When I was growing up, I had a legend on both sides of my family about a German ancestor who stowed away on a ship to America. They were both very similar: a German boy of about 17 years of age managed to get on a ship without a ticket and then hid amongst the luggage until being found out, at which point he was put into some sort of service. On my father’s side, the legend was that the ancestor had been put to work shoveling coal into the ship’s furnace, and on my mother’s side, the legend was that the ancestor had been put on potato peeling duty.
I would later find out, in both instances, that neither legend was true. Archives in Germany would confirm that my German immigrant ancestors had paid all of their emigration fees and that their parents had bought ship tickets for them, and they both appeared comfortably in the middle of the ship passenger lists, with no indication that they had been discovered and added to the list mid-journey.
For some reason, much like the popular “Indian princess ancestor” myth that every American family seems to have, the “German immigrant stowaway ancestor” myth seems to be endemic to American families. Perhaps it adds to the family narrative of a desperate impoverished ancestor who, against all odds, came to the land of opportunity and made something of themselves. Another theory that many historians have speculated is that it may be a case of lost-in-translation: German immigrants may have told their English-speaking children and grandchildren about their voyage and stated that they were in “Zwischendeck” on the ship journey (which literally translates to “in between deck,” but more accurately means “steerage”), and perhaps the children thought that this meant they were hiding between the passenger decks (in the luggage deck).
Every so often, there really truly is an immigrant ancestor who came to America as a stowaway. There are some ways to find out if your ancestor was truly a stowaway.
The first thing to note is that many family history researchers falsely come to the conclusion that their ancestor was a stowaway because they can’t find their ancestor on any ship passenger lists. This may be because they have only checked Ancestry.com’s collection of ship passenger lists, and have neglected to check the National Archives’ Germans to America database, or the “German Immigrants” websites for the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, which often have records that Ancestry.com doesn’t have. It is also possible, though less likely, that a ship passenger list has simply been lost or destroyed, and no longer exists anywhere, or that the passenger list exists but has not been indexed or digitized online yet.
In all likelihood, your immigrant ancestor is listed on a ship passenger list that is available somewhere online, especially if your ancestor immigrated in the mid 1800s or later. Your ancestor’s name was probably misspelled, spelled phonetically, Anglicized, or has been wrongly transcribed by the indexer. Once you find your ancestor on a ship passenger list, you will be able to rather quickly tell if they were a stowaway or not.
True stowaways were inevitably found before the end of the journey, and would have needed to be listed in the ship’s records. They would be listed at the end of the passenger list, and would usually be explicitly marked as “stowaway”. If they were not explicitly marked as a “stowaway,” but their name is at the very end of the passenger list, perhaps written in different handwriting or with different strokes or with a different type of writing utensil, and perhaps with a bit of a gap between their name and the next-to-last names listed, this might also corroborate the hypothesis that your ancestor was a stowaway.
Typically, when a stowaway was found on a ship, they were indeed–like in the stories mentioned at the beginning of this blog post–compelled to perform some kind of labor in order to pay for their transport. Shoveling coal into the ship’s furnace or being put on kitchen duty would have indeed been likely sentences for stowaways. Given that fact, stowaways would often be listed in the “Crew List” for the ship, separate from the “Passenger List”. If you find your ancestor listed in a ship crew list for just one voyage, and never find them working on the crew of any other voyage of any other ship, that might be a good indication that they were a stowaway.
Be cautious and skeptical whenever you hear a family legend about a stowaway immigrant. Every family seems to have this legend, and it is almost always just that–a legend.