We are all aware of the huge numbers of people who migrated from Europe
to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. We tend to think of migration
only occurring in that direction Europe as the source and new lands
outside of Europe as the destination. Other than this migration across
the sea, we picture the ancestral village in Europe remaining pretty much
the same over the centuries, perhaps with borders changing, but the people
staying in one place and village life going on as it had for centuries.
In fact there have been quite a few group migrations within Europe and
some of these movements may be significant to your genealogy research.
In most cases the countries they emigrated from seemed unaffected by the
loss of population, but there probably was more impact than we realize.
Occasionally there was some negative impact but generally the result was
positive. Many of these countries were becoming crowded with limited opportunities
for the expanding population. Immigration provided an outlet for these
Reasons for Migration
There are three important reasons for migration politics, religion
and economics, or a combination thereof. Economics improving their
standard of living is probably the most significant. Even if people
move for religious or political reasons, economics is usually also a factor
because people who belonged to the wrong church or political party often
found it hard to get the better jobs.
William the Conqueror
One of the first large migrations that is significant to genealogists
was after William the Conqueror came to England. While it is almost impossible
to trace your family directly back to the Norman invasion, many people
are able to find their family name in the Domesday Book, the census taken
by William. When William, who was from Normandy in France, conquered England,
he moved his court to London. Many Norman families also moved to England
and eventually became English, but this large influx of immigrants had
a big influence on the language, architecture, laws and customs of the
One group migration that some researchers may have come across is Germans
from Russia who went to the U.S. One hundred years before their migration
to the U.S., Catherine the Great of Russia, a former German princess,
wanted Europeans, especially Germans, to settle in Russia. Russia had
a large amount of unsettled land along the Volga and Catherine wanted
people to populate it, both to produce food and goods, and to serve as
a buffer against invasion from Asia. In 1763 she issued a manifesto
promising freedom of religion, freedom from taxes for a time, freedom
from military service and land for farmers if they immigrated. Germany
had been devastated by the Seven Years War (1756-63) and many were eager
to improve their condition in a new land, especially if they were allowed
to live in their own communities with German customs, language and religion.
Thus, many thousands of Germans immigrated and set up German settlements
in the Volga and Black Sea areas.
In 1871, their special status was revoked. At this same time, free land
was available in the American Midwest and they again moved in large numbers,
this time from Russia to the Midwest, with a large population settling
in the Dakotas.
Germans have been especially active in migrating as groups to other areas
of Europe. The Russian rulers also aided Germans in settling in the area
of the Black Sea, the Ukraine, Bessarabia and Siberia. In addition, Austrian
rulers were eager to have German settlers in their open lands, including
those that had been reclaimed from the Ottoman Empire so they provided
assistance for those who wanted to immigrate. Many of the settlers came
from Swabia, traveling down the Danube River and this is known as the
Donauschwaben Migration. The Banat, which is now partially in Romania,
Hungary and Slovenia, is one area where they settled. Up until World War
I, many of these villages in Hungary were still largely German. After
World War II, many of the Germans were expelled from these areas and returned
Economics as a Cause of Migration
After the 30 Years War, areas of Alsace-Lorraine were decimated and villages
abandoned. The King of France promised the Swiss freedom of religion and
offered land if they would migrate to this area. Economic conditions in
Switzerland had not been good and many felt they could do better in France.
Many of the German-speaking residents of Eastern France can trace their
ancestry back to Switzerland.
Perhaps the most significant migration for economic reasons was from
Ireland during the Great Potato famine in the 1840s. In 1841, the population
of Ireland was over 8 million. During the famine, it is estimated that
over one million died and another million emigrated. These people emigrated
mostly to North America but also to England and Wales, not just to improve
their economic condition but because their very lives depended on it.
If they remained they would starve. Emigration continued through the rest
of the century and by 1901 the population was less then 4.5 million. Even
today one can see the ruins of stone cottages deserted by emigrants. At
the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, there was a great
deal of poverty in southern Italy. While many came to America during this
time, there was also a large influx to England where opportunities were
better than in Italy.
There was fairly substantial migration from France, due mostly to political
reasons, in 1789 during the French Revolution when the aristocracy had
to flee for their lives. Many of them went to England. The Russian Revolution
in 1917 also created many émigrés, many of whom ended up
in France. Religious While economics has been the motivation for a large
percentage of those who migrated voluntarily, religious persecution has
probably been the largest cause of involuntary migration. In 1492 the
Catholic Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand expelled the Jews and Moors
(Arabs or Moslems) from Spain. This was a large number of people, many
of whom were skilled and educated. In the 17th century, the Huguenots
(Protestants) were persecuted in France and many thousands left France
to settle in the neighboring Protestant countries of England, the Netherlands,
Switzerland, Holland and Germany.
The Low Countries (Netherlands and Belgium) have experienced shifts in
population because of religion as well as politics. The control of this
area passed to Spain in the 16th century. At about this same time Protestantism
was becoming strong, especially in the north. In 1581, the north proclaimed
its independence, but it was not recognized by the Spanish until 1648.
The southern part, Belgium, came under the control of Austria, France
and the Netherlands until it finally became independent in 1830. The Protestants
generally left the south and settled in the north which became the Netherlands.
Belgium, in the south, remained primarily Catholic. After the Reformation,
there was a great deal of migration within Europe for religious reasons.
However, since the degree of tolerance of the leaders and the religions
they espoused changed rather rapidly, the moves sometimes were temporary.
The refugees often returned when a new ruler, of a different religious
persuasion, came to power.
The Jews have probably suffered the greatest persecution because of religion.
In Europe throughout history they have alternately been tolerated because
of the contributions they could make to the economies and exiled because
they were not Christian. Since they usually were required to live in ghettos
(a segregated, often walled, section of a city) they were quite easy to
identify. At the end of the 19th century, millions of Jews lived in Eastern
Europe. The pogroms drove them out by the millions and they immigrated
to Western European countries and the United States. The population was
further decimated by the Holocaust, and most of those who survived emigrated,
usually to Israel, so there are very few Jews left in Eastern Europe today.
Effects on Europe
For the most part, people leaving an area to go either to another part
of Europe or abroad seemed to have no effect on the mother country. However,
in the case of Ireland, the vast emigration to the U.S. and England as
a result of the potato famine reduced the population of the country considerably.
In the case of Germany, Italy, England, Scandinavia, etc. the mother country
seemed to go on unchanged. However, if all those emigrants had stayed
at home, the population increase might have resulted in famines, as in
Ireland, or in more wars as the populace sought more land. Many of the
wars in Europe throughout time have been the result of an increasing population
seeking more land for its people. This is particularly significant in
an area where primogeniture was the rule and all the land went to the
oldest son. Many younger sons did not want to go into the military or
the priesthood and were looking for land of their own. The free land of
the many immigration schemes provided an outlet.
Implications for Genealogists
Keep in mind that just because your ancestors said they were German or
Italian or any other nationality, doesn't mean they came directly from
those countries. They may have been part of a group that moved to another
country within Europe, either for some years or even generations, before
moving on to America. If you find ancestors who immigrated to the U.S.
from one European country, don't assume the family had always lived there.
If you find the records suddenly dry up at a certain period, look at the
history of the area to see if there had been conditions, such as war or
political changes, that might have encouraged immigration from another
part of Europe.