Every year, on October 6, the United States is celebrating German-American Day to commemorate the establishment of Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1683. The day is mostly celebrated by the largest ancestry group in America with almost 50 million US citizens claiming full or part German heritage.
Former President Barack Obama said some years ago on German-American Day that the US citizens of German descent are excelling in practically all disciplines and that they have their minds open to expanding human development and possibilities. We are reminded of German achievements when we’re driving across suspension bridges, when we’re listening to a Steinway piano, or when we’re sending our children to kindergarten. In all these circumstances, we’re surrounded by their unique customs and traditions.
So how come there so many people of German descent in the United States? Well, it all started in the 1680s when a steady stream of German immigrants came to settle in the U.S. and the number of Germans made up almost ten percent of the total American population at the end of the 18th century. It all began on October 6th, 1683, when thirteen German Quaker families from the Krefeld region arrived in Philadelphia, and the place where they settled, on the northern portions of the city, became known as Germantown.
From that day on, many German Protestant minorities (mostly dissidents of Lutheran or Reformed persuasion) joined the Pennsylvania Quaker colony which actually was serving as a beachhead for the steady flow of German immigrants. In 1790, the year of the 1st American census, the total headcount of the Pennsylvania German population was already 225,000 which amounted to one-third of the entire population in the state. Towards the close of the 18th century, the total of Americans from German origin across the youthful United States was around 9 percent and these immigrants were found across many of the English colonies of New Jersey, New York, Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia. Most immigrants came from the Palatinate Forest (Kaiserslautern area) and the Baden-Wurttemberg (Stuttgart area) regions.
In the early 19th century, though, immigration not only Germany but also from other European countries really picked up, and when the Napoleonic wars had ended in 1815, European mass emigration to America really began. This was also the time when unimpeded commercial transatlantic shipping picked up again, and soon after, the first wave of an impressive 20,000 emigrants took place, mostly from the southwestern portions of Germany where major crop failures in 1816 and 1817 caused hunger and instability.
In the 1820s, the number of immigrants fell somewhat, only to increase considerably again during the 1830s. The areas where the German emigrants originated from gradually shifted to the West and the Northwest, followed by Northeast German immigrants later in the century. We also saw small farmers from the German Southwestern portions come to America followed by cottage laborers, farm workers, and craftsmen from Germany’s Northeastern regions. Over time, immigrants from all across Germany arrived in the US where dialect barriers, mainly between East Prussians and Bavarians, were often overcome by using English expressions in their common everyday language.
The first real German immigration peak in North America happened in 1854 when an estimated 225,000 Germans immigrants arrived in America. Then World War I caused immigration numbers to decline again and also at the time of the Great Depression, the number stayed down considerably. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany that we could see an increase in the number of immigrants. After WWI, the time of exploding European immigration to America came to a stop. The US implemented new laws regarding immigration quota and in the period 1924-1929, the number of immigrants from the German Weimar Republic was restricted to only just over 25 thousand annually.
The worldwide economic crisis (the Great Depression) during the 1930s made that this quota never was lifted, also not to help and rescue Jewish refugees that tried to escape the horrible Nazi terror. Therefore, the statistics for the decade of the 30s of the former century show a mere 119,107 legal immigrants to the US from Germany. These included, though, thousands of writers, actors, intellectuals, artists, and musicians which is why this really was a “brain drain” for the Germany Empire. Check out this post about what Germans brought to American life.
Following World War II, though, exceptions were generously made for German “Displaced Persons” and others who had no future on the European Continent. So the number of postwar emigrants from Germany rose considerably, bringing about one more “brain drain” of the best-qualified individuals between 1950 and 1970. During these decades, almost 800,000 Germans ventured across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a better future, a better living standard, to get a decent education for their children, and to benefit from the professional advancement in their new home country. Today, we can see a typical “German Belt” that extends from eastern Pennsylvania all the way to Oregon.