Why Emigrate?

Presented at Mt. Angel Conference 2011
Rosina T. Schmidt

How often did we ask the question “why did they want to emigrate?” when researching our Danube Swabian roots? Or “Why would they want to leave the country they were born; why would they want to leave their families?”

There are many answers and differ from place to place. We must try to imagine life in the Germanic lands (Holly Roman Empire) some 300 years ago. Here are some of the reasons why people willingly, and often happily committed themselves to the rigors of emigration:

Lack of land: Communities had no more land for new families. Most had no land for marriageable farmers’ sons. Some localities were laid out only for dozen families but with times the population grew and the village had many more families than the land could support.

Some laws gave the youngest or the oldest son the right to inherit the family farm undivided and to pay off his siblings. Other brothers had no alternative but to become farm hands, day labourers, or to learn a trade, or to join the army – or emigrate. It is important to know that only the weaver, cobbler or smith trades were allowed in villages; all other trades could only be practiced in “towns” where the guilds fought to keep down the numbers. A newcomer to a town had to prove that he owned 200-300 Florin before he was given the right of domicile in a town (Buergerrecht).

At other jurisdiction, the land was divided between the heirs and the farms became smaller and smaller. The farms could no longer provide the produce necessary for survival. Emigration became a necessity.

Marriage: Only couples that had domicile rights in the same locality were allowed to marry without permission. In other words, “locals” were the approved spouses to choose. Sometimes permission was only granted to couples if they promised to emigrate right after they were wed, or who promised to be married outside the boundaries of the Estate.

Many Estates refused to give a couple the permission to marry if one or the other had been promiscuous before the marriage. Such couples had no other option but to ask for their dismissal from their place of work and to emigrate, hoping to escape the penalties for immorality having to pay 8-10 Florin in cash, or being locked up in the tower, or being displayed publicly.

If someone married an outsider without permission, his/her domicile entitlement (Buergerrecht) was revoked for being “unsociable”.

Military Duty: Single men who were drawn for military duty by the throw of dice of 5-6 years were not normally happy about it, and when the probability of a war became serious, the number of desertions increased and was punished with confiscation of existing property and of any future inheritance, and the name of the deserter was nailed to the gallows.

However, during the peacetime the number of volunteers was larger than the requirements of the state. It was easier to save up the money required for a domicile entitlement while in the military than it would be by working as a farm hand or day laborer. The most popular was the service in the Prussian army because it paid a higher recruitment bonus at the start and also promised that at the end of 5-6 years of service the soldier could settle with his wife in any Prussian locality of his choice and would receive the domicile entitlement for free.[1]

Threat to Existence: The sudden large-scale weather changes or war threats that varied from region to region often started waves of emigration. The Upper Rhine was, for example, so frequently and helplessly exposed to the direct or indirect effects of war that it could be considered the normal state of affairs between 1679 and 1748.

As well the Rhine Valley was well known for its strange weather patterns causing storms, hail and flooding back then and now, which often washed away the fields, fruits and hay of entire villages. This created the lack of food and fodder and was often followed by long and hard winters of famine that particularly effected people dependent on cash income such as the day laborers and tradesmen.

The final push towards a decision to emigrate often provided the promotional activity of agents from other countries who were recruiting immigrants.[2]

Other contributing factors to the motivation to emigrate:

1618-1648 30-years war totally depopulated and devastated most of the Germanic lands. Especially the Hesse areas suffered out of all proportions, being located at the center of the Holly Roman Empire.

What started as a religious war, Protestants of northern Germanic lands against the Roman Catholics in Bohemia, with the Danish and Swedish forces later joining in, and by 1635 even Richelieu decided that France could no longer stand in the background. The French phase was the most destructive part of the war.

After 1635 the wantonness of the occupying troops made it necessary that villagers flee to safety as quickly as possible. Being caught by soldiers in the open was a death sentence. Those villagers unfortunate enough to be caught out most often disappeared entirely.

The pastor of Gradenborn noted the fate of one poor victim in the list of burials in the parish register: Melchior the swine herd stayed outside during the plundering, he is said to be buried near Eschwege. Other villagers were spared a similar fate if they were able to quickly respond to warnings about approaching troops.

Another example for instance, in their complaint letter to the Landgrave the villagers of Reichensachens wrote another brief description of the continuous decline of the village during the war:

“We repeat that at the beginning of the invasion by Tilly in 1623 this village had 172 hearths, but after the terrible Croatian arson only 72, including the tiniest, remained and in the Goetzian passage another 12 burned down and other houses and barns were set on fire. Even though another 13 tiny houses now have been built, it does not help at all, and it is truly pitiable that we poor people have not had our taxes reduced by a single Heller despite the great damage, and we once again beg for God’s sake and in all submissiveness, that that might occur.[3]

A few years later the pastor of the same town Reichensachsen wrote the chronicle in the church book:

Is there even one house, one alley, one corner, one street, one field, one road, one trail, one footpath, one hill, one hedge, one mountain, one valley that has not been sprinkled with our blood and market by the blood of the killed! And those of us who still live and remain here… what else are we, but a repast for fire and the sword, which await us… O Reichensachsen how your magnificence is thrown to the ground…. O that we have sinned so much![4]

Village by village was destroyed and most of the population dead, and yet the few individuals left in the village had to carry the fiscal burden of the whole village to their state as if it were still at peak productive capacity.

The 30-year war undermined the ability of any village to reproduce itself. It placed unprecedented burdens on a relatively inflexible agricultural economy, which led to massive disruption of the village’s internal order.

It took Europe 100 years to recover the population it lost during the 30-year war.

1648-1689 Incursions by French troops into Germanic territory on the right bank of the Rhine.  (Palatinate, Hesse, Baden). Those incursions destroyed farmers’ crops and livelihood on and off for 40 years.

1688 Austrian Emperor with help of the Poles pushed the Turks from the gates of Vienna to East of the Danube. Area freed was opened for resettlement for very favorable incentives. Many citizens of the Holly Roman Empire jumped on this opportunity hoping for better future.

1682-92 Major emigration to Hungary – mostly from Upper Swabia and Hesse to Manorial Estates. 200 Gulden were needed for acquiring the land rights and settlers’ rights on manorial estates. The motivation to emigrate was to escape the French pressures and their consequences.

1689 Germanic lands declared war on France. Extensive Military requirements in form of taxes and soldiers. No wonder many considered emigration as a better choice.

In Vienna an Imperial Commission for the colonization of Hungary is set up.

1701 14-year War of the Spanish Succession started. Bavarians together with the French fought against the Austrians in Upper Swabia and Black Forest. France lost in 1703 but on their retreat the French army completely devastated Upper Swabia. Populace became desolate and was looking for a better opportunity.

1708/9 unprecedented cold winter in Europe. About 15,000 south-west Germans left for “Insul Pennsylvania” via Rotterdam and London, to go to the “new Kanaan in England’s America”. 

1711 End of the uprising of Hungarian Magnates, and recognition of the Habsburg hereditary Kingdom in Hungary results in motivation for immigration, as the Germanic settlers preferred to be under the Habsburgs Crown.

1712 Masses of emigrants start off that year but only a portion reaches settlements in Upper Hungary, as the borders are closed and emigrants are turned back to be collected in a camp near Ulm.

The motivation to emigrate during that time is connected with the Spanish war of succession combined with weather patterns that destroyed once again the harvests, but was also supported by the Austrian Emperor Charles’ recruitment drives in Upper Swabia, and the announcement that the Habsburg domains had been extended to Hungary and Transylvania.

1713 Harvest destroyed by hail. Populace destitute and was looking for better livelihood.

1716 Banat is captured, and becomes a Habsburg domain. Opened for settlement with great initiatives.

Emperor Charles VI Impopulation

1715-18 Hungarian Magnates are also vigorously recruiting for settlers. (Szachonyi, Zichy, Csaki, Wallis, Mercy, Eszterhazy, Doery, etc. in Tolna, Baranya and Somogy Counties. 200 Gulden upfront needed.

Immigration to Hungary never really stops after that. From about 1720 on the possibility – supported by recruitment drives – of owning land in the recently captured Banat was a strong factor for emigrating there. In Banat only Roman Catholic settlers were acceptable, while on the huge Count of Mercy domain in Tolna the Lutheran, Reformed and other religions were welcomed.

1723/24 Hungarian Parliament asks German Emperor for colonists. More orderly methods created to regulate emigration to Hungary and to provide manumissions.

1732-36 French forces occupied the Duchy of Lorraine and the Habsburg Netherlands. Emigration offered escape from the French incursions during the Lorraine-Polish War of Succession.

1736 Recruiting conditions for Hungary improved by the Austrian Emperor. Emigration to overseas also gaining in importance and Prussia is often seen as the destination for emigrants. Right after the Lorraine War of Succession the volume of emigration to America increased considerably.

1739-40 was the coldest and longest winter of the century. Summer was to short for fruit ripen. Grapes froze on the vine. 1740 was a year of famine. There were no harvests in the next two years as well. Another large wave of emigration followed.

Empress Maria Theresia Impopulation

1741-48 Austrian War of Succession (Austria v/s Bavaria). Once again the South West was the theater of war. Specifically Black Forest and the Rheine Valley were involved. No wonder the volume of emigration to Hungary increased considerably.

1744 Saltpeter rebellion in Hotzenwald, due to exorbitant taxes requested by the landowner, the bishop, as he needed additional funds to finish the basilica in St. Blasien, Black Forest.

After the 5th Saltpeter rebellion, on October 9th 1755 Maria Theresia had 27 family men and their families, altogether 112 persons imprisoned and sent in chains to Banat to Beschenova, Freidorf, Karanschebesch, Lugosch, Raksch, Ujpecs (oder Vybis) und Zsackowa.

Those 27 Hotzenwaelders were:

  • Fridolin Albietz from Buch, Jakob Albietz from Etzwihl, Martin Artzner from Engelschwand, Fridolin Baer from Goerwihl, Martin Baer from Hierholz, Martin Beger from Oberalpfen, Johann and Konrad Ebi from Oberalpfen, Georg Ebner from Birndorf, Fridolin Eckert from der Ruette, Fridolin Eckert from Buch, Michael Eckert from Hogschaer, Leonhart Gamp from Dogern, Josef Gengfrom Hogschaer, Johann Georg Gerspacher from Oberwihl, Nikolaus Gottstein from der Ruette, Jakob Huber from Goerwihl, Adam Jehle from Dogern, Johann Baptist Kaiser from Katzenmoos, Gregor Kummer from Buch, Josef Leber from der Glashuette, Johann Marder, der Preuss from Eschbach, Johann Georg Marder from Waldkirch, Johann Meier from Niederalpfen, Johann Strittmatter from Gaerwihl, Sebastian Werni from Kiesenbach, Jakob Zimmermann from Gaerwihl.
  • [6] Between 1751- 1805 some 180 persons emigrated from the relatively very small area of Hotzenwald to Banat.

Another example is a different kind of emigration motivation: In his book The Historical Shipping on the Danube, Otto Meisinger wrote:

For those brave sergeants of the German Regiments, who stayed as bachelors in the newly from Turks freed areas, one boatload of 150 maidens from the Black Forest was sent down the Danube. First though, the names of those soldiers who stayed behind were published and the courageous maidenly volunteers were invited to undertake the boat trip, with a promise that they could choose the future husband from the group of those soldiers as per their own heart’s desire.

This –maiden boat- arrived singing in Regensburg to the surprise of the Regensburg citizen but sailed away early next morning down the Danube merrily singing on its way.

This ship was the source of the famous folk song: Als wir juengst zu Regensburg waren…

  • 1756-63 Seven Year War (Austria v/s Prussia).
  • 1768 Many Germanic lands decree a law that forbids emigration to “foreign” countries with which the Empire does not stand in special relations.
  • 1770 Highest number of emigrants to Hungary and America.
  • 1771 Banat and Batschka closed to immigration in April. Exceptions: private Estates or Free Cities, and immigrants who can sustain themselves for some time.
  • 1772 1st Partition of Poland. Austria gets Galicia.
  • In 1778 Banat goes to Hungary, the emigration declined.
  • In 1780 new recruiting for Banat, Batschka and Arad was under way. The Imperial recruiting agent’s office was in Frankfurt/Main and three agents were sent in different directions to recruit settlers. The names were collected and sent to Vienna. The agents were paid so much per ‘head’. About 1000 families settled in Batschka in years of 1748-62.

Emperor Joseph II Impopulation

1781 Edict of Tolerance for Galicia, and in 1782 Removal of serfdom in Austria. New Recruiting push for Hungary and Galicia with newer, better conditions.

1789/95 French Revolution. Many Lorrain and Alsace families voted with their feet and emigrated.

1795 3rd Partition of Poland. Austria gets West Galicia and Krakow. Poland disappears from the map.

1803 Austria recruits for Hungary and Galicia and gives advantageous terms.

  1. Free of military obligation for one self, the children, as well as for the farm labourer and for one’s journeyman.
  2. No military billets for 10 years.
  3. No 10th of harvest obligation for 10 years to the State and to the Count.
  4. No harvest obligation to the landowner for 3, 4, 6 or more years.
  5. Full religious freedom.
  6. Farmers to receive free 60 – 80 Metzen of farmland (45-65 Acres); artisans 12 Metzen.
  7. Free house and garden.
  8. Free building materials.
  9. Freedom of all robot.
  10. Freedom of land taxes.
  11. Artisans to receive burgher rights and master rights free of charge

Emigration in 18th Century to Hungary[8]

Duchy of Lorraine 24.6 %
Electorate of Palatinate 11.4 %
Alsace 7.7 %
Electorate of Trier 6.7 %
Duchy of Luxemburg 6.1 %
Swabia 4.3 %
Electorate of Mainz 3.9 %
Electorate of Bavaria                           3.7 %
Margrave of Baden 3.1 %
Upper Austria 2.9 %
Duchy of Wuerttemberg 2.9 %
Principality of Zweibruecken 2.1 %
Principality of Nassau 2.1 %
Franconia 1.7 %
Other Germanic Areas 1.6 %
Hesse 1.6 %
Austria 1.6 %
Diocese of Wuerzburg 1.6 %
Duchy of Westphalia 1.4 %
Electorate of Cologne 0.9 %
Other Areas (each 0.7) 8.1%


People wanted to have a future for themselves and for their children, and many found that in the society they lived they could never hope to acquire the things that form the basis for a “future” – a dependable source of income or produce to feed them, peace in the country to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and perhaps a piece of soil which they could call their own. The recruiters who needed them to till the soil in depopulated countries like Hungary, Russia, and Brazil or in the wilderness of North America all promised these things. So they emigrated. [9]

Maps of Europe http://www.euratlas.net/history/europe/1700/index.htm