HAMBURG, West Germany — Between 1850 and 1934, 5.5 million Europeans set sail from here in search of a new life in America.
They came from all over Europe--Germany, Russia, Poland, Austria--and their motives for leaving their homeland were as varied as their nationalities.
Some were fleeing a life of grinding poverty and unemployment. Some left for political or religious reasons. They were farmers, craftsmen, merchants, adventurers and opportunists, but one thing bound them all together--their desire for a better life in America.
Hamburg wasn't the only harbor where hopeful emigrants sought coveted tickets for the transatlantic voyage. Le Havre, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Bremen also were overflowing with travelers bound for America.
But Hamburg distinguished itself by making a concerted effort to accommodate and protect the swell of its migrant guests, establishing in 1850 the Hamburg Assn. for the Protection of Emigrants, which provided counseling and medical care and established housing for up to 5,000 people at a time.
Most important was the requirement that every ship's agent give the Hamburg authorities a list of all passengers, with names, sex, age, occupation and home city. That list survived both world wars (Bremen's list of passengers, for example, was destroyed) and is the only complete record of Northern European emigration from 1850 to 1915.
Open to Public
In 1984 Hamburg's Historic Emigration Office opened to the public. If your ancestors set sail to America from Hamburg, chances are that the office has it on record.
"This is the only office that provides ships' rosters of passengers," said a spokesman. "The years we can trace are from 1850 to 1914 and from 1920 to 1926. Eventually, more years will be added. We get visits from about 50 Americans a week during the summer who drop in to find out about their ancestors."
The emigration office is in the Museum of Hamburg History, which also has displays relating to Hamburg's history as a harbor town and exhibits dedicated to the emigrants who left for America through Hamburg.
Personal callers to the office can receive information about their ancestors within one or two hours. Americans can also write to the emigration office and request research on their ancestors, but there's such a backlog of requests that research generally takes six months to complete.
What sort of information will a ship's roster provide about your ancestor?
You will learn your ancestor's family name and surname (which sometimes was changed upon arrival in the United States); a list of all the family members traveling together, which sometimes leads to the discovery of ancestors you hadn't known about; place of birth; marital status; profession; age (from which you can determine date of birth); sex, and the name of the ship and the date it left Hamburg.
To complete the research, the name of your ancestor and the year he or she left Hamburg is needed. Sometimes, however, the staff can find information about passengers even if you don't know the year, because other archives in Germany provide information about emigration.
The fee for the service is $30 for each year researched, whether or not the search is successful. If you give the wrong year, for example, you are still charged for the research as well as each subsequent year that is researched. Payment can be made with a personal check, cashier's check or in German marks.
About 4,000 inquiries have been made so far, which is only a drop in the bucket compared to the 5 million names on file. Most of the passengers were German. It's been determined that at least one out of every 10 Americans claims Germany as his primary ancestral home, and many more Americans of mixed heritage have at least one ancestor who was German.
Once you obtain information from the Historic Emigration Office about your ancestor's birthplace and date of birth, you may wish to continue research into your family tree. If you're planning a trip to Germany, for example, you may want to combine a trip to Hamburg with an excursion to your ancestor's birthplace to trace your family roots.
One of the first things to do upon arrival in your ancestral home in Germany is to check church records. Protestant and Catholic churches began recording baptisms, marriages and burials in the 1500s, though because of the destruction wrought by religious factions during the Thirty Years' War, it is virtually impossible to trace your family tree further back than 1648.
Try Dominant Religions
If you don't know your ancestor's religion, begin by looking at records of the region's dominant religion. Northern Germany, for example, was largely Protestant, while Catholicism was dominant in the south.
Baptism entries usually provide such information as the name of the child, his or her parents and godparents, while marriage entries give the names of the couple, the occupation of the bridegroom and the bride's maiden name.