From Germany to America: An 1853 Journey

During the course of the nineteenth century, millions of our ancestors left Germany and embarked on a new life in America. Whether the reason was the failed 1848 uprisings, the effects of the Industrial Revolution, or simply seeking an opportunity for a better life, the end result was the same – our ancestors bravely left behind everything they knew and moved to a foreign land halfway around the world.


Fast forward two hundred years. If we genealogists want to discover the stories of these emigrant ancestors who so bravely left their homeland, passenger lists, emigration documents, and other records may provide the only clues available. But for some lucky genealogists, there is more: personal letters, letters written in the very hands of their ancestors, letters that detail their journey across the ocean and the beginnings of their new life in America.

Susan Hennefield is one such person who was lucky enough to find such a letter among her father’s belongings. I recently had the pleasure of translating this 1853 letter, and she has kindly agreed to let me share it with you here to showcase what an emigration experience was like in the mid-nineteenth century. My own ancestor, Gerhard Wolken, sailed from Bremen in 1854, so I like to think that he might have had a similar journey to Susan’s ancestor Wilhelm below! Perhaps your ancestors did too?

1854 Passenger List of the Ship “Jeverland”. My ancestor Gerhard Wolken emigrated to America at the age of 23, much like Susan’s ancestor Wilhelm Riecker below.

Background Info:

Wilhelm Friedrich Riecker was twenty-two years old when he left Germany for a new life in America. He was the second son of at least twelve children, and his father was a soapmaker in Kürnbach, Karlsruhe. Read on below to see his first letter to his parents after arriving in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York after a 57-day sea journey…

Williamsburg, Sept. 10, 1853

            Dear parents and siblings,

After arriving in my new homeland on August 13 after a 57-day sea journey, I am now picking up the pen to write. I hope that this letter finds you all still happy and healthy, as you were at the time of my departure. We left Mannheim on June 12 at 5:00 in the morning, arrived in Cologne at 7:30 in the evening, and, since there were no more tickets being issued then, had to spend the night in Cologne. We then left for Bremen the following day. They checked all our passports in Preußisch-Minden, on the Hanoverian border. Those who didn’t have the proper documents (which the authorities were not happy about) had to go back.

We stayed in Bremen the 14th and 15th. On the afternoon of the 16th, we left Bremen on a small barge and headed towards Bremerhaven. We didn’t arrive there until the 18th. In Bremen I had to pay half of a Prussian thaler for board, and then had to buy tinware for 1 thaler and a mattress for ½ a thaler. I didn’t buy a pillow or woolen carpet so that I could save my money.

In the passenger building in Bremerhaven, there were people who had already been there fourteen days or even four weeks because they were dealing with cases against the Bremen shipping clerks. It could have easily been the case that I would also have had to wait 14 days at the port because when I was in Bremen, I received a ticket without the name of the captain or the ship that I was supposed to go on. But I went straight to the office and said, “Please be so good and fill in these two spots for me.” They replied, “You won’t receive that information until you are in Bremerhaven.”  But I went back in the afternoon and asked him again, and then he did as I asked. As we were arriving in Bremerhaven, they took us straight to the ocean-bound ship and said, “Whoever has a ticket for the ship Orion led by Captain Schwartz, bring your things on board.” It was only me and a locksmith from Saxony who did so. The barge then made its way to land and everyone went into the passenger building. There they received food like on the ship, just a little bit better. Everyone had to sleep on their own mattress.

So on June 18, we departed from the port. It was a Saturday afternoon with nice, warm weather, and the ship steadily made its way out of the port. The next day we had a good strong wind, we flew like an arrow. If that wind had stayed, we would have made it to New York in 24 days. We sailed on the North Sea for 10 days. It was shortly after 3:00 in the afternoon when we would have gone through the Channel, but we had bad wind and could have been stuck there for 14 days. So we therefore sailed between England and Scotland, which was dangerous – when we woke up in the morning we were heading towards both of the islands, but then the ship was turned about again so that we were being pushed away from the islands instead of going towards them. That same day looked stormy. At the beginning of our trip it was so cold that you almost couldn’t stand being out on the deck. Later it was warm. We didn’t have very favorable winds, so we always had to veer quickly off course, to the right or to the left, which caused it to be a long journey. There were often storms. One time there was a thunderstorm at 3:00 in the morning. The storm appeared within ten minutes, and all the sailors, except for those who were on watch, were still sleeping. Then there was a scream, and all the boxes slid down. The sailors couldn’t reach the ropes to shorten sail, and then they were completely blinded by fire and lightning and then the darkness. But after the sailors had shortened sail, the storm was over.

Births that took place: 2 Deaths: 2  

Things went well on my trip to Bremen, but I can’t say anything good about the sea: in the morning, we received black coffee, or if someone wanted to have hot water and had their own coffee or wanted to make soup, then they could. Throughout the week, lunch consisted of: peas, beans, rice, barley, sauerkraut, and salted bacon, beef, potatoes. In the evenings, tea or water, ¼ butter for the entire week, zwieback, almost so small that you all would have thrown it to the chickens, 4 small little cakes of white zwieback per week, and 3 half liters of sweet water a day for four people.

Aug. 12. On Friday afternoon at 2:00, we saw land, but we couldn’t tell at first if it actually was land or just a cloud. We anchored at 8:00 and stayed there for two hours. At 10:00 we continued on again, and in the morning we were in front of the fort. Then a doctor came and asked if there were any sick people on board. Then we were taken, with the boxes, into the harbor on a tugboat. That was 3:00 on Saturday afternoon, and I was then in New York until Sunday morning. Then I went over to Brooklyn. I found Joseph after about forty minutes, without wandering aimlessly around Brooklyn too much before. The first week, I boarded at a German innkeeper’s, then I stayed with Joseph at H. Vollmer’s at the bakery until we found work for me. I am now working in Williamsburg at a comb and whalebone factory for an American. I earn six thalers a week for every dozen, and from that I need 2 ½ thalers for room and board. I am actually boarding at Christiana Billett’s place. She says to tell you all hello, and hello to her relatives as well. They are all healthy, as are Gottlieb Veit and his wife and Sophie Schaaf. They live an entire hour away from Joseph. G. Veit came to the bakery a few days after my arrival without even knowing that I was here. We then drove out to his home. When we got there, Sophie Schaaf was sitting in front of the house with G. Veit’s girl. I didn’t recognize her then. Elisabetha was not feeling well that evening of my first visit. They were all excited about my arrival and our reunion. Gottlieb Pfeifer, Wilh. Müller, we all get together every Sunday. Weißert will have told you that Joh. Pfeiffer has gone to California.

 Furthermore: Joseph didn’t receive the letter that I myself took to the post office in Kalrsruhe right before my departure. Write again soon about what Gottfried is up to in Karlsruhe. Joseph didn’t even know that Gottfried had left Kürnbach.

 I would very much like to know how things turned out this year with the recruits. I would also advise everyone that they should not travel via Bremen, but via Haven instead. I think that is the shortest way. Going through Bremen always takes longer and the highly-praised food on the ship that people talk about is not how it actually is. 

Joseph and I send you all our affectionate regards, as well as regards to all of our cousins Karl Pfeifer, Ch. Scharpf, J. Riecker, our cousins Susanna and both Johanna’s, and especially to our esteemed uncle in Ellwangen, our Gother Kärcher, J. Hamman, W. Brand, and their children, cousin Baumwirth, Mayor Drechsel, and our neighbor Joh. Pfeifer, and my friends whom I visited the last few days I was there, as well as to Georg Schaaf and Engelhard Müller.

            Don’t worry about either of us.


                                    loyal son,

                                    W.F. Riecker

Also say hello to the recruiting leader and his wife. If both of her brothers want to come to America, cobblers can make good money here.

Did your ancestor come over from Germany in the 19th century? How have you found information about their journey? Let us know in the comments!

More Info: German Immigrants: List of Passengers Bound from Germany to New York, 1847-1854

24 thoughts on “From Germany to America: An 1853 Journey

  1. Donnajones4542 says:

    This is such an amazing letter and it does give wonderful insight on what the journey must have been like. I listened to a webinar that talked about how the passengers had to bring their own mattresses, blankets, and pillows. The speaker said that on the steam boats, people had to stay under the deck and they were allowed to come on the deck for about an hour a day. The smoke was pillowing and the deck was packed. Thank you Susan Hennefield for sharing such a precious letter and Katherine for the translation and the post.

  2. Melanie says:

    My German ancestor left his village in today’s Baden-Württemberg to travel across the sea on the Ship Samuel in 1732. He landed at Philadelphia, accompanied by his new wife and at least one sister, maybe two. Back home he left two young daughters, and I always thought that was a cruel thing to do …. until I read about the mortality rate of children on those early 18th century voyages. In Pennsylvania, he had two sons who produced large families. From later passage lists, he may have had grandchildren who came to America, but he never knew. He died in 1754. My dream is to connect the family today with the ones he left behind.

  3. Mary McKenzie says:

    Very interesting, as my ancestor John Freidrich Lubke/Luebke came to America about this time. He married Lisette Salter and first settled in St. Louis, then went to the gold fields of California for about 7 years, then settled in Olive Twp., Madison Co., IL.

    • kapschober says:

      I wonder if he had a similar journey? My ancestors also settled in St. Louis, but didn’t make it out to California!

  4. Sean Young says:

    Georg and Sofie Schaaf are my ancestors! So interesting to see their names in this letter. I was able to get church and birth records from about that time. And it’s quite a challenge to translate them.

    • Susan Hennefield says:

      That is incredible that our ancestors knew each other in the 1850s and that you would find their names in this letter that was tucked away, forgotten, and left untranslated up until recently. For years I thought Wilhelm Riecker was the only one of his siblings to come to America. I didn’t even know his older brother, Joseph, had come before him until a few months ago. I often thought Wilhelm came across the Atlantic to a land where he knew no one. I felt comforted in a way to learn that he was greeted by a number of close friends and family when he arrived in his new homeland. You may have a new perspective, as I do, on not only what the sea journey was like, but how friends and neighbors in Karlsruhe and likely other towns followed the same path to America and met up with one another once they got here. I’m glad you discovered your ancestors in this letter and learned a little more what it was like for them.

  5. Bronwyn Klimach says:

    Such an amazingly detailed letter – thanks so much for for sharing! I have 6 separate ancestral sailings (1855-1887) from Hamburg to Australia (5 to Moreton Bay, Queensland) and am always in awe of the decision of these people to venture such a distance on the high seas to a very different and unfamiliar world. Of course their voyages took a minimum of 3 months (and usually much longer) and controversy surrounded some of the agents and shipping lines. And, as today, at every step along the way there were some who tried to take advantage of those inexperienced travellers.

  6. Carrie S says:

    I loved reading this! Thank you so much for sharing. My German ancestor arrived 11 August 1853 into New York and went on to Utica. He, too, sailed from Bremen. What a choice letter to have!

    • kapschober says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Carrie! Your ancestor sailed right around the same time – I was hoping that would happen for some people!

  7. Lisa says:

    Thanks for sharing! My Nothnagel ancestors came aboard the Chimborazo, a steamer, in 1852 from the small town of Griesheim, just west of Darmstadt. This gives me a better idea of what their journey may have been like and just how much connectedness there was to people who had already immigrated.

  8. JOHN H LODGE says:

    I have two relatives that left Festenberg, Prussia in the summer of 1851 on the ship “Anna”. My third ggf Adolph Puerschell and his brother in law Julius Emmner. Although I have no letters regarding their voyage I have three letters sent home to Prussia starting in April of 1852. The letters describe their early lives in Baltimore and Washington, DC trying to find work and get themselves settled before sending for their families some several years later. One of the letters talks about the political climate in Washington before the Civil War.

    The earliest letter I have is from 1847 written by my third gg Uncle to my third ggf James Lodge. James was in Pontypool, Wales and his brother Joseph was in Morrisania, West Chester, N. Harlem , New York. Joseph originally left Bristol, England in 1828 on the ship “Cosmo” and returned with his family in 1832.

    All the letters have such rich descriptions of their lives and the America they came to.

  9. Angus Macdonald says:

    Wow! That is definitely an example of determination! To be subjected to all these not exactly luxury conditions and being for what must have seemed like an eternity cooped up below decks for weeks on end, and the thunderstorms and people throwing up all around you … . You’ve got to feel for them!
    I am reminded, when I read about emigrants like this, of the letter of Wilhelm Stille*, a German immigrant to the US who wrote home in 1834 with the request “Write and tell me when I was born …”. That really touched me and stayed with me!

    His letter is one of those translated and reproduced in “News from the Land of Freedom: German immigrants write home” / edited by Walter D. Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Helbich and Ulrike Sommer (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991 ISBN 0-8014-2523-9) in “News from the Land of Freedom: German immigrants write home” / edited by Walter D. Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Helbich and Ulrike Sommer (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991 ISBN 0-8014-2523-9)

  10. troy wollwage says:

    Thank you for sharing the letter. Many of the thoughts shared here are the same that go through my head as I research my own ancestors from Germany and Prussia. As I sit and look for clues my mind drifts to “what were they thinking?” or “what were they giving up?” or “who did they leave behind?” I am fascinated by this effort to escape or look for something new, not to mention the arduous journey they undertook. I have no letters of my own so letters like the above help me form my own ideas as to the ordeal, the decision making involved and rationale as to why they came to the US and left behind so much. I like to think their decision was one of great under taking, that they left behind many memories and family who cared for them, that they left with great remorse knowing they would never see family and friends ever again

    My family came to Chicago from Jarmen, Demmin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany. I only learned this two years ago after 25 years of trying to find some connection to where we came from. My last name is WOLLWAGE. Growing up I never understood why no one else besides family has this name. Now, I know how rare it really is. There are two groups of Wollwage family in the US, mine and another. I am convinced both are related as some facts are shared.
    thank you for sharing. -Troy

    • kapschober says:

      I also like to think of that, Troy – what must it have been like for them? I think this letter gives such great insight into the journey! And wow, only two groups of Wollwages in the US – hopefully that makes your research easier and not harder!

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