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German American Heritage


What is it that Levi Strauss, Sandra Bullock, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Henry John Heinz, Adolph Coors, John Jacob Astor, Elvis Presley, Henry Kissinger, Meryl Streep and Albert Einstein have in common? Very different people from the past and present but together with 15 percent of the current US population, 42.8 million, they have German or part German ancestry. If descendants from other German speaking European countries are included, such as Austria and Switzerland, the total of Deutschamerikaner, German Americans, would reach 25 per cent. Light blue shows largest populations of German ancestry in this 2000 census map.

Who was it who wanted to leave Germany over the centuries, to take a risky journey across the ocean into the unknown, and why? Well legend has it that around 1,000 AD a German explorer called Tyrker landed on the North American continent, but then it went a bit quiet until the 1600's when more easily authenticated emigrations began to take place.

In 1608 a sailing ship "Mary and Margaret" brought the very first German immigrants, who were seeking religious freedom as well as a better future and included amongst them was a PhD botanist. A transatlantic voyage in those days took eight to ten weeks and, after the ship docked on America's East Coast the skilled craftsmen, farmers and tradesmen, representative of most of the immigrants that later followed them, initially settled in the fort town of Jamestown.

German American Day, which takes place on October 6, celebrates German immigrants who arrived 75 years later, the first organized group of 13 Mennonite families from Crefeld who arrived on that date in 1683 and were amongst the first to found Germantown, Pennsylvania.

German emigration did not reach significant numbers until the 18th century, when a principal reason was to escape both from the constant murderous attacks from various armies, including those involved in The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the War of Spanish Succession, and the chaos and long term impact that had resulted.

Especially in the southwest, an area that had been virtually destroyed.

An increase in the exodus to other European countries had begun around 1700, with the British Government encouraging German Protestants to settle in Britain's American colonies and by 1711 having already spent over 100,000, a huge amount of money in those days, to transport the immigrants to their New World.

German immigrants made up one third of the colonies population and were second only to the English by the mid 18th century, and it was Philadelphia's Der Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote, a German language newspaper, that first broke the news of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence on July 5, 1776. A day ahead of English newspapers, which began to report it at the same time as German copies of the Declaration were already available and being circulated.

By the 19th century political factors were having an increasing influence on decisions to immigrate to the United States. The post Napoleonic government was persecuting liberals and democrats, a revolution in 1848 affected the whole country, the 'industrial revolution' in England had ruined some of Germany's home industries and markets, while the addition of potato blight and the failure of both wheat and grape harvests made life increasingly difficult.

However this era of emigration was the beginning of a German-American cultural rebirth, because many of these new immigrants had medical, educational and legal backgrounds, or were artists or musicians, better educated than most of those that had gone before, and also more in touch with the changes taking place in the modern world and European scene. A thriving German community soon was established, and the majority of early German immigrants were 'survivors' whatever the situation.

The success of the immigrants inspired others to seek a better life in a country that was free from the constrictions of their homeland, with a democracy, as well as both opportunities and land available and obtainable. Emigration boomed and between 1820 and 1914 over 6,500,000 people left Germany for the United States, with nearly 1,000,000 arriving during the 1850's alone.

Some jobs were held almost exclusively by German Americans, such as brewers, watchmakers, distillery workers and land surveyors while they also comprised a large section of the bakers and butchers, cabinet makers, blacksmiths, tailors, millers, stone masons, shoe makers, typesetters and printers, as well as mechanics, plumbers, and plasterers.

Despite an initial outbreak of German nationalism following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, after the country entered the conflict on April 6, 1917, for a number of reasons which affected the United States itself, this decision was supported by a majority of German-Americans.

It was during this time however that many Germanic surnames were anglicized, along with towns, streets and buildings with German names.

Immigration during the 1920's slowed down, and official quota's were put in place, but because of the economic and political situation, together with the persecution taking place against the Jewish people and other minorities during the 1930's, there was once again an increase in emigration of those with the financial means to leave Germany, followed after WWII with a quota of displaced persons. While beginning in the late 40's, as the USA had many military bases in Germany's 'American sectors', 'GI Brides', the spouses, and children, of US military personnel who had married while abroad were given permission to live in the USA following the War Brides Act of 1945.

Enormous contributions were made to USA culture by its German immigrants. From economic and technological development, founding breweries, inventing ketchup, producing Presidents, establishing banking, industrial and philanthropic dynasties, to designing the Brooklyn Bridge and of course introducing Santa Claus, a different United States of America would have been created if those immigrants had decided to stay 'at home'.



Map of German Population, in light blue, throughout USA, 2000 census, Public Domain Wikipedia, Photograph of German emigrants headed for New York board a steamer, circa 1900's in Hamburg, Germany from a collection in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, courtesy de.Wikipedia, US Poster WWI, public domain Wikipedia

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The German American Experience
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Content copyright © 2014 by Francine McKenna-Klein. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Francine McKenna-Klein. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Francine McKenna-Klein for details.

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