ALSATIAN EMIGRATION to   United States 1815-1870

When talking about the Alsatian emigration to the United States one should remember that the United States is not quite like other countries from the population point of view. Actually the American population, except for the Indians, is basically made up of immigrants. The first settlers arrived in 1607. They were English and had been sent by a company of London merchants to found Jamestown which was the first British settlement on the Virginia coast. From then on until around 1921-24, broadly speaking, immigration, with some ups and downs, never stopped. In the Story of American immigration the period from 1815 to 1870 is part of what is known as "the old immigration" which means the kind which formed the basic American population of Wasps, that is Englishmen, Scotch-Irish from Ulster, Germans, Swiss, Dutch and Scandinavian During this period, even if life was not always rosy for the newcomers, the United States was a worthwhile place for European immigrants. It was a magnet with an extraordinary attraction thanks to the constantly available land and high salaries, which also meant in the long run the promise of a higher standard of living. Of course this land was not always equally welcoming towards immigrants.
At the end of the 18th century and in the middle of the 19th xenophobia and nativeborn movements held sway with vigour but the immigrant could always go further West and settle on the "frontier" which still needed colonising. The Alsatians did not just discover America in 1815 for they had never ceased to be interested in it from the beginning of the British colonisation. A great many Alsatian protestants found asylum there during the religious persecutions. In the 18th century the Alsatians were still fascinated by the English colonies of America and in the state archives of Strasburg there are the most extraordinary descriptions of what to expect when settling in New England and the Bay of Massachusetts where land was available for cultivating flax and hemp. One can easily imagine the effect these declarations could have on the inhabitants of the old continent who were still at the mercy of feudal rights where all this was concerned. In 1753 the emigration of Alsatians to America was worrying the powers that be and the royal authority in Strasburg decided to take steps to curb it. They did not have much success.
The French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon did not stop it either. Paul Leuilliot, a student of 19th century Alsace, has written an article about Alsatian emigration under Napoleon. He has analysed the results of an equiry launched at the time by the Minister of the Interior. Apparently emigration was particularly rife in the Wissemburg area and this part of the country went on feeding the pipeline of Alsatian emigration to America throughout the following period (1815-1870).
In 1805 the French government, which was much displeased at seeing part of the population leave for greener pastures, stopped giving passports for abroad to any inhabitant who was "not a householder and could not justify a legitimate reason for a temporary absence". Wars and blockades were the only real reasons for stopping Alsatian emigration and it started again as soon as peace returned. In 1815-16 Alsatians who wanted to emigrate had already had a path mapped out for them for over a century. This path led to an Eden of abundance and liberty which contrasted notably with the economic and psychological conditions in Alsace after the Napoleonic wars. It was not going to be easy because even if conditions were favourable across the ocean they first had to overcome enormous difficulties, maybe even face death.
The first obstacle was the voyage and the overland journey. The voyage was on sailing ships. Steamers came much later and were always too expensive for emigrants. A great many heads of households sold their little house with its patch of land to raise the money for the departure and they thus cut themselves off from any hope of return if things went wrong. There were few shipwrecks but dirt, hunger and epidemics were frequent on these sailing ships. Cholera frequently raged. There was the real danger of being swindled on arrival by unscrupulous adventurers who promised a great deal but did not deliver. The language was quite unknown to the inhabitants of the Rhine provinces and all these factors made the likelihood of success uncertain. At the end of the road there was land to clear and everything had to be built by hand. Sometimes there were Indians to be fought, sometimes it was necessary to work for a boss or to stay for some time in town, though each stop cost money and the Alsatians were chiefly drawn by the idea of land to cultivate. It is very difficult to work out how many Alsatians took part in this emigration to the United States between 1815 and 1870. There are no continuous and dependable archives where it can be calculated for sure.
The French government adopted the following tactics: when a large emigration movement appeared in a department the Minister of the Interior would ask the prefect of the department in question to make statistics. This happened twice in Alsace. In 1817 a list of names of emigrants to America which had been drawn up at the request of the government in Paris shows that over 5000 Alsatians (1236 men, I073 women and 2882 children) have left for the United States. In that year it was the Haut Rhin which supplied the largest number of emigrants, 77 % as against 23 % in the Bas Rhin. The 1817 emigration was most certainly started off by the food shortage of 1816-17 and stopped quickly. It started again in the Bas Rhin around 1826 and swelled enormously in the next ten years. This explains why the local authorities once more had to draw up a list of emigrants whose number rose to 14 435 for the single department of the Bas Rhin which lost overall 2,56 % of its population while the county of Wissembourg lost 7 %. It is possible to keep trace of the emigration to the United States from the Haut Rhin thanks to the foreign passport statistics which have a list of names (unfortunately incomplete or faulty) and analytical tables which cover quite a long period, more or less 1837-1862. A rapid calculation shows that more than 11000 inhabitants of the Haut Rhin chose America and to this must be added an approximate figure of 10000 Alsatians from the Bas Rhin who emigrated to the United States during the same period. This estimate is possible because of passport statistics kept in Strasburg. It must not be forgotten that in 1861 the most distressing war in American history had just begun and this civil war made Eldorado inaccessible for some time. In 1865-66 when emigration could start again because the war was over there does not seem to be any source of information either in Alsace or Paris giving an idea of the number of departures for the United States. All we know is that they continued because there is always talk of it in reports and correspondence between prefects and ministers.
At this time passport legislation was administered in a far more liberal manner than in the former period and passports were only counted in a vague way. It can be seen that it is very difficult to reconstitute the pattern of Alsatian emigration to the United States. Work can only be done on incomplete or occasional series and the information does not necessarily fit and often has to be interpreted. In other words, it is a hazardous undertaking. The figure of over 40000 Alsatians which is thus reached is in any case a minimum. It only shows the Alsatians who went through the passport procedure or that of the emigration service which opened in France in 1855. The number of Alsatians who gave up the idea of leaving after contacting the authorities does not count compared with the number of those who left without a passport. Indeed, quite apart from the fact that a foreign passport the emigrant cost 10 Francs, which could pose a problem for the poorest among them, the administrative procedure was long and full of red tape. Between the moment a potential emigrant went to see the mayor to make a written request and the moment when he got his passport he had to provide a certificate of morality and good conduct, a certificate saying he had paid his taxes and another saying he had paid his debts.
In certain periods he also had to leave a deposit of 50 francs which he got back at the French consulate at the port of embarkation. To top it all the local authorities, mayors, deputy-prefects and prefects had all been told to point out to the potential emigrant all the difficulties he would have to face and all the risks he was running, and all this in a reproachful tone to make him feel guilty. Indeed the official speech given for the future emigrant's benefit when he handed in his request for a passport was called a "remonstrance" (admonishment) - they were remonstrating with him ! This attempt to demoralise candidates, which was assiduously pursued by officials, tended to make Alsatians leave without having their affairs in order legally speaking, in other words, without a passport. Others, not daring to mock the law openly, left in a quasi-legitimate way. They just got hold of an interior passport, for Le Havre, for example, and it is pretty obvious where they were going ! The prefects of the Seine Maritime never stopped energetically protesting all through the 19th century about the arrival of enormous numbers of Alsatians without either a passport or a ticket to the United States or even enough money to wait for the next ship to the United States in reasonable conditions. One immediately asks oneself why all this emigration took place. 1815-1870 is a period when the Alsatian population grew. In the middle of the century Alsace could be described as overpopulated particularly in the countryside where people reduced to poverty could not longer survive on their little plot of land and had to work in factories. This explains why, although they came from the country, one can find so many people with a trade. There were also a lot of labourers who, since they were non-specialists, could just as well work in a factory as on a neighbouring farm or even work at home. These people suffered a great deal from economic crises : the slightest patch of bad weather, the slightest price-rise had an effect on their standard of living. This is very obvious in 1817 a year of near famine for a whole fringe section of the population which left in droves for the United States. It would be a mistake to think it was always the poorest Alsatians who emigrated. To take the example of the Bas Rhin from 1828 to 1837, it was found that 35 % of the families took with them large sums of money which probably enabled them to settle in the United States under good conditions. 7 % of people asking for passports took even larger sums with them and this brings the number of families able to settle in America without any problem up to 42 % from the financial point of view. The remaining 58 % had just enough to pay their passage and the overland journey. It is obvious that for those people emigrating was much more risky. They are generally poor rural labourers, the ones who had got left behind by a changing economy. It was not always economic reasons then that incited Alsatians to emigrate. The wish to evade military service was often the deciding factor. The emigration of young boys of an age to be recruited into the army is a regular feature. The government was particularly disturbed by this during the Crimean war because they feared the army was undermanned.
Another factor which would encourage emigration, but not a decisive one, is the example of Germans and Swiss who left the right bank of the Rhine and cross Alsace to embark at Le Havre. Indeed the Alsatians had a good opportunity to join these emigrants who shared the same language with them. As they were far fewer in number than the Germans, they tended to disappear on arrival in the United States inside the "German stock" of the American population. Like the Germans they adapted quickly to their new country and very rapidly became true citizens. The recruiting companies did not play the part they are usually credited with. Until 1855 they had no legal existence. The French government was constantly clamping down on them. The example of Henri Castro who recruited Alsatians to colonise Texas is significant in this respect. The French authorities went so far as to sue Castro and tried all kind of pressure to get him declared guilty and this finally happened. Fortunately this unjust verdict was declared invalid and Henri Castro was declared innocent ('s name was cleared). In addition to Castro's undertaking there were one or two other attempts to get Alsatians to contact such and such a person who would get them land and arrange their trip to the United States. They were rare though and the police clamped down on them immediately. However Alsatians don't seem to have needed this kind of proposition to emigrate. They decided all by themselves or relied on a report or a tale or a letter from a friend, a neighbour or a member of the family already in the United States. Quite often in the same village, several years apart, one can learn of members of the same family leaving their native village in turn. It even happened that emigrants came back themselves to fetch their parents and a few friends. The fact that others had succeeded in the United States was the best inducement for others to depart.
In 1855 France finally understood that a great deal could be gained from the impressive German and Swiss emigration using French commerce, transport and ports and decided to pass laws on the subject of emigration. Emigrant bureaux were opened by the police. Strasburg had a commissioner running a special information bureau. Foreign emigrants and Alsatians too could get information about anything concerning emigration from the price of a passage through train fares and currency exchange to transport possibilities on arrival. Emigration agencies which organised recruitment and the transport of emigrants were henceforth allowed to operate under certain conditions. There were 57 legal agents, that is to say representing an agency licensed to deal with emigration, operating in the Bas Rhin in 1866. One might think that such an organisation set up by the French government would have had a substantial influence on Alsatian emigration. This was not the case. Emigration remained stable, it was just that the Alsatians made use of the facilities available to foreigners. The Alsatian ports of arrival were New York and New Orleans. This is not surprising since in the nineteenth century they were the most important ports in the United States. The passage to New Orleans was longer and therefore more wearing, but from New Orleans it was easier to sail up the Mississippi and reach the newly settled lands of the West. Those who landed in New York usually went via the Hudson and the Erie Canal to the region of the great Lakes. The Alsatians' enthusiasm for Texas is well-known. In 1836 Texas was an immense territory which broke away from the Spanish Republic of Mexico to become independent. In 1845 it joined the American Union. This enormous territory was very thinly populated but through immigration the population rose very quickly and this was an essential factor in its economic development. From 1842 which was when H. Castro launched his Texan recruiting campaign in Alsace, until 1860 Alsatians poured into Texas. Their life was very hard at first. Until 1848 they had to deal with Mexican raids and until the 1860s they were fighting Indians. They had to start from scratch, build everything themselves from the log cabin to the school as well as the protestant and catholic churches. They had to adapt to the political institutions of their new country, learn a new language, face illness, drought and floods. It is certain that many of the settlers in the first Alsatian colonies of Texas lost their lives, victims of a rough and violent way of living which could only be surmounted by having great willpower and an iron constitution.
However there is no lack of examples of success and those who managed to survive the first few years had more prosperous careers than they would have had in Alsace. The first emigrants and their descendants had the advantage of the whirlwind growth and economic expansion of their adopted land ? The Alsatians had probably not foreseen the Civil War. The Texan ones may have had to fight in the confederate army against their compatriots in the North who were enrolled in the armies of the Union. At least they avoided the tribulations of 1870 in Europe. They were however not indifferent to this and in 1870-1871 the Alsatians of the United States, who had not forgotten their native land, got together and founded clubs and societies, very often with their old neighbours from Lorraine, to declare that Alsace-Lorraine was French. Thirty-nine associations bearing such a name have been counted between 1871 and 1927. Even today, whilst assimilation has done its work, there are still two highly active associations in the cultural sphere, one in New York and one in San Francisco.

Emigration from Alsace, which was at times comparable in size to Scottish emigration, was far more discreet. The Alsatians were easily assimilated and mixed without prejudice with other settlers. Above all they wanted land so many of them became farmers and this was a good way to become an American in the 19th century. Howewer it should be noted that the language and some customs such as food have managed to survive. A good number of descendants of Alsatians, now over 70 years of age, speak the language and it is just when the younger generations began to turn their back for good on their origins that the movement was born where people want to know about their origins and look for their roots. This movement is very strong in the United States today. Now people seek information from the folk memory. There are meetings, associations, trips to Alsace, twin-towns, culture festivals, all aided and recorded by the modest but useful work of American and Alsatian genealogists. 
All this won't be forgotten yet awhile. 

Bulletin de la Société Industrielle de Mulhouse (07/1985) Nicole FOUCHE

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