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Le Havre: The emigration harbor that fulfilled the dreams of the Glarus emigrants to New York

In the 19th century, numerous people from the canton of Glarus left their homeland to build a new life abroad. Their destination was the fascinating melting pot of cultures, the vibrant metropolis of New York. But before they could realize their dreams, they first had to reach the emigration port of Le Havre. This place was the starting point of their exciting journey and signaled the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.

The importance of Le Havre as a Port of Emigration

Harbour view of Le Havre around 1850

Le Havre, a harbor town in Normandy at the mouth of the Seine, was an important port of emigration for European emigrants in the 19th century, including many from Glarus. Thanks to its favorable geographical location and good connections to the European railway network, Le Havre became an important hub for emigrants wishing to travel overseas. The harbor offered a direct connection to New York, the destination of many emigrants from Glarus, and thus enabled them to start a new life.


Le Havre's emigration movement began in the 1820s, when more and more people from Europe sought their fortune in the New World. The influx of immigrants hoping to find a better life in America had a significant impact on the harbor's economy. Businesses selling travel equipment and services for emigrants flourished and contributed disproportionately to Le Havre's economic boom.


However, the real heyday of emigration from Le Havre to America began in the 1840s. During this time, Europe was experiencing political and economic uncertainty, especially during the Industrial Revolution. Many workers lost their jobs as machines increasingly replaced manual labor. Natural disasters, agricultural crises, and the resulting grinding poverty in many parts of Europe, including Switzerland, led many people to leave their homes in the hope of better prospects. In Switzerland, the rural population was particularly affected by mass emigration. Until the late 1880s, the emigration groups consisted mainly of small farmers, agricultural laborers and rural tradespeople who no longer saw any prospects in Switzerland. The strong population growth - between 1800 and 1830, the number of inhabitants in the canton of Glarus increased by around a third - made living and working conditions increasingly worse. As local communities were responsible for caring for the poor, they often actively supported those wishing to emigrate, for example by covering travel costs. Marginalized people were encouraged to emigrate, and it even happened that they were deported by the local congregations and forced to emigrate. The communities often acted in their own interests, as they hoped that emigration would ease the burden on the poor.


Statistics on the number of emigrants from Le Havre clearly show the enormous influx of people setting off for America. Between 1840 and 1870, more than 500,000 emigrants were counted from Le Havre. Among them were many Swiss who decided to move to the United States due to economic and political problems. It is estimated that the Swiss made up around 5% of the total number of emigrants.


In the 1880s, a record number of Swiss emigrated to America. In that decade, around 82,000 Swiss packed up their belongings and set off to board a steamer for America in harbor cities such as Hamburg and Le Havre. In the 1880s alone, around the same number of Swiss emigrated to the USA as in the previous 70 years.


Between 1847 and 1857, one in twelve people from Glarus emigrated. My own research has so far documented around 4,500 emigrants from Glarus, most of whom emigrated from Le Havre to New York.

Preparation for Emigration

In the 19th century, the emigration of Glarus citizens to the New World, especially to America, was a long and arduous process. The procedure began with the emigrant having to announce his decision to leave his homeland. To do so, he had to register with the Glarus district council and ask for official authorization.


Once authorization had been granted, the emigrant had to pay a deposit for the journey. This was used to reserve the ship's ticket and issue the necessary travel documents. At this time, it was common for emigrants to be assisted by a so-called emigration agent, who helped them organize the journey.


As soon as the ship ticket was booked, the emigrant had to take care of obtaining a passport. This was often associated with some difficulties, as the bureaucratic procedures were complex and time-consuming. Once the passport was issued, the emigrant could make their travel arrangements.

Emigration contract between an emigrant and an agent

The journey from Glarus to Le Havre

For people from the canton of Glarus, the journey to Le Havre was often arduous and difficult. In the 19th century, there were various ways of travelling from Switzerland to the emigration port of Le Havre. Travel connections were still limited at that time and most travelers had to use several means of transport to reach their destination.


One option was to travel by ship. For example, travelers could take a riverboat from the port of Basel along the Rhine to Rotterdam. From there, there was the option of travelling on to Le Havre on a sea-going vessel. These travel services were offered by emigration agencies and shipping companies that were specially tailored to the needs of emigrants.


Another option was travelling by train. The railway line that led from Switzerland to Le Havre also often started in Basel and passed through various stations in France. Travelers usually had to change trains several times and continue their journey on different train connections. In some cases, travelers could also cover part of the route by train and then change to a ship to continue their journey to Le Havre.


It is important to note that travelling connections in the 19th century were not as efficient and fast as they are today. Travelling was often long and arduous. Travelers had to be prepared for long waiting times and transfers.


As many of them were poor, they could not afford a comfortable journey and had to make do with simple accommodation and inadequate food. Nevertheless, they were prepared to accept these hardships in order to realize their hopes for a better life.

Arrival in Le Havre

The harbor of Le Havre in 1841

The arrival in Le Havre was a formative experience for the emigrants. The sight of the bustling harbor and the imposing ships filled many with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Once there, the emigrants had to register with the customs authorities and show their passports. Health checks were also carried out to ensure that the emigrants did not have any infectious diseases. They then had to wait until they could board the ship. During this waiting period, they often experienced mixed emotions - on the one hand, the anticipation of what was to come, and on the other, the melancholy of saying goodbye to their homeland and the loved ones they had to leave behind.


As soon as all the formalities were completed, the emigrants were able to board the ship. Accommodation on the ship was often cramped and uncomfortable. The crossing usually took several weeks to several months, depending on the weather conditions and the ship's route.

Life on Bord

As soon as the emigrants from Glarus had boarded their ship and left Le Havre, an exciting but also exhausting crossing began. Most of them travelled in the steerage passage, where they were accommodated in cramped, overcrowded cabins. Hygiene conditions were often poor, and many fell ill during the crossing. Nevertheless, they managed to keep their dreams and hopes alive and support each other.

Arrival in New York

New York Castle Garden around 1860

After a long and often arduous journey, the emigrants from Glarus finally reached their destination: New York. The sight of the impressive skyline and the Statue of Liberty filled them with a sense of pride and gratitude. Here began their new life, in which they faced challenges but also countless opportunities.


As soon as the ship arrived at the harbor, the emigrants were taken to Ellis Island for an initial examination. Here they were greeted by medical staff and immigration officials. The purpose of this examination was to ensure that the immigrants did not have serious health problems or carry contagious diseases that could pose a public health threat. Immigrants who were obviously ill or showed suspicious symptoms were immediately sent to Ellis Island Hospital for further examination and treatment. Those who were deemed healthy were allowed to proceed.


The immigrants then had to fill out an immigration form (the so-called "Declaration of Intention"), in which they had to provide personal information about their identity, their country of origin and their destination in the USA. This form served as the basis for the immigration process and was checked by immigration officials.


This was followed by the second medical examination, in which the immigrants were examined for visible illnesses or disabilities. This examination was carried out by doctors who examined the immigrants for stigmata such as mental or physical disabilities, eye problems or signs of tuberculosis.


Once immigrants had successfully completed the medical examination and verification of their immigration form, they had to go through the next step in the immigration process - the immigration interview. Here, immigrants were asked questions about their background and plans in the US.


Immigration officials wanted to ensure that immigrants were able to establish themselves in the United States and support themselves. Questions were asked about education, work experience and family situation. Immigrants also had to prove that they had sufficient financial means to support themselves or that they were supported by an existing resident relative or sponsor.


After the hearing, the immigrants received their immigration documents and were officially admitted as immigrants to the United States. From there, they were able to leave the Ellis Island harbor building and travel to their new homes in the United States.


However, emigrants from Glarus often went from the frying pan into the fire in America. Louis Philippe De Luze, the Swiss consul in New York, wrote in an open letter to the cantons: "In the most important harbor of the United States, we unfortunately all too often see families who have laid out the last cruiser for the crossing and find themselves in the greatest embarrassment as soon as they arrive in America." He continued: "There is no sadder fate than having to live far from home, stripped of everything." The consul called on cantons and municipalities to stop the deportation of poor families to America.

The caricature shows the scammers and profiteers around Castle Garden.

The onward journey to Wisconsin

Most Glarus emigrants chose the settlement of New Glarus in Green County, Wisconsin, which had been established by Glarus pioneers, as their destination. In the second half of the 19th century, there were several routes that Glarus emigrants could take from New York to New Glarus, Wisconsin:


1st rail route via Chicago: After arriving in New York, the emigrants travelled to Chicago by train. Chicago was an important railway junction and the main transport hub in the Midwest of the USA. From Chicago, emigrants either took another train southwards or boarded horse-drawn carriages.


2. boat trip across the Great Lakes: Some emigrants also took a boat trip across the Great Lakes. After arriving in New York, they boarded a steamship or sailing schooner and travelled across the Erie Canal and Lake Ontario to Chicago or Milwaukee. From there, they travelled on to New Glarus by train or horse-drawn carriage.


3. overland road route: Some emigrants also decided to travel overland to New Glarus. After arriving in New York, they travelled a route using a combination of horse-drawn wagons, carriages and on foot. The exact route depended on various factors, such as the weather, road conditions and the emigrants' personal preferences.


Some emigrants also made stopovers in other cities before finally arriving in New Glarus or changed their minds on the way there and changed their destination at short notice. The journey from New York to New Glarus was a long one, often taking several weeks.

Memories and Monuments

Today, various monuments and memorials in Le Havre commemorate the time when the harbor played a central role in the lives of emigrants. Historical archives and museums document the stories and experiences of those who began their journey to the USA here. The port thus remains not only an important hub in maritime history, but also a symbol of the courage and determination of those who set out to realize their dreams in the New World.




The emigration harbor of Le Havre played an important role for the emigrants from Glarus who sought their fortune in New York. It was the place where their journey began, and their dreams became reality. The hardships and hardships they experienced on the way to Le Havre and during the crossing were the price they paid to build a new life. Their story is an important part of the cultural heritage of the canton of Glarus and reminds us that the courage to break new ground can realize our dreams. Le Havre will always remain a symbol of hope and new beginnings, linking the Glarus emigrants with their stories and memories.

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