Emigration and Travel to America

In search of a new life

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Before 1848, emigration was unheard of in rural areas. Live was hard but there was no alternative for serfs under feudal rules. Unemployment, mechanization of farm work, improvements in medicine (less child deaths, more people reaching adulthood), the long military draft, and being part of the Austro Hungarian Empire in constant wars made outlooks in especially the rural Czech lands very bleak.

Feudalism was finally abolished in 1848 and the peasants got more freedom, including the freedom to leave the manor and parish for other places.At the same time, the young United States of America needed many more people to help settle the newly opened on the Great Plains. Stories from earlier settlers told about the offer of free land and many possibilities. Advertisements for travel showed ships leaving for America often several times per week, making travel look easier and safer. All this showed these rural people a hopeful if scaring alternative for the bleak outlooks home.

USA travel add 2   USA travel add 1
Adverts for travel to the USA from 1870s and 1880s newspapers.
The add on the left mentions "departures every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday", clearly a busy and lucrative business!

This frightening journey started with the travel to ports of departure. Most emigrants from our region probably used Bremen (that is, its port facilities in Bremerhafen), although many also traveled through Hamburg. There, they had to get their tickets and wait for departure. Initially, people stayed at boarding houses, at the end of the 1800s, both ports establishes large accommodation facilities to handle this enormous exodus of central europeans: in a period of 50 years, more than 5 million people emigrated through both ports! This in a time that populations were almost a quarter of what they are today.

travel to the usa
From sailing barge to Titanic: how travel changed. The flag at left is the official Austro-Hungarian flag used in the late 1800s. The USA flag is a copy from the 1870s, with only 37 stars.

Travel changed dramatically in those years. In the 1850s, all but a few of the ships were barque-like: mostly three-mast wooden ships with square-rigged sails. They would handle about 100 passengers on the leg to America, taking coffee, cotton and other cargo back. The picture below shows the Mohongo built in 1851. This sailing vessel made well over 100 ocean crossings, bringing Irish emigrants to America without any serious problems occurring. Other vessels and passengers were less lucky. The crossing could take on average 3 to 5 weeks, but could easily take months. It was not abnormal that over 10% of the passengers succumbed during the journey!

Later in the second half of the 1800s, hybrid sail-steam ships became norm for a few decades. As of the end of the 1800s, steel steam ships took over and wood and sail disappeared for good. A few of the largest ocean liners of those days could could carry around 2000 passengers; the SS Amerika from 1905, largest of her time, could carry 2500. However, most emigrant ships still handled only several hundreds of passengers, often still in unfavorable conditions.

ss baltimore   ss elbe
A world of difference. In 1875. Josef Vochozka arrived in the USA on board of the early hybrid vessel SS. Baltimore. In 1884, his mother and 5 siblings arrived in the USA on board the SS Elbe, a full steel steam ship of a type that would remain virtually the same for the next centruy.

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© Robert Dulfer (2021)