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 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.
Retirement 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 in America.
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.
Nostalgia For 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 A 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.
Unwilling Emigrants 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.