The story of the German immigrants

January 25, 2021 by Bonn Brandt

Who are the German-Americans ?

German-Americans are citizens of the United States who were either born in Germany or are of German descent. Today, 49 million descendants of German immigrants make up 16 per cent of the total U.S. population. German-Americans are the largest ancestry group, ahead of Irish-Americans, African-Americans, and English-Americans.

immigrants on ellis island new york
Immigrants on Ellis Island

The evolution of German-Americans is a lengthy story - one of early beginnings, continued growth, and a steady expansion of influence.

Germans were among the first Europeans to make their homes in the New World, and are among the United States' most recent arrivals.

In search of land and religious freedom in the 1700s, they settled primarily in Pennsylvania and New York.

In the years in between, they moved into nearly every corner of the U.S., tried their hand at nearly every trade and pursuit, and helped shape the fundamental institutions of American life.

The participation of German immigrants was instrumental in winning the American War of Independence.


When did the first Germans arrive in America ?

The first German-American, Dr. Johannes Fleischer, was also the first Physician to arrive in the New World with the very first group of settlers to land on Jamestown Island in May 1607. Other Germans arrived in 1608 on the ship “Mary and Margaret” and settled in Jamestown as glassmakers and carpenters.

Jamestown circa 1619
Jamestown circa 1619

In 1620, German mineral specialists and sawyers from Hamburg arrived to work and settle in the Virginia colony. They opened the first sawmill in America.

In July 1683, a ship by the name of Concord sailed from London to America. Aboard were 33 members of 13 German families from the Lower Rhine in search of religious freedom, including some Mennonites and Quakers. Landing in Pennsylvania in October, the Concord was greeted by William Penn personally.

Sail Boat the Concord

Painted by German American artist Richard Schlecht in 1982, the watercolour depiction of the merchant ship Concord was the template for the designers and printers of the 1983 stamps issued in partnership by the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America.


Why did german immigrants come to America ?

By the 17th century, Germany suffered from the aftermath of the bloody religious conflicts of the Thirty Years' War, Christian minorities were persecuted.

Many farmers live in poverty. Crop failures and land shortages threatened their very existence. People set out for a country that seemed to offer both freedom and prosperity: America.

The permanent wars in Europe and the French Revolution's legacy drove Germans immigrants to the New World in great numbers. The Quaker Free State, founded by William Penn, was the destination of most Germans who sought to make their fortunes in the New World as religious refugees.

By the end of the century, the population of Germans living in Penn's colony had grown from about 20,000 in 1727 to 200,000.

How were the German immigrants received ?

To notify the citizens that a boat carrying immigrants was landing in the port the city's bells rang. Locals gathered at the vessel to greet the arriving passengers and to find the workers they needed.

Most Philadelphians had endured the journey across the ocean and knew what the newcomers urgently needed. And they eagerly awaited news from the old homeland.

Pennsylvania Bell

The Provincial Assembly of Pennsylvania has had a bell in its possession for official purposes since the founding of the province. The province's first bell is said to have been brought to Pennsylvania by William Penn. The renaming of the Liberty Bell occurred in the 1830s when it began to be seen as a symbol of the abolitionist movement. To them, it represented the end of slavery, which Northerners overwhelmingly celebrated.


The English speaking Pennsylvania Provincial Council became troubled by the large number of new arrivals. Benjamin Franklin expressed his views on German immigrants in strong terms. He accused them of a refusal to become integrated.

Even those who were more willing to integrate refused to speak the language of their new homeland. Instead, an idiom of their own emerged, Pennsylvania-Dutch or Pennsylvania-German, which blended English words and German phrases.


"Few of their children learn English. They import many books from Germany. Two (out of six publishing houses) are wholly owned by the Germans. The signs in our streets are in both languages, sometimes only in German. Soon they will outnumber us so that all the advantages we have will not be sufficient to preserve our language. It will disrupt our government as well."


The Provincial Council adopted an "Oath" in 1727, which all male Germans over the age of 16 were required to sign upon their arrival in the new world.

The pledge was an effort by the Provincial Council to assure that foreigners would abide by the laws and regulations of the English government. Those taking the oath disassociated themselves from all affiliations with other monarchs and took allegiance to the Kingdom of England.


Oath of Allegiance

"We subscribers, natives and late inhabitants of the Palatinate upon the Rhine and places adjacent, having transported ourselves and families into this province of Pennsylvania, a colony subject to the crown of Great Britain, in hopes and expectation of finding a retreat and peaceable settlement therein, do solemnly promise and engage that we will be faithful and bear true allegiance to his present majesty, King George II, and his successors, kings of Great Britain, and will be faithful to the proprietors of this province, and that we will demean ourselves peaceably to all his said subjects and strictly observe and conform to laws of England and this province, to the utmost of our power."


Upon taking the oath, passengers were required to sign their names on two pieces of paper. If the immigrant was unable to sign his name, a registrar wrote his name for them and they placed an "X" next to their name.


How did the German immigrants adapt to America ?

Passengers who did not have enough money to pay for the journey to America were "contracted" by merchants for a specified period of time until their passage to America was settled. Passengers who had enough money to pay their bills for the trip to America were free to travel the country.

Year by year, the German settlers pushed the frontier further west. Their quest was for good land that had not yet been claimed. Life on the frontier had its hardships, but the hardships led to dearly held character traits. They were economical, hardworking and self-confident.

German Immigrants had close family ties and a deep reverence for God. Neighbourly community, born out of necessity, became a profound social good.

In 1794, German immigrants presented a petition that became a legend. They asked the House of Representatives to publish legal texts in German as well so that it would be easier for them to find their way in America.

The motion was referred to the main committee. There it was finally put to the vote. 41 members voted in favour, 42 against.

Frederick Muhlenberg-first-speaker-signature

Signature of Frederick Muhlenberg (1750-1801), First Speaker of the House of Representatives.


Frederick Muhlenberg, the first Speaker of the House of Representatives, abstained from voting. Not because, as a native of Germany, he did not want to expose himself to the suspicion of being biased, but because he thought the whole issue was inappropriate.


"The sooner Germans become Americans, the better it is. And the best way to do that is to master the English language."


German immigration to America in the 1800s

German Immigrant Family

Emigrants from Bavaria arrived in New York. Between 1892 and 1954, Ellis Island served as an immigration inspection station for millions of immigrants arriving into the United States.


Between 1820 and 1870, nearly eight million Germans immigrated to the United States. Most settled in the northern Midwestern states - North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Germans establish themselves as a respected immigrant group. Classic "hyphenated Americans" with a dual identity.

German communities formed in rural areas where the same dialect was spoken and towns were built according to the current German architectural fashion.

In the triad of freedom, humanity, and equality, most German immigrants place the greatest value on freedom, which could often be traced back to the immigrants' own life stories. The failure of the 1848 revolution was proof that more freedom rights were not to be expected in Germany.

Most prominent in this context were supporters of the left-liberal bourgeoisie, the so-called Forty-Eighters, who had left their homeland either by choice or under persecution to seek refuge in a land they perceived as the epitome of liberal life.

What contributions did german immigrants make to America ?

The first Kindergartens in the United States were opened by German immigrants. They adopted the ideas of educator Friedrich Froebel, who established the world's first kindergarten in Blankenburg, Germany, in 1837.

Kindergarten

The first American Kindergarten a German-language school opened at Watertown Wisconsin in 1856. Restored by the Watertown Historical Society in 1956, the building today houses a museum. In 1972, the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places.


The Conestoga wagon which was used in the opening of the American Frontier was first designed and built by German settlers in Pennsylvania.

St. Louis Turnverein, 1860

The Conestoga wagon, a horse-drawn freight wagon, originated in the 18th century in the Conestoga Creek region of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Ideally suited for transporting goods over poor roads, it had a capacity of up to six tons, a floor that curved upward at both ends to prevent the contents from shifting, and a white tarp to protect it from bad weather. It was drawn by four to six horses.


Germans in the American Cilvil War

Immigrants from Germany made up the largest group of foreign soldiers in the American Civil War (1861 - 1865). In the southern states, there were no more than 5000 "Dutch", 3000 of them were forcibly recruited.

German-American Cavalry generals, during the american civil war

August V. Kautz (3rd from left; 1829-1895) came from a family of Baden descent, but was already born in the USA. As a cavalry general, he made a name for himself in the final pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.


They didn't want to fight for slavery. They had previously refused military service in Prussia and had fled to America from the despotism of sovereigns and religious unrest.

Approximately 216,000 American citizens of German descent served as soldiers in the Union Army during the four years of the Civil War. German Union soldiers subsequently protected Lincoln's inauguration as president.

Masterpiece of German-American Engineering

Brooklyn Brige
Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge, a marvel of engineering, was designed and constructed by German engineer John A. Roebling. Completed in 1883, the structure was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time. Roebling who graduated from the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin had emigrated to the USA in 1831. In 1841 he founded the first wire rope factory in America.

With the onset of high industrialization in the U.S. numerous communities with schools, churches and clubs emerged, where the German language and culture were cultivated.

German-Americans were among the most established population groups, both among farmers and in the new blue-collar professions.

German-initiated and managed companies operated in a variety of business sectors throughout the 19th century, including publishing, banking, brewing, insurance, manufacturing, architecture and agricultural production.

Three kids at a hot dog stand street food-vendor early 1900s

German immigrants brought a variety of traditional German foods to their adopted country.


German Beer Garden in New York

The histories of beer halls and beer gardens are particularly associated with Munich and the southern German state of Bavaria


The early presence in the new industries also meant that Germans were more mobile than almost any other group. They were less concentrated in individual regions than other immigrants. As foremen in jobs like railroad construction, they moved all over the country.

Although the majority of German settlers were significantly influenced in their decision-making regarding emigration by the dream of their own land, the majority of immigrants found their livelihood in the trade and service sector, in industry and commerce.

The proportion of German immigrants was correspondingly high in the cities, of which New York was considered the second-largest German city after Berlin due to the enormously high German population.

German Immigrants
German Immigrants

Compared to Polish and Irish immigrants, the Germans formed a distinctly diverse group whose background could only partly be traced back to the old Particularism. Although they had shared characteristics they were a less unified group.

German Immigrants were divided not only by differences in geography but also by professional backgrounds, different denominations and different political views.

Postcard from the Bowery New York
Bowery New York, 1813

This diversity contributed greatly to the relatively effortless integration of the new arrivals. Especially in the cities, assimilation was quicker and less complicated than in the countryside, where German settlements had long been a subculture.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, communities with dense German-speaking populations celebrated German-American Day on October 6 on a grand scale.

Germans are the largest immigrant group in the U.S. - and the least visible

In the course of the 20th century, the cultural independence of German Americans disappeared almost completely. The reason for the dramatic meltdown was the entry of the United States into World War I.

When the war broke out in Europe in July 1914, the U.S. was initially cautious. President Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912, opted for neutrality, which also reflected the general mood in the country. The Europeans, the attitude popular in the U.S. in 1914, should fight each other if they want, the Americans stay out of it. Still, in 1916, Wilson was re-elected with the slogan "He kept us out of war!".

Children standing in front of an anti-German sign

Group of children standing in front of an anti-German signposted in the Edison Park community area of Chicago, Illinois 1917. One of the children is pointing at the sign, which reads: DANGER!! To Pro-Germans - Loyal Americans Welcome to Edison Park.


The image of Germans changes abruptly when the U.S. entered the First World War on April 2, 1917. Suddenly, German Americans were under pressure to shed their ethnic identity. The German language and culture were outlawed in the course of a veritable anti-German hysteria.

Liberty Bond advertisement telling German- and Austrian-Americans that their loyalties are with the United States, and not Germany

Portion of Liberty Bond advertisement telling German- and Austrian-Americans that their loyalties are with the United States, and not Germany. Medina Sentinel, October 26, 1916


As part of this first major conflict between the United States and the German Reich, German immigrants in the United States faced assault and public ostracism.

The situation intensified by World War II. The almost complete erosion of identity of origin occurred. No other ethnic group lost their public visibility in the course of the 20th century as the German-Americans.

Under this pressure, complete integration into American society took place. Many German-Americans shed their German names in favour of American ones, German books were removed from public libraries, and German streets were renamed.

The American public, questioning the solidarity of German-Americans, repeatedly forced Germans to make public declarations of loyalty.

Anti German Propaganda Postcard

Anti-German Sentiment and war rationing paved the way for the 18th Amendment. This postcard shows an anti-temperance voter stomping on an American flag while casting his ballot. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union used this slogan to rally supporters. During wartime, patriotism was at an all-time high, which made rhetoric like this even more effective. World War I served as a catalyst for the adoption of the Prohibition Act.


There were indeed German nationalists who publicly demonstrated their loyalty to the German homeland and shook the credibility of American Germans who felt they were American citizens. Among them were prominent German Americans like Walt Disney, and Henry Ford who openly supported the Nazi Regime up until 1938.

Before World War II, many Americans thought that communism was worse than fascism. A disturbingly large percentage of Americans, while clearly not having Nazi ideology, did harbour sympathy for it. These perceptions changed with Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

Between 1933 and 1941, due to persecution by the National Socialist regime, hundreds of thousands German people, among them writers, publicists, filmmakers, directors, screenwriters, actors, cinematographers, technicians, editors, scientists, teachers, architects, artists, musicians, intellectuals and, in general, political opponents of the Third Reich left the country and emigrated to America.

German citizens of Jewish faith were deprived of their human rights and were forced to leave their German homeland. An estimated 500,000 people were able to escape the NS terror.


“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings."


A German-American leads the fight against Nazi Germany

Dwight Eisenhower at his desk

Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, is considered one of the most outstanding military figures in history. He was in charge of the courageous and brilliantly executed invasion of Normandy in June 1944, which led to the victory and liberation of Germany from the Nazi regime.


During World War II, anti-German-American sentiments reemerged, but they were not as intense as they had been during World War I. German Americans' loyalty was questioned less vocally.

A Pennsylvania Dutch descendant and future President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower , commanded U.S. forces in Europe.

Two other German-Americans, Admiral Chester Nimitz of the United States Navy and General Carl Spaatz of the Army Air Corps, served at Eisenhower's side and held central roles in the fight against Nazi Germany.

GIs and Fräuleins

Two American GI's sitting with two German Girls

Soldiers had their fling regardless of rules or orders. If they were caught they knew what the punishment would be. However, that did not stop them and nothing could have stopped them.


World War II, industrial expansion, and Americanisation efforts intensified the cultural assimilation of many German Americans. In the postwar period, as survivors of the conflict sought to escape its cruel consequences, there was another wave of German immigrants to the United States, including the fiancés and wives of U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, almost one million Germans immigrated to the United States. In 1983 The United States and Germany celebrated the German-American Tricentennial, marking the 300th anniversary of German immigration to Pennsylvania.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 46.5 million Americans claimed German ancestry, making Germans the largest nationality group in the United States.

Today, cities and states with notable German-American influence and population stretch from the Oregon coast to Pennsylvania in the so-called German Belt.


Related Articles

German-American Day

On October 6th, the heritage and culture of German Americans is acknowledged.

see more | read more
German-American Journalism

America's first commercial and successful newspaper in the German language

see more | read more
American War of Independence

German troops were both feared and admired for their discipline and ferocity.

see more | read more

From Barn to Skyscaper

The historic buildings are the work of the German immigrants

see more | read more
Land of religious freedom

What religions did German immigrants bring to America?

see more | read more
The Shoah

The years 1933 to 1945 were the darkest times in German history

see more | read more

The forty-eighters

Political refugees of the German Revolution of 1848

see more | read more
Marshall Plan

$1.5 billion was allocated to West Germany

see more | read more
Stay in touch!

How to say “news” in German

see more | read more