Danube-Swabian Emigration to the United States of America

Henry A. Fischer

A Case Study

  Beginning in the 1890s approximately 200,000 immigrants arrived in the United States each year from Austria-Hungary and would continue do so for the next twenty years, a sizeable proportion of whom were Danube Swabians as they would later be called.  This massive population movement was the result of several economic, social and sociological factors.  But what played the most significant role in terms of the Danube Swabians were  issues around the availability and affordability of land and the growing  pauperisation of  the landless and near-landless families who began to make up the major proportion of the Danube Swabian population in all of their settlement areas.

This situation was aided and abetted by their inheritance practices whereby the eldest son inherited the entire family “estate” and the younger sons laboured at a trade or hired themselves out as agricultural labourers.  With a glut of agricultural workers available to the large estate owners and the overabundance of tradesmen in their villages their earnings were meagre and the families literally lived from hand to mouth.  The only alternative was migration elsewhere where there were better opportunities and in the process replicated what their ancestors had done before them when they had come down the Danube River in the early 18th Century in search of the Promised Land in Hungary.

This new emigration followed an already familiar pattern in the life and history of the Danube Swabians in Austria-Hungary chiefly as a result of their high birth rate and near  insatiable industriousness and drive to better themselves economically for the sake of themselves and their children.  It was all tied up in the acquisition of land.  It was their basic mantra of life.  For that reason there were always ongoing migrations of families as available land ran out in their existing home communities and young families sought out alternatives elsewhere.  At first in neighbouring communities and then later they would be forced to move farther afield.  To get a better picture of the forces at work and the situation and the ramifications involved I propose that we focus on a specific community to help us get our bearings.  For our purposes, the parish of Ecsény in Somogy County in the settlement area we now know as Swabian Turkey in Hungary will be our reference point in this case study.

The village of Ecsény itself was the result of the migration of families from Tolna County which lay to the east and Baranya County in the south.  Very few of the original families that began arriving in the 1750s came directly from the German principalities within the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.  They were primarily first generation inhabitants of Hungary, young, poor and landless who came to take on a forest wilderness, with shrub infested pusztas surrounded by steep hills in the midst of deep valleys and swamps that offered an inhospitable sandy clay soil.  Yet it was here that they brought their beloved Heimat to birth achieving economic prosperity within two generations.  But by the 1820s because of the high birth rate and ongoing migration into the area new areas of settlements emerged in the vicinity.  In most cases they became German enclaves in already existing Hungarian communities.  Satellite congregations were formed first in nearby Polány and then as time passed by later in Ráksi, Vámos, Somodor and Hács.  They were all served by one Lutheran pastor at the Mother Church in Ecsény and five Levite Lehrers served as the schoolmasters and acted as lay worship leaders in each of the satellite congregations and communities.  By 1865 Ecsény had a population of over 1,200 inhabitants, the vast majority of whom were Lutherans and the satellites accounted for 800 more of them.

At this point the availability of more land was almost non-existent and the price of land made it unaffordable for landless families.  Hács had been the last new settlement to be established and it had not only attracted families from Ecsény and its satellites but also families from Tolna, Baranya and Veszprem Counties.  People were simply on the move  desperate to improve their situation and provide a better future for their children.

Let me just quote from my upcoming book, “From Toleration to Expulsion,” on the beginnings of the community of Hács as an example:

“Baron Ferdinand von Fechtig, a renowned Austrian jurist and member of the Privy Council in Vienna, was the owner of the Domain associated with Lengyeltóti, a town which lies some fifteen kilometres south of Lake Balaton.  Here he introduced the Gidran Arabian breed of horses from Egypt at his estate in 1816 and eventually bred a herd of  over 300 of them while also raising 400 cattle and 12,000 sheep.  His vast landholdings also included large tracts of uncultivated land as well as meadows overgrown with underbrush and dense forests that he sought to develop agriculturally.

His sights were set on developing the sprawling, hilly and heavily forested Hács Puszta  to the west of the town and his recruiting agents were successful in attracting German Roman Catholic settlers whose dialect indicated that they were of Bavarian origin.  These original families signed contracts with the Baron on December 1, 1828 outlining the rights and duties of both parties, the terms of which would be in effect for all future settlers.  In the next four decades which followed a steady stream of German Lutheran families settled on the Puszta.  They came primarily from the Hessian villages in Tolna County as well as from the nearby German Lutheran villages in north eastern Somogy County clustered around Ecsény.

This small wave of settlers was symptomatic of the times as landless and young families sought to improve their economic situation as land ran out in the older settlements or became so expensive that it was beyond their means.  The Baron promised them the opportunity to get land but as always there were strings attached.  The settlers were given a house lot and a Joch of land for a garden but they had to build their own houses and other farm buildings.  For that purpose they could use the lumber and timber that they harvested in clearing the Baron’s forested land.  The houses that they built had to meet the required  specifications that were set out by the Baron.

From the day the settler signed the contract he was also given a lease on one Joch of forested land that had to be cleared in the first year.  He was permitted to farm this acreage for six years but then it would revert back to the ownership of the Domain.  At that time he would be given another Joch of forested land to clear and cultivate for six years as before but once again it reverted back to the ownership of the Domain.  In this way the Baron had his land cleared to carry out his own agricultural pursuits.

But in addition, the settler was also given another Joch of land to clear for the planting of a vineyard that would not revert back to the Domain but would be leased by the settler and could be passed on to his heir.  The settlers were also given grazing rights on the pasture lands of the Domain.  Each settler was allowed to pasture one cow and two pigs in the Baron’s meadows.  Added to all of these “rights” and “privileges” the settler also had to provide 36 working days of free labour “from sun up to sun down” to the Domain annually; primarily during the ploughing, seeding and harvesting season.

It is obvious that only poverty and desperation could have driven these families to sign  such a contract not to mention the backbreaking work that it would demand of them.  In many cases these families had been in Hungary for three or four generations and yet here they were still engaged in the work of pioneers and had to contend with the hazards and primitive conditions and privations that were part and parcel of it.  Yet in this process they changed the local landscape and eventually a thriving community would emerge.”

When Hács was finally beginning to come into its own in the 1860s the same pressures once again began to exert themselves on the Danube Swabian population not only here in the backwoods of Somogy County but also in Tolna and Baranya Counties.  The same issues of population explosion and lack of more arable land for expansion were being experienced by the Danube Swabians in the Batschka and the Banat as well.  The   Imperial Royal Chamber in Vienna provided a possible solution by opening the Croatian provinces of Slavonia and Srem for settlement by issuing a Royal Decree in December of 1858 to that effect.  Up until now, both Slavonia and Srem had remained a deeply forested wilderness relatively untouched by any attempts at settlement by the local population that eked out a living as cattle herders.  Despite the opposition of Croat nationalists the invitation was extended to prospective settlers throughout the Empire to which a variety of nationalities responded including Magyars, Slovaks, Czechs, Ukrainians and numerous Danube Swabians from the Batschka and Banat.  The only exception identified in the Imperial Decree was that no Protestants need apply.

This led to an initial large influx of Danube Swabian settlers but from the viewpoint of the Croat nobles who wanted their estates to become more economically viable the Decree had not gone far enough and they began to agitate to get the attention and ear of the Emperor for a more open immigration policy.

In 1864, Emperor Francis Joseph, finally relented and supported the actions taken by the Hungarian parliament on September 1, 1859 to allow Protestants to settle and own land in Croatia.  He did so in the face of fierce opposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Croatian nationalists who opposed the settlement of all foreign and religious minorities on their territory.  The Croatian nobility, however, saw the matter differently.  After having created an ecological disaster by cutting down the immense oak forests of Slavonia to meet the demands for Slavonian Oak on the Western European market, they sought settlers to clear the land of the huge stumps and the swamps that had been created in the process and make it all agriculturally productive which was not an art in which the Croatian peasantry excelled nor was even inclined to attempt from the viewpoint and judgment of the Croat nobles.

The nobles and other landowners sent out special recruiters into neighbouring regions.  Word spread like wildfire throughout the Danube Swabian Protestant communities in the Batschka and the Banat about the availability of fertile land at an affordable price in nearby Schlafonie.  This became the impetus for a new emigration that first began as a trickle but became a steady stream which settlers from Swabian Turkey also joined in as they made their way south just beyond the Drava River into deeply wooded Slavonia.  In all there would be more than 5,000 Lutheran and Reformed settlers from Swabian Turkey who would take up land in Slavonia in the next fifteen years.

Eventually the news spread by word of mouth even as far as the hill country of northeast Somogy County where it was eagerly welcomed by landless younger sons who where otherwise condemned to live their lives in perpetual poverty in Hungary.  The heads of Kinderreiche households unable to meet their growing family’s needs because of their limited landholdings and no possibility of adding more acreage were just as responsive to this opportunity to better themselves and start all over again.  For others the challenges of pioneering once more were simply in their blood.  After all, they were Children of the Danube.  In the years that followed they began to sell their small parcels of land and houses at a good price along with their livestock and headed south to purchase much more but undeveloped land in Schlafonie, wherever that new Promised Land might be.

The Church Records of the parish of Ecsény provide us with a snap shot view of the kind of response this emigration to Slavonia evoked among the Danube Swabian population in Swabian Turkey beginning in 1865.  Over one hundred and twenty families would leave Ecsény and its satellite communities for the new Promised Land in the next fifteen years.  That amounts to almost one third of the population.  The most effected of the communities was Somodor which was virtually abandoned leaving a remnant of only a few German families.  Hungarians from neighbouring communities bought the holdings of those who left and moved into their abandoned houses.  There are also references to several families who made the trek south across the Drava River who returned home disillusioned and bankrupted by it all but on the whole the vast majority prevailed and were able to establish themselves.  While other young men returned to find brides to take to the new Heimat emerging in the wilderness on an ongoing basis.

The families involved were primarily newly-weds and middle-aged couples with a host of children.  They were the so-called Kinderreiche Familien.  They numbered over 700 persons in all.  It was not necessarily the poorest of the families who emigrated but rather landless families living in misery who were not prepared to surrender to what fate had handed them.  Other families sold their meagre acreage at a high price in order to buy much more, cheaper but totally undeveloped land in Slavonia and undertake the backbreaking work that would involve.  Some simply took what they could carry and abandoned their homes and gardens.

They left for Slavonia in small treks that often consisted of two or three teams of horses and wagons while others pushed wheelbarrows and pushcarts that contained all of their worldly possessions.  Each person, man, woman and child bore a knapsack on their backs carrying some of the family provisions for the journey.  Fowl were caged in the wagons, cattle were herded by the children as well as geese and ducks as they made their way into the Slavonian wilderness.  Very often they were extended and intergenerational families.  Many of the elderly among them would not last long due to the privations they suffered in the face of the enormous task the families faced and the setbacks that were experienced  in the first few years.  They would pay a high price in wresting a home in a swamp filled wilderness.  Both adult and infant mortality rates were high as well as women dying in childbirth and a steady stream of widowers from Hrastovac, Antonuvac, Mlinska and Klein Bastei put in an appearance in the Church Records in Ecsény after returning home and securing a bride in Hács or Vámos or Ecsény.  One of them married my great-grandmother and together they set off for the new settlement at Sartovac.

All of this is but the prelude for the more massive emigration to the United States which would now follow throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Recruiting agents were dispatched by railroads and steamship lines as well as mining companies and industrialists in the United States to search for workers throughout south- eastern Europe.  Handbills, pamphlets and advertisements appeared everywhere extolling the opportunities that America offered any would-be immigrant.  The railroad companies exaggerated the employment opportunities that were available and the steamship companies offered rock-bottom prices in steerage to attract passengers.  All of this was done in light of the rapid industrial expansion taking place in the United States and its need for unskilled labour.  The agents of the United States Steel Company located in Steelton, Pennsylvania promised high wages in the amount of twelve cents an hour!  A worker was able to work twelve hours a day and amass a total wage of $ 1.44.  This has to be measured against the annual earnings of agricultural workers in Austria-Hungary at the time which amounted to no more than ten to fifteen dollars.  Emigration fever spread across Austria-Hungary and droves of emigrants headed for the seaports in Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

But this emigration would be markedly different from anything that had preceded it.  The emigration to Slavonia like all of the other migrations of the Danube Swabians before them had not been in search of a job to earn money on a short term basis but to establish a permanent home.  By and large they took their families with them or soon sent for them.  Their motivation was simply land.  Land of their own.  And through hard work they would establish a new Heimat of their own once more and maintain their heritage, language, traditions and identity as they had for generations before.

The emigration to the United States differed in every one of these aspects.  People went overseas to find work, earn money and then return home and establish themselves.  It was to be their formula for success.  Their stay in the United States would be temporary and was solely for the purpose of making money.  There were others, however, who saw this as a permanent move and chose to bring their families with them after selling their possessions and property.  They were a minority.  For this was primarily an emigration involving males.  Seventy-three per cent of the immigrants arriving in the United States form Austria-Hungary from 1900 to 1910 were males.  And eighty-seven per cent of them were between the ages of fourteen to forty-five years of age.  On average they sent $20,000.000 to $50,000.000 back home to their families annually to buy land, pay debts, sustain their families and purchase farm machinery and livestock.

This infusion of capital into the economy was welcomed by the Hungarian government and restrictions were placed on the emigration of wives and children to ensure the men would return.  Often passports were not issued to wives unless the children were left behind with their grandparents or other relatives.  Men of military age had to post a bond that would be forfeited if he did not return to Hungary to perform military service.  For that reason many of the men left by way of German, Dutch, Belgian and other seaports including the United Kingdom.

Initially passports had to be obtained in Budapest but in 1904 a new Emigration Law was passed by the Hungarian parliament allowing the Counties to issue passports at the cost of One Krona making it much more convenient for the would-be emigrant.  At the time of issuing the passport the applicant also had to provide the equivalent of $ 8.00 US to cover the costs of his steamship fare.  An agreement had been signed by the Hungarian government with the Cunard White Star Line which called for all “Hungarian” emigrants to travel to America from the Austro-Hungarian seaport of Fiume on the Adriatic with a kick-back for the government for each emigrant.  In addition to these funds the emigrant had to have sufficient money (American) on his person at the time of his arrival in the United States to enable him to reach his proposed destination and the name and address of a contact person and his relationship to him.  Minors travelling alone were required to have a document signed by their parents allowing them to do so.

These are the broad parameters surrounding what was involved in emigrating to the United States and some of the known statistical information that is available.

On the basis of the Ellis Island records and the Church Records in Ecsény I have been able to identify a total of 382 individuals who emigrated to the United States in the time frame from 1900 to 1910.  This included 265 men, 63 women and 54 children.  They represent somewhat more than twenty per cent of the parish population.  Or in other words one out of every five persons.

The men make up seventy per cent of the total almost equal to the number official statisticians have provided for Austria-Hungary as a whole at seventy-three per cent.  In terms of age there are almost three equally divided groups.  Middle aged men from thirty-five to forty-five; young married men from twenty-two to thirty; and the group that surprised me the most, unaccompanied teenagers, mostly sixteen and seventeen year old boys who made up one third of the emigrants.

In contrast, in terms of the women, fifty-five of them are young and middle-aged married women and only eight were single women who were all in their early twenties.

The fifty-seven children all accompanied their mothers except for three children who were being escorted by a relative to join their family already in the United States.

The destinations of the emigrants were almost equally divided between Steelton, Pennsylvania and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The first emigrants at the turn of the century all headed for Steelton but after the depression in the steel industry that set in around  1907 most of the others went to Milwaukee while a small contingent mostly from Polány went to Dayton, Ohio.  This is quite typical of the America emigration.  Villagers tended to seek to be among their own as the Ellis Island records indicate.

Hungarian government statistics indicate that at least a third of the emigrants returned home.  From the church records I can identify that at least 120 of the men returned home to Hungary permanently (over forty per cent).  Almost all of the teenaged boys remained in the United States.  Many of the men made more than one foray into the United States.  Some returning with a son to earn more money before returning home again.  If there had been the equivalent of frequent flyer points in those days the major award would go to one of the men who went and returned from the United States six times!  Crossing the Atlantic twelve times.  His name was Johann Fischer and was my grandfather, who made a thirteenth crossing in 1949 as a “stateless” person following the expulsion carried out in Hungary in 1948 and came to join us in Canada where he lived to the age of 99 years…

Surprisingly twelve of the women and eleven of the children were also among those who returned to Hungary.  In addition they bought five children with them who had been born in the United States.  That would also be true of my own mother.

The absence of a father in a household was the norm in many cases and some of these absences were over a long duration and in the case of some they never returned.  There were numerous such abandoned families who were forced to eke out an existence of their own.  There were severe social consequences that would have a negative effect on the life of the community as a result of the emigration.

This small microcosm of the emigration attempts to put flesh and blood on this mass movement which in some measure accounts for each one of us in some sense being here.  The emigration to Canada would follow once the quota system was introduced in the United States in May of 1921 and the Canadian government had a change of heart (at the insistence of the two national Railways) to open the doors to immigrants from “Non-preferred Countries” in 1925 which provided a five year window of opportunity for the Danube Swabians of Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania to initiate another Schwabenzug that has resulted in my being here today.


16th Jan. 2018