German Emigrant Letters Collection (DABS)

Principal Investigator: Prof. Dr. Ursula Lehmkuhl

Project funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Freie Universität Berlin Innovationsfonds, Trier University Forschungszentrum Europa, Trier University Cultural Heritage Studies 

Research Context: Migration History, Memory History, History of Knowledge, Ego-Documents, Letter Research

Institutional Cooperations: Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, Deutsches Historisches Institut, Washington D.C.

Prof. Dr. Ursula Lehmkuhl is the director of the Deutsche Auswandererbrief-Sammlung (DABS), Europe's largest collection of emigrant letters from the 19th and 20th centuries ( The DABS includes a total of more than 11,000 unpublished letters with over 35,000 letter pages. The letter archive covers the period 1800 to 2004. It also includes copies of approximately 2,000 printed letters and the record of approximately 4,000 printed or unpublished letters from 1830 to 1930 that are in state, regional, and local archives. DABS has recorded 1,277 letter writers by name, usually with biographical contextual information.

In addition to the letters themselves, there is extensive accompanying material (approx. 20,000 pages) that the senders have donated to the collection along with the letters: Postcards, envelopes, photographs, wills, naturalization certificates, death certificates, baptismal certificates, newspaper clippings, remittance slips, inventory and account books, sales contracts, cadastral excerpts, invoices, informational brochures, tickets, etc. In addition, with the support of the senders, personal sheets were prepared for the letter writers. They contain information on marital status, economic situation before and after emigration, names of emigrating family members, education and occupation, activities in the U.S., port of emigration and immigration, etc.

Emigrant letters are an important source for research in migration history. They shed light on questions about the motivation and economic background of emigration, occupational advancement and social status, ethnic autonomy in associations, schools, churches, relationship to the majority society and its minorities, especially the working world, standard of living, discrimination and politics, structures of settlement and chain migration, as well as integration, changing values and the acculturation process. Emigrant letters are also interesting for linguistic research. They are textual testimonies penned by ordinary people who would hardly have written and left written evidence without emigration. The letters provide valuable insights into language practice and everyday language use.

On the basis of the emigrant letters, Ursula Lehmkuhl deals on the one hand with the life stories of the emigrants. How are emigration and post-migration mobility narrated and processed in terms of life history? What role does public discourse play in framing the migration narrative? What layers of memory influence the life history narrative of migration and mobility? (Book project: The emigrant family Johann Heinrich Carl Bohn: life histories and social practices of a transnational family network, 1852-2005).

In addition, she is interested in researching the relationship between geographic and social mobility. To answer this question, the project draws on digital analytical methods and visualization tools. The project is supported by citizen science research from the Association for Computer Genealogy.

History of the Letter Collection

  • 1985-1995: Development of the emigrant letters collection under the direction of Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Helbich, Ruhr University Bochum, supported by the Volkswagenwerk Foundation and the Thyssen Foundation
  • 2000: Relocation of the emigrant letter collection to the Gotha Research Library
  • 2003-2006: Collection of emigrant letters in the new German states under the direction of Prof. Dr. Ursula Lehmkuhl, funded by the DFG
  • 2009-2010: Archival and indexing work on individual letter series funded by the Innovation Fund, Freie Universität Berlin
  • 2017-2018: Start-up funding for the development of a DFG long-term project proposal for the creation of a digital archive and online portal, funded by the Research Center Europe, University of Trier
  • 2020: Digitization of the collection as part of Cultural Heritage Studies Trier.

Book Project

Die Auswandererfamilie Johann Heinrich Carl Bohn: Lebensgeschichten und soziale Praxis eines transnationalen Familien-Netzwerks, 1852-2005 (Buchprojekt)

Published Letter Editions:

Helbich, Wolfgang/Walter D. Kamphoefner/Ulrike Sommer (Hg.) (1988): Briefe aus Amerika. Deutsche Auswanderer schreiben aus der Neuen Welt 1830-1930 (München: Beck).

Helbich, Wolfgang (Hg.) (1985): "Amerika ist ein freies Land ..." Auswanderer schreiben nach Deutschland (Darmstadt: Luchterhand)

Helbich, Wolfgang /Walter D. Kamphoefner (Hg.) (2002): Deutsche im Amerikanischen Bürgerkrieg. Briefe von Front und Farm 1861-1865 (Paderborn: Schöningh)

Helbich, Wolfgang J. (1988): "Alle Menschen sind dort gleich...". Die deutsche Amerika-Auswanderung im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Düsseldorf: Schwann)

Kamphoefner, Walter D./ Wolfgang Helbich (Hg.) (2009) (paperback 2017): Germans in the Civil War. The Letters They Wrote Home (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).

Kamphoefner/Walter D. /Wolfgang Helbich/Ulrike Sommer (Hg.) (1991): News from the Land of Freedom. German Immigrants Write Home (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

Other Publications

Lehmkuhl, Ursula (2011): Auswandererbriefe als kommunikative Brücken. Wege und Formen der (Selbst-)Verständigung in transatlantischen Netzwerken, in: Zeitschrift für Mitteldeutsche Familiengeschichte, 52. Jg., H. 2, April-Juni 2011, 65-84.

Lehmkuhl, Ursula (2014): Heirat und Migration in Auswandererbriefen – Die Bestände der Nordamerika-Briefsammlung, in: L’Homme – Europäische Zeitschrift für Feministische Geschichtswissenschaft 25:1, 123-128.

Lehmkuhl, Ursula (2014): Johann Heinrich Carl – The Revolutionary: The History and Collective Memory of a German-American Family, 1852-2004, in: Studia Migracyjne (40:1), 31-56.

Lehmkuhl, Ursula (2014): Reading Immigrant Letters and Bridging the Micro-Macro Divide, in: Studia Migracyjne (40:1), 9-30.

Lehmkuhl, Ursula (2020): Das Genre “Auswandererbrief”, in: De Gruyter-Handbuch Brief, 2 Vols., Eds. Eve-Marie Becker, Isabel Marie Schlinzig, Jörg Schuster, Jochen Strobel (Berlin: De Gruyter), 639-653.


Cultural Heritage Blog

The digitalization of migrant letters from the German Migrant Letter Colletion (DABS) is supported by funds from the Cultural Heritage Research Initiative of Trier University. Migrant letters are a transnational German cultural heritage. Interested in learning more - read our blog: or visit the website of CHeST - Cultural Heritage Studies.