Emigration and Immigration
So you don't know where your German ancestor hails from? Relax, don't worry. There are
many sources which can be used to trace the emigration process. In fact, your ancestors
most likely had their move documented every step of the way.
To begin with, most
Germans could not emigrate without first applying to the city or state for a passport (1) or permission to emigrate (2). Then, once they reached
the port city, their names were entered on a passenger list (3) -- one
was kept for each sailing Before 1820, most of the emigrants used the Rhine River (which
flows north) as a fast way of getting to a port, namely Rotterdam (4) in
the Netherlands. Over time, emigration levels increased and ports in Belgium (5),
Denmark (6), France (7) and, of course, Germany itself,
began to be used.
Although Hamburg (8) has perhaps the greatest reputation, it was
actually Bremen (9), with about 41% of the emigrants, that was most
popular. Hamburg had only about 30%, but has since had much better preservation of
records. This is reminiscent of the story of the guy who loses his contact lens in the
middle of the block, but searches for it at the corner, under the street lamp, because, as
he explains, "the light is better." Analogously, in the absence of other
information, your ancestor is more likely to have sailed from Bremen, but would be easier
to find at Hamburg.
But if you don't find your ancestor at his port of call, you have another chance to
find him on a passenger arrival list (10), especially those kept for New
York City, where most Germans arrived.
Once immigrants had arrived, they also sometimes left record of their origins in other
ways. Sometimes they got mentioned in newspapers (11), especially the
immigrant ones which were published in German. Another source are US census records (12) for 1920 which may list your ancestor's birthplace, as might many state
censuses. And if your ancestor was in the army, check military records (13).
If you have consulted all the above, you are probably very tired. But if you're still
looking for your ancestor's home, don't give up yet. Secondary sources including card
indices (14) and French emigration indices (15).
By the way, if your problem is the reverse of the one we've been discussing here, that
is you know the hometown, but you don't know the name or some other particulars, then
you'll want to check some other kinds of sources. Did you know that after the 1840's
German police began keeping records of where people lived? They also recorded movements (16) which can help in identification. Other sources to look at are the
little notes one can find in parish records (17), probate records of
relatives who stayed (18), and newspaper announcements (19).
Although procedures varied, passport application records and their supporting
documentation usually give the name, age or birthdate and place, occupation, last
residence, verification of identity and physical description. Passport records for
residents of Hamburg during the period 1851-1929 have been microfilmed by the FHL,
including indexes. The same goes for Stuttgart in the period 1845-1920, which has been
indexed on FHL microfilms 1125018-9. (Search by Locality for
Wurttemberg, Emigration for film numbers respectively.)
- Permission to Emigrate Records
Applications to emigrate were kept in a number of areas and are available via the FHL for
Baden, Rheinland, Pfalz, Zwickau and Württemberg, for example. Ususally these records are
in the period c. 1750-1900 and indicate birthplace, residence, assets and indebtedness.
For Württemberg, an index to these records has been published in the book The
Wuerttemberg Emigration Index by Trudy Schenk and Ruth Froelke, published in Salt
Lake City by Ancestry in 1986-.
- Passenger Lists
Passenger departure lists generally include the departant's name, age, occupation, last
residence (or birthplace), destination, ship name and departure date.
Unfortunately, no passenger lists are available for the Germans who departed out of
Rotterdam, mostly prior to 1820. The best you can do is check the arrival lists (10), especially those for Philadelphia.
There are records at the FHL for emigrants out of Antwerp in the year 1855, indexed in the
book The Antwerp Emigration Index by Charles M. Hall, published in Salt Lake
City by Heritage International, 1983 and also found on microfilm 1183596.
Germans who left through Copenhagen (København) from 1868-1940 are listed on FHL
microfilms which can be found in Locality search under
The port of egress in France was Le Havre. These passenger lists are not available via the
FHL, but one may inquire of the
Groupement Généalogique du Havre et de Seine-Maritime
76050 LE HAVRE Cedex
These records of embarkations for 1780-1840 were discovered in 1986 and include
birthdate or age, birthplace, parents' names and spouses' maiden names. Available at the
FHL are lists of crews and passengers on cargo vessels, which have been microfilmed for
the period 1750-1886. Check the FHL Location section under
Le Havre, Business
Records and Commerce.
The original lists are still maintained in Hamburg, at the Staatsarchiv, with complete
coverage of 1850 to 1934. These lists are indexed by surname, plus there is a separate
index which is grouped by year of sailing. A third index covers the specific period
1856-71. The first two indexes are handwritten while the last is typed; however, the typed
version, while easier to use, unfortunately has omissions. These records and indexes have
been microfilmed by the FHL -- see the Locality section under
Although the Bremen lists have been destroyed, valiant efforts have been made to
reconstruct them, using the arrival lists kept in New York, at least for the period
1847-71. An index of these records has been published in the book German Immigrants:
Lists of Passengers Bound from Bremen to New York by Gary J. Zimmerman and Marion
Wolfert. It is published in Baltimore by Genealogical Publishing in the years 1985, '86,
'88 and '93. The book is in four volumes.
- Passenger Arrival Lists
Arrival lists were logged as immigrants disembarked at
New York and other ports. The FHL has microfilmed much
of this information. Unfortunately, hometowns were
usually not recorded on these lists, but the lists can
be used to help find the departure list which would
list this information. The index to this information
is published in the famous book series Germans to America.
But there are also many other published arrival lists.
These are almost too numerous to list -- it may be more
useful to point out that the book Passenger and
Immigrations Lists Bibliography, 1538-1900 by
P. William Filby is a directory of over 2,500 such
lists. Another of his books, Passenger and
Immigrations Lists Index actually indexes over
1,600 such lists (mostly from after 1820). The book
currently comprises at least 12 volumes and is published
in Detroit by Gale Research, 1981-.
The birthplaces of German immigrants were often listed
in immigrant newspapers, especially in birth, marriage
and death notices. About 5,000 of these newspapers are
listed in the book The German Language Press of
the Americas, 1732-1968: History and Bibliography
by Karl J.R. Arndt in 2 volumes in Munich by Verlag
Dokumentation, 1973-76. [The German language title is
Die Deutschsprachige Presse der Amerikas, 1732-1968:
Geschichte und Bibliographie.]
- US Census Records
Besides the 1920 US Census, many state censuses, such as the 1925 New York census, can be
sources for the birthplace, or place of naturalization, which can help you to find the
naturalization record, which might then in turn reveal the place of origin.
- Military Records
Some of the earliest German colonists arrived in America as mercenaries serving the
British during the American Revolutionary War. Later, many served in the United States
armed forces, especially during the American Civil War, constituting about one-tenth of
Union manpower. These military records may help to identify the hometown
- Card Indices
A card index was a way of organizing information before computers. Each emigrant's name
and other information is written on a single card and the cards were sorted by surname.
This was a very popular activity for genealogical societies, with the result that these
days there are dozens of different card indexes. Many of them have now been microfilmed
and so strictly speaking no longer really deserve the name. These can be found at the FHL
by looking under Locality search for the region from which you suspect your ancestor
Austro-Hungarian Empire, Baden, Hessen, Pfalz, Russia.
- French Emigration Indices
The regions of Alsace and Lorraine were part of the German orbit for large parts
of their history and, abutting the Rhine River, were also transited by many Germans from
other regions. An index for this region has been compiled by the FHL for the period
1817-66, which includes the name, age, occupation, origin, residence, destination,
passport date and source microfilm number. Find this under Alsace Emigration Index.
The Alsace Emigration Book, was compiled by Cornelia Schrader-Muggenthaler
from the above index plus other emigration records, passenger lists, genealogies and
newspaper articles. Over 20,000 entries from the period 1817-70 (1989-1991, Apollo,
Pennsylvania: Closson Press; ISBN: 1558560351 (volume 1) and 1558560866 (volume 2)).
- Police Registrations
During the revolutionary 1840's, police were instructed to begin keeping records of
everyone's place of residence. Citizens were required to report changes in residence. Many
of these records have been microfilmed by the FHL -- see Locality search under the town
Population for these lists.
- Parish Record Annotations
Often when a family emigrated, the local pastor or priest would make a note of it next to
their birth or marriage entries. Sometimes the note would mention the names of others who
went with the person or family.
- Probate Records in Germany
Wills and last testaments will sometimes mention their emigrant relatives. Probate records
generally only exist in the German context for those who owned lands, leaving out even
most farmers, merchants and artisans who generally did not. Another obstacle is that only
a few probate records have been microfilmed. However, there are probate records which go
back as early as the 1300's, which is rather unique since there is not much else to be
found in the archives of any type from this period. A lot of times, the best way to access
such records is to write a city or state archive. The few that have been microfilmed by
the FHL should be found under Locality, the name of the town and
- Newspaper Announcements
Newspapers in German-speaking states often published notices of residents who had
emigrated. For example, there were 277,000 such mentions in the newspaper Deutscher
Reichsanzeiger in the period 1820-1914. These have been collected into the book The
Germanic Emigrants Register (1992) which is also on FHL microfiche. The index
unfortunately does not give the hometown, but you can get it by writing to Germanic
Emigrants Register, Postfach 10 08 22, 51608 Gummersbach, GERMANY.
Here is some more in-depth and detailed information on emigration sources: