German Americans: The Largest Ethnic Group in the U.S.

Issue #23 - German Immigrants

The influence of German-speaking immigrants to the United States is so widespread it’s almost hard to see. The nineteenth century was the era of greatest immigration, and the people who came here brought with them a broad array of talents and cultural contributions, from kindergarten to public policy to beer.


In 1910 the United States had over 500 German-language newspapers. Today there is only one: Hiwwe wie Driwwe (“Hither like Thither”), published in Pennsylvania. Technically, it’s a Pennsylvania German (a.k.a., Pennsylvania Dutch) newspaper, written in the German dialect developed and spoken by the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites of North America. But why are there 400,000 people here who speak it? Many of them are the descendants of one of the most significant waves of immigration in the history of the United States: the Germans of the nineteenth century.

“From the Old to the New World” depicting German emigrants boarding a steamer in Hamburg, Germany to sail to America, published in Harper’s Weekly, 7 November 1874.

Between 1830 and 1914, ninety percent of German-speakers leaving their home countries in the German Confederation (later the German Empire), chose to move to the United States. Many of these immigrants were skilled workers who brought new trades and industries to the U.S. Some of their contributions are still familiar to Americans in the twentieth century: Bausch & Lomb optical products, Steinway pianos, and of course, beer. 

Many of the biggest breweries today still bear the names of their German founders, from Anheuser-Busch to Coors. It was the influx of German brewers who made lager beer (as opposed to English ale) such a popular American beverage. Not only was lager a more refined and lighter drink, the German beer culture was different, too. With the beer came biergartens (beer gardens), offering a friendly, multigenerational setting for drinking and dining that was much more communal drinking experience than the dark and dangerous taverns of old. Beer gardens featured German foods, of course, which were soon adopted by Americans of all backgrounds, from bratwurst to pretzels. 

One of the most significant waves of German immigration became known at the “Forty-Eighters.” These were the liberal, democratic-minded activists who sought to revolutionize the feudal order still dominant in the German Confederation around 1848. Although support for their progressive ideas was widespread even beyond the German-speaking countries, their planned revolutions were stamped out by the ruling aristocracy. Although the revolutionaries did achieve some of their goals (serfdom was abolished in Hungary and Austria and the Netherlands moved towards a more democratic governing system), many of those deeply invested in the activism of 1848 were encouraged, gently and otherwise, to leave. 

The influx of Forty-Eighters to the United States brought a new infusion of liberal ideas to American society. These were highly educated, cultured people deeply moved by the democratic ideals of the U.S. Constitution. Many former revolutionaries took on important leadership roles in their new country. In 1852 the 23-year-old Carl Shurz, a university-educated political revolutionary from Prussia, immigrated to Philadelphia (which still boasts the biggest German-speaking population in the U.S.). He soon moved to Wisconsin with his German wife, Molly Meyer-Schurz. 

Molly Meyer-Schurz was also a political activist. She had studied progressive new approaches to child development in Hamburg, Germany under the influential philosopher of education and inventor of the kindergarten model of early childhood development, Friedrich Froebel. In 1851 Meyer-Schurz opened the first kindergarten in the U.S., in Watertown, Wisconsin, establishing a child-specific model of learning through play that is widespread throughout the world today.

The German immigrants of the nineteenth century managed to hold onto many of their most important cultural traditions while simultaneously assimilating into the broader American society. Thanks to their sheer numbers and a settlement pattern emphasizing highly concentrated German-speaking communities from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to Texas, German-Americans were a great American immigrant success story. Then came 1914. 

Although the U.S. did not get involved in World War I until 1917, most Americans regarded Germany as the enemy from the outset of the conflict. Increasing reports of German brutality, from the occupation of Belgium in 1914 to the sinking of the civilian ocean liner the Lusitania in 1915, finally forced President Woodrow Wilson to enter the war in support of the Allied Powers and against Germany. 

The presence of large populations of German-speaking Americans made some of their neighbors nervous. From 1914 on, suspicion about the loyalties of German-Americans led to the harassment, imprisonment, and lynchings of German-Americans who were unfairly suspected of treason. The federal government prepared a list of all “German aliens” in the U.S. and held over 4,000 of them in internment camps between 1917-1918. 

When the war ended, so had an era of German-American culture. Many with German surnames Anglicized their names to avoid persecution. Overtly pro-German displays of culture such as German-American parades and theater productions faded from the public landscape. 

So, too, did most of those German-language newspapers. Like newspapers and magazines today, their revenue was driven by advertising. But few retailers wanted to advertise in German-language newspapers during the war, fearing guilt by association. By the time the war was over German-Americans were less motivated to flaunt their heritage than they had been before it. The implementation of Prohibition in 1920 then destroyed the (legal) beer industry and, by extension, the German-languge newspapers’ advertising budgets. German-Americans remained an important part of the population, but those who succeeded generally did so by minimizing their ethnic heritage in the face of nationalist bigotry.

The influence of German-Americans on American culture is still significant, though not always acknowledged. Molly Meyer-Schurz was only one of many German immigrants whose progressive views on education radically changed American attitudes. German immigrants valued education and successfully argued for universal free public education, a new idea for many Americans. In addition to Meyer-Schurz’s kindergarten, German educators also contributed the addition of physical fitness to public schools, thus necessitating a gymnasium, which soon became an expected and valuable feature of every school building. The influence of German-speaking immigrants to the United States is today such a familiar part of contemporary America that we often take it for granted. Though many Americans are usually pretty thankful for the beer.


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German Research  and the Proverbial Needle in a Haystack

Family historians work diligently to identify their immigrant ancestors, in hopes of expanding their ancestral knowledge back to their native homeland.  Finally, they make the exciting discovery, only to be presented with the vague revelation of the country, such as Germany or something slightly more specific, such as Prussia. The excitement continues to build and they are ready to jump to research in German records.  Not so fast!  If only a country or region is known, to begin research in Germany would be the genealogical equivalent of finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.  Before proceeding into the European research, you must seek to identify the specific German city or village from within the records created in the United States.

Begin by creating a timeline of known events as related to your German-immigrant ancestor. By looking at the family unit as a whole, one may readily identify which life event records may have listed a place of birth.  For example, identifying birth dates and locations for all of their children, allows for estimating the marriage date and geographic location.  Marriage records, especially marriage license applications, oftentimes include the location of birth, sometimes as specific as the city or village.  Death records can also prove fruitful in that regard.  Death certificates normally include a field designated for that exact information and even obituaries can be quite revealing in regard to nativity. One should not stop with the records of the subject ancestor. It is quite common for the parents’ places of birth to be found in the records of the children.

Immigration records, including naturalizations and passenger lists, can prove to be a gold mine when it comes to identifying details beneficial to research in German records.  Pre-1906 naturalization records, as well as early 19th-century passenger lists may provide only information of a general nature, but should still be sought to ensure that no stone is left unturned. Later naturalization records can include a plethora of information, including specific birth location and date for the ancestral subject, but also for their spouse and children.  In addition to last residence and country of origin, later passenger lists may also include birth dates, occupations and the names of relatives in their mother country or an immigrant relative in the United States, either of which can prove extremely useful for comparing to record details in Germany, ensuring accuracy of research.

Military service records may sometimes include the point of origin of the subject, however, this is not the norm. Two records which do often include the specific location of birth for the subject are the often overlooked and underutilized World War I and World War II Draft Registrations.  In fact, the World War I Draft Registrations can be the first record where the full birth date and city of birth, as well as the middle initial or name were recorded in American records.

In addition to government records, county histories, often referred to as “brag books,” may include extensive biographical information for ancestors. These books include biographical sketches for many of the pioneer settlers or other notable citizens, which actually usually meant whomever was willing to pay the fee to have their names included in the books.  Though these works cannot always be taken at face value, as the details were not supported by documented records, they can provide clues for further research.  Again, go beyond the subject themselves and seek these publications where the immigrant ancestor’s children were the subjects. It was very common for these biographies to include details about parents, and sometimes even the grandparents, of the subject.  Finally, review compiled genealogies and other authored works, such as newspaper articles, looking for clues to the specific location of birth for the German-immigrant ancestor. 

These extra steps can save you countless hours of research time in German records and more importantly ensures accuracy.  Locating the ancestral German village or town can be difficult, but when you do make this beautiful discovery, the reward will hopefully be the addition of several new generations to your family tree and a deeper understanding of your heritage.  

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Helpful Resource

Learn more about German immigrants in the United States, specifically Texas, with the article Galveston: The Ellis Island of Texas.  Once the ancestral specific point of origin has been identified in records of the United States, an understanding of Genealogy in Germany: Church Records is a must.


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Sources….Duh!!

Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 18 March 2021), “The Germans in America.” 

Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 18 March 2021), “Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History:  A new Surge of Growth.” 

The Pennsylvania German Newspaper (https://hiwwewiedriwwe.wordpress.com/ : accessed 18 March 2021), ““Hiwwe wie Driwwe 2” kummt mit Monji El Beji – En Interview in Deutsch un Pälzisch.” 

Leah Weinryb Grohsgal, National Endowment for the Humanities (https://www.neh.gov/ : accessed 18 March 2021), “Chronicling America’s Historic German Newspapers and the Growth of the American Ethnic Press.” 

American History USA (https://www.americanhistoryusa.com/ : accessed 18 March 2021), “German Immigration, the "Forty-Eighters", and their Cultural Legacy.” 

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Germans-emigrate-1874.jpg : 18 March 2021), digital image of original illustration artwork, “File:Germans-emigrate-1874.jpg;” image uploaded by user FastilyClone.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wehmeyer house historic (edit).jpg : 18 March 2021), digital image of original illustration artwork, “File:Wehmeyer house historic (edit).jpg;” image uploaded by user Jim Evans.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 18 March 2021), digital image of original photograph, “[Sylvester Rawding family in front of sod house, north of Sargent, Custer County, Nebraska, 1886].” Solomon D. Butcher, photographer, digital id ppmsca.08372.


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