European Migration


Emigration from Herford District to the USA

By Birgit Rausch


Between 1820 and 1930 about 6Million Germans from all parts of Germany emigrated to the USA. From the Ravensberg area, which means the landscape between Bielefeld and Minden, also thousands emigrated, about 90 % to the USA and only a few to other countries. From Herford district a number of 10.000 people can be estimated, which is about as much as the population of the city of Herford in 1865, or 1/7 of the population of Herford district in the same year.

Reasons for emigration were mostly economical. The rural lower class of farm workers, called “Heuerlinge”, had made their living during the winter by spinning or weaving, which became impossible in the 19th century because of the English machine spinning and weaving. The decline of wages was accompanied by an increase of food prices, caused by several successive crop failures during the forties. Poverty caused people from 1820 on to emigrate, first choosing destinations like the nowadays so-called Ruhr areaor the principality Lippe, which were foreign in these days. Only a few very brave people dared to cross the Atlantic ocean into a totally unknown way of life.But very soon the emigration wave grew like an avalanche and reached its climax in 1853.

The process of emigration took place as follows: The person who was willing to emigrate or the father of the family went to the senior civil servant of his district and applied for a “release from the Prussian community of subjects”. The senior civil servant wrote down the names and birth dates of the involved persons and made a statement regarding the military duties of young men or the possibly existing debts whose payment one could try to escape. Then he sent the application to the district officer in Herford, called “Landrat” in German, who sent the files on to the government of the administrative district in Minden, where the release certificate was written out and sent back by the same way to the senior civil servant who then could hand it over to the applicant after he paid his dues. After this process the man, woman or family was free to leave. They sold everything they could not take with them, getting money to pay the voyage, perhaps lent the rest of the travel expenses from relatives, and started their long way by first travelling by boat, later by railway, to Bremen or Hamburg. 

Besides legal emigration like I just described of course there was a high number of people who emigrated illegally, just vanishing during the night, for different reasons. Many young men tried to avoid Prussian military duty by emigration, but their left-behind family had to pay fines for that. Sometimes people only emigrated illegally because they did not have the money for the emigration license.

Sometimes even people were sent away against their will to get rid of them, being poor or criminal, so they were no longer a problem for the community. The local police officer guided them to their ship to make sure they were gone forever.

It is scarcely possible to imagine the despair people had to feel for daring to do such a step. Rural people from Ravensberg seldom had left their own village or its vicinity and knew only landscapes they could reach by walking, if military duties had not taken them to other countries. Emigration normally was final, expecting never to be able to come back again. This meant to say good-bye to people who would or could not come along, and to the places they knew. Ahead of them lay an uncertain future, a dangerous voyage across the ocean many people did not survive, and an equally dangerous life in the New World, threatened by Indians or by diseases like cholera.

Of course none of our people knew only one word in English, so it is only logical they did prefer to go after their arrival in New York or New Orleans to places where friends, relatives or former neighbours already had settled, who spoke the same language and who had promised to support them in the beginning. By this way, many “German” settlings like New Paderborn, New Melle or Hermann in Missouri, where people from the Detmold area had settled, were formed. In Quincy/Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi, many emigrants from the Herford area, especially from Elverdissen, came together, founded their own parish, St. James, with a pastor from Valdorf near Vlotho. Many well-known names from our area you can still find today in the Quincy directory.

Although many emigrants “got stuck” in cities like Quincy, St. Louis or Chicago, it was the aim of most to get their own farm. The American government gave them farmland for low prices, which of course had been taken away from the Indians, and had first to be cultivated with immeasurable trouble. The family had to live in a hole in the ground for the beginning, until there was time to build a log cabin, giving shelter for people and cattle. Weather disasters like hurricanes or floods, diseases or Indian attacks were a constant threat. Despite all work and trouble it cost, for most emigrants it has been worth wile to venture the voyage to America, being accustomed to working hard. While here, in the old home, one had seldom enough food, many managed to build a new existence and a prosperity in the New World meaning to have plenty of food every day, and a home or farm of their own, which was more than what the old home had to give to them.


Birgit Rausch

Herford, May 2000