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
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
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 reasons for returning home are as complex as the human mind. Some
returned in what they considered triumph whereas others went home in defeat.
Some never intended to stay in America permanently. We may think that
"guest workers" who come for temporary work are a recent phenomena but
they are not. The Italians were accustomed to moving about Europe in search
of temporary work and many came to the United States with that in mind.
They wanted to work for a season or two and make enough money to buy a
farm back home. They never intended to stay. These short-timers were sometimes
known as "birds of passage" and were often resented by Americans.
Even those who stayed in America many years may have retired to the homeland.
With a small savings they could live well and be looked upon with respect
by the villagers since they had lived in America. Many, especially Italians,
wanted to return home to die so they could be buried in the family churchyard.
Often the elderly parents would return home but their descendants stayed
The Marriage Market
Since the dowry was very much alive in many parts of Europe and emigration
had reduced the number of eligible males, many women came to the United
States to earn some money to improve their position in the marriage market.
Marriage was very much an economic arrangement between two families and
a woman's social position, physical comfort and standing in the community
for the rest of her life depended on having enough assets to be considered
a desirable match by a young man's family. If she could work for two or
three years, she could return home in a much better bargaining position.
some the American dream just didn't work out. They got discouraged and
went back. However, many of these people found that their memories of
home had been viewed through rose colored glasses and they were equally
unhappy with their old problems. They had become more American than they
realized and found there was a lot of good to be said of their new country.
Some of these people eventually immigrated to America a second time.
Economic Depression and Family Obligation
countrywide economic depression also caused many to return. Problems with
the family left behind was also another reason for returning, but this
would probably only be temporary. Some women had to return to take care
of a sick parent. When they left the US they may not have known whether
they would stay permanently in the old country or return to the US.
Diversity or Chaos?
Some found America too diverse. They liked the familiar rules and setting
where people spoke the same language, attended the same church and conformed
to the same standards. They also hated seeing their children growing up
as foreigners to them. However, trying to return these children to the
old customs was usually a losing battle. The children either stayed in
the U.S. when the parents returned or they came back as soon as they were
of age. More affluent immigrants might have felt that America had no culture
and preferred the refinements of the old world. As with those whose return
was driven by nostalgia, these people also often found there was much
to admire about the new world with its energy and freedom.
In England the local authorities were responsible for taking care of
the poor. In some cases they decided the best solution for the indigent
was a one way ticket to America. Since these people were unwilling emigrants
in the first place, they might return home as soon as they had earned
enough money to pay their passage.
No Pioneer Spirit
Some immigrants just did not have the personality required to uproot
their lives and settle in an entirely new, and sometimes hostile, environment.
It wouldn't have mattered where they went. They were simply unhappy outside
of their familiar setting.
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.