie's worst disaster. None of the gold or money belts were ever reported as being found.
For those headed for the Port of Baltimore, some hoping to stay in Pennsylvania or the mid-Atlantic
states before heading farther west, another voyage awaited them on the Chesapeake Bay until they
could stand on dry ground. Anchoring overnight, the next day would still be spent on water until they
arrived near the port toward evening and anchored again. There, they were assayed any taxes or
duties on items they brought into the country, and quarantined until a doctor's examination. Finally
off ship, some booked into one of the many Gasthoffs catering to newly arrived Germans, and many
spent lengthy periods in them until they found permanent lodging or moved on. Others who had
made prior arrangements continued on their way. And what a way it was!
A German immigrant landing in Baltimore in the 1840s and heading west would likely have gone
from there to Columbia, Pennsylvania and taken a horse drawn canal boat until he arrived in
Harrisburg. From there, the boat was put on a train, lifted over mountains by cables, dragged through
dark tunnels and narrow passes before being put back in the water.
It then continued by canal again until it was possible to board a steamship bound for Pittsburgh and
the western regions of the state. By 1825, something had to be done to improve Pennsylvania's
transportation system. Goods going from Pittsburg to Philadelphia sometimes had to travel down the
Ohio River to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, then back up the coast! Some Philadelphia and
Harrisburg entrepreneurs liked the idea of a canal system from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The center
of the proposed canal system was interrupted by steep mountains in Cambria County, and it would
be bypassed with a 36-mile railroad over the rugged terrain called the Allegheny Portage Railroad,
built by 2,000 men, among them many immigrants recruited from newspaper ads placed in Ireland
and elsewhere. Construction of the railroad began in 1831, and they had to cut through thick forests
using hand tools.
The canal was soon teeming with passengers eager to settle in western Pennsylvania and farther
west. Travelers stopped to eat, drink or stay the night at inns along the way. In the early days,
passengers switched back and forth from railroad cars to packet boats. They boarded the packets
which were secured to railcars in Philadelphia, and at Columbia they were lowered into the water and
tied together for the trip to Hollidaysburg, where they were placed on flatcars.
With ten incline planes on the Portage Railroad, five on either side of the summit of the Allegheny
Ridge, the rail cars and canal boats were hoisted over the Allegheny Mountain by hemp rope until
1844, when engineer John A. Roebling, the same German immigrant who would later design the
Brooklyn Bridge, replaced the dangerous and unreliable hemp with his new safer, wire rope. Once
over the mountains, the boats were reassembled again for the final canal trip into Pittsburgh. The
vertical ascent from Johnstown was 1,172 feet, and from Hollidaysburg 1,399 feet. The canal barges
were drawn by horses along level sections, which included a 900 foot tunnel and a viaduct. The
entire system connecting the two cities was 400 miles long. When completed, a cross-state trip was
shortened from 23 days by freight wagon to 4 1/2 days.
The introduction of steam locomotives soon shortened the trip to only three and one half days,
however, by 1850 competition from the new Pennsylvania Railroad threatened the old railroad's
existence and it was sold to them in 1857. Disconnected remnants of the old canal were run for more
than forty years, but without through-traffic business. The last remaining canal section near
Harrisburg was shut down by the railroad in 1901.