Significance: The first non-English-speaking immigrant group to enter the United States in large numbers, Germans played major roles in American economic development, the abolitionist movement, U.S. military forces, and other spheres during the nineteenth century, and German immigrants continued to make important contributions to the United States during the twentieth century.
German immigrants on the steerage deck of the immigrant ship Friedrich der Grosse. When World War I began in August, 1914, the U.S. government seized the ship, which happened to be laid up in New York harbor. After the United States entered the war in 1917, the Navy used the ship, renamed USS Huron, to transport troops across the Atlantic. Over the next two years, the ship completed fifteen round-trip voyages. (Library of Congress)
Most German immigration to the United States occurred during the nineteenth century, but Germans began arriving as early as 1608, when they helped English settlers found Jamestown, Virginia. Germans also played an important role in the Dutch creation of New Amsterdam, which later became New York City, during the early 1620’s. Other early German immigrants helped to settle North and South Carolina. By the nineteenth century, German immigrants were advancing farther inland to states such as Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, and Texas.
Two forces were paramount in prompting early German immigration: heavy taxation and German laws of primogeniture, which permitted only the eldest sons in families to inherit their fathers’ land. These forces, along with seemingly constant and disruptive German wars, gave many young Germans strong motivations for emigrating to a new country, where they could hope to own their land and prosper with minimal government hindrance.
The first American region in which large numbers of Germans settled was Pennsylvania. Germantown, near what is now Philadelphia, was the first of many permanent German settlements in the British colonies—many of which had the same name. After Germantown was founded in 1683, German immigration to Pennsylvania grew more rapidly. By the mid-eighteenth century, Pennsylvania’s approximately 50,000 German immigrants made up about 40 percent of the colony’s entire population. Amish and Mennonite religious communities and the creation of the perhaps inaptly named "Pennsylvania Dutch” established Pennsylvania as a primary stronghold for German immigration. Pennsylvania was also becoming a base from which Germans migrated to other colonies, including what is now northern West Virginia, most of Maryland, parts of North Carolina, and the western regions of Virginia and South Carolina.
Country of origin
Primary regions of U.S. settlement
Pennsylvania, New York, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Nebraska
Earliest significant arrivals
Peak immigration periods
Twenty-first century legal residents*
63,214 (7,901 per year)
*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.
Taking their name from Deutsche, the German word for "German,” the Pennsylvania Dutch were the primary builders of Philadelphia and many of its neighboring communities in what became a six-county region that would be known as "Pennsylvania Dutch Country.” Pennsylvania’s Amish communities have kept alive German culture through their rejection of modern technology, their continued wearing of early German farming attire, and their ability to speak both old and modern forms of German. German farmers, craftsmen, and indentured servants helped develop Pennsylvania.
During the late eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution began transforming the economies of the many German states from agricultural to manufacturing bases, making it more difficult for farmers to prosper. The lure of apparently unlimited farmland in North America, coupled with news from successful immigrants to provide a powerful lure to emigrate. From the late eighteenth century through much of the nineteenth century, millions of Germans went to the United States. Many of them were farmers who brought skills that contributed significantly to the agriculture of the Midwest, and many settled and helped build cities such as Milwaukee and Cincinnati.
The success of many early German immigrants in agriculture helped draw many German-born businessmen to the United States, where some of them built beer breweries that prospered alongside local agriculture. Some the best-known American breweries, such as Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller, were started by Germans.
Because Philadelphia was at the center of American opposition to British colonial rule, it is not surprising that Germans played an important role in the American Revolution that led to the independence of the United States. By the late eighteenth century, many German immigrants had deep roots in North American and were eager to help fight for independence. However, Great Britain’s use of German mercenaries against Americans helped give German Americans a bad name.
Known as Hessians because most of them were from the German state of Hesse, as many as 30,000 German mercenaries may have fought for Great Britain, and they may have constituted as many as one-third of all British combat troops in the Revolutionary War. These Germans fought ruthlessly against the Americans, but they paid a heavy price in casualties. Nearly one-quarter of them died from illnesses, and another quarter may have died in combat. It is not known exactly how many of the German troops remained in the United States after the war, but their number seems to have been high. Moreover, many Hessian mercenaries prospered after the war, thanks to the fact that the new U.S. government lacked the funds to send them back to Europe.
German immigrants who fought on the American side were also recognized for their valor and loyalty. Some held high commands. A particularly well-known German general in the war was Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who volunteered his services as a trained Prussian general to the American cause free of pay. Von Steuben was especially valuable in teaching discipline and drill to revolutionary soldiers, few of whom had any formal military training. The colonial troops were initially ridiculed by British troops for their inability to hold line and their eagerness to retreat. Von Steuben helped transformthe untrained men into efficient soldiers. Steubenville, Ohio, was later named in his honor.
Through the half-century following the Revolutionary War, German immigration increased steadily. Many of the new arrivals settled in such major cities as New York and Philadelphia, but independence from Great Britain allowed the United States to open up the West to settlers, greatly expanding agricultural opportunities for Germans and other immigrants.
Although much of the prosperity that German immigrants enjoyed in North America was based on their success in agriculture, Germans played a leading role in opposing slavery, which provided most of the farm labor in southern U.S. states. Some of the German leaders in the American abolitionist movement were political refugees from the many failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe who came to the United States filled with liberal ideals.
After the U.S. Civil War began in 1861, German immigrants again played a prominent role in the fighting. Some Germans fought for the Confederacy during the war, but the overwhelming majority of Germans involved in the conflict fought on the Union side. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all Union Army troops were German Americans, about 45 percent of whom had been born in Europe. Among the most outstanding German officers in the Union Army were Carl Schurz, Max Weber, Louis Blenker, and Franz Sigel. Many Germans who fought for the Union brought considerable military experience. A slave state that remained in the Union, Missouri had a large German population that supplied many soldiers to the Union cause. After the war ended in 1865, German immigration continued to rise at a rate faster than that of any other immigrant group into the early twentieth century.
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status.
German immigration to the United States continued to grow until 1914, when World War I began in Europe. The U.S. declaration of war against Germany in 1917 began the first period of anti- German sentiment since the Revolutionary War, when Great Britain used German soldiers against Americans. Anti-German fever during the war caused many Americans to vilify German Americans, especially those known still to speak German, and recently arrived German immigrants. Only a small number of German Americans openly supported Germany’s position in the war. Many of them were imprisoned for sedition or attacked by mobs.
During the war, former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt went as far as to say neutrality was not an option and dual loyalty could not exist. Rising anti-German sentiment saw many German names disappear from the names of businesses, schools, and even public streets. Indeed, World War I helped accelerate the obliteration of German subcultures within the United States. Many German-language magazines and newspapers stopped publishing. German Americans avoided speaking German in public, and school systems stopped teaching German. Many German Americans anglicized their own surnames: "Mueller” became "Miller,” "Schmidt” became "Smith,” and "Franz” became "Franks.” Fear of American hostility, not the war itself, did much to destroy visible traces of German culture in the United States.
American entry into World War II in 1941 renewed American animosity toward Germans. Anti- German and anti-Japanese campaigns began shortly after Japan launched its sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States had still not fully recovered from anti- German animosity during World War I, and the new war against Germany’s already reviled Nazi regime renewed American distrust of Germans. Using the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the U.S. government legally detained more than ten thousand German Americans during the war. German businesses suffered vandalism and many Germans were attacked by American mobs. Meanwhile, the Holocaust in Europe led to another increase in German immigrants following the war. Most of these people were German Jews who had suffered greatly under the Nazi regime.
An ironic aspect of the war was the fact that the supreme Allied military commander and future president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower was himself of German descent. Some of his ancestors had been members of the Pennsylvania Dutch communities. The war also brought to the United States the great German theoretic physicist Albert Einstein and German rocket expert Wernher von Braun, who would later help shape the American space program.
After memories of World War II receded and Eisenhower became a popular U.S. president, German heritage lost some of the negative stigma it had acquired over the previous decades. This development was aided by growing American distrust of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War. With an ominous new international threat looming, Americans were becoming less inclined to worry about differences among their own subcultures.
Despite early twentieth century anti-German movements, many traces of German culture have survived into the twenty-first century. These can be seen in product names such as Bayer, Heinz, Chrysler, Busch, and Budweiser, and in such now thoroughly American items of cuisine as hot dogs (frankfurters) and pretzels. In addition to foods and beers, German culture has provided the American educational system with the concept of kindergarten, which was regularly practiced in Germany following the increased immigration during the early nineteenth century. Other German contributions to American culture include two-day weekends, gymnasiums, Christmas trees, and theme parks.
Keith J. Bell
Brancaforte, Charlotte L., ed. The German Fortyeighters in the United States. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Eighteen essays covering a wide range of topics, including a reappraisal that many of the immigrants were not radicals or revolutionaries.
Creighton, M. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Depicts the forgotten heroism of Germans and other immigrant peoples in one of the bloodiest battles in American history.
Fogleman, Aaron Spencer. Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Details the everyday struggles of common German immigrants to the colonies during the eighteenth century and includes many individual stories.
Heinrich-Tolzmann Don. The German American Experience. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2000. Thought-provoking examination of how German immigrants have blended into American society.
Kamphoefner, Walter, and Wolfgang Helbich, eds. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home. Translated by Susan Carter Vogel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Fascinating collection of documents presenting the firsthand views of German immigrants who fought in the U.S. Civil War.
Kennedy, David M. The American People in World War II: Freedom from Fear, Part II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. This book places immigration issues in the broad context of America at war and looks at American attitudes toward German immigrants.
Spalek, John, Adrienne Ash, and Sandra Hawrylchak. Guide to Archival Materials of German- Speaking Emigrants to the U.S. After 1933. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978. Invaluable handbook for historical and genealogical research into German/Austrian immigration during the mid-twentieth century. Especially strong on Holocaust-related immigrants.
Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Experience. New York: Humanity Books, 2000.Comprehensive study of German immigrants in the United States, with sections on politics and nativism, German rural and urban communities, and German-speaking communities.
Trumbauer, L. German Immigration. New York: Facts On File, 2004. Details personal stories of German immigrants to the United States and the key players in the formation of the country.
Wittke, Carl. Refugees of Revolution: The German Forty-eighters in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1952. A classic work on the experience of the Forty-eighters in the United States. Heavy emphasis on biography.
See also: Austrian immigrants; CivilWar, U.S.; Einstein, Albert; German American press; History of immigration, 1620-1783; History of immigration, 1783-1891; History of immigration after 1891; Holocaust; Prisoners of war in the United States; Schurz, Carl; Strauss, Levi; World War I; World War II.