trans-atlantic sailing ship

Journey to America

Many Tickles in the US have an ancestor known as John Tickle Snr. He was originally Johannes Digel (possibly Johannes Heinrich Digel) b. 1740. I believe both he and his older brother, Peter b. 1738, went to America in the 1700s from Württemberg, in the south-west of what is now Germany.

John’s origin is listed as Schwartzwald, Württemberg. Schwarzwald is the German name for the Black Forest, a mountainous area densely covered by dark pine trees. Vineyards and orchards are dotted on the hillsides, with castles and picturesque villages among them. Many of the half-timbered houses date back 300 years. The area is associated with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and is renowned for its cakes and cuckoo clocks.

Emigration from Württemberg

Citizens of Württemberg who wanted to emigrate could apply for permission to cease their citizenship and leave the country. They were then no longer obliged to do military service and may have been exempted from other things, such as some debts. However, many people didn’t go through a formal process; they simply left illegally, disappearing overnight. Upon arrival in America, the ships’ captains would sometimes destroy their passenger lists, so often there is no record of either departure or arrival.

Ancestry has an Emigration Index for Württemberg. It contains 22 records for people with the surname Digel and another 20 with similar names, (such as Dichel, Diegele, Taigel), most of whom emigrated to North America, but the names of Johannes and Peter Digel do not appear among them. I don’t know if the brothers emigrated together or separately. I believe they may have had an uncle, Michael Digel, and an older brother, Werner Digel, who also went to North America, possibly earlier, but there is no sign of their names either. I’m in the early stages of researching this line, so will continue to search for records on the early Digels.

Württemberg has a family history museum, which may well be able to supply details but you need to pay for their assistance and my budget doesn’t run to this! (If you are a Digel descendant and would like details of how to contact them to try to find further information, please get in touch with me.)

The Emigrants’ Journey

The journey to America was by no means easy. The typical itinerary for German and Swiss emigrants during the 1700s was Rotterdam (now in the Netherlands) to Cowes in the Isle of Wight (England) to Philadelphia. Rotterdam is a long way from Württemberg, in the south-west of Germany, where the Digels lived, so the first leg of the journey involved getting there.

The River Rhine flows to the west of Württemberg. The Rhine has been called the “River of Destiny” because thousands of Swiss and Germans sought their destinies by floating down the Rhine. Johannes Digel probably made his way to one of the towns on the river and waited, with other emigrants, for a ship to take them up the river. It took several weeks to travel on the Rhine from lower Germany to Rotterdam, because the ships had to stop at over 30 custom houses on the way. The ships were often delayed at the customs houses, in order to force the emigrants to spend money there.

Once they had reached Rotterdam, aspiring travellers to America then had to make arrangements to board a ship for the Atlantic crossing. They often had to wait around in Rotterdam, using up money and supplies desperately needed for their ocean voyage. From Rotterdam, they still had a stop to make before heading across the Atlantic. Prior to 1783, ships sailing through the English Channel were required by British navigation laws to stop in one of several English ports.  The most popular port was Cowes, on the north coast of the Isle of Wight.  Contrary winds in the channel sometimes turned a normally eight-days trip from Holland to England into an adventurous two to four weeks. Once in Cowes, they could again be forced to wait before continuing their journey.

It could take a couple of months from leaving home before setting foot on a vessel embarking for America. Even those who had left home with funds might be struggling by that point. Often the only way immigrants could afford their passage was by becoming indentured to wealthier colonists. This obliged them to work for their sponsor for several years upon arrival. Children as well as adults were indentured, and families were often split up, sometimes never to be re-united.

Having finally left Cowes, bound for North America, it then took another six to eight weeks to cross the Atlantic. Emigrants were required to bring some basic items with them for the passage. These included bedding (usually in the form of straw sacks), some food, and eating utensils. They might also take a jug of whisky to help during sea-sickness. Often what the passengers found on board the ship did not live up to what they had been promised by agents and ships’ captains. The voyage was frequently an arduous and frightening experience. With adverse winds or bad weather it could take as long as fourteen weeks. When this happened the ship would run short of provisions and food would be severely rationed. Passengers sometimes resorted to eating mice or rats. Some captains made extra profits by charging immigrants high prices for additional, poor-quality, food, needed to survive the trip.

The immigrants were packed tightly in bunks on the ships. The larger ships often carried 400-600 people, far more than was comfortable. There were no provisions for sanitation and limited drinking water, which was often polluted. Major lice infections were common, as were sicknesses such as typhoid.

Many people died during the voyage, especially children and the elderly. Their bodies were tipped overboard into the sea. The ships’ captains often asked passengers to agree to a contract whereby anyone who died before the midway point of the voyage was released from paying for their passage, but, if they died after the midway point, their family was responsible for meeting the costs.

“…during the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of seasickness, fever, dysentery, headache, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply-salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably.”

Diary of Gottleb Mittelberger (1)

It’s hard for us to imagine how horrendous the journey to America could be, or what would drive one to risk such an experience. Yet, here in Europe, 350 years later, we have desperate refugees from Africa and the Middle East making equally treacherous journeys. They are prepared to risk the lives of themselves and their families to reach Europe, in the hope of a better future, in a similar way to these early American emigrants.

(1) For more information about the journey, you can read the account of Gottleb Mittelberger, who travelled to America in 1750, returning 4 years later. His diary has been published by the German Society of Pennsylvania.

Another good description of the journey to America can be found on the website ‘The Heritage of Daniel Haston’ – see here. My thanks to Wayne Haston for permission to use the image of the route from Germany through the English Channel included above.

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