Reiter Family: Stowaway Legend

This week’s post discusses a family legend about my 2nd great grandfather, Nicholas Wilhelm REITER.

Obituary photo for Nicholas Wilhelm REITER.

If you’d like to read previous stories about him, you can go to my home page, scroll down and find the search box, type in his name and hit [enter]. That will bring up a list of posts that include information about him. The story my granny (my maternal grandmother and the granddaughter of Nicholas) always told about him is that he immigrated here by stowing away on a ship. I’m not sure how true the story is especially since he would have only been about 5 years old in 1830 when he was said to have immigrated here.

The International Maritime Organization defines a stowaway as,

a person who is secreted on a ship, or in cargo which is subsequently loaded on the ship, without the consent of the shipowner or the Master or any other responsible person and who is detected on board the ship after it has departed from a port or in the cargo while unloading it in the port of arrival, and is reported as a stowaway by the Master to the appropriate authorities.”

According to an article in The New Yorker, there was no word in the English language for ‘stowaway’ until 1848. Etymonline confirms this information. In 1850, the U.S. created the legal concept of a stowaway. By 1891 there were legal ramifications for shipmasters who were found to have a stowaway. The shipmasters had to pay for the stowaways’ return travel to their country of origin- even if the stowaway was admitted into the U.S. and stayed! Notable people who have made their way to America by stowing away on a ship include silent film actor Henry Armetta, Lindbergh kidnapper Richard Hauptmann, painter Willem de Kooning, writer Jan Valtin, and yachtsman Florentino Das. (Wikipedia)

Immigration in the early 1800’s from Europe to America was difficult. There wasn’t enough of it to justify dedicating resources to it, so immigrants often got rides on merchant vessels- if they were able to pay the fare. Merchant ships weren’t outfitted for passenger transport. To begin their journey, those wanting to immigrate to America had to find a port of departure and in doing so had to consider their route to get to the port, decide which port was closest to their home, but also consider how likely they were to find a ship there that was going to America. As immigration increased, the number of ports of departure available for that purpose began to concentrate in certain areas. Around the time of Nicholas’ departure from Germany, the port of Le Havre, France had become the main point of departure for Europeans.

Camille Pissarro
Camille Pissarro painting of the port of Le Havre, France. Image found at

To see additional pictures and information about the port of Le Havre, France, go to

South Germans arrived in Le Havre either overland or by sailing from Cologne, Germany.

Alamy photo.

North Germans also sailed to Le Havre Port. However, the ports of Bremen, Germany and Hamburg, Germany were rising in popularity. In 1832, the heavy immigration from Germany to America began. At this point, passenger transportation became important enough to dedicate resources to building ships designed to carry passengers rather than merchandise. It was around 1816 or so that New York City, New York became the principal arrival point in the U.S. rather than Philadelphia, Pennyslvania. From 1830 on, New York was “the gateway of the nation”. (

Port of New York ca 1890, Currier & Ives. Image found at

Depending on the time of year and the weather, the voyage from Europe could take from 1 to 2 months. Beginning about 1830, passengers were required to provide food for themselves for 6 weeks. In the summer of 1835, a transport via ship to America was at least $16 U.S. dollars. Ship conditions for people were “a serious menace to life”. ( Conditions on ships were so bad and immigrants arrived so ill that by the 1840’s laws were being made to improve conditions. Upon arrival, immigrants were forced to navigate a sea of swindlers and grifters as soon as they stepped onto land. South Germans were among the most swindled of all immigrants because they most often came as individuals or in single families. It reminds me of the phrase “strength in numbers”. North Germans were more likely to come as very large village-groups and were more able to protect themselves and each other. It was so bad that the Germans formed an aid society to help and protect newly arriving German immigrants. John Jacob ASTOR was a primary funder for the German Society of the City of New York. Some states eventually began enacting laws to protect and help new immigrants. Sadly, the swindling worsened exponentially and eventually the Irish immigrants received the worst of it until states stepped up and assisted them. You can read more about what the immigrants endured to get to America by going to

Given Nicholas’ date of immigration, his most likely route to America was from his home in Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany to the port at Le Havre, France and from there via ship to New York, New York.

Darmstadt, Germany, 1825;

At some point he ended up in Perry, Pike County, Illinois and from there to Oklahoma Territory (most likely arriving shortly after the 1890 land run). It was hard to read what new immigrants went through when I thought of it in terms of my 2nd great grandfather. I sometimes wonder if I would have had the same level of desire to be here- or the same level of courage it took to get here and make a life for myself and my family. Sometimes, people are heroes and we don’t even know it.

Be courageous. Be bold. Live your dreams. They’re worth it.


Lisa @ Days of Our Lives blog

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