Using German Newspapers 1780-1914 for Emigration Research

by Friedrich R. Wollmershäuser, 2000
Newspapers and intelligencers in Germany

The publication of newspapers, in the sense of periodical publications under permanent titles, started in Germany in the early seventeenth century. Such papers have been found for Cologne in 1610, Frankfurt am Main in 1615, Berlin in 1617, Hamburg in 1618, Stuttgart in 1619, and very soon thereafter in several other cities. These newspapers mainly reported about wars and matters of policy and diplomacy.

Besides these political papers, another type of periodical came into existence in the early eighteenth century in many German towns: the intelligencer (Intelligenzblatt). The purpose of such publications was to provide information about items and real estate for sale, lease, or rent, jobs, crop prices, the names of travelers in town, and the names of those born, married and deceased. The intention was also to make decrees, court decisions, promotions, and office vacancies known to a wide public, as well as forthcoming bankruptcy auctions, searches for fugitives, and banishments from the country.

These intelligencers were the main medium for local news. Many more of them were established in the years from 1815 to 1830, and they started to expand their commercial advertisements. After press censorship was abolished in Germany in 1848, the intelligencers were permitted to carry political news. The formerly political papers had frequently published commercial and official ads, and the two type of papers eventually merged into what is now known as the local newspaper.

Entries concerning emigrants and absent persons in newspapers and intelligencers

The various territories of the Holy Roman Empire and, later on, the various states of Germany had their own jurisdictions and their own requirements regarding the public announcements of administrative measures, such as compulsory auctions, or summonses of persons before being declared legally deceased. The following list is therefore only an account of what may be found in the most favorable case; for any given state, such announcements may or may not be found at all:

  • Announcements of the intention to emigrate. Baden, Württemberg, and other states started just around 1800 to require a clearing of debts before permission to emigrate would be granted. The clearing date had to be announced to the public in a newspaper, official gazette, or intelligencer, as had been required for the clearing of private bankruptcies from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. The Prussian government did not require any previous announcement of emigration, and when the Prussian citizenship law was adopted by the German Empire in 1871, this requirement was abolished everywhere.
  • Summonses to missing heirs to claim their estates, or to absent persons to claim their estates in guardianship. Such summonses were already common in the eighteenth century, when large-circulation newspapers such as the Augsburgische Ordinari Postzeitung, the Frankf[urter] Kayserl. Reichs-Ober-Post-Amts-Zeitung, or the Erlanger Realzeitung were chosen for such notifications. In the nineteenth century, they were usually published in the papers with state-wide circulation, and after 1871 frequently in theReichsanzeiger, as well.
  • Summonses to absent persons to present themselves on pain of being declared legally deceased. This could include traveling journeymen, emigrants, or soldiers missing on the battlefield. The summonses to missing heirs and absent persons refer to cases of emigration which occurred decades before, and thus help to document these cases back to the first half of the eighteenth century.
  • Summonses to absent persons to present themselves before court, as a witness, to a divorce trial, or as a defendant.
  • Summonses to absent real estate owners, to claim their rights.
  • Warrants for fugitive persons, often including a physical description and an indication of their crimes.
  • Summonses to men who had not presented themselves for military service (Refraktäre, Widerspenstige), or to deserters. The first category may include men who emigrated as children with their parents, but were still considered citizens of the German state and thus obliged to serve in the army because their parents had neglected to resign their citizenship at the time of emigration.
  • Summonses to illegal emigrants to return, on pain of losing their citizenship. Such summonses were issued only by a few states and only during certain short historical periods.
  • Announcements of auctions of real estate before emigration, although these are rather infrequent.
  • Advertisements by emigration agents with recommendations from satisfied travelers, usually indicating their names and places of origin.
  • Passenger lists, which were published in the Allgemeine Auswanderungs- Zeitung from 1848 to 1869, although most lists date from 1850 to 1855.
  • Letters written home by emigrants and published in local papers.
  • Names of foreigners banished from German states, or from the German Empire, after committing crimes.
  • Other miscellaneous types of entry.

In many cases, emigration records have been lost or were never written, and the official advertisements are the only sources for proving a case of emigration and for enabling one to identify a person born in Germany with a person of the same name appearing overseas.

Locating helpful newspapers, intelligencers and official gazettes

Any given German state may have had rules about which papers were to be used for official advertisements, or may have left the decision to the issuing office. Generally, there were three levels of papers for such advertisements:

  • The local papers, mostly used for notifications to a local public, for example concerning the emigration of a local farmer.
  • The papers with state-wide circulation, used for warrants, summonses to missing persons who may have lived somewhere in the state, announcements of the emigration of businessmen who were assumed to have creditors in distant places.
  • Official gazettes, also with state-wide circulation, used for the same purpose, either as the sole medium or, since such gazettes were not read by the general public, in addition to other media.

In Prussia, a "Public Advertiser" (Öffentlicher Anzeiger) was published as an enclosure to every issue of the "Official Newsletter of the Royal Government" (Amtsblatt der Königlichen Regierung) for each government seat (e. g. Amtsblatt der Königlichen Regierung Aachen = "Official Newsletter of the Royal Government in Aachen"). It contained warrants, names of missing heirs, names of absent divorcees, summonses to missing persons, and summonses to draft-dodgers. Similar entries were published in the Öffentlicher Anzeiger, an enclosure to a gazette with the following names: 1819 Allgemeine Preußische Staatszeitung. 1843 Allgemeine Preußische Zeitung. 1848 Preußischer Staatsanzeiger. 1849Kgl. Preußischer Staatsanzeiger. 1871 Deutscher Reichsanzeiger und Kgl. Preuß. Staatsanzeiger. 1918 Deutscher Reichsanzeiger und Preußischer Staatsanzeiger (to 1945).

  • This Reichsanzeiger, as the nation-wide official gazette, was used as an instrument for notifications to and warrants for persons who were assumed to be somewhere in Prussia or, from 1871 onwards, somewhere in Germany or were being summoned by German authorities.
  • Foreign gazettes were very rarely used; the only known example isNachrichten aus Deutschland und der Schweiz, an American paper for family news and summonses to missing heirs.

There are two systematic ways to find out which papers were used by the authorities of a given state. The first one is to check the archival records created concerning the cases in question (e. g. emigration records, probate records) and find out which papers this authority chose; one can often find copies-of-evidence to prove that the announcement was in fact published. The other and more comprehensive way is to make a list of all newspapers, intelligencers and official gazettes published in that state and look at which types of official notices are found in a given paper at a given time.

Since periodicals (except newspapers) are usually catalogued by their titles, one must first make use of bibliographies to find out the exact title of those papers. The works by Hagelweide, Henkel/Taubert, Michel, Sperling, and the ZDB can be used to locate the names of newspapers; the first two also include information about libraries which hold these series. The giant catalogue by Walravens includes both newspapers and gazettes, and the bibliography by Gregory is, despite its many typesetting errors, a fairly complete listing of the German official gazettes with reference to holdings in American libraries - the word "fairly" needs to be emphasized because some important ones, such as the Groß-herzoglich Badisches Allgemeines Anzeigeblatt (1856-1868), are not listed.

The next step after completing the list of available periodicals and their repositories is to check through these papers and extract individual entries on absent persons. This enables one to find out if a given authority used several means of publication for the same case, or if it selected just one paper for each type of announcement. Usually just one local newspaper was used as a carrier of official announcements (Amtsblatt), and the districts covered are then indicated on the title page.

This sort of investigation will eventually yield a good knowledge of which periodicals contain the announcements that are of interest, and which ones just carry duplicates of announcements appearing elsewhere.

Ways of evaluating newspaper entries concerning emigrants

Obviously, the method used to evaluate newspapers depends on the researcher's particular question.

Very often, an American or Australian genealogist will know the German state where an emigrant was from and the year of emigration, but will need to know the exact place of origin in order to extend his or her knowledge about the individual's ancestry. A survey of emigration announcements may help. Emigrants usually made their journeys during the summer, so most of these announcements will be found in the issues from February to May.

However, there are some serious obstacles which often prevent this method from succeeding. One problem is that the case of emigration may have been announced in one of maybe a dozen regional papers or gazettes (as in Baden or Bavaria) rather than in just one paper (as in Württemberg after, and to some extent before, 1850). It is time-consuming to locate and check such a large number of papers in different repositories. An even greater problem is clandestine emigration which can, using population statistics, be calculated as amounting to 40 percent or more of all emigrants. These cases usually do not show up in the year of emigration, unless the emigrant was sought for a crime which caused him to leave the country in haste.

Two more types of entry are restricted to a particular period of time: summonses on pain of being declared legally deceased were often published shortly after the individual's seventieth birthday, and summonses to draft-dodgers (Refraktäre) were published around the turn of the year in which they would reach the age of 21. In all other cases, it does not seem feasible to check decades of issues of one or more newspapers page by page, hoping that there might be an entry on an elusive ancestor.

The second type of question, of historical rather than of genealogical interest, concerns the general history of emigration from a given area at a given time. Newpapers reveal plenty of information, such as articles about emigration waves, the attitude of the government, warnings against fraudulent emigration agents, and hints about travel and about what steps to take after arrival in America; there are also many advertisements by travel agents offering transportation services. The fates of some emigrants are sometimes printed, as are letters written from foreign countries.

Thirdly, advertisements on emigrants can be of use for social history and demography. Even though the study of population statistics was quite advanced in the nineteenth century, scientists could only calculate the surplus between the number of official (permitted) emigrants and the total outbound loss of population during a given period, usually between two censuses. Summonses to draft-dodgers and especially to missing heirs are excellent sources for determining ways and intentions of leaving the country forever. An evaluation of such entries in the SchwäbischerMerkur, for example, shows that many young men took foreign military service or did not return from their travels as journeymen in the eighteenth century. When the members of the Confederation of the Rhine had to raise armies for Napoleon, they summoned absent young men to return to their home towns, and these summonses confirm that there was a large number of journeymen living abroad at that time. Eventually, America became the favorite destination of vanishing people.

Quantitative results can only be achieved, however, by compiling a fairly complete listing of all absent persons from a particular town, district, or state from all available sources. This will yield a data-base of between several hundreds and several hundreds of thousands of entries and supply sufficient cases for statistical evaluation. The exact process of this evaluation depends on the researcher's questions.

To the author's knowledge, such a project has not yet ever been undertaken.

Turning official advertisements into a database

Several authors have published emigration announcements, using a card file for the compilation, in alphabetical order of the emigrants' surnames with an additional index of places of origin. The titles of these works, which are usually only intended for finding the places of origin of individual emigrants, are given in the bibliography below. None of them includes information from summonses to deserters, missing heirs and absent persons, however.

Also listed in the bibliography are indexes and indexing projects of emigration announcements and other announcements concerning absent persons.

Such efforts are now also being undertaken using computers. If the structure of the database is chosen properly, one can ask a lot of questions of such a file; on the other hand, a very sophisticated data structure requires a lot of input time. In the author's experience with such projects, the following problems may arise:

  • An evaluation of the official gazettes and newspapers in the small German states yields tens of thousands of entries; evaluation of the larger ones yields many more than a hundred thousand entries. Considerable funds are necessary to support such a project.
  • The number of useful entries per calendar year may vary by a factor of ten or more, which makes it difficult to calculate the expenses of such a project in advance.
  • The inconsistency of the announcements (only a small portion consists of entries arranged in listings) requires quite some time to make sense of the contents, make a decision about whether anything useful is contained, and if this is the case, abstract the information and type it into the computer. It is hard for an average data typist to understand the obsolete wording of these official announcements.
  • Many newspapers are only presented on microfilm, and if the films are of low quality, some "Gothic" letters such as s and f, or K and R, cannot be distinguished.
  • Official advertisements were, for unknown reasons, frequently repeated several times, and frequently printed in several papers at the same time. This means that many entries are abstracted several times, and the duplicates have to be discarded.
  • Some entries do not give the identity of the individuals ("the unknown heirs are called to file their claims", "the fugitive whose name is not known is to be arrested").
  • It is hard to determine whether two entries (such as a summons to a deserter and, twenty years later, a summons to a missing heir of the same name from the same town) refer to the same person.
  • The newspaper entries sometimes list the name of the community, and sometimes the name of a hamlet within this community, as a place of origin. The use of a historical gazetteer is necessary to collect all entries which refer to one community.
  • The number of persons in an emigrating family is usually not indicated, which makes a statistical evaluation difficult. Some authors argue that the announcement of emigration provides no evidence that the prospective emigrants really left the country.
  • When searching the database for the place of origin of a specific emigrant, one will often find several bearers of this name from various places listed as emigrants or absent persons. Only the help of parish registers and other sources can make it possible to decide which one, if any, of these refers to the person who is being sought.



German newspapers and official gazettes from the period 1780 to 1914 contain millions of references to emigrants and absent persons. Many of these cases of emigration cannot be documented using archival sources or parish registers because these sources have been lost or never existed.

Hitherto, such entries have been published only from a few periodicals, and even then only announcements of cases of emigration, but not summonses to absent persons (heirs, those owing military service, etc). In addition, there are a few scattered journal articles in which the persons named in one or a few issues of an official gazette are published.

An exhaustive analysis of such papers requires substantial resources, depending on the time period, the size of the geographic area, and the extent to which the authorities at the time made use of the practice of publishing such announcements in papers. For the time being, it is not to be expected that such resources will be made available in academia, even though the results of such an analysis offer good quantitative material for historical demography and the history of emigration, and even though knowledge of illegal emigration has hitherto relied on mere rough estimates. A database in which one can search on the level of the individual case of emigration can also be used to establish correlations between numerous factors, such as the emigration of clockmakers to Australia, the annual fluctuations of desertion, and much more.

More feasible, and to some extent already in preparation, are profit-oriented projects for the analysis of such papers. In such projects, either information is provided from the database in exchange for payment of a fee, or the results are published in print. Such projects are already being carried out, and should be coordinated, in order to avoid duplication of effort.

Deutsche Zusammenfassung:

Deutsche Zeitungen, Intelligenzblätter und Amtsblätter aus der Zeitvon 1780 bis 1914 enthalten Millionen Nachweise über Auswanderer und Abwesende. In vielen dieser Fälle kann die Tatsache der Auswanderung nicht auch durch archivalische Quellen oder Kirchenbücher belegt werden,weil diese Quellen verloren sind oder nie geschrieben wurden.

Bislang wurden solche Einträge nur aus wenigen Periodika veröffentlicht, und auch dann nur die Ankündigung von Auswanderungen, nicht jedoch die Aufrufe an abwesende Erben, Militärpersonen usw. Daneben gibt es einigezerstreute Zeitschriftenartikel, in denen die in einer oder wenigengen Nummern eines Amtsblatts genannten Personen veröffentlicht sind.

Die flächendeckende Auswertung solcher Blätter erfordert beträchtliche Mittel, die vom erfaßten Zeitraum, von der Größe des Gebiets und der Anzeigefreudigkeit der früheren Behörden abhängen. Aus dem akademischen Bereich sind solche Mittel vorläufig nicht zu erwarten, obwohl die Ergebnisse einer solchen Erfassung gutes Zahlenmaterial zur Demographie und Wanderungsgeschichte böten, wo insbesondere der Anteil der illegalen Auswanderung bislang nur auf groben Schätzungen beruht. Eine bis auf deneinzelnen Auswanderungsfall hinab abfragbare Datenbank erlaubt zudem die Berechnung von Korrelationen zwischen zahlreichen Größen, z. B. Uhrmacher mit Ziel Australien oder die jährliche Häufigkeit von Desertionen.

Eher zu erwarten und teils bereits in Ausführung sind gewinnorientierte Projekte zur Auswertung solcher Blätter, bei denen entweder aus dererstellten Datenbank gegen Entgelt Auskünfte gegeben werden oder die Ergebnisse in Druck veröffentlicht werden. Solche Arbeiten sind bereits im Gang und sollten koordiniert werden, um Überschneidungen zu vermeiden.

[Editor's Note: What Friedrich Wollmershäuser describes in this article is an tremendously valuable resource for genealogists. This source has not been sought after by the Family History Library and therefore American genealogists are mostly oblivious to its usefulness. I would like to see a company with the resources like take on the acquisition and indexing of these records on a large scale. I would also agree with Friedrich that there should be some coordination with other genealogists who have already indexed or are indexing these records to avoid duplication of effort. If we could harness the knowledge of which newspapers to concentrate from different people, it would help to come up with a plan. To begin this process I will start a follow-up page to this article summarizing the sources mentioned here and hopefully add information to it as to the projects that have and are being done and which newspapers have yet to be done, where they are found and other information and ask for anyone's participation that can add to this.]


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