Many times when we are just beginning our research we set a goal of finding our immigrant ancestors. Why is that? For some of us, that seems like a start to our story as Americans - the typical immigrant story of desperation, coming to the land of promise and making a name for ourselves. For others, we want to see how long our families have been in the country and if we qualify for membership in a lineage society. My wife has several waves of early immigrants including Jamestown and the Pilgrims as well as some more recent immigrants. She has nearly a dozen direct ancestors who were Patriots in the Revolutionary War. For me, on the other hand, all of my ancestors arrived during the mid 1800s during one of the mass immigration waves from Germany.
If you are of German descent, your ancestors probably came to the country during one of the major German influxes. The first significant influx of German immigrants was in the 1680s and they settled in New York and Pennsylvania. This group consisted of the Quakers and Mennonites who were seeking religious freedom. Many of them originated from the Lower Rhine region of Germany.
The second group were the members of the Palatine migration in 1709. This migration consisted of about 15,000 immigrants from the Palatine region located in southwestern Germany. These people primarily settled in New York and North Carolina. These immigrants cited poverty as their primary reason for leaving Germany.
Another large influx of German immigrants occurred between 1728 and 1820. About half of these immigrants were known as "redemptioners", poor Germans who came to America as indentured servants.
|Distribution of Germans - 1872|
The first step in discovering your German immigrants is probably to trace them in the US census records. This is generally fairly easy since the more recent census records (post 1850) have information such as the place of birth of the individual, place of birth of their parents, and some indication of immigration status and/or year.
Once you determine which influx of immigrants your ancestors belonged to, you can begin to figure out which port of entry they may have used. For example, they could have come in through one of the major ports of entry such as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Galveston or New Orleans. New York had two ports of arrival, the most recent being Ellis Island (1892-1954) but prior to that it was Castle Garden (1820-1892). Each of these ports have a website that you can search for your immigrants in: Ellis Island - Castle Garden. Records for the Port of Philadelphia are available for the period 1800-1945. Port of Baltimore records are available for 1820-1948. Galveston has records from 1846-1948. New Orleans records are available for 1800-1945. Many German immigrants who settled in St. Louis of Cincinnati came in through New Orleans and then took river boats, or other modes of transportation, up the Mississippi River.
Once you have found the port of entry you will be able to find the ship's passenger list. Sometimes these are just lists of the names and ages of the passengers but other times they are a wealth of information. You could find the nationality or place of birth of the immigrant, the date of departure and arrival, port of departure and arrival, age, height, profession, last place of residence, name and address of relative they are joining in the US, and the amount of money or number of trunks they are bringing to the country.
|Example of a ship's passenger list with excellent information.|
Hopefully you are able to find a passenger list like the one above. This one has the name of the immigrant, age, sex, occupation, nationality, city of last residence, name and address of relative in Germany, and destination, along with the ship's name, port of departure and date. You can see that Emil Augenstein was born in Ellmendingen, Germany and that he still had family living there.
Most German immigrants left from one of four major ports; Hamburg, Bremen, Antwerp, or Le Havre, France. Between 1850 and 1891, 41% of German immigrants left through the port of Bremen, 30% via Hamburg, 16% from Le Havre, and 8% from Antwerp.
A complete collection of Hamburg passengers from 1850 to 1934 can be found on FamilySearch and Ancestry. The FamilySearch records must be searched at your local Family History Center due to contract requirements.
Unfortunately, all of the Bremen records from 1875 to 1908 were destroyed because of lack of storage space. Additionally, most of the records from 1920 to 1939 were destroyed during WW II. FamilySearch does have a searchable index of Bremen passenger lists from 1907-1908 and 1913-1914. The Staats Archiv Bremen also has a database of ships and passengers which contains the surviving records from 1904-1914 and 1920-1939. To use this database you need to know the name of the ship and its departure date which can be found in US immigration records. If you can find the person's name in the FamilySearch index you will then know the name of the ship and its departure date and can look up the passenger list from that voyage.
|Obituary for Theresa Terling Wise|
How else might you find where in Germany your ancestor was born? You could try to locate an obituary for your ancestor. The obituary pictured here tells me that Theresa Terling, my great-great grandmother was born on January 26, 1839 in Glandorf, Germany.
Another set of records that can be helpful for finding German immigrants are the WW I Enemy Alien Registration Affidavits. These records were required for all non-naturalized "enemy aliens" during WW I. That means that if your German ancestor had not become a naturalized citizen of the United States prior to the beginning of the war he had to register. These records include a wealth of information including name(s), current and previous addresses, length of residency, birth date and place, employer, immigration date and port of arrival, and parent's names.
|WW I Enemy Alien Registration|
For more ideas on where to find German records check out the German Roots website.
Good luck and I hope you can find your German ancestors.