Coming to America

The names are faultlessly typed on yellow cardboard, together with other information. In both English and German, they tell the story of over twelve million immigrants who left from two North German ports over a period of about one hundred fifty years, headed for the Promised Land.

Not all the people are listed in this way of course, the data wouldn’t fit in the building. Each little wooden drawer is about one inch high, so the records would be stacked up to a height of two hundred miles. By then you would have left the atmosphere behind you and be well over one hundred miles into space.

Given the German obsession with rules and regulations in general, and record-keeping in particular, it’s unsurprising that so much detail is available. The restrictions to immigration imposed by the US in the 1910s added to this database. People knocking on America’s door had been able to enter freely, although in 1882 Congress restricted the entry of idiots, lunatics, and paupers. This suggests that any of these groups you may now find Stateside are strictly homegrown.

In parallel, Congress also limited the access of Chinese immigrants. Given the peer-group, it’s reminiscent of the signs in the gentlemen’s clubs of British India, advising ‘No Dogs or Indians Allowed.’ There is a period cartoon suggesting Chinamen might gain entrance by posing as ‘an anarchist, as an Irishman, as an English wife-hunter, as a yacht racer, or as a Sicilian.’ Apparently all those groups were unpopular in America at the time. I struggle with the connection between the anarchist and yacht racer.

Form for a nine year old Russian boy who left Bremerhaven, Germany, for America in 1910.

I pulled out quite a few drawers at the Deutsches Auswanderer Haus looking for the more unusual aspects of emigration from Germany. And I found them. All the men have professions marked, from ship chandler to shoemaker. But the women don’t. Apart from one lonely soul listed as a housewife, and an eighteen year old quaintly described as a handmaid, all the other gals came in with a resounding X for their Beruf.

The other obvious conclusion after a little formwork was that a good number of the emigrants were of the eastern European persuasion. The DAH website tells us that it was about half and half. Over three million came from Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and many of those were Jewish. Over the nineteen thirties, the Jewish contingent increased significantly. In the stock market there’s a saying that the smart money gets out early. For those who remained, mass genocide awaited.

I was keen to find out how many of the Germans went to Brazil, since the south of that country is a bastion of German immigration. No one knew. Argentina? Another blank.

The journey to America took 4-6 weeks in the sailing ships that belonged to the Lloyd line, based at Bremerhaven. Later, that company merged with the operator from Hamburg to become Happag-Lloyd. The travel conditions in third class, usually known as steerage, were suitably appalling. Multiple adults packed to a bunk, kids interspersed, a communal bucket for a toilet. Better than the conditions belowdecks experienced by Vasco da Gama’s sailors, but not by much.

The return home from the Mare Clausum, the closed sea of the Romans. The Madeira route was used by Columbus to go west, returning via the Azores. It is likely that the same route was used by the Lloyd sailing ships to bring immigrants to America before the age of steam.

Did the Lloyd sailing ships use the route to America discovered by the Portuguese as part of the route to Guinea, in the mid-fifteenth century? The same route Columbus took to make landfall at Guanahani? Most probably. They will have sailed south to the latitude of the Canaries (until the butter melts), and then used the northeast trade winds to navigate west along the parallel, just as the Portuguese taught Columbus to do.

Galveston will then have been an historical port of call, as well as New Orleans, as the saling vessels headed north into the Gulf of Mexico. Somewhere, there must be records of the ships’ logs from the first half of the XIXth century, with positions and dates. I’d love to see one of those, particularly since by then an accurate longitude reading was possible.

The displays from the museum, the facilities for research, as well as the overall setting and context, justify the award it received as European Museum of the Year 2011. Children going through it will be struck by the vivid wax figures, the dark corners, the lonesome steamer trunks showing nightdresses, underwear, and other clothing abandoned by the disenfranchised in their haste. The only thing missing is the smell.

A room full of computer terminals allows access to a database. I did a couple of searches for fun, but I was lingering, most of the party was already busy consuming alcohol outside the museum. So reluctantly, I left. But if you have relatives that emigrated to the US through north Germany you may find them here, since the database has almost seven hundred thousand entries. Luckily, it is online. Good luck with your search. A key features prominently in the Bremen coat of arms. Perhaps Bremen’s Auswanderer database also holds the key to your ancestors.

Three QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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