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Hungarian emigrants at the turn of the 20th century


Before WWI, approximately 1.5 million Hungarian citizens emigrated to the “New World”, mainly to the United States of America. Unfortunately, the full reconstruction of the events is difficult due to the lack of sources. On the one hand, many people left the country without official papers or passports and without the approval of the authorities. On the other hand, archival documents were badly damaged during the 20th century.

Although most of the personal documents of immigrants can be found at the U.S. Bureau of Immigration, in many cases the identification of Hungarian settlement names and family names is difficult due to misspellings. Therefore, successful research is not guaranteed.

In this post we offer a brief survey of this social process and its international context from a genealogical point of view. We also want to help the interested researchers to find useful and interesting sources.

I. Hungarian emigration in a European context

In the 19th century, the first major wave of emigration started from the Western part of Europe, mainly from England, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia, to the American continent. Starting from the 1860’s hundreds of thousands embarked every year. Shortly after this, Northwest Europe was followed by Southeast Europe with some delay. In those countries, emigration assumed considerable proportions following 1880. From that time the order of sending countries significantly changed: Italy, Austria-Hungary and Russia took the lead.

According to the estimate of historian Julianna Puskás, one of the most distinguished experts of the subject, between 1899 and 1913 about 1.3 million people left Hungary. The emigration wave reached its peak around 1905-1907. In 1905, 139 000 persons, in 1907, 170 000 persons were registered as emigrants, which means that 7 emigrants could be found among every thousand inhabitants at that time. Regarding ethnic composition, in the beginning Slovakians emigrated in the largest numbers, but later, during the peak period (1905-1907), Hungarians (Magyars) formed the relative majority of emigrants.

In the period of 1903-1907, Hungary (and Austria) gave the most emigrants from Europe. However, considering the full emigrational timeline (1860-1914), Hungary belonged to the middle field of the continent regarding the emigration rate (emigrants per population).

The majority of emigrants came from the northeastern counties of the Kingdom of Hungary: Abaúj-Torna, Zemplén, Sáros, Szabolcs, Ung, Bereg. (at present Slovakian, Ukrainian, Hungarian territories). But following the turn of the century, an equalization took place between the various regions. The Hungarian-inhabited regions (mainly the middle part of the kingdom) caught up to the northeastern counties.

Migration to the USA 1899-1913., regional distribution.

Migration to the USA 1899-1913., regional distribution. Source


How do we know that how many Hungarians left the country?

Before 1899 the registration of emigration data was not compulsory for public authorities. But, of course, there were exceptions. For example, Zemplén County collected data on emigrants and published them in the annual reports of the sub-prefect (alispán) and at the county sessions. But these were not structured, organized calculations based on statistical methods. Furthermore, notes in connection with remigrants are also deficient. Another problem was that emigrants left the country without any formal administration (for instance, without passport application). Julianna Puskás made some interviews with emigrants. As one of them said: „Finally, we could have passed the Polish border without passport for seven times, illegally.” or „I knew that especially men escaped over the border because they had not received any passports.”

The collection of statistical data on emigration was ordered by the Ministry of Interior. These statistics are published and available in the volumes of Statisztikai évkönyv (Yearbook of Statistics) at ADT+. However, the most reliable information are provided by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration.

II. Foreign Sources

II.1. Ellis Island

Notes of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration have been accessible online since 2001. These are one of the most important sources for family researchers: passenger lists of arriving ships contain 51 million records from 1879 to 1960.

We can use advanced search in the database to narrow down the search by family name, for birth place and date, for ethnicity, even for the ship name or for the port of departure.

If you do not get any hit for first try, do not worry, you can search for similar names, too. Research is sometimes complicated due to different ways of spellings, transcription errors, hard-to-read handwriting etc. (The US officials worked on the basis of ship manifests which were created at the port of departure.) Not just passengers but even ships can be listed according to their names and arrival date.

If you are interested in the „Hungarian” ships departed from Fiume (Rijeka), search the name Ultonia, Slavonia or the world-famous Carpathia, which saved the passengers of Titanic.

The ship manifests contain thousands of passenger records, sometimes, however, these are rather incomplete and imperfect. Unfortunately, we cannot search for birth place only. Place of birth and last permanent residence were usually missed but the country of origin was always indicated. We can browse through the passenger lists for free, but the copy of the passenger record costs $29.99.

II.2. British National Archives (BNA)

The long marine journey of Hungarian passengers started from Fiume (Rijeka) and from other European ports. It may be worth searching in the database of BNA, because we can receive 476 hits for the keywords „passenger list Hungary”. The archival material of Cunard Line Company (Kingdom of Hungary made a contract with this company in 1903, to set up a direct marine line between Fiume and New York) can be found at the Maritime Archives and Library in Liverpool, according to the database. However, passenger lists are from ships disembarked at European ports only. (There are not any passenger lists of ships departed from Europe and arrived in the USA.) But these can be important, too, because the most emigrants returned to their motherland or commuted between Hungary and New York for several times. (Note that 30% of Hungarians returned to their homeland according to the US statistics.)

The transatlantic passenger steamship Carpathia at the port, 1903

The transatlantic passenger steamship Carpathia at the port, 1903

II. 3. Other European archives, ports

Tip: If you know the port where your ancestor departed from, turn to the local archives!

For example Bremen City Archives (Stadtarchiv Bremen) keeps passenger lists, and other notes of the port. By contrast, the Archives of Rijeka in Croatia (Državni Arhiv U Rijeci) does not keep any passenger lists or personal data, unfortunately.

III. Hungarian Archives: Registers about emigrants in Hungary – turn to the local archives!

Where were documents possibly created about the emigration? Many people crossed the border illegally, without passports. Their first traces can be found in the material of ship companies and ports. You might be luckier if your ancestor insisted on the legal process and applied for passport at the local authority. More information might be found if we use the catalogues of local archives. In accordance with the regulations of the Ministry of Interior, after the turn of the century emigrants were administrated by towns and villages. (For instance, registers of emigrants from Pásztó and Kazár are still preserved in the Nógrád County Archives.)

Passport cases fell under the authority of the sub-prefect (alispán), therefore, it is worth to ask the local archivists about it. If the answer is positive, the files might contain the following data: Name, Occupation, Marital status, Residence, Age, Religion, Purpose of journey, Destination, Endurance, (Ethnicity was not asked),

Interesting: Ferenc Szili Hungarian archivist-historian researched the rich passport material of the Somogy County Archives.

“The passport papers contain some interesting information, for instance the nicknames or sobriquets of emigrants, distinguishing physical characteristics, the lasting traces of previous accidents or surgeries, smallpox remains, wounds, other physical defects, moles, even tattoos (!).[1]

III.2. National Archives of Hungary (NAH)

Our archives holds mostly general information about the topic: extracts, reports about the emigration restriction law articles, social effects etc. The right of issuing passports belonged to the minister of interior until 1904, however, travellers applied for them at the local authorities, municipals, etc. Now, these documents are kept at the local archives.

In our institution, most of the documents on emigration and passport cases are preserved in the Archives of the Ministry of Interior. Looking through the preserved documents (K 149), the image of a strict Hungarian state appears, that wants to limit the emigration. According to the files, the aim was to strengthen the border guard and to detect agents, who helped the emigrants. The instruction of the chief constable (főszolgabíró) of Turócszentmárton (today: Martin) was typical: „who is known to want to emigrate to America, is not allowed to be given any passport to Europe in order to evade the »governmental ban«.”

However, as serious restrictions were unacceptable to the liberal Hungarian state, the government resisted the further claims of the counties.[2]

The general records of the Ministry of Interior (K 150) contain more concrete details. If your ancestor migrated during the 1880’s legally, it can be worth browsing through the relevant index books available on microfilm in our archival building in Lángliliom street. In the indexes even the names of emigrants are indicated. Search for the records in the 10. sub-series of the I. series of K 150!

Tip: Repertory of the Ministry of Interior is online. Suggested keywords: kivándorl* ill. útlev*

More personal data might be found among these documents, if the passport application was „more problematic” than the average and could not be completed at local level, without the cooperation of the ministry.

After 1890, parallel with the increasing number of cases, personal files related to emigration disappeared. The Ministry of Interior dealt with immigration only in general terms, the particular cases were restricted to county level.

In addition, it is important to stress that the archival material of the Ministry of Interior was badly damaged by a fire in 1945. For instance, the filing and index books after 1896 were completely destroyed, which makes the research very complicated.

Furthermore, the passport and immigration files after 1896 are deficient, too. For example, under the reference code MNL OL K 150 V – 19. t. 1906–1938. we have only one (!) file before 1918. Except for that, there are no relevant documents left with or without personal data from the period between 1906 and 1918.In addition, the archival unit of MNL OL K 150 – V – 20. t. 1898–1928 is about passport cases of men, who are liable to military service, without the mention of personal data.

From the Archives of the Prime Minister’s Office (K 26) and cabinet protocols (K 27) we can get more about the regulation on emigration agents and about general problems.

A special microfilm series were made about the relevant material of K 26, from the period of 1902-1918. Roll numbers: 14 294 – 14 360 (X 1513). The series-level inventory is available through the Fond-X program at the research room in Lángliliom street. Thanks for my colleague, János Kalmár archivist, who drew my attention to this series.

List of passengers departed from Fiume in 23 September 1904. Kivándorlási Értesítő, 6 October 1904.

List of passengers departed from Fiume in 23 September 1904. Kivándorlási Értesítő, 6 October 1904.

A Kivándorlási Értesítő [Emigrational Bulletin] (X 10303, H 2913)

It is worth to browse through this newspaper kept on microfilm in our archives, issued in Fiume (Rijeka) from 1903 to 1907. (The original ones can be found in the National Széchényi Library.) The aim of the paper was to propagate the new ferry line between Fiume and New York, to inform the emigrants and people who wanted to emigrate. Sometimes they even tried to deter people from emigration.

The short-lived journal also published passenger lists and relevant statistics of counties, but the passenger lists are not even nearly complete.

Circumstances of emigration

If you are interested in further details of emigration, we recommend you the archival material of Szent László Társulat [Society of Szent László]. Reference code: (P 1431). They organized pastor service at the port of Fiume, Hamburg, Bremen and New York. Priests and nuns were sent for religious and missionary work to American towns, where larger groups of Hungarians settled.

The NAH keeps the private collection of the famous Hungarian-American chef and restaurant owner Lajos Szathmáry (R 399) from 2014. These documents provide several details on the everyday life of Hungarians in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century.

If you are interested in the circumstances of shipping, you can find the Hungarian book Ultonia: egy kivándorló hajó története [Ultonia: the story of an emigrant ship] written by Sándor Tonelli economist-journalist in the biggest libraries. The author was disguised as an emigrant and he passed the 20-day long voyage together with real emigrants. He reported their ordeals, motivation, conversations etc..

Literature used:

Desi K. Bognar: Hungarians in America. A Biographical Directory of Professionals of Hungarian Origin in the Americas. AFI Publication, Mt. Vernon, 1971.

Frank, Tibor: Ethnicity, Propaganda, Myth-Making. Studies on Hungarian Connections to Britain and America 1848-1945. Akadémiai Kiadó,  Budapest, 1999.

Frank, Tibor: Migrations in Hungarian history – Part I. In: Hungarian Review. Volume VII. No. 1.

Frank, Tibor: Migrations in Hungarian history – Part II. In: Hungarian Review. Volume VII. No. 2.

Mátyás Zoltán: „Vándor székely, vándor botján…” Székely kivándorlás az Egyesült Államokba 1890–1913. Diplomamunka. ELTE-BTK, Budapest, 2015.

Puskás, Julianna: From Hungary to the United States. Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 1982.

Puskás, Julianna: Ties That Bind, Ties That Divide. One Hundred Years of Hungarian Experience in the United States. Holmes & Meier, New York—London, 2000.

Szili Ferenc: Kivándorlás Amerikába Délkelet-Dunántúlról 1904—1914. (Második rész) In: Somogy megye múltjából. Levéltári évkönyv 25. Kaposvár 1994. 221-255.p.

Tezla, Albert: Valahol meseországban… Az amerikás magyarok 1895–1920. Budapest, 1987.

Tezla, Albert: The Hazardous Quest. Hungarian immigrants in the United States 1895–1920. Budapest, 1993.

[1] Szili Ferenc: Kivándorlás Amerikába Délkelet-Dunántúlról 1904—1914.(Második rész) In: Somogy megye múltjából. Levéltári évkönyv 25. Kaposvár 1994. 226. p.

[2] MNL OL K 149 1890 – 11. tétel. 1890.01.16.

Post by Török Ádám with the assistance of Szőke Zoltán


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