German Americans – Reasons to Come to America
By Ruth Emmel
Germans began to arrive in America with the first settlers. They came before there was a unified German country. The only thing that held them together was a common language. When the Revolutionary War ended it was suggested that German become the official language of the new country, but this did not happen. As the years went on and more and more came they were always set apart by their language.
Newcomers spoke German, but people who were in the country for a long time made the effort to learn the English language. The German culture centered on the family. They had a strong sense of family duty and obligation and were concerned about the kind of legacy they would leave their children. The German immigrants believed in learning, hard work, and persistence and were loyal to their friends and neighbors. They wanted to be regarded as productive members of the community. Germans were also were very frugal and were careful about spending money and avoided wastefulness.
Knowing what was occurring in central Europe will help us to understand why so many German people came to the early colonies and later to the United States.
Some of the reasons why they came to the Colonies and later to the United States were Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Military Service, Freedom to Support their Family, Freedom from Government, and at the Invitation of America.
Freedom of Religion
The first Germans came to Virginia in 1608 shortly after the founding of Jamestown. They were glass makers. They came because of the availability of land and a desire for religious freedom. In 1683 a group of thirteen Mennonite families from the Rhineland organized a Germantown near William Penn’s Pennsylvania colony. William Penn invited Germans to settle in the area. They were followed by other religious dissenters. Most of these people were cloth weavers.
Many other craftsmen and artisans arrived from Germany during the Colonial Period. They were printers, bookbinders, paper makers, carpenters, cabinet makers, blacksmiths, tailors, cobbler, ironworkers, and stonemasons. They all found a market for their skills.
Most of them were farmers. Although land was limitless much of it was covered with trees. Starting a farm meant chopping down trees, clearing the land, and digging our rocks that stood in the way of plows.
In the middle 1600s Germany was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War (1818-1848). This war was a series of wars between Catholic and Lutherans. It was the Protestant princes against the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. This was the longest and most devastating war on German soil. The fighting involved peasants, nobles, the emperor, and even other countries. The rulers of Denmark, Sweden, and France invaded German lands. Their purpose was to expand their kingdoms. They marched across central Europe and seized and plundered German lands. The king of Sweden allied himself with the Protestants and invaded Germany Baltic coast. The French leaders sent troops across the Rhine to fight against their rivals, the Hapsburgs.
Battles destroyed hundreds of towns and killed thousands of people. When the war ended, the truce forced the Holy Roman Empire to give up land to its neighbors and grant independence to its Protestant territories.
The Rhine and Danube Rivers were the dividing lines between the two religious factions. All areas to the south of the two rivers would remain Catholic and the areas to the north would be Protestant.
At this time only Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists were tolerated in the area we refer to today as Germany. No other religions were allowed.
Recovery was very slow. It took almost one hundred years for the population to return to pre Thirty Years War numbers.
In 1729 another dissident group arrived. They were the German Baptist Brethren, known as the Dunkers. They settled in Germantown. Another group that came was the Amish, who also settled in Pennsylvania.
Ten thousand Jews came to the United States from Bavaria in 1839. They were looking for a safe haven for religious expression. They were escaping social and economic restrictions and were followed by Jews from other German states.
Around 1840 a number of Lutherans came as a result of the opposition to the forced unification of the Lutheran and Reformed churches by the state of Prussia.
Freedom from Government
Germans also settled in other colonies. Palatinates were recruited by the British to settle in the Mohawk River Valley in 1709. They fled the destruction in the Palatinate area caused by the invading French. They were expelled from their land because they were not Catholics. The French also recruited Germans to settle in Louisiana. The early Germans settled in the middle colonies from New York south to Georgia. Very few went to New England. They felt uncomfortable with the austere life of the Puritans. Also land was more plentiful and fertile in the middle states. They also did not settle in the Southern states because of the plantation system and slave ownership. They had left a land of oppression and did not want to settle in another.
Some did not come by choice. Some of the small German states rented soldiers to the British during the Revolutionary War. Many of them deserted to the American side during the war. More chose to stay after it ended. Approximately six thousand Hessians stayed after the war was over.
By this time religion as a motivation to emigrate became less of a factor. During the early part of the nineteenth century many Germans came for political reasons. Most of them were farmers or peasants who were discouraged by crop failures or by the increasing German population. There were a variety of reasons for heavy German immigration to Midwestern cities. Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee offered the skilled craftsmen many opportunities for employment in agricultural related occupations.
The population increase in Germany brought higher prices and rents. Land in Germany was scarce and expensive. The owners of estates were adapting their land to commercial agriculture. They hired agricultural laborers as they needed rather than renting out land.
As a result, fewer people could acquire land or make an adequate living as farm laborers. They also fled arrogant authorities, privileged nobles, and high taxes.
From 1847 to 1855 there was a period of especially high German immigration due to the poor harvests in the Old World.
In 1848 a Revolution occurred in Germany caused by mass unemployment, poverty, famine, and years of bad crops. The educated class, businessmen, students, and professors had hoped for a unified government. The new German Confederation that had been formed in 1815 was not a true governing body but a group of ambassadors from the participating territories banding together for protection. Nothing of any importance was accomplished by this confederation. The dominant powers were Austria and Prussia plus thirty three other states.
All across Europe people rebelled against oppressive governments and wanted more democratic freedoms.
Germans began settling in Texas in the 1820s, when that area was still a part of Mexico. The Mexican government feared the United States might try to take over the region unless Mexico was able to entice settlers to make their homes there. Unable to convince many Mexicans to move north into Texas, Mexico looked to settlers from other lands, including Germans. In 1831 a sizable land grant was given that encouraged Oldenburg citizens to emigrate. Seven thousand settlers came. Through the years Texas continued to attract Germans. By 1860, 30,000 Germans had arrived. They founded the German towns of New Braunfels and Fredericksburg.
In 1848 group of young German intellectuals came because they were frustrated with oppression in Germany. They were referred to as the “Forty-eighters”, because they had fought in the revolutions. These young men were highly educated and had liberal views. They became known as the “Latin Farmers”. This name was given to them by their American neighbors. They were university graduates with training in the classics and were ill suited to farming. Many of them tried farming but soon gave it up. Many of them took advantage of the free public land offered by the Homestead Act of 1862. They planted corn, a crop seldom seen in Germany. Many others took up dairy farming. Dairy farms were clustered around large cities where there was a demand for milk, butter, and cheese.
Germany flourished until industries were flooding the markets with over-produced products. The money market fell apart, the stock market collapsed in Vienna, and all the banks were in trouble. Cheap foreign grain, mainly from the United States, ruined the German markets.
Freedom from Military Service
In the 1870’s many Catholics, especially priests and nuns, left to escape Otto von Bismarck’s anti Catholic campaign. Others emigrated to avoid the compulsory military service, which had been established by Prussia in 1807. This was imposed on all Germans after it was united under Prussian leadership in 1871.
Invitation of the United States
By 1866 the American Civil War had ended and the unrest leading to Europe’s Franco-Prussian War was beginning. During this time, the bad times at home was accompanied by the attraction of the American frontier. All over the New World, immigrants were needed to develop the land, contribute their skills, and provide services. Agencies and recruiters in the United States helped Germans immigrate and get settled.
Also beginning in the 1870’s, groups of Russian Germans began to arrive in the United States.
Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, (reigned 1762-1796) invited Germans to settle in the area of the Volga River near the Black Sea in Ukraine in the middle of the eighteenth century. They were needed to farm the land. They were mostly Mennonites who condemned any acts of violence. Catherine promised they would not have to serve in the Russian army. A century later the Russian government revoked this privilege that Catherine the Great had given them. There were 300 colonies along the lower Volga River. Their population had grown so large they were asked to integrate and serve in the Russian army. These Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Mennonite descendants of the original Germans felt they needed to maintain their separate ethnic and religious lives.
Therefore they immigrated to the United States and settled in the Great Plains states. They brought with them the seeds of hard Turkey red winter wheat. This wheat was planted in the fall and survived the harsh winters of the northern states and was then harvested in the spring. Between 1872 and 1920, nearly 120,000 ethnic Germans immigrated to America from homes on the Russian steppes.
Freedom to Support Their Families
Most Germans came as family groups or individuals seeking a better way of life and economic opportunities and not for religious reasons or as political idealists.
German immigration was cut off in 1914. After the war ended in 1918 a new wave of immigrants came due to the economic distress in Germany. In 1924, the U.S. government passed laws to restrict the number of immigrants entering the United States and this slowed down the number of Germans coming to the United States. More immigration quotas were imposed by the United States government in 1928. Only a portion of the people who wanted to come were allowed into the country.
In 1930’s, the United States was suffering from the Great Depression. In addition to the quotas imposed by the government immigrants had to prove they could support themselves. Some of the Germans who were allowed to settle in the United States were prominent German educators, scientists, writers, and musicians.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and another group of Germans sought refuge from the Nazi regime. This regime persecuted anyone who challenged its ideas and anyone who did not fit into its racial categories. After World War II Germany was a devastated country.
Among the refugees allowed to enter the United States were additional German Jews and displaced German-speaking people seeking security, freedom, and opportunity. Eventually prosperity and opportunity was restored in Germany. This cut down number of Germans who were interested in permanently immigrating to the United States. However, some Germans with a sense of adventure and desire to take advantage of their special talents continued to emigrate.
Most of the people did not come for any one of the above reasons. It was usually a complexity of reasons that motivated them to leave their families and immigrate to a new land. It can be very hard to find the answer as to why they came. I think we can say that several things had to happen for them to immigrate to the New World.
July 28, 1914 the Great War (World War I) began with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria on one side against Great Britain, France and Russia who were later aided by Belgium, Serbia, Japan, Italy and the United States. The end of this war signaled the end of the German Empire.
After this war ended economic distress occurred in defeated Germany.
Alsace became a part of France and Sweden received West Pomerania and parts of the northwest Holy Roman Empire. Switzerland and the Netherlands became independent. The Rhine River was controlled by Spain and the Netherlands. The mouths of rivers leading into Germany were restricted by new ownership. Denmark controlled the mouth of the Elbe, Sweden the Oder, and Poland the Vistula.
This peace treaty strengthened Protestant Prussia. Brandenburg, Saxony, and Mecklenburg each gained land. It also recognized Protestant and Catholic territories.