Many emigrants from Germany, Austria and Central Europe headed for the German port of Hamburg. Hamburg became a port of emigration because of its competition with Bremen as a seaport for trade. In the early 1830s, Bremen was doing well in its trade with America, while Hamburg trade was mostly with the West Indies and Latin America. When a ship arriving from America was ready for the return trip, Bremen often did not have enough export goods and the ship had to return to America empty. This made the shipping process very expensive. To combat this problem, Bremen began to lure part of the emigration traffic away from other European ports such as Le Havre, Antwerp, and Rotterdam. Its efforts were successful. Hamburg had a decree which forbid group emigration. Only single families or travelers could emigrate from Hamburg.
The collection of emigrants in Bremen caused some problems for the city. Often emigrants were stranded there without food and had to go through the city begging because they did not have enough money for lodging or passage. Unscrupulous ship’s agents enticed them to Bremen with a promise to ship them to America and get them a plot of land. Then they took what money the emigrants had. There were many other underhanded deals as well. This left the city of Bremen responsible for providing financial assistance.
In order to safeguard its emigration business, Bremen passed a decree in 1832 which freed the city from giving financial assistance to emigrants, while making it obligatory for ship owners to certify the seaworthiness of their vessels, to keep passenger lists, and to keep provisions for 90 days on board. This meant that ship’s agents had to deliver what they promised.
This policy for protection of emigrants not only made Bremen’s America trade more profitable, but brought considerable benefit to the Bremen economy. The emigrants, between their arrival and their departure by ship, had to stay in Bremen lodging houses and feed themselves. Also the emigrant ships had to purchase substantial quantities of provisions in Bremen. The increased shipping trade provided business for sail makers and all the other trades connected with shipping as well.
In order to keep up with Bremen and reap some of the emigration profits as well, Hamburg finally decided to open up group emigration. The City Council published a decree in February of 1837. It laid out the space entitlement of each passenger, the size of the bunks, and the quantity of provisions that were to be taken on the voyage. Hamburg also established its first liner service between Hamburg and New York to handle the emigration.
Hamburg ships began advertising their crossings. Such an advertisement might read, “The passengers from the day of embarkation to the day of disembarkation at the port of destination receive free board on the scale usual on seagoing ships. This consists of sustaining and nutritious food such as salt beef, salt pork, herrings, peas, beans, pearl barley, oats, rice, sauerkraut, butter, plums, pastries, pudding, etc., all in sufficient quantity and of the best quality. Coffee is served in the mornings, and in the evening’s tea and ship’s bread with butter. In accordance with the decree of the local authority, the ships are provisioned for 90 days so that the passengers will not lack for anything on the longest voyage.”
Hamburg was not a good city for emigrants, however, and there were no regulations about their treatment during their stay in Hamburg. Most emigrants arrived in Hamburg by rail. Every landlord tried to entice as many emigrants as he could to his inn or lodging house. Sometimes the landlords hired “litzer” (runners) who handled this. Runners were also hired by the clerks of shipping lines, by moneychangers, by stores selling utensils for the voyage, etc. The runners were paid a commission on each customer they brought. The emigrants, who were naturally not familiar with Hamburg conditions, were frequently the victims of fraud. They were charged very high prices for board and lodging or were sold unneeded utensils for the voyage. Many lost much of their money before they even left Europe.
In order to stop the “runner’s racket”, a private association, the Association for the Protection of Emigrants, was founded in Hamburg in 1850. From that date forward, on their arrival at the railroad station, most emigrants received information on the average price of board and accommodation, how to transfer baggage, the necessary utensils for the voyage, the current rates of exchange, and the different types of passage available to America. However, by the year 1854, the emigrants leaving Hamburg rose to nearly 51,000, and the private association could no longer handle the numbers. Finally, in 1855, the City of Hamburg took over the Information Office and its staff. At the same time, the Emigration Office was given the judicial authority to quickly settle disputes between emigrants and landlords or businessmen before the emigrant sailed. This gave another protection to the emigrants that they did not have previously.
Aboard at last, the emigrants settled down for a long voyage. On sunny days they crowded on deck, trying to enjoy the fresh air in spite of cinders from the smokestacks. Sometimes there was a moment of excitement; the sighting of a whale or a distant iceberg – but time passed slowly. Occasionally a newborn baby was baptized by the captain; more often, a baby died and was buried at sea with a brief ceremony. A young sport might start a game of cards or dominoes, whirl a girl around the deck, pick a fight, play tunes on a tin whistle or harmonica; single girls giggled at the compliments of the young men who so greatly outnumbered them. Older men sat stolidly smoking pipes; their wives sewed. Mostly the travels talked of the future, remembered the past, and stared at the sea until bad weather drove them below.
When wind and chilling rain kept them in steerage for several days, the foul air became stifling. Only the newest liners had sitting space or even room in the passageways for more than a few people. A mid-century law decreed that each passenger must have a berth 6 feet by 18 inches. There were too few toilets, no facilities for washing with fresh water. Although the steerage area was whitewashed and disinfected in port, it quickly became filthy, reeking of old food, vomit and unwashed humanity. During the stormy season some passengers lay in their bunks for days (fully dressed under two rough blankets), unable to face meals of stringy boiled beef, salt herring, and thick slices of stale black bread. Children cried incessantly. There seemed to be no room, no air to breathe, no way to fall asleep. The odor- they called it the smell of “ship” permeated every possession; it would last for months.
In the middle 1800’s the steam engine began to take over shipping. On May 29, 1850, the first Hamburg steamship sailed over the Atlantic Ocean to America. In 1856 there were two 2400 ton steamships put into service on the direct route from Hamburg to New York. More steamers followed, but the cost of passage was more than that of the sailing ships. The direct voyage between Hamburg and New York, which had lasted 43 to 63 days, was shortened to a maximum of 12 to 14 days. In 1856 only 5% of the emigrants landing in New York came by steamship, but by 1870 it was 88%. Increased competition pushed fares down so that steamship crossings finally cost less than sailings. In 1879 the last emigrant sailing vessel left Hamburg and the steamship became the sole method of transportation. During the era of the sailing ship (1836 until 1880) Hamburg statistics recorded a total of 1,072,404 emigrants leaving its port. 88% of all of those emigrants chose the United States of America or Canada as their destination, with 5.4% emigrating to Brazil and Argentina, and 4.8% to Australia. The steamship changed the lengthy, tough, unhealthy and dangerous sea voyage of the sailing ship age into a 10 to 14 day episode. The Atlantic Ocean crossing to America changed for the better.
After the endless nights and days, a morning would come when a sudden change in the ship’s motion signaled the end of the voyage. If the U. S. Public Health Service cleared the ship, she sailed past the quarantine hospitals on Hoffmann and Swinburne Islands, and the enormous harbor came into view. Other transatlantic ships, small tugs, and paddle-wheeled ferries crisscrossed in every direction. As the ship steamed through the Narrows into New York harbor, Albert Severt and family with the other passengers crowded the small steerage deck. Everyone pushed to the rail, straining to see the amazing view. People jostled each other to get a better look, and mothers lifted small children in the air to see. Many on deck broke into tears, crying and laughing at the same time, slapping each other on the back in joy and relief. One word was the same on all tongues: “America!” Passage to a new life cost about $30 from Hamburg. Hope for success in the new land to which they are voluntary exiles; fear of the unknown future; joy that the long-dreaded voyage is over; and sorrow at the memories tugging at their heart strings.
Many immigrants sailed to America with the dream of working their own farm. Agents in the 1870’s and “80’s scoured the villages and towns of Europe, seeking passengers for the Western railroads and settlers for states that urgently needed people. A typical recruiter trudged the rounds of Bremen’s shipping offices and emigrant boardinghouses, hammering up posters and thrusting rhapsodic pamphlets into any receptive hand. The state authorities of Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa also distributed leaflets describing the free, 160-acre homesteads, the climate, soil, and crop yields the wages. The leaflets told of the railroads built and building, of the schools, churches, and newspapers that would cater to an immigrant in his own language.
Oppressive, corrupt governments aggravated the struggle to earn a living. In Germany the Revolution of 1848 sent to U. S. shores thousands of disillusioned liberals and nationalists. When Albert left the fields of Germany he was just a young man of 24 years with a young wife and two children, August Fredrich, 2 years old and Anna, born the same year.
Franz & Barbara Prokosch started planning their trip to the U.S. at least as early as June of 1879. Copies of Birth Certificates for all family members were gathered at the local Parish of Berg in preparation of the trip. Franz & Barbara also prepared for the sale of the family farm and home in Melmitz. It was sold to ______________ , believed to also be a relative of the Prokosch or Lilla family.
The Prokosch family gathered what they could carry and loaded the immigration trunks and boxes into a horse drawn wagon and traveled to Plzen to catch the train to Bremen, Germany.
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