Descendants of the largest U.S. immigrant group. The long history of German setdement
in America reflects centuries of religious, political, and social turmoil in the Germanspeaking countries of central Europe. The Protestant Reformation generated a number of
fervent religious movements throughout Europe, led by those who believed that
Reformation leaders had stopped far short of true reform. The rise of the Anabaptists in
the 16th century, and the Pietists and Radical Pietists in the 17th and 18th centuries,
demonstrated a pervasive longing in post-Reformation Europe for religious freedom.
After the Augsburg Accord of 1555 gave the princes of the provinces and the
governments of the free cities the right to introduce the Reformation into their territories,
religious choice had remained in the hands of the rulers of the patchwork of small
principalities and kingdoms that constituted Germany. While not actually stated by the
accord, “whoever rules determines the religion” became the established practice, causing continuing unrest as mystics, visionaries, and intellectuals rebelled against the
rigid conformity enforced by the established churches and governments. Religious
persecution, political oppression, heavy taxation, and compulsory military service led to
massive German emigration during the 18th century, both to the east (to the Russia of
Catherine the Great) and to the west (to the “New World” with its promise of freedom
The Napoleonic Wars and a series of failed revolutions led to another surge in German
emigration in the first half of the 19th century, both to Russia, where Wuerttembergers
and others established the Black Sea colonies at the invitation of Czar Alexander I, and to
America, where immigrants began to move west with the frontier. Promotional literature
and letters home promised free or cheap land in the “Far West,” low or no taxes, and an
absolute freedom undreamed of in Europe. A wave of “Amerika-Fever” swept Germany,
and stories of hardships and failed plans did little to discourage those who saw America
as the answer to worsening problems of overpopulation, poverty, and oppression at home.
In 1608 German glassmakers had been among the first group of non-English brought
to the Jamestown Colony by the Virginia Company. Conflicts with the English settlers
soon developed. Apparently dissatisfied with conditions in the colony, the German
craftsmen, with a Swiss, joined with the American Indian chief Powhatan, leading
Captain John Smith to coin the “damned Dutch-men” epithet (based on the
mispronunciation by English speakers of Deutsch, or German) that was to echo in
broadsides and songs during both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Later in the 17th
century, as the vision of America became more firmly rooted in the European
imagination, individuals or small groups of Germans began to settle along the East Coast.
The first permanent group settlement in America was established in Pennsylvania in
1683, when German Mennonites and Quakers from the Lower Rhine established
Germantown. During Queen Anne’s reign (1702–1714), the British government
promoted German immigration, and Germans continued to arrive in increasing numbers
during the first half of the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin, who had established a
German newspaper in 1732, was complaining by the 1750s that Pennsylvania was
becoming a German colony. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, a third of
Pennsylvania’s population was German, and substantial settlements had been established
in Georgia, Maryland, the Carolinas, New York, and elsewhere.
Thoughout American history, political and religious refugees from Germany have had
a substantial impact on the cultural, political, and social development of their adopted
country. With the support of the large numbers of immigrants who left home for purely
economic reasons, German intellectuals, religious leaders, and exiled revolutionaries
have at times been able to gather enough political power in many states to affect local and
national affairs. Turnvereine (athletic societies dedicated to the principle of “a sound
mind in a sound body”) were established in Germany by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn after the
defeat of Prussia by Napoleon in 1806. Brought to the United States by former
revolutionaries, particularly the “Forty-Eighters” (often university-educated intellectuals
who participated in the 1848 revolutionary movements in Germany and, as a result, had to fleee to avoid prosecution and imprisonment), Turner societies became convenient
vehicles for organizing political action as well as providing athletic and cultural
activities. The power German immigrants gained, their great numbers, and the tenacity
with which they held to their language and social customs have often been viewed with
alarm by other Americans.
The concept of the “melting pot,” Michel Guillaume de Crevecoeur’s vision of
Americans as individuals of all nations “melted into” a new race of men, has been fixed
in the national political consciousness since colonial times and has continued to pervade
American political rhetoric, particularly during times of national crisis. However, most
German immigrants came to the United States not to assimilate into another culture but to
have the freedom to practice the religion of their choice and preserve for their children
the language they treasured. They established churches, schools, newspapers, and
organizations toward that end.
Historic events sometimes beyond their control have not made their Germanness easy
to accept. The use of impressed (and often kidnapped) young Hessian men by King
George III to put down the rebellion in the American colonies inspired numerous
revolutionary broadsides and songs about the “Hessian mercenaries.” Even during the
Revolutionary War, however, as they were to do later, Germans presented a dilemma for
patriotic-song makers. On the one hand, there were many who fought against the British,
including General Nicholas Herkimer and his four battalions recruited in New Yorks
“German Flats.” On the other hand, there were the fearful Hessians. Versions of the
broadside “Saratoga” include both salutes to “Herkimer’s brave soldiers” and complaints
about British General John Burgoyne’s German troops: “To plunder and to murder was
solely their intent.” The “Song of the Vermonters” with its anti-German sentiment,
published anonymously but finally acknowledged by John Greenleaf Whittier, persisted
in the oral tradition in New England for a century and a half, as ballad collector Helen
Hartness Flanders found.
The terms “Hessians” and “Dutchmen” were revived by Civil War song makers and
lingered in the folk memory through the second half of the 20th century. German
participation on the Union side was substantial, and Northern songs celebrated “the loyal
sons of Germany,” while Southern broadsides raged against the “hireling Hessian
knaves” and the “bloody Dutch.” Even the pro-German Civil War broadsides had a
tendency to satirize German accents, food preferences, and an affinity for lager beer (“I
Goes to Fight Mit Sigel,” “De Goot Lager Bier”).
Following the Civil War, the German practice of the “Continental Sabbath” continued
to offend many Anglo Americans, and a movement to prohibit theater performances and
other social activities enjoyed by Germans on Sunday inspired “blue laws” to bring
Germans into step with their neighbors. It was the German affinity for wine and beer,
their concept of the tavern as a center for community and family activities, and their
enthusiastic celebrations of holidays, both their own and American patriotic holidays, that
most often brought them into disfavor with their English neighbors. “The Hell Bound
Train,” collected by Vance Randolph in the Ozarks, expresses a prevailing view in many
areas: “The tank was full of Lager beer/And the devil himself was the Engineer.” As
World War I approached, supporters of Prohibition reminded voters in southwest
Missouri that a vote for Prohibition was a vote against the Kaiser, and state Councils of
Defense set out to abolish “enemy languages” in churches and schools. The degree to which German immigrants and their descendants assimilated into the
mainstream American culture at various times is a matter of dispute among cultural
historians. Acculturation did, of course, take place even in the areas with the heaviest
German population. New German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 1830s, imbued with
the romantic notion then prevailing in Germany that everything characteristically German
ought to be preserved, were so offended by the Americanization of the old immigrants in
Philadelphia that they formed a German Settlement Society to establish a colony in the
West that would be “German in every particular.” Naming the planned colony Hermann
for the old Germanic hero who had defeated the Roman legions in the Teutoburger Wald
in A.D. 9, and with streets and sites for churches, promenades, and parks already in mind,
society members moved to an isolated site on the Missouri River 80 miles west of St.
Louis. For many decades, from the 1840s to World War I, they were able to achieve their
dream of a Golden Age of German culture in America, with German churches and
schools, musical groups, a theater, and a thriving wine industry that inspired a succession
of festivals and celebrations.
Whether articulated, as with the founders of Hermann, the leaders of intentional
communities, and such ambitious groups as the well-educated members of the Giessen
Emigration Society, whose aim was to establish a German state in the Far West, or
simply as a matter of course, German immigrants proceeded to cluster into settlements
and enclaves of their kind (“herding together,” as Franklin had said) and began
transplanting their language and cultural habits to the new environment. This did not
simply mean German, but Bavarian, Westphalian, Rhinelander, or Hannoverian. The
strong local folk tradition and local pride that survived German unification under
Bismarck (and continues to thrive) was maintained in the United States and resulted in
numerous benevolent, musical, and social clubs in urban areas based on provincial origin.
Chain migration led to rural settlements of immigrants from the same area who preserved
their regional customs and dialects for generations. The language they spoke was central
to their identity. Most communities maintained their dialects as the “social” language,
although High German was used in the churches and schools. As new immigrants arrived
in established communities throughout the 19th century, language and traditions were
reinvigorated and became more firmly entrenched. This massive and continuing
immigration served to transplant a multiplicity of German religious and traditional
practices in many parts of the United States. The arrival of the “Germans from Russia,”
Catholics, Lutherans, and Mennonites, who began to emigrate after the American Civil
War when Czar Alexander II instituted universal conscription, brought to the Plains states
old beliefs, customs, and practices preserved for almost 100 years in Russia. Healing and
magic practices, songs, and sayings took root in many isolated communities.
Ironically, religious controversy among the Germans continued in America as new
groups arrived and new churches were established. George Rapp’s Harmonists, who
came to Pennsylvania from Wuerttemberg in 1804, moved to Indiana in 1814, and went
back to Pennsylvania in 1824, and suffered a Great Schism in the 1830s when some
Harmonists followed the charismatic Count Leon to Louisiana and some went with
Wilhelm Keil to Missouri. William Nast, founder of the German Methodists, was stoned
by his compatriots in Cincinnati when he preached his new faith, and traditional Lutheran
and German Reformed Church leaders protested the formation of the evangelical
Kirchenverein des Westens on the Missouri frontier, ridiculing its leaders and launching personal attacks on its pastors in St. Louis newspapers. The Germans from Russia formed
their own churches and held tightly to their own customs, partly because they were not
welcomed by other German Americans.
The class system caused some difficulties among early immigrants, but often the
“bond of common memories” from home, seemingly always stronger than the bond of
common American experience, overcame the class distinctions. In many towns in the
Missouri Rhineland, the doctor, lawyer, butcher, baker, and their wives and children took
part in the German theater performances sponsored by the Turnverein or other societies.
The Turner societies generally became less political after the Civil War period and
sponsored diverse cultural and social events such as poetry readings, theatricals, and
concerts rather than military drills. Athletic competitions continued, but in the 1990s
some Turners report that about the only exercise at meetings is bending the elbow. In
1995, about eighty Turner societies still existed.
The customs maintained most faithfully by German Americans were church and
family centered. Both Catholic and Protestant groups preserved pre-Lenten, Easter, and
Christmas traditions into the 20th century: Wurstjäger (sausage hunters) sang Rhenish
begging songs current in early-19th–century Germany when they went out to collect food
for the community pre-Lenten feast in American communities. In Protestant
communities, children went from door to door begging for Fettküchli. Easter was
celebrated with both religious ceremony and bonfires. Holy palms are still placed in
homes as a protection against lightning. St. Nicholas Day was celebrated primarily by
Catholic groups, who transplanted different customs from various provinces in Germany
and Austria to settlements in America. On December 6, St. Nicholas visited homes in
rural Catholic communities accompanied by “Black Peter” or the devil in chains. It was
an experience that not many adults recalled with pleasure, accompanied as it was by the
rattling of chains and the frightening prospect of recalling a year’s transgressions. In
communities where St. Nicholas did not actually appear, children put out their shoes with
gifts for the expected visitors. Sometimes curious adaptations and confusions of customs
occurred. In a German community in south Louisiana, children put out rice for Santa’s
reindeer on December 6. In the Bethel colonies in Missouri and Oregon, a tradition of a
Black Santa developed, and on Christmas Eve in some communities children were visited
by the Christkindl, a female figure. The Christkindl in affluent St. Louis homes was
considerably more benevolent than the stern Kris Kringle who visited Bethel. The custom
of wedding inviters, who composed invitations in German verse to recite at neighboring
homes, was one of the folk traditions that persisted in many rural communities. Those
who accepted the wedding invitation pinned a ribbon on the inviter’s staff or jacket and
provided him with the expected refreshment. Maifeste, Schützenfeste, harvest
celebrations, and “Shooting in the New Year” were a part of pre-World War I German
American community life and were sometimes revived after the War. A Schützenverein
in eastern Missouri held its competition, crowned its king, and enjoyed the customary
ball into the 1950s.
The book burnings, vandalism, and attacks on German Americans during World War I
served to diminish the use of their language in public and curtail the exuberant festivals,
but such actions did not extinguish them altogether. The events of the 1930s and World
War II led to a further diminution of public cultural activities, but family and sometimes
community customs continued. The American Bicentennial in 1976 and the celebration of the Tricentennial of German group settlement in America in 1983 encouraged a
revitalization of the German American spirit, but language barriers continue to
discourage the kind of extensive collection and study of German folklore that resulted in
the preservation of major collections of African American and Anglo American folklore
in the early 20th century. Only in Pennsylvania has German folklore been consistently
collected, published, and studied, although the Germans from Russia, both the Volga
River and the Black Sea groups, have extensively documented their history and folklore
since World War II.
Yet, in many areas of the United States, the influence of German immigrants can be
seen in the distinctive churches, townscapes, and farm buildings that remain. Early
communal and other intentional settlements have been preserved, often as tourist
attractions, and serve as reminders of the long history of the search for religious freedom.
German foods, which once inspired satire, are part of the American diet, and many
holiday customs, including the Christmas tree and Christmas music, have been adopted
by all Americans. More language has been lost than is remembered, but newly
established Low German Theater performances draw large local audiences, and singing
societies are still popular in the cities. Many German American communities are trying to
preserve, revitalize, and promote their German heritage, often with such activities as
“Wunderbar Days,” “Gesundheit Festivals,” and Strassenfeste. Oktoberfeste and Wurst
(sausage) festivals attract German Americans and others for traditional food and drink.
German Americans are still perceived as Germans and perceive themselves as German.
As the 20th century nears its close, they make up almost one-fourth of the U.S.
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