How German Is American? Settling in America

How German Is American?



According to the U.S. Census conducted in 2000, 42.8 million Americans identified themselves as being of German ancestry, representing 15.2% of the total U.S. population. By comparison, the next largest group, Irish Americans, comprised 10.8% of the population, while African Americans and Americans of English background each accounted for just under 9%. It is estimated that between 1800 and the present over seven million German-speakers emigrated to the U.S., the majority of whom arrived between about 1840 and 1914, with the peak period coming in the early 1880s. In the nineteenth century many of these immigrants settled in the states of the Upper Midwest, an area known to this day as America’s “German Belt.”

The map reproduced here shows the distribution of European-born German-speakers (“natives of the Germanic nations”), based on the 1890 census. The different shades of brown indicate varying densities of persons born in German-speaking territories: the darkest color shows 20 individuals or more per square mile, the lightest color shows fewer than 1/2 per square mile, and no color at all shows a total aggregate population of fewer than two persons per square mile. The map does not reveal information about the proportion of Germans vis-à-vis other groups, and a greater density of Germans in some areas may be largely a sign of a greater total population density there. Nevertheless, what one understands at a glance is that German-born immigrants were concentrated in cities as well as in the countryside from New York City in the east to Minnesota in the west and from the Great Lakes region south to the Ohio River. But there were also other German areas, including parts of Texas, California, and the state of Washington. At this time a number of centers of German-speaking culture emerged as immigrants established German schools, churches, theaters, and publishing houses.

Today, over a century after the census from which this demographic information was taken and therefore approximately four generations later, the descendants of these immigrants have become less likely to identify with their German heritage. This is reflected in a marked increase in the number of respondents who reported their ancestry in the latest census as simply “American”: in 2000 “American Americans” accounted for 7.2% of the total population, a 63% increase over 1990. While this trend may well be evidence of the “submergence” of German-American identity referred to above, twice as many Americans still do identify with their German roots.

What motivated these seven million German-speakers to come to America? Historians have identified a complex mix of factors underlying immigration generally, largely economic ones. On the one hand, socioeconomic distress in many areas of German-speaking Central Europe periodically “pushed” migrants westward; on the other, the “pull” of new opportunities in America was considerable. Most immigrants were attracted by the promise of financial security in the form of sufficient property that one could legally own and pass on to one’s descendants. In the nineteenth century this meant one thing above all else for rural dwellers, including the majority of the German-speaking immigrants: land.

According to traditional accounts of immigration in places like rural Wisconsin, German settlers were drawn to landscapes that resembled the areas they came from in Europe, especially heavily wooded ones, and were more fastidious and ultimately successful stewards of the land than the Yankees. The symbolic and practical importance of the forest in German culture, especially during the nineteenth century, did much to reinforce this romantic view of German settlers. Americans of older stock were seen as more eager to make a quick buck rather than invest large amounts of time and resources in their land; this stereotype endures to the present in images of enterprising but somewhat rootless Americans. However, recent scholarship on nineteenth-century immigration has shown that local practical realities were more important in guiding Germans to choose where to settle than any innate cultural inclinations. To be sure, some evidence does support the view that German settlers valued a varied landscape and were generally less likely to move once they had established themselves in a particular location. And certainly popular narratives about Germans and their closeness to their land endure.

Advertisement for land, shaped like a cut tree
Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHi-24505

Land sale announcement card
The romance of the American frontier is illustrated by the log-shaped card above whose purpose was to attract Germans to northern Wisconsin. During the nineteenth century the Federal Land Grant Program played a major role in promoting the expansion of the American nation. It accomplished this in part by granting land to railroad companies that promised to build along proposed routes; these, in turn, raised funds for railroad construction by selling some of the land. The Wisconsin Central Railroad, incorporated in 1877, hired W. H. Bartell beginning in the 1870s to serve as its land agent; by 1881 he is said to have sold as much as 10,000 acres. Bartell engaged the Milwaukee lawyer K. K. Kennan to serve as his representative in Switzerland, and published brochures in German and English praising the advantages of Wisconsin land. It is important to note that virtually every American frontier state had agents in Europe to promote emigration, and many states also had offices in New York to assist new arrivals.

The two-sided log-shaped card is one of Bartell’s advertisements; on it one can read in German that “our German friends would do very well to send this card to one of their acquaintances in Europe and mention to them [sic] that they could receive valuable information about the state of Wisconsin free of charge by sending their address to K. K. Kennan in Basel.” The English text, apparently for those already living in the U.S., states that one could get information by writing to the land commissioner of the Wisconsin Central Railroad in Milwaukee. The image on the front of the card would seem to speak to Germans bound culturally and practically to forested landscapes: looking at a scene framed by a sturdy oak log, we view a homestead on recently cleared, though by no means denuded, land. The cow grazing in a pasture hints that dairy products and meat will be available. In the background the undisturbed woodland endures, demarcated by a fence, an important New World way of indicating property boundaries. Front and center we are drawn to the classic American log cabin, whose origins, interestingly, may be traced back to Northern and Central Europe.

During the nineteenth century, German-speaking immigrants were usually not the first people of European descent to settle on the American frontier. In the case of Wisconsin, Germans were preceded by the French and the Yankees. This meant that German-speakers were less likely to be directly involved in the physical and cultural displacement of the continent’s original inhabitants, the Native Americans. Nevertheless, one intriguing and very much unfinished chapter in the long history of European-American relations deals with the contacts, real and imagined, between Germans and Indians.

David Zeisberger (1721–1808), a native of German-speaking Moravia, spent his life as a missionary of the Moravian (Herrnhuter) Church, working mainly in Pennsylvania and Ohio with various Indian groups. His extensive writings on Native cultures and languages, several of which he spoke fluently, remain invaluable sources of information for scholars today. The reproduction on this page shows Zeisberger, as portrayed in 1862 by the Alsatian-American immigrant artist, Christian Schussele (1824–1879).

Zeisberger preaching to Native Americans
Image courtesy of the Moravian Archives, Bethlehem, PA, <>.

In part because of contacts between German-speaking immigrants and Native Americans, Germans back home developed a fascination with Indians that has continued unabated to the present. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, hundreds of fictionalized treatments of American Indians appeared in Germany, the best known of which are the novels of Karl May (1842–1912), whose only visit to America—in 1908—came after he had completed most of his works. Today, there are an estimated 200 “Indian clubs” in Germany whose members don feathers and war paint and “recreate” traditional Native ceremonies. An important corrective to these activities is the Native American Association of Germany, e.V., founded in Kaiserslautern in 1994 by Lindbergh Namingha, a former U.S. serviceman and member of the Hopi Tribe. Back in the U.S., the novelist Louise Erdrich (b. 1954), whose mother is Ojibwa Indian and father German-American, has thematized German-Indian cultural contact to great acclaim.

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