Tips for Researching Your German Ancestors & Their Emigration
What do you hope to find out about your German ancestors? How would understanding their emigration experience help you fill out your family tree story? Read on to find out more about German emigration and immigration.
Americans with German ancestry by state. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 2020, 42,589,571 Americans reported having full or partial German ancestry, making up approximately 13.04% of the country’s population. The vast majority of these people live in the Great Plains region of the country, with the greatest concentration being in Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. While many Americans know they have German ancestry, not everyone knows how their ancestors arrived in the United States.
Historic German emigration patterns and migration routes have played a significant role in shaping modern global demographics. Germans migrated to various parts of the world over the centuries, driven by many factors, including economic opportunities, war, political climate, and social changes. Here’s an overview of German emigration’s critical periods and destinations that may give insight into your ancestor’s journey to America.
German Ancestors: American Colonial Period (17th-18th Centuries)
German emigration primarily occurred in North America during this period, particularly to British colonies like Pennsylvania. Many Germans sought religious freedom, economic prosperity, and land ownership opportunities. In 1724, a Palatinate ordinance created notable restrictions to emigration that threatened confiscation of property in response to heavy emigration to Pennsylvania “to counteract with the necessary vigor the evil whose injuriousness grows the longer it persists.” Württemberg issued eighteen similar ordinances in the mid-18th century. In 1768, Emperor Joseph II issued an edict prohibiting “all migration by German imperial subjects to foreign countries having no connection with the empire.”
Nevertheless, emigration to the United States continued. The passage to the “New World” was difficult and lengthy, as illustrated in a letter penned by Gottlieb Mittelberger in 1754:
This journey lasts from the beginning of May to the end of October, fully half a year, amid such hardships as no one is able to describe adequately with their misery…during the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of sea-sickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably.
When the ships have landed at Philadelphia after their long voyage, no one is permitted to leave them except those who pay for their passage or can give good security; the others, who cannot pay, must remain on board the ships till they are purchased, and are released from the ships by their purchasers…there are a great number there who repent and regret it while they live that they left their native country, implored me with tears and uplifted hands, and even in the name of God, to make this misery and sorrow known in Germany, so that not only the common people, but even princes and lords, might learn how they had fared, to prevent other innocent souls from leaving their fatherland.
Those who survived the journey typically settled in Pennsylvania, New York, or Virginia, with a large percentage of emigrants coming from the Palatinate. With time, the group of German settlers in Pennsylvania became known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch,” a misnomer of Deutsch, meaning German. These immigrants typically spoke Palatine German and other south German dialects that mixed with English and different German dialects over time, eventually forming the Pennsylvania Dutch language as it is spoken today.
19th-century Mass German Emigration
In 1815, German state policies on emigration started to lighten, causing a significant wave of German emigration in the 19th century, so long as men had completed their military service, paid their debts, and gained the consent of their wives. Many emigrated due to political unrest, economic hardships, and failed revolutions.
“From the Old to the New World,” published in Harper’s Weekly on 7 November 1874, shows German emigrants boarding a steamer ship in Hamburg to come to America. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The most significant flow of German immigrants was to America and happened between 1820 and the advent of World War I in 1914. The greatest number arrived between 1851 and 1860 (about 1 million) and 1881 and 1890 (about 1.5 million). The first wave was primarily due to the Revolutions of 1848 in German states, creating thousands of political refugees who fled to America and became known as “Forty-Eighters.”
The journey typically began with departing from a German port, such as Hamburg, Bremen, or Bremerhaven. These ports served as major embarkation points for German emigrants, offering regular passenger ship services to various destinations. Upon arrival in the United States, immigrants typically docked at New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New Orleans ports. After disembarking, German immigrants often made their way to the interior regions of the United States, particularly the Midwest. Many traveled by steamboat along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, while others took trains or wagons to reach their intended destinations. Major settlement areas included the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri, among others.
While the United States received the largest share of German immigrants, significant numbers also migrated to South America, Canada, and Australia, following similar migration routes.
German Emigration from Russia
In 1763, Catherine the Great of Russia invited Germans to settle in the Volga River and Black Sea regions. Known as Volga Germans and Black Sea Germans, they established several agricultural communities in modern-day Ukraine (primarily in Crimea, Odesa, and Kherson) and southeastern Russia. Another significant group settled in Bessarabia, located in present-day Moldova and Ukraine. However, political and economic changes, such as the Russian Revolution and World War I, led many to emigrate, with many choosing the United States as their new home. Many of these immigrants settled in the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska.
Temporary quarters for Volga Germans in central Kansas as depicted in the 20 March 1875 issue of Leslie’s Magazine (New York). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries
German emigration largely decreased to the United States during World War I due to mounting espionage concerns and the widespread internment of German Americans. Between the World Wars, roughly 700,000 German immigrants arrived in the United States, significantly decreasing from before World War I.
“Bavarian Man” c. 1910, Augustus Sherman. C. Courtesy of New York Public Library.
However, emigration from Germany continued in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with destinations shifting primarily to Canada, Australia, and parts of Africa. These migrations were motivated by the search for new farmland, economic opportunities, and the desire to escape political instability.
Post-World War II German Ancestors Migration
Following World War II and due to anti-German sentiment, Germans experienced significant population displacement and migration. Many Germans fled from the Soviet-controlled areas of East Germany, leading to a substantial influx into West Germany and other Western European countries. Additionally, there was a wave of German emigration to countries like the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia during this period.
Tips for Locating Your German Ancestor’s Migration Route
When determining how your ancestor emigrated and why, it is important to consider multiple factors. Using clues from naturalization records, passenger lists, years of immigration, and hometowns can help you determine possible migration paths and motivations.
For example, if your ancestor arrived in the United States in the 1850s, they may have been fleeing the Revolutions of 1848. You may be able to locate them on a Hamburg passenger list, which can include information about their place of birth, who they were traveling with, where they were going, and which ship they were on.
Using contextual clues from existing records can help paint a picture of your German ancestor’s journey and help connect you to your German roots. With the vast amount of information available to search, immigrant ancestor research is possible but can be time-consuming. If you need assistance from an expert genealogist team, the professionals at Legacy Tree Genealogists are here to help. Learn how we can further your family tree by requesting a quote today.
Check out our blog articles about passenger lists and fifteen steps you can take to find your immigrant ancestors:
For more information about German emigration, please refer to the following sources:
Jennifer A. Anderson, Shirley J. Riemer, and Roger P. Minert, The German Research Companion 3rd Ed. (China: Lorelei Press, 2010), pp. 89-190.
“Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History – German,” Library of Congress
“Migration history in Germany,” DOMiD
“Gottlieb Mittelberger’s journey to Pennsylvania in the year 1750…,” Library of Congress