German Heritage in Letters is a project to find, collect, and share online a digital collection of German-language correspondence shedding light on the history of migration that is currently held in private hands or by archival institutions. As part of the U.S.-Germany collaborative project "Transatlantische Korrespondenzen" (Transatlantic Correspondence), the project's emphasis is on finding letters sent from the German-speaking lands to the United States during the long nineteenth century, complementing the long-standing "Auswandererbriefe aus Nordamerika" project focused on collecting letters in Germany sent there by immigrants in North America. While the first immigrants from German-speaking Europe arrived in what would become the United States in the 1600s, large-scale migration dates to the 1840s, when more than 400,000 people crossed the Atlantic to settle here. An increasingly sophisticated and reliable postal system made it possible for immigrants to remain in regular contact with their communities, and for those who remained in Europe to share news from home. By the 1880s, more than three million letters were traveling from Germany to the United States each year.

Innovative historical approaches recognize that it can be as valuable to examine how emigration reshaped ideas of identity and everyday life in communities migrants left behind as it is to study how migration reshaped the perspective of those who made the transatlantic voyage. Launched in 2019 with funding from the Deutschlandjahr USA initiative of the German Federal Foreign Office, project staff are collaborating with institutions and members of the public who hold these important primary sources to create an unprecedented research database for studying migration history through the lens of the experiences of one of the largest immigrant communities in North America.

German Heritage in Letters marks the German Historical Institute’s first large-scale venture into citizen science. Family historians are able to contribute their collections of letters and the website interface enables volunteer scholars to transcribe correspondence to enhance access to the full text materials. The digitization of these materials will help make them available for scholarly research and teaching, as well as offering a strategy for long-term access to these important, rare, and often fragile sources.

Letters are an irreplaceable and rare primary source for understanding the experiences of immigrants. Recognizing this fact, researchers in Germany have spent decades gathering letters sent from the United States that were in private hands to shed light on the experiences of immigrants in the years after their arrival. New and innovative approaches to the history of migration, however, recognize that it can be just as valuable to understand how migration shaped the experiences of those who remained behind as it is to study the experiences of those who crossed the Atlantic. While the first immigrants from German-speaking Europe arrived in what would become the United States in the 1600s, large-scale migration dates to the 1840s, when more than 400,000 people crossed the Atlantic to settle here. An increasingly sophisticated and reliable postal system made it possible for immigrants to remain in regular contact with their communities, and for those who remained in Europe to share news from home. By the 1880s, more than three million letters were traveling from Germany to the United States each year.

In this spirit, German Heritage in Letters aims to recover letters sent to immigrants in the United States from their families and friends that have survived to the present day. The project will pursue this goal using a variety of methods. Items can be uploaded directly to the project website, and we will also engage with members of the public who would like to share their material for digitization and inclusion on the site (for more details visit our Community page). By digitizing these materials, we hope to make them available to citizen scholars, academic researchers, and other individuals seeking information about the past, as well as offering a strategy for long-term access to these important, rare, and often fragile sources.

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