Challenging economic and social conditions in the mid-1800's led many Ostfriesens to look for new opportunities in a new land - America. The success of many of these early emigrants led thousands of individuals and families to follow in their footsteps and establish new "colonies", often in rural communities. From a significant number of early settlements in lllinois, which include Peoria, Golden and Stephenson County, many of the later emigrants migrated westward as land prices increased and railroad lines were extended into newly formed states and territories.
Especially from the 1830s onward, emigration to the New World became the answer to the economic and cultural difficulties in Europe. Crop failures, bad weather, lack of work, political disturbances and wars created masses of dissatisfied people. The desire for land and the opportunity for improvement in social standing spread throughout the populace. By the 1840s ships were transporting hundreds, even thousands, of people to the New World. Emigration increased by leaps and bounds from the 1840s through the 1870s and 1880s.
The Journey West Via Ship & Boat
After making the decision to emigrate, people made their way west. Most of the Ostfriesians coming to the United States left from the port of Bremen/Bremerhaven, though a very limited number of ships departed from Emden, as well as Amsterdam. Many took passage to Liverpool, England, and sailed from there. Primary points of arrival in the United States were New York, Baltimore and New Orleans, but others landed in Galveston, Texas.
Though the first steam ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1838, the majority of the early ocean crossings were made on sailing ships. Depending on wind and weather conditions, the journey from Bremen to a port in the United States could take anywhere from a few weeks to three months. Most of the emigrants travelled in steerage: below decks where bunk beds had been installed for the westward journey. On the journey back to Europe this “steerage” space was used to haul cargo: grain, cattle, cotton, tobacco. Conditions were not comfortable by any standards.
People brought along their own food and sometimes, if they miscalculated or the journey lasted longer than expected, there was hunger. Sanitation was practically non-existent and death and disease accompanied the travelers. Ships from Bremen, however, were considered better than others because the Bremen authorities had mandated minimum conditions required of the shipping lines.
After arrival in the United States, travelers had to make their way into the interior of the new country. Few of them remained in the cities or communities on the East Coast.
Until the onset of railroads in the mid-1800s, the journey west was very complicated. In the early decades, the emigrants landed at Castle Garden, New York on the tip of Manhattan Island. They then took river boats up the Hudson River, and boarding canal boats on the Erie Canal (which had been finished in 1825) at Troy, New York. The canal boats transported them to Buffalo, New York, 363 miles (584 kilometers), where they could board ships that sailed the Great Lakes and ultimately reach Toledo, Ohio, or even Chicago, Illinois.
The canal boats on the Erie Canal were designed to transport livestock and grain; passengers were an afterthought. There were few (or no) facilities for the travelers on the boats and when the boats stopped along the way, passengers were often forced to go begging for food from the surrounding countryside because, by this time, they had used up all their provisions.
Emigrants entering the country through the port of New Orleans travelled north on river boats, up the Mississippi River, usually to St. Louis, Missouri. From there they moved into southern Illinois and further north. The major transportation rivers were the Mississippi River and the Ohio River.
By the 1850s railroads added a new and faster mode of transportation for the emigrants. And, by the 1860s the railroads crisscrossed the eastern half of the United States. Emigrants arriving in New York could board trains right at the dock having bought their tickets already in Europe. This helped them to avoid the pitfalls of arriving in the new country and falling prey to all kinds of scams and thieves along the docks.