European Migration & Your Family Origins

by Donna Przecha

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 people.

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 country.

German Emigrants

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 to Germany.

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.

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!

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