|by Donna Przecha|
Perhaps I am naive, but I always thought the immigration story ended with a person coming to the United States and never returning. In my research this seemed to be the situation because the descendants of immigrants knew nothing of where their ancestors came from nor of the families left behind. True, my grandparents returned to England for a visit before they married (they wanted to be sure the American dream was for them) but they returned before long to settle down. For the rest of the emigrants on my family tree, however, it was a one way trip with no looking back. So, I was shocked when one participant on a mailing list said one-third of immigrants to America eventually returned to their native countries. (Immigration being the act of going into a country whereas emigration refers to exiting a country.)
Immigrants who returned to their native countries after arriving in America often did so temporarily (like my grandparents did) but others returned home to live permanently. Historians, genealogists and government officials are generally more interested in those coming to the U.S. than those leaving, so information on return immigration is hard to find. And, since the US didn't start keeping records on departing passengers until 1908, there are not a lot of reliable statistics. Even those official numbers are less than accurate because they often indicate only that a person is leaving the US without mentioning whether the departure is permanent or just for a visit home. They also don't indicate if the trip is the first arrival/departure to/from the US or if the traveler made multiple trips.
This lack of detailed record-keeping has the potential to throw your research off-track if you aren't careful. For example, someone who permanently immigrated to America but made four trips home would show up in immigration records five times. On the other hand, return migration also has the potential to help you solve some mysteries. Sometimes you'll find an ancestor listed in records for a ship passage that doesn't fit with previous research. Keep in mind that this may simply be record of a second passage to America. A young man, for example, may have come to America alone the first time, then returned home to marry, and then entered the US a second time with his bride to settle down.
Finding records of repeat immigration can also help you fill in research gaps. If you have been unable to find a death certificate for an ancestor anywhere in the US, consider that perhaps he or she went back to the old country to die. Similarly, let's say that you are curious as to your great-grandmother's birthplace but have been unable to locate her original arrival records in America. You may want to look for her name in passenger lists for trips that took place after her original arrival in America perhaps she returned home for a visit and you'll be able to find her name in later passenger lists.
Naturally, trips home for immigrants became more common after the late 19th century when ship travel was quicker, safer and cheaper. However, returning to the home country has been part of the pattern from the very beginning. A list of passengers on the Mayflower reveals that three passengers out of 100 Bartholomew Allerton, Desire Minter and Gilbert Winslow returned to England. Since half of the settlers died the first winter and had no opportunity to return, this means that 6% of those remaining opted to go back. Since the original crossing took 66 days on frequently stormy seas, it took a lot of determination to make the return trip.
Another example of return immigration is Ann Hutchinson, a woman who was banished from Boston as the result of a religious controversy. Research reveals that her family made several round-trip passages between America and England. Anne's son came to America first, then returned to England where he married, then came back to Boston. His brother, Richard, also settled in Boston but returned to England after his mother's banishment. Richard's son was born in England, came to New England in 1654 but returned to England after a few years. The religious climate and treatment of Ann probably accounted for a lot of the indecision in the family, but they still made quite a few transatlantic trips considering the hardships of 17th century travel.
This is not a unique record. Of the 112 individuals who made up Georgia's first forty families in 1733, 7 of them are noted as having returned to England. Of course, until 1776, America was part of England but a move to America from England in those days had to have about the same impact as a move from Germany to America in 1890. It was a massive decision involving a difficult trip and learning to live in a very different environment.
We have more statistics relating to the huge migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although statistics on departing passengers were not kept until 1908, figures that have been developed by scholars reveal some interesting patterns. Several believe that, overall, as many as one in three American immigrants returned to their home country. In some years there was one departure for every two arrivals. (However, as stated above this does not mean the person was leaving permanently or that he had not made other trips.) During the depression of the 1930s there were actually more people leaving the US than entering.
Who Left and Who Stayed?
Statistics by nationality are quite striking. According to a report in 1908 comparing the departures in 1908 with the arrivals of 1907, 61% of the Southern Italians returned home. Croatians and Slovenians (59.8%), Slovaks (56.1%) and Hungarians (48.7%) also had high return rates. The lowest rate, 5.1%, belonged to the Jews (categorized as "Hebrews"). This is understandable since they fled the pogroms to save their lives and had nowhere to return. Surprisingly, when you think of all the nostalgic songs about their homeland, the Irish rarely went back only 6.3%. Others with a low return rate were Czechs (7.8%), English (10.4%) and Scandinavians (10.9%). In the middle range were Germans (15.5%), Serbs and Bulgarians (21.9%), Finns (23.3%), Poles (33.9%) and Northern Italians (37.8%). Interestingly enough, the Irish and the Swedish were also groups with a very high percentage of woman immigrants.
Women had less incentive to return because they usually enjoyed greater freedom in America than they did at home. For example, in most countries, an unmarried woman even one independent enough to travel alone to America, get a job and send money back home was expected to live in her father's house until she married. Also, many decided that the working conditions were more favorable in America than they were at home. Swedish and Irish women, for instance, often went into domestic service (an occupation available only to single women). They often found that they were much more comfortable living as a servant in a wealthy home than they would be living on a family farm where they performed backbreaking work from dawn to dusk.
Why Did They Return?
Birds of Passage
The Marriage Market
Economic Depression and Family Obligation
Diversity or Chaos?
No Pioneer Spirit
How This Affects Genealogy
It is interesting to keep all of these possibilities in mind when you find records of your ancestors in passenger lists. Was this their first trip to America or were they returning from visiting family in their homeland? If you find out that your ancestors left America, you should take a moment to consider the reasons for going home. Were they "birds of passage" or did they simply miss their comfortable surroundings? Just as most people like to imagine the reasons for their ancestors' immigration to America, it is equally interesting to imagine their reasons for returning home.
About the Author
I began genealogy in 1970 when we were living in Ogden, Utah for a short time. I was immediately hooked when, on my first visit to the local Family History Center, I found my great-grandparents in the 1850 Ohio census. I have been researching ever since on my own family and for others. I soon recognized the value of computer programs for keeping track of the data. I was a founding member of the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego and editor of the newsletter. I have written a third party manual on ROOTS III and, with Joan Lowrey, authored two guides to genealogy software. Using ROOTS III and WordPerfect, I have written several family history books for others, but have yet to stop researching long enough to complete my own family history!