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Three Hundred Years of German Immigration to America
1683 - 1983




Submitted Pursuant to Public Law 97-472 and Public Law 98-197

Presidential Commission for the German-American Tricentennial

Horst G. Denk and Kenneth Rush, Co-Chairmen


Nearly 50,000,000 Americans claim German heritage. They comprised 26.1 percent of the 188,000,000 people -- from a total population of 226,504.,825 -- who answered questions on ethnicity in the 1980 census.

However, as one student of the German-American experience has observed, "Despite such numerical strength in the 1970s, the Germans ... were among the least visible of ethnic groups." Even with the current resurgence of ethnic awareness in the U.S., most Americans of German origin regard themselves simply as Americans and are generally indistinguishable from the rest of the population. Few if any nationalities have blended so completely into the multicultural mosaic of twentieth century American society.

Yet many German-Americans have a quiet pride in their cultural inheritance and the contributions that Americans of German birth or descent have made to the progress and prosperity of
the United States. As President Reagan noted in May 1981, " with strong hands and good hearts, these industrious people helped build a strong and good America." Later, on January
20, 1983, in proclaiming 1983 the "Tricentennial anniversary year of German settlement in America," he observed that more than seven million German immigrants "have entered the United
States and made extraordinary human, economic, political, social, and cultural contributions to the growth and success of our great country."

The first organized group of German immigrants to this country, thirteen Mennonite families numbering thirty-three persons from Krefeld on the Rhine, arrived in Philadelphia on October 6, 1683, and quickly established Germantown a few miles away. In their experience can be seen the industry, frugality, and perseverance that were 'to become the hallmarks of millions of their fellow countrymen who followed them to America. They settled within two days on land they had purchased in advance from William Penn, and immediately began building. They had occupied their first living quarters by winter that year. Germantown quickly developed into "the first distinctively manufacturing town in Pennsylvania." Though a small community near a large metropolis, it quickly developed a variety of industrial activities, producing textiles, leather, coaches and carts, paper, and other products basic to the economy of the period.

The founders of Germantown came to America primarily seeking religious freedom from the repressive treatment given nonconformist groups in the German principalities of the seventeenth century. Many fellow countrymen followed for that reason. Increasingly, however, their motives were Political or socioeconomic or, perhaps more often, both.

America was seen as a land of great, if not always clearly perceived, opportunities. Land and work were plentiful. In the colonial period, the century after Germantown's founding, almost one hundred thousand Germans immigrants. The British encouraged new settlers. By the time of the ,American Revolution, nearly a quarter of a million German-Americans lived in the thirteen colonies., Most had come as agricultural laborers, peasants, and craftsmen with,skills adaptable to, life in a new land.

German immigrants of the colonial period made indelible mark on America in the formative years of the new Republic. The breadth and importance of these contributions are symbolized by a remarkable family, the Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania. Pastor John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg ascended his Lutheran pulpit in Woodstock, Virginia one Sunday in January,1776. Declaring "There is a time for all things, There is a time to preach and a time to fight," he removed his pastoral robe to reveal the uniform of a Volunteer regiment. Three hundred members of the community then spontaneously enlisted to fight the British with their pastor. This friend and supporter of Patrick Henry went on to raise - and command the Eighth Virginia Regiment, to distinguish himself at the
Battle of the Brandywine, and to lead the units- which stormed and took the British redoubts before Yorktown. Muhlenberg was the eldest of six sons of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, generally acknowledged as the first organizer of Lutheranism in America. other sons were also prominent. One became a renowned botanist and was speaker of the First Congress of the United States. Another was Vice-Governor of Pennsylvania after the Revolution.

Though the impact of the German immigrants of the colonial period was considerable, the great era of German immigration from a numerical standpoint began only with the political, economic, and social upheavals that followed the Napoleonic Wars. Between 1825 and 1835, about fifty thousand Germans made the long voyage to America, followed in the next decade by another two hundred thousand. From 1816 to 1914, about five and a half million Germans came to the United States. In the beginning, they were farmers, craftsmen, and small tradesmen. However, the ultimate failure of the Social Democratic Revolution of 1848-49 created a new kind of immigrant: judges, lawyers, professors, writers, and other intellectuals who were liberals and democrats, patriots and freedom fighters, products of the student movement in mid-nineteenth-century Germany.

Best known among them was Carl Schurz,who became successively a candidate for lieutenant-governor in Wisconsin, ambassador to Spain, a Union Army general, senator from Missouri, Secretary of the Interior, and editor of the New York Evening Post and Harper's_Weekly. In the tradition of the people of Germantown, who made the first public protest against slavery in America in 1688, only five years after their arrival in America, Schurz and other "Forty-Eighters" were in the forefront of the anti-slavery movement.

Schurz' reform impulses were felt in other areas as well. While Secretary of the Interior, Schurz was among those leading advocates of Civil Service reform whose efforts resulted in passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, a significant first step away from the old "spoils system." It has been said of him,

To German-Americans he remained a symbol of moral leadership and intellectual achievement. To all immigrants of his own and later generations, his life served as a reminder that economic opportunity was not the only or even the most important reward that American society held forth to those willing to accept its challenges and demands.

After mid-century and the influx of the Forty-Eighters, the tide of German immigrants continued to rise. It rose to a half million during the years 1852-1854 -- 215,000 in 1854 alone -and nearly a million throughout the decade of the 1850s. Their origins were more diverse than those of earlier arrivals, who came mainly from southwestern Germany, and so were their occupations. Farmers and artisans came with their families. Often whole villages immigrated. But there were more skilled workers now, reflecting the growth of industries and cities, both in Germany and the U.S., where opportunities in industry, commerce, and trade awaited experienced newcomers. In mid- century, half or more of all employed German immigrants were skilled manual workers in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit, New York, Jersey City, and Boston. Many others were in non-manual occupations. Very few were unskilled laborers.

By the mid-1800s, westward settlement of the United States permitted this new wave of Germans to move beyond earlier concentrations of their countrymen in places like Pennsylvania and the Appalachian valleys to the cities and farm lands of the Midwest and even Far West. Most chose to live in the upper Mississippi and Ohio valleys, mainly in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Missouri. The stability of German American settlements in Pennsylvania and the Midwest is reflected in the large percentage of the current populations of these states claiming ' German ancestry: Pennsylvania (34%), Ohio (33%), Illinois (27%),Wisconsin (51%), and Missouri (32%). Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota have German-American populations of comparable size. Similarly, more than one fourth (28%) of the people of Oregon -- a major destination of nineteenth century immigrants making,the long.,arduous journey westward -- are of German descent.

Despite their preference for certain areas, Germans could eventually be found everywhere. In his book "The German Element in the United States," Albert B. Faust notes that by-the 1900 census they were "more equally distributed over the territory of the United States than any other foreign element," This pattern has continued in this century. It is both a cause and consequence of a willingness among most German immigrants, typified earlier by Carl Schurz, to become altogether citizens of their new country.

After interruptions caused by the American Civil I War and the Franco-Prussian War, large-scale German immigration resumed and quickly reached an all-time high in 1882, when a quarter
of a million Germans entered this country.: German-born Americans became the dominant element in many major cities and constituted the largest foreign-born,group in the country. Though fewer German immigrants of that time were farmers, as late as 1900 most American farmers were of German ancestry. They were widely regarded as the best husbandmen in the land.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, America was pervaded by German influences. Many of these have become so accepted a part of America ,life that their ethnic origin has been forgotten. Santa Claus (St. Nicholas), the Christmas tree, the Easter bunny, the frankfurter, the hamburger, and beer are familiar features of American life. Our kindergartens and graduate schools were German-inspired. Classical music, choral singing, and marching bands in America were given strong impetus by German teachers, musicians, and enthusiastic amateurs from early times, but especially in the latter decades of the last century.

The liberal reform tradition in politics and the American labor movement have been shaped largely by socially conscious German- Americans. The oft-discussed American work ethic, a prime factor in the rapid rise of the U.S. to preeminence in agriculture and industry in the twentieth century, owes much to the German- Americans' commitment to excellence.

Despite the ability of the Germans to make this land their own, the immigration pattern in this century has been uneven, complicated by politics, tragedy, and war. The great movement of more than two centuries came to a halt during the First World War. The war years were unhappy for German-Americans, who suddenly found themselves -- archetypal assimilators -- treated as aliens. During the 1920s new federal policies prevented the resumption of immigration on the prewar scale., Nonetheless, 75,000 German immigrants were admitted in 1924, many coming to escape difficult living conditions in postwar Germany.

Since World War I, about 1.5 million Germans have immigrated to the United States. Many were political refugees, often intellectuals and persons of substantial means. During the years 1933-41, German immigrants numbered 104,000, some eighty thousand of them Jews fleeing persecution by the Nazis. In the early post-World War II years of 1949-58, another 375,000 arrived -- a small proportion of the great masses of Europeans uprooted by that war. Many were ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe.

But a brief survey of immigration trends cannot begin to tell the story of the profound effect the achievements and contributions of German-Americans have had on making the United States the country it is today. Famous for their practical skills, thrift, hard work, interest in the arts, and enjoyment of good living they have left their mark indelibly on American culture and life. Even a summary account of their three-hundred-year-old story cannot omit mention of a few among the many who have played a special part in creating the German-American legacy.

German-Americans helped win and transmit the freedoms we enjoy today. For example, the first great victory for freedom of the press in America occurred in 1735 when a jury found John Peter Zenger, a German-American printer and journalist, justified in criticizing the colonial government. Philadelphia's German- language Philadelphische Zeitung was the first newspaper to report the Declaration of Independence.

General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian military officer, turned Washington's civilian soldiers into a disciplined force capable of defeating the British. Notable among many German-Americans who have shaped our military to meet later challenges were John J. Pershing, whose ancestral family name was Pfoerschin, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, a descendant of Hans Nikolas Eisenhauer. "Ike" also shared with Herbert Hoover the distinction of being one of our two Presidents of German descent.

Pennsylvania-German-built Conestoga wagons carried our pioneers westward, some armed with "Kentucky rifles," also made in Pennsylvania by Germans. A leading German-American wagon builder, Clement Studebaker, later produced the popular car that bore his name.

Brooklyn's famous bridge, a century-old American landmark, was designed and built by the visionary German immigrant engineer,John Roebling, and his son, Washington. It joined Brooklyn with Manhattan Island, bought from Indians for a few beads by German-born Peter Minuit.

The roll call of German-American leaders in business and finance includes names like Astor, Boeing, Chrysler, Firestone, Fleischman, Guggenheim, Heinz, Hershey, Kaiser, Rockefeller, Steinway, Strauss (of-blue jeans fame), Singer (originally Reisinger), Sulzberger, Wanamaker, and Weyerhaueser. And other famous names, such as Einstein, Bausch, Lomb, Mergenthalerf Steinmet,,Westinghouse and Wernher von Braun helped give America preeminence in science and technology.

In sports there have been such memorable figures as baseballers Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Lou,Gehrig, and Casey.Stengel, and swimming champions Gertrude Ederle and Johnny Weissmuller. In literature, Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, Thomas Mann, Kurt Vonnegut and the inimitable "Dr. Seuss" (Theodor Seuss Geisel), author of forty-four children's books. In journalism, Thomas Nast, the German-born cartoonist who created the popular images of Uncle Sam and Santa Claus and gave us the donkey and elephant symbols for our major political parties, Rudolf Dirks, creator of the beloved "Katzenjammer Kids", Charles Schulz of "Peanuts" fame, Adolph Ochs, H. L.-Mencken, and Walter Lippman.

From music have come - beside the piano- and organ-makers, Steinway, Knabe, and Wurlitzer -- Leopold and Walter Damrosch, Bruno Walter, John Philip Sousa, Oscar Hammerstein, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, and Kurt Weill. And from the theatre a succession of gifted playwrights, directors and performers, among them Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Lubitsch, Eric von Stroheim, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, and the inimitable Marlene Dietrich.

The visual arts have also benefited from German genius. Painters of German birth or.descent from the nineteenth century include Emanuel Leutze, best known for his classic work, Washington Crossing the Delaware, and Albert Bierstadt, who captured on canvas the majestic beauty of the American West. Notable in our own times have been Max Beckmann, Hans Hofmann, George Grosz, Lyonel Feininger, Josef Albers, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and the great critic, Erwin Panofsky.

Two giants of the art of photography -- Alfred Stieglitz and Alfred Eisenstaedt -- were also German-Americans. And American architecture has been enormously influenced by German emigres Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.

And for the thirsty millions from every walk of American life, the names Stroh, Schaefert Schlitz, Miller, Pabsto Anheuser- Busch, Budweiser, and Coors are synonyms for beer brewed in the German-American tradition.

Yet, to mention noted German-Americans and their achievements is only one way of suggesting the magnitude of our debt to the millions of others who have helped create and enrich the American way of life. As one recent writer said, "...the relative handful of famous German-Americans has been far less consequential in the shaping of America than have the anonymous common folk." Ordinary German-Americans of the past three centuries became a major part of our population, dispersed themselves widely across the land, and fully accepted and embodied the ideals that have become characteristic of our society. They have been a powerful, constructive force in the formation of our society and our common heritage.

In tribute to all of these -- the great, near-great, and "common folk" alike -- the Congress, by joint resolution and the President by proclamation joined in declaring 1983 the "Tricentennial Anniversary Year of German Settlement in America." Congress noted "the immeasurable ... contributions to this country by millions of German immigrants over the past three centuries." It cited the close friendship between the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany based
on the common values of democracy, guaranteed individual liberties, tolerance of personal differences, and opposition to totalitarianism." The President added that "the success of the Marshall Plant the Berlin Airlift, and the ensuing NATO partnership have led to a recognition of our common democratic ideals and joint interest in Western economic and political strength."

In its resolutiont Congress established a Presidential Commission for the German-American Tricentennial "to plant encourage, develop, and coordinate the commemoration of the German-American Tricentennial" and called for a report on its activities upon termination of the Commission.

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U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Germany /Public Affairs/ Information Resource Centers 
Updated: August 2001