If you live in Wisconsin, there’s a good chance that you or a neighbor has a surname like Janke, Krueger, or Schmidt. In fact, 40% of state residents identify themselves on government surveys as having ancestral ties to German-speaking Europe.
Organized German immigration to Wisconsin goes back to 1839, when a group of 20 Old Lutheran families from Eastern Pomerania founded the community of Freistadt, located in Ozaukee County, north of Milwaukee. Many of Freistadt’s current residents are descended from the 20 original families, and the congregation founded by Freistadt’s settlers, Trinity Lutheran, is today still the only church in the community. Since Freistadt is unincorporated, no official statistics on its population are available. However, it is perhaps similar to nearby Germantown, which is among the most German of all Wisconsin communities, with about 54% of its residents claiming German ancestry.
The earliest arrivals in Wisconsin came by way of the Mississippi River or Lake Michigan, through Milwaukee, Sheboygan, and other ports. After the Civil War, most immigrants to the Badger State came by railroad. German settlers looking for farmland settled heavily in the eastern and central hinterlands of Wisconsin, forming a German Belt within the state. Others, including merchants, tradesmen, and artists, made their home in Milwaukee, which became known as America’s German Athens (Deutsch-Athen). Today, in every Wisconsin county a sizeable percentage of the population claims German ancestry, from nearly 24% in Douglas County to just over 57% in Washington County.
From the start, German settlers in Wisconsin were in close contact with people from other backgrounds, including Native Americans, and this resulted in interchanges on many levels. German immigrants and their descendants did not seek to live in geographic or social isolation from their neighbors. Many did feel it important to conserve elements of their European heritage, such as their language and religious and cultural traditions, but their experiences as part of the multiethnic tapestry of America meant that the Wisconsin German identity they developed was a profoundly hybrid one, blending influences from the Old World and the New.
Additional Readings and Resources on “A New Home”
- How German is American? A virtual exhibit and booklet by the Max Kade Institute
- “The Yankee and the Teuton in Wisconsin” by Joseph Schafer .Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol VI, no. 2, 1922
- “Some German Contributions to Wisconsin Life” by Lester W. Seifert, Yearbook of German-American Studies 18:173–184, 1983