The First German Immigrants

The first immigrants from Germany went to America because of the German ‘Thirty Years War’. This war broke out 1618 due to religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.

Between 60 thousand and one hundred thousand German speaking immigrants are estimated to have fled their home lands to set out for America during that colonial era. The first and earliest German settlement was one that was named Germantown, located in Pennsylvania.

The history of Germantown started in October 1683, when thirteen German-speaking families came to Pennsylvania on their ship named Concord.

The families originated from the Krefeld region in the German state of Rhineland. Francis Daniel Pastorius was the leader of these early German immigrants who were predominantly Mennonites, and he had obtained a piece of land from Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn.

The first Germantown settlers were craftsmen and farmers. Initially, they survived in the settlements by selling their crafted tools and farm produce on the streets and markets in Philadelphia, and it wasn’t long before they established a linen-weaving and production business at their location. By 1870, the Germantown population had already increased to over 3,000.

The enormous wave of German settlers into the Pennsylvania region went on through the American colonial era that lasted until 1763, and at the time of the American Revolution in 1775, some estimated 35 percent the area’s population consisted of people of German background and descent.

The many German immigrants to colonial America came there for a number of reasons, of which economic opportunity and religious freedom were the most important. America, the New World, was offering the colonists the possibility to own their own property for the very first time in their lives, and many immigrants came to America to escape brutal religious conflicts and oppressive situations across Europe. There were also immigrants who were forced to come to the new colonies as slaves.

Many German colonists were motivated by economic reasons. In Europe, it was practically impossible for them to own their own land as they were not born to wealth, and the feudal system of ‘Absentee Landlord’ had trapped many poor peasants and craftsmen into a devastating poverty cycle.

The New World was offering a great break from this life, and it happened frequently that local American governments awarded a piece of land to all persons who were willing to develop it and to start farming. The English Crown was gaining colonists for the production of goods that were shipped back home, and the individuals who had taken the immigration chance and were willing and able to work hard could get very wealthy.

Another key motivator for emigration was religious freedom. Seemingly ever-standing religious conflicts, mainly the rift between Catholicism and Protestantism, kept on causing violence and led to oppression in several parts of The Old World, and the new colonies who were devoted to one or another belief or religious movement were offering the faithful laborers a great new start.

There were also immigrants with less popular beliefs, for example, the Puritans, who came to the new colonies to establish a new home and life where they had the chance to live the way they pleased.

The majority of the immigrants from Germany to America were settling in the upper Midwest region, but there were also considerable concentrations of German speaking immigrants in Texas and New York City. Many Germans were moving to The New World following European times of economic hardship, all enticed by the new opportunities available in America.

During the American Colonial Era there were no significant German strongholds, but there were large groups of Germans who emigrated to America around the 1670’s to settle in the Pennsylvania and New York regions. The most impressive period of migration from Germany was in the 19th century.

In that period, millions of German speaking emigrants set out for America to pursue a better, more prosperous, and freer way of life. Most of these German immigrants settled in regions that looked similar to their German homeland, and this explains the massive influx of Germans in the upstate areas of the Midwestern states. It seems that the German immigrants preferred and chose to be living in remote and rural areas rather than in urban settings.

There were more major periods of German settlement in America. At the beginning of the 18th century, large numbers of Germans settlers established several small colonies in America’s Southeastern regions. One of these settlements was named Germanna, near where now Culpepper is located, and during WWI and WWII we saw large numbers of Germans leaving former German territories (that today are in Poland and Russia) to set out for the New World.

In Europe, anti-German politics, sentiments, and geographic disputes forced them out of their home land, and in the period 1800 – early 21st century, more than 7 million German speaking emigrants arrived in America. This resulted in a great number of German schools, theaters, production facilities, churches, and publishing houses all across America.

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