by Dr. Frederick C. Luebke
Professor of History, University of Nebraska
1983 marks the three-hundredth anniversary of the emigration of thirteen
Quaker* and Mennonite* families from Krefeld to Pennsylvania and of
the founding of their settlement of Germantown, a country village that
today is a part of Philadelphia. There had been other persons of German
origin* who lived in one or another of the American colonies during
the preceding half-century, but they came as individuals and did not
form a distinctive settlement, as did the Krefelders of 1683.
During the next century (until the American Revolution) approximately
75,000 Germans emigrated to America. The great majority came from the
Rhine Valley and in America were usually called Palatines. The Palatinate
was indeed an important source*, but large numbers also came from Hesse,
Baden, and Wuerttemberg. Still others emigrated from Alsace and Switzerland,
as well as from lower Rhine districts, including the Netherlands.
The German colonists settled chiefly in Pennsylvania and in neighboring New York, Maryland, and Virginia. Some drifted* farther south to found important communities in North Carolina. Although the majority were farmers (as were most Americans at the time) some lived and prospered* in the towns, where they were often shopkeepers and artisans*.Religious belief was important to these early German-Americans. Most were either Lutherans or Reformed, but the Mennonites, Moravians, "Dunkards" or Brethren, and other sectarian groups attracted much attention because of their distinctive* manners and beliefs. Although none of these groups deliberately* tried to preserve German language and custom for their own sakes, most considered them important for the preservation* of the faith. Because they had immigrated in such large numbers and because they naturally tended* to cluster* together, their settlements more or less inevitably consisted of islands in a sea of Englishspeaking people.
Still, most German immigrants assimilated rapidly into colonial society.
They learned to speak English, at least well enough to get along, and
they incorporated* many English words into their Rhenish dialect, which
in America evolved* into "Pennsylvania Dutch." Names also were quickly
Anglicized or translated. Schmidt became Smith, just as Zimmermann became
Carpenter, even though the bearers of these names might not have been
well assimilated linguistically or culturally. By the end of the colonial
period Germans constituted* about eight or nine percent of the total
Following the American Revolution immigration from Europe almost ceased* for a period of fifty years. Not until the 1830s did the numbers of newcomers swell* significantly. The German states of the Rhine Valley again became a leading source, but with the addition of large numbers from Bavaria, Saxony, and Hannover. Unlike the earlier movement, this emigration included a large proportion of Catholics.
ports of embarkation* such as Rotterdam and Le Havre continued to be
-important, but as the sources of emigration expanded* northward and
eastward, the great German ports of Bremen and Hamburg attracted an
ever increasing* share of the business. Most German immigrants entered
the United States at New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, but New
Orleans also developed as a major port of entry* as many newcomers traveled
up the Mississippi River to settle in the recently organized states
of Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Still others moved west
to Texas. Although New York never lost its position as the city with
the largest number of German-born inhabitants, midwestern cities such
as Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee became centers of huge
During the nineteenth century approximately five million Germans emigrated to the United States. The peak years were 1854 and 1882, when Ellis Island, New York, Castle Garde immigration center between 1855 - 1892 between 200 and 250 thousand Germans arrived in a single year. Because of the hazards* of transatlantic travel when sailboats were in use, few immigrants ever returned to Europe, but once steamships became common after 1860 there was an increase in the number of returnees* and a decrease* in the proportion of families emigrating from Germany.
In the nineteenth century emigration was closely related to economic
Europe and the United States. Because of technological improvements*
in transportation and agriculture, Germany had become a wheat-importing
country by 1875 as other nations successfully competed* for the German
market. . This development had devastating* consequences for German
farmers and the village shopkeepers and craftsmen who depended upon
their patronage*. The result was a f lood of emigration to America of
unprecedented* proportions in the 1880s, especially from the northern
and eastern lands of Mecklenburg, Pommerania, and East Prussia. In the
1890s, however, emigration was sharply reduced* to an average of only
thirty thousand per year, as German industrial development provided
employment for displaced* farmers and agricultural workers.
By the end of the nineteenth century there were about 8,000,000, first
and second generation Germans in the United States, roughly ten percent
of the entire population. Two-thirds lived in urban* communities of
2500 or more persons, the remainder on farms or in villages. In their
occupations, German-Americans were especially attracted to dairy* farming
and, in the cities, to various food industries and to brewing*. They
were also numerous in the merchant and professional categories. Others
found work in domestic and personal service, but many were also classified
as unskilled workers. Inevitably, Germans were underrepresented in occupations
that required a good command of the English language. Most significantly,
however, the Germans were as diverse* as American society itself, with
its rich and poor, educated and uneducated, urban and rural* populations,
and its varieties of religious belief. In this respect the Germans had
a distinct advantage over other ethnic groups that were more clearly
concentrated in lower occupational* and income groups.
World War I introduced a period-of trouble for German-Americans. It
was a time when citizens of German origin were individually harassed*
and persecuted*, as the American people were swept up* in a wave of
antiGerman feeling. In effect, there was a war against German language
and culture in the United States for a short time. This phenomenon is
partly explained by the behavior of German-American cultural chauvinists
(especially the publishers and editors of German-language newspapers)
who took an extravagantly pro-German position during the period of American
neutrality, 1914-1917. In 1916 they vigorously opposed the reelection
of President Wilson, whom they perceived as being deeply sympathetic
to the Allies. Then, when the United States declared war an Germany
in 1917, many Americans of German birth or descent found themselves
under suspicion* of disloyalty. Hundreds of German-language newspapers
ceased publication, countless* social and cultural '
Vereine disbanded*, and many German-American churches and schools
made a rapid transition* to the use of the English language.
Following the war some German-American leaders made efforts to revive German ethnic life in the United States, but they were not very successful, even though there was a dramatic resumption* of German immigration in the early 1920s. Filled with bitterness and resentment* after the trauma of World War I, some leaders sought* to regain* respect through united political action. After this strategy had failed repeatedly in the 1920s, they shifted* to an emphasis on culture. This effort also failed because their programs were based on elitist values at variance with* those of the average German immigrant of the time. Then, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the cultural idea faded as German- American Nazis captured public attention with a strategy of blood. This racist quest* for ethnic unity was unacceptable to the vast majority of German-Americans. When the United States entered World War II, it carefully avoided the mistakes of the earlier conflict. GermanAmerican ethnicity was not reawakened nor was there a repetition of the World War I repression.
Following World War II there was another great wave of German immigration
to America. Nearly another million persons arrived, especially in the
1950s. They hoped to escape
the problems associated with the economic, social, and political reconstruction
and to find a better life in America. Like the great German-Jewish emigration
of the 1930s, the post war movement included a disproportionate* number
of scientists, technicians, and other well-educated persons. Others
were the brides of American soldiers in Germany; still others were "displaced
persons" - ethnic German refugees from eastern Europe who fled to the
West before the Soviet armies in 1945.
Like the immigrants of the 1920s, the recent immigrants from Germany
have been much interested in being assimilated to American society and
culture as rapidly as possible. Few have wanted to perpetuate* German
language and culture in America. As a result, organized
Deutschtum like that of the preWorld War I period has never reappeared.
Instead, German ethnicity continues in local Vereine that still may
be found in the major centers of German-American population, such as
New York, Chicago, and Cleveland, plus California and Florida. Such
organizations attract the participation of only a small fraction* of
German-born persons in the United States. Still, these societies gather
together persons whose attachment to German language and culture is
more emotional than intellectual, more social than political. They provide
an environment in which GermanAmericans may converse*, dine, play, sing,
and dance with others who share their values and attitudes.
The total effect of three hundred years of German immigration on the
United States has been enormous. According to the census of 1980, approximately
52 million persons out of the American population
of 226 million are descended from German immigrants. They are easily
single group, exceeding* both the Irish and the English.
Inevitably, the Americans of German descent have produced men and women
of towering* importance in political, economic, social, and cultural
affairs, includ ' in famous statesmen, military leaders, scientists,
financiers, indusirialists, musicians, artists, novelists, and many
others. Collectively their contribution to American life and culture
has been incalculable*.
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U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany
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Updated: August 2001