Travel back in time and reveal the most momentous points in German-American history in the past 400 years. From the first German to discover the New World of North America, to the vast immigration waves, the famous Mayflower, Germantown in Philadelphia, the birth hour of Santa Claus, the history of Steuben – these and many more stories await you.
In the 1600's, many Germans emigrated through the ports of LeHavre, Rotterdam and London. Some were seeking religious freedom in the United States after Martin Luther split from the Catholic Church. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the War of Spanish Succession had destroyed vast parts of Southwest Germany. Many immigrants left in hope. In Hope, the New World would provide a brighter future for themselves and their families.
Jamestown, Virginia was established as the first permanent English settlement in America. Only one year later, in 1608, the ship "Mary and Margaret", brought the first German immigrants to the United States. They arrived on the East Coast and settled in Jamestown. At that time, the town was nothing more than a small wooden fort on the James River, near Norfolk/Virginia. These Germans didn't come empty handed. They came with valuable skills such as glassmaking and carpentry. The glassmakers, sometimes called "Dutchmen" were especially important to the new colony not only for providing glassware, but also for their ability to teach the craft to others.
Although the colonies were hit hard with famine and diseases, the settlers persevered, engaging in agriculture and raising crops to feed the hungry settlers and improve overall health conditions.
In 1620, more German immigrants arrived on the legendary Mayflower. Inspired from those who fled before them, German mineral specialists and saw-millwrights who came to live and work in the United States. In fact, the first sawmill in the U.S. was opened by German millwrights came over on the Mayflower from Hamburg.
Franz Daniel Pastorius and thirteen families, made up of Mennonites and Quakers, settled in Pennsylvania. It was six miles north of Philadelphia and they called it Germantown. They came from Krefeld, seeking religious freedom. But along with their search, they gave Germany a good reputation by using their skills to produce local goods. There were weavers, carpenters, locksmiths, shoemakers and tailors.
Six years later, in 1689, Germantown became an official town and Pastorius the town’s first mayor. One year later, in 1690, William Rittenhouse established the first paper mill. It was by then that the citizens of Germantown established the three institutions in fulfillment of spiritual needs, justice and education – a church, a prison and a school. Pastorius was not only a mayor, but also worked as a teacher. In the following years, German immigrants mostly came from the regions Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, the Palatinate area, as well as the dioceses Cologne, Osnabrück, Münster and Mainz.
Throughout the 1700’s religious freedom, and economic benefits continued to be the motive forces of German emigrants who came to America. Among the immigrants were Lutherans, Swiss Mennonites, Moravians, Baptist Dunkers, and Schwenkfelders. Amish and Waldensians continued to settle in the British colonies in the 1700s. Also, ancestors of the famous families Rockefeller, Presley and Astor immigrated to the U.S. in the 1700s.
The King's family moves to New York. Not the King of Germany. But Elvis Presley , the later King of Rock n’ Roll, who would have been named Elvis Pressler if Johann Valentin Pressler, hadn't changed his name during the Civil War. He made wine in the village of Niederhochstadt in the Southern Palatinate until he moved to the States. A number of descendants of the Pressler family still live in Niederhochstadt today. But Elvis remains the most famous descendant of this German family.
Alexander Mack was controversial for his opposition to infant baptism. He came from the town of Schwarzenau, which today belongs to the city of Bad Berleburg, located in North Rhine-Westphalia. Mack founded a group called the Schwarzenau Brethren, also known as the German Baptists. The church was founded in 1708 as a result of the baptism of eight adults. To avoid persecution, some fled to the Netherlands. Others followed Peter Becker to America where they settled in Germantown in 1719. The balance of the group had all migrated to the US by 1729. From Germantown, they spread out West. And by 1908, they lived mostly in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas and North Dakota.
From the mountains of Germany and Switzerland to the land of freedom. The first group of Amish arrived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. With solid roots in the Mennonite community, they came to Pennsylvania as part of William Penn's "holy experiment" of religious tolerance. To avoid persecution from Catholics and Protestants, they held religious services in the privacy of their homes.
In 1723, one of the largest private fortunes belonged to the Rockefeller family. They came to America from a town called Neuwied in the Palatinate area of Western Germany. These descendants of Goddard Rockefeller, born in 1590, settled in New York and New Jersey. Their fortune came from acquiring large landholdings.
German language in American press: The Philadelphische Zeitung was the first German newspaper published in the United States.
Only 7 years later, in 1739, a German printer born in the Palatinate named Christopher Saur established the first German publishing company. He printed the first edition of the Bible, written in a European language (German). It was called Luther’s translation of the old and new testaments.
In 1776 the Declaration of Independence of the 13 original colonies from England was announced and was almost immediately translated into German. German-Americans supported the Revolution. Even the Quakers and Mennonites, who opposed bearing arms and weapons for religious reasons, showed support by supplying food and clothing.
In 1783, 5,000 Hessian soldiers, hired by Britain to fight the war, decided to leave their homes in the Kassel area for Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Congress offered them a place to call home if they would put down their weapons.
Benjamin Franklin helped Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben from Magdeburg/Prussia to immigrate to the United States in 1777. It only took one year before he was inspector general of the Continental Army. Steuben made his mark by providing guidelines for the performance of military duties and establishing military discipline. He also created armies who claimed victory over the British in Yorktown.
From $25 to $20 million. From the small village of Waldorf in Württemberg came a man, in 1784, named John Jacob Astor. Successful in fur trade and real estate, he became the richest man in the country, worth an estimated $20 million. Not bad considering that he left Germany with $25 in his pocket.
A few German men, Major Benjamin Steitz, Matthias Denmann, Israel Ludlow and Robert Patterson arrived in Ohio as the first German settlers in the area, in 1788. They bought 800 acres along the Ohio River at the Licking River's mouth. The early settlers called their new hometown Losantiville, which quickly changed to Cincinnati. Fifty years later, about 16,000 of the 40,000 inhabitants were German.
The town of Cincinnati now boasts more than 30 German-American societies, bilingual schools, German-language newspapers, a sprawling May festival and the largest Oktoberfest outside of Munich. It sets the record with over 800 beer barrels, 80,500 bratwurst, and over 500,000 visitors.
The first American census was taken and records showed that one third of Pennsylvania was German. Of the total U.S. population, 8.6 percent was German. They came from the Palatinate, Baden and Württemberg and were spread throughout New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina.
On January 13, 1795, Congress considered a proposal, not to give German language any official status, but merely to print the federal laws in German as well as English. During a debate, a motion to adjourn failed by one vote. The final vote rejecting the translation of federal laws, which took place one month later, is not recorded. The translation proposal had been started by a group of Germans living in August, Virginia.
After the post-Napoleonic governmental persecutions of liberals and democrats, and the 1848 revolutions in Europe, emigration was politically motivated. In contrast to earlier immigrants who were mostly farmers and tradesmen, the "48ers" comprised many doctors, teachers, lawyers, artists and musicians. A German-American cultural renaissance began. In 1825 over 10,000 people left Germany. In 1854 the number grew to 220,000. In 1860 an estimated 1.3 million German immigrants resided in the U.S.
Georg Rapp, leader of a Protestant group from Württemberg founded the utopian community of Harmony, Pennsylvania, called the Rappists, in 1804. They later purchased 30,000 acres of land in the state of Indiana to found a new settlement, New Harmony. They also founded Economy, 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
A specially decorated tree and the Easter bunny originate in Germany. The Christmas tree was introduced to America by the Pennsylvania Dutch family named Hensel, in 1821. It was carried down through folk traditions that had been introduced by German-born mercenaries in Canada. As early as 1781, the family of the Brunswick Major Riedesel decorated a German Christmas tree. Read more about Christmas and other German traditions.
Speaking of Christmas, it was also a German man named Thomas Nast, a cartoonist from the little town of Landau in the Palatinate area, who created the image of Santa Claus as we know it today. Nast came to the U.S. in 1846. He's famous for the creation of the Democrat's donkey and the Republican's elephant, and also the image of Uncle Sam.
Johann Roebling from Mühlhausen in Eastern Germany left Germany due to its political situation and settled in Pennsylvania in 1831. He established Germania, a colony later named Saxonburg. He is best known for designing the Brooklyn Bridge.
In 1839 over 1,000 Old Lutherans settled in Buffalo, Milwaukee and St. Louis, escaping the forced unification of the Lutheran and the Reformed churches in Prussia.
More Germans fled from intolerance and religious persecution in Germany in 1842. Christian Metz arrived in New York City along with several companions with the intention to find a suitable home for 800 members of the Community of True Inspiration (CTI), a religious society. They were German and Swiss craftspeople who became skilled textile makers. The journey across the Atlantic Ocean took 40 days. They first established a communal home in Buffalo before moving to Iowa, which provided more farmland. They created the Amana Colonies - seven villages on 26,000 acres in the Iowa River Valley.
A Good Friday in Texas. Prussian Prince Karl of Solms Braunfels founded New Braunfels, Texas, on Good Friday. He purchased over 8,000 acres of land on the Comal River near San Antonio. He negotiated with authorities to bring German immigrants, many of them artists and craftsmen. They brought industry and commerce to Texas, as well as religion. They organized public education and provided other socioeconomic benefits to the area.
Fredericksburg was named after Prince Frederick of Prussia, an influential member of the Adelsverein. It was founded in 1846 by a small group of settlers on a patch of land surveyed by Prince Karl of New Braunfels. Fredericksburg had an authenticity to it, with a layout similar to the German villages along the Rhine. The homes were typical German Fachwerkhäuser (half-timbered houses), built of upright timbers with the spaces between filled with rocks and then plastered or whitewashed.
To combat the liberalization of Lutheranism in America, the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church was founded by German immigrants. The protestant theologian and pastor Johann Konrad Wilhelm Löhe (1808-1872) is often considered a founder of the deaconess movement in Lutherism. He was also one of the founders of a Lutheran mission, whose missionaries were influential in the U.S. and in other countries. His missionaries founded the Missouri Synod in 1846 and were influential in the starting of Lutheran communities in the U.S., especially in the area of Frankenmuth, Michigan.
About one million Germans, nicknamed "48ers", escaped the harsh political situation during the Revolution. These new immigrants joined the others, already settled immigrants which increased the size of the German settlements. Many of these immigrants were well-educated intellectuals who contributed greatly to the culture of America. Architect and "48er" Adolf Cluss came from Heilbronn in Southwestern Germany. He settled near Washington, D.C., where he designed many public buildings, including schools, markets, government buildings, museums and residences. His most famous building was the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall.
Revolutionist Carl Schurz was a committed German politician in the states. He was very active in the Revolutionary War and supported Abraham Lincoln during his election campaign. He also served as Senator of Missouri and later as President Rutherford B. Hayes' Secretary of the Interior. At one point in his career, he was appointed Ambassador to Spain. Schurz is famous for saying, "Our country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right." He is considered one of the most influential German-American politicians of his time. He even has a park named after him in New York City.
Loeb Strauss was born in the German town of Buttenheim, close to Nuremberg, in 1829. His Jewish family changed his name to Levi when they arrived in San Francisco, in 1853. He later invented the famous Levis blue jeans.
German immigrant Margaretha Meyer Schurz, wife of Carl Schurz, established the first kindergarten in the U.S. in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1856. And, speaking of ‘kindergarten’, find more German words that made their way to your vocabulary in our German Language section.
It was also at that time, in 1857, when Adolphus Busch, originally from Mainz-Kastel in Germany, left his home in the Rhineland area to settle in St. Louis, Missouri. Four years later, he married the daughter of a successful brewer named Lily Anheuser, resulting in the foundation of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association, which today one of the largest in the country.
The Civil War or "War between the States" took place in America. At this time, German-Americans were opposed to slavery and secession in a democratic country. About 2.5 million German-Americans joined the military and fought in the Civil War. Many of them joined to make a living or to gain U.S. citizenship.
After its inception in 1871, the German Empire immediately took up diplomatic relations with the United States, establishing mutual missions, which were given the status of embassies in 1893. The German Empire remained interested in good relations with the United States.
Thousands of German farmers immigrated to the United States after losing privileges in Russia from the Czarist government. More than 100,000 of these so-called Volga and Black Sea Germans, the latter known for their wheat farming, lived in the United States by 1920. The greatest number resided in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Colorado. By 1990, the number had increased to an estimated one million descendants of these Russian Germans who lived in America.
The "new immigration" wave in the 1880s brought many people from Germany and other parts of Europe to the U.S. to escape from a devastating economic situation. The rise of steamships and ocean liners made this possible. A record 250,000 Germans came to the states in 1882 alone. Most of them lived in the "German triangle," whose three points were Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis and also in the area from Michigan to South Dakota and down to Nebraska. These areas were easily accessible by water by the Mississippi River, the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. Today, there are still many Germans living in these areas. Find German clubs and communities here.
In 1892 Ellis Island opened and welcomed about 5,000 immigrants who came to the U.S.
In the 1900s, the number and comfort of ocean liners increased substantially and made transatlantic passageways affordable. But the century also brought WWI and II, challenging the German-American relationship but ultimately led to a strong bond. From JFK’s legendary words “Ich bin ein Berliner” to Reagon’s speech in Berlin to reunite Germany, the post-war transatlantic friendship expressed commitment and pride in their mutual heritage.
The German industrial economy was on the rise, providing plenty of jobs. Not only were Germans able to remain in their country, but many were also immigrating to it as well. Those who wanted to leave were typically single and didn't plan on permanent residence in the U.S. It became more affordable to leave due to a rise in steamboat ocean liners. The German-American National Alliance was founded in Philadelphia, as well as German-American clubs and societies. These became important places for cultural exchange between Germans, Americans and other immigrant groups.
In 1902, Prince Henry of Prussia was sent on a good will tour to the United States. The German Empire supported the construction of a Germanic Museum at Harvard University and established a professorial exchange program between that university and Prussia. American officers served with Prussian regiments and graduated from various Prussian military schools. American army officers were welcomed as guests by William II, as were U.S. Navy units during the Kiel week.
June 15, 1904 marks a dark day: 1,300 tourists boarded the General Slocum steamboat for a daytrip along the East River. Many of them were women and children from the German-American community in Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) in New York City's Lower East Side. The ship sank after a fire broke out, and more than 1,000 people drowned. Residents of "Little Germany" were devastated. The Lower East Side of Manhattan had been a haven for German immigrants since the 1840's, but many couldn't bear the pain. So they relocated to Yorkville on the Upper East Side.
After the outbreak of World War I, the U.S. under President Wilson steered a neutral course at first. The violation of Belgian neutrality caused relations between Berlin and Washington to deteriorate rapidly. Wilson's offer to act as an "honest mediator" between the warring parties failed. So the "Zimmermann telegraph" with the German offer of an alliance with Mexico intercepted in Washington, and, above all, the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare finally led to the U.S.’ entering war against the Central Powers. During this time, German immigration to the U.S. came to a halt, because of the shutdown of all transportation.
At the end of war, Germany hoped to negotiate favorable peace terms on the basis of Wilson's "fourteen points" and his desire for a "peace without victory." But instead the intention of the Allied Powers to punish the Central Powers, and in particular Germany, found its expression in the Versailles Treaty. After World War I, German-American relations improved. Germany was now a democracy and no longer constituted a direct threat to Europe. Washington viewed Germany as a potentially lucrative market for American exports and investments. The separate peace treaty concluded by the U.S. and Germany in August 1921 became the basis for special relations which were complemented in 1923 with the conclusion of a bilateral trade agreement. The U.S. mediating efforts also served to pave the way for America's own economic expansion.
In 1919, the Steuben Society of America replaced the German-American National Alliance, an umbrella organization for German culture and politics in the U.S. The difference was that the Steuben Society only accepted American citizens and used English as the official language.
The terror of Nazi dictatorship, the annulment of human rights and not least the Nazi attacks against the Jewish population, which were clearly condemned by the American President FDR, let German-American relations cool rapidly. After the November 9, 1938, anti-Jewish riots known as "Kristallnacht" ("Night of Broken Glass"), the American ambassador was recalled from Berlin to Washington. Hitler then recalled the German ambassador as well. Neutrality was the official American response to the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939. Legislation, enacted from 1935 to 1937, had prohibited trade with or credit to any of the warring nations. Many oppressed and persecuted Germans escaped, particularly Jews, gays, artists, journalists, writers and politicians. Protesting German groups including doctors, architects, writers, philosophers, scientists and musicians fled also. Famous names include Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Walter Gropius, Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Weill.
At the end of World War II, disarming, demilitarizing, denazifying and democratizing Germany were the undisputed objectives of the Allies. On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall laid the foundation for a U.S. program of assistance to the countries of Europe (known as the "Marshall Plan").
American troops remained stationed in West Germany. In 1955, West Germany joined NATO - enemies became allies. An estimated 7.5 million American servicemen and -women were stationed in Germany. Together with their families, they formed lasting friendships that are vital to current German-American relations.
The International Refugee Organization (IRO) was established. It directed re-settlement programs and helped about 550,000 displaced persons to emigrate to America. Many of them made up the last wave of emigrants from German ports. They were former compulsory workers, prisoners of war or non-German refugees. They traveled from Bremerhaven to Halifax, Canada.
During the Berlin Blockade in 1948, the Americans supplied the 2.2 million people of West Berlin by airlift with what was needed (now known as the Berlin Airlift). In May 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was established. The new German government, led by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, agreed to make a military contribution to the Western defense effort.
The first Steuben Parade took place in New York City. It began as a way to celebrate German-American heritage and to remember Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who was a German-Prussian army officer who served as inspector general of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Today, the parade is the concluding event for the city's annual German-American Friendship Week, celebrated each year in September with numerous colorful floats and a big Oktoberfest in Central Park.
John F. Kennedy's visit to Berlin highlighted his tour of several European countries in June 1963. In his speech from the Schöneberger Rathaus, Kennedy declared his special commitment to West Berlin, concluding his remarks with these words, "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner'."
Less than two decades later, in 1987, German American Day was established by Congressional resolution to be celebrated every October 6.
Speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 12, 1987, on the occasion of the city's 750th anniversary, U.S. President Ronald Reagan called upon Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "to tear down this Wall" to reunite Germany and hence Europe. This speech proved prophetic when, in 1989, the Wall came down.
Time-traveling through the past 400 years, the immigration history of German-Americans introduced the first courageous adventurers in search of the new world, pictured ships full of religious and political refugees, farmers and famous tradesmen’s ancestors leaving their home country in hope of a better future in the United States. From legendary globetrotters with strong beliefs to large waves of immigrants, it’s no wonder that today German is the leading ancestry group in 23 states of America!
According to the Bureau of the Census, 42.8 million people or 15 percent of the U.S. population considered themselves to be of German (or part-German) ancestry. The actual number of German-Americans is about 25% of the population, including those descended from other German-speaking countries and areas of Europe, such as Austria, Switzerland, Alsace-Lorraine, Luxemburg, Liechtenstein, Russia, etc. German is the leading ancestry group in 23 states, including all states of the Midwest.
The German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven opened to the public in 2005, providing fundamental resources for heritage-seekers. Seven million people made their way to Bremerhaven to leave Europe between 1832 and 1974. For decades, Bremerhaven was one of the main emigration ports in Europe. In 2007, the Emigration Center was awarded European Museum of the Year.
The Hamburg Port of Dreams Emigration City and Museum project BallinStadt opened in 2007. It provides the public with an authentic impression of the conditions under which last century's European emigrants traveled across the Atlantic. Exactly 100 years after Albert Ballin had completed the 'emigrant halls' for European emigrants on the Elbe River's Veddel, a part of this Emigrant City has emerged again at the historical place. Between 1850 and 1939, Hamburg served as the "Gateway to the World" for some five million European emigrants who left their homeland via the city's port in search of a better life across the Atlantic.