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Three Hansa Cities, Two Emigration Ports, and a History: Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

The largest emigration ports from Germany to the New World were the Hanseatic cities Bremen and Hamburg, Germany’s leading ports then and now.

Before Hamburg and Bremen, I have to speak of Lübeck, for it was early on the leader of the three great Hanseatic cities- it is a lovely but not a large city today, but in the Middle Ages, it led the Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic League was not a country, but a coalition of merchant cities across northern Germany with Kantore, offices, from London to the Low Countries to Novgorod in Russia, to Scandinavia, and even a smidge to Greenland.

Lübeck was the ‘queen’, the capital of this mercantile confederation, organizing the member cities, dispatching fishing fleets and traders, and engaging in international relations.

A thousand years ago, a hanse was a merchant gild or convoy, but it came to mean their coalition of merchant cities in northern Germany, with sites in London, the Netherlands, Russian Novgorod and along the Baltic and in Scandinavia.

A fraction of the member cities were independent city-states of the Holy Roman Empire, Reichsstädte (“RIXE-shtey-tuh”).

By the mid-1200’s, Lübeck had come to dominate Baltic commerce, particularly salt and herring, and soon struck up alliance with several other port cities, which gradually grew into a hundred-ish member cities.

The Hansa acquired a port facility in London in 1303, the Stahlhof, ’Steelyard’, which became sovereign Hanseatic territory in 1474; it formally devolved back to England in the mid-1800’s.

The League began regular congresses in Lübeck in 1356- as a confederation, not as a country, mind you- and thrived in 1300’s and 1400’s. In the 1500’s, however, their confederation struggled to compete with emerging strong nation-states, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark in particular, and then the Age of Exploration shifted the economy increasingly to the Atlantic, leaving the League behind. Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen largely escaped the devastation of the 30 Years War (1618-1638), but their customers did not.

1669 saw the final congress of the Hansa, it dwindled to the three final cities Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen. Portugal, then Spain, then France, the Netherlands and Britain profited from the Atlantic economy, but the next two important Hanseatic cities thrived with the shift as well: Hansestadt Hamburg and Hansestadt Bremen.

Hansestadt (“HAHNNzuh-Shtaatt” ‘Hanseatic city’)

Bremen (“BREY-muhn”)

Hamburg (“HAAMM-boorgk”)

Bremen is the port city for the Weser River and the Westphalia region; Hamburg is the primary port on the mighty Elbe River, the watery highway of Central Germany and on into the Czech Republic. In the waves of emigration to the New World, some Germans found better passage deals in the Netherlands, France or England, but most sailed out for the New World from these two ports.

Germans started moving to America - particularly Pennsylvania, also upstate New York and the Shenandoah Valley - in the 1670’s, forming the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’, few of whom were from the Netherlands- the Netherlands had already formed small settlements in and around New York City.

In 1847, HAPAG formed in Hamburg, the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft, the ‘Hamburg-American Packet Ship Joint Stock Company’, with Bremen forming a competing shipping line 10 years later, the North German Lloyd in 1857, with dedicated emigration routes, early on to Hoboken and New Orleans, becoming the largest emigrant mover.

In 1868 the North German Lloyd formed a partnership with the B & O, Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, so you could buy a ticket that took you from Germany to Baltimore straight on to the train to your destination train station inland, and inland was where the cheap farmland was. Routes to the Latin America followed.

The population of the two ports grew immensely in the industrial era


1748 28,000

1812 35,000

1875 100,000

1911 250,000 half a million today


1787 100,000

1814 55,000

1852 160,000

1905 700,000 today 1.8 million

The number of people traveling in steerage - steerage was the cheapest, rather miserable way to travel.

Yearly average of steerage passengers:

from Hamburg from Bremen

1861-70 34,466 1862-71 45,213

1881-90 90,889 1882-91 97,909

1891-1900 60,041 1892-1900 61,379

Bear in mind that not every passenger was immigrating, even those suffering through steerage- some would cross the ocean every half year, following work opportunities. My great-grandfather Alois intended to go to Africa by way of Chicago, and never did get around to moving on. A wife and children happened to him, as these things will. Ah, that’s perhaps the only picture we have of him smiling, holding his son our grandfather Robert.

a family photo of Alois and son Robert, 1906

No telling what might have brought your ancestors over. Until perhaps you dig into their history.

Resources you might think about, for tracking ancestors across the waters:

- Ship records, both when leaving Europe and when arriving in America (the information’s not always identical)

- Scan the whole passenger list: you might see cousins and neighbors on the same boat, and those lines might have history that will light up your own.

- Historical accounts and newspapers from their home place and time, and see what conditions they were living through- maybe they’ll even show up in some newspaper, court document or the like. Chronicling America from The Library of Congress has a nice selection of smaller U.S. historical newspapers, including a few in German.

- Although imperfect, using the translation feature on Google Chrome lets you read web pages in other languages. Use it to get the general idea. Sometimes you can also use it to help you find records in foreign archives.

- Look for accounts of people who took the same journey as your ancestors to give you a feel for their experience. You may find diaries or other accounts even from people who were on the same boat.

All images are derived from Wikipedia unless stated otherwise; click on the image to see the original.


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