During the 19th century, immigrants came to Wisconsin from many different parts of German-speaking Central Europe. In the New World they often settled near people they knew: family and neighbors from their home region.
German immigration to the Badger State occurred in three waves. The first, from 1850 to 1860, was made up of settlers from mainly southern and western states, including Bavaria, Baden, Württemberg, the Rhineland and Palatinate regions, and Switzerland. Agricultural distress and overpopulation were major factors impelling these people to come to Wisconsin, where farmland was relatively abundant and affordable. They settled in the southeastern part of the state and along the coast of Lake Michigan. This first wave also included liberal intellectuals and professionals fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848/1849. Carl Schurz, who made his home with his wife Margarethe Meyer Schurz in Watertown in the 1850s and 1860s, was the best known of Wisconsin’s “Forty-Eighters.”
During the second wave, from 1865 to 1875, Germans came to Wisconsin from northern areas such as Schleswig, Holstein, Hanover, and Westphalia. Many of these immigrants were peasant farmers adversely affected by an agricultural depression resulting from a flood of cheap American wheat into European markets. Skilled tradesmen also sought their fortune in Wisconsin, especially in the city of Milwaukee.
The years 1880 to 1890 marked the final and largest wave of 19th-century German immigration to the Badger State. Immigrants came from the northern and eastern regions of the German Empire, especially Brandenburg and Pomerania, and also from Silesia and Russia. They were mainly agricultural laborers and small craftsmen displaced by advancing technology and industrialization. Many of them settled in urban areas, especially the Lake Michigan industrial belt. Here they worked as laborers in the burgeoning factories, many of which had been founded by Germans who had come to the state a generation or two earlier.
German immigration slowed significantly in the first half of the 20th century as the result of American immigration policies and the two world wars. Only a small fraction of the exiles and refugees from Nazi Germany settled in the Badger State. In the 1950s, partially as a consequence of the Displaced Persons Act (1948) and the Refugee Relief Act (1953), German-speaking immigrants came to Wisconsin once again. Many were from Eastern Europe, including Danube Swabians and East Prussians, who fled or were displaced from their homelands in the years immediately following the war.
Additional Reading and Resources on “100 Years of Immigration”
- “Transplanted But Not Uprooted: 19th-Century Immigrants from Hesse-Darmstadt to Wisconsin,” by Helmut Schmahl, paper presented at the conference “Defining Tensions: A Fresh Look at Germans in Wisconsin,” Madison, 1998.
- The Wisconsin Office of Emigration 1853–1855, by Johannes Strohschänk, Johannes, and William G. Thiel. Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2005
- Germans in Wisconsin, by Richard Zeitlin, Second edition, Wisconsin Historical Society, 2013