German Immigration to the US

Antique Group

It's important to know about German immigration to the U.S. if you have ancestors from that region of Europe. The history and geography may be complicated, but if you have a working knowledge of the area, you can be successful in researching your family tree.

Importance of German Immigration to the U.S.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that over 58 million Americans trace their ancestry to German roots. This represents 17 percent of the population. It is the most reported ancestry in 23 states. Famous Americans with German roots include:

  • Albert Einstein
  • Babe Ruth
  • Dwight Eisenhower
  • Dr. Ruth Westheimer
  • Levi Strauss
  • Clark Gable
  • Elvis Presley

The German culture contributed many traditions to America. The Easter bunny, Easter eggs and the Christmas tree were originally brought to the U.S. by Germanic immigrants.

Understanding German Geography

One difficulty that genealogists face in tracing German roots comes from the geography and politics of what we know now as Germany. The country we know as Germany did not exist until the 1870s. Prior to that time, Germany consisted of smaller states, controlled by princes. These principalities were then under control of various empires. When reporting their birthplace in the censuses, immigrants would usually give the German principality they were from, such as Hesse, Baden or Hanover.

"Germans" are often described as those who speak the German language, not just those citizens of the country. There are numerous German-speaking areas of Europe, including:

  • Austria
  • Switzerland
  • Russia
  • Poland
  • Romania
  • Hungary
  • Luxembourg

The Alsace-Lorraine area of France has been traded back and forth between the Germanic states and France for hundreds of years. Currently a part of France, it still has strong ties to Germany.

Germanic Immigration Timeline

Colonial Period

The first Germanic immigrant arrived in the U.S. in 1607 to the Jamestown colony. Dr. Johannes Fleischer joined the first English settlers to the colony. The next year other Germans joined him in Jamestown. Since none of the German states had any colonies in the New World, it was not until 1683 that the first permanent German settlement was built. Aptly named Germantown, this Pennsylvania city near Philadelphia would be the first of many German settlements.

German immigration to the U.S. would continue for the next 100 years. Most of those leaving were seeking religious freedom. They included:

  • Mennonites
  • Baptists
  • Amish
  • Moravians

By 1783, over 100,000 Germans were thought to have arrived in America. Pennsylvania was one of the most popular destinations; almost 33 percent of the population of that state were of German extraction.

In 1790, an immigrant group from the Germanic region of Palatine traveled to New York. Numbering around 2100 people, this was the largest single immigration of the colonial period. The "Palatines" settled in the Hudson River Valley, establishing seven villages in the area.

During the American Revolution, the British hired Hessian soldiers as mercenaries for the British Army. Many of these soldiers remained in the U.S. after independence was won.

19th Century

During the 19th century Germans continued to arrive in the U.S. in large numbers. While those seeking religious tolerance continued to immigrate, others were seeking the political stability and cheap land that America could offer. Many ventured to the Midwest, especially to Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio. Between 1840 and 1880, Germans were the largest group of immigrants to the U.S. An especially large group arrived following revolutions in the Germanic states in 1848. These political refugees were known as "Forty-Eighters."

Germanic immigrants fought on both sides of the Civil War. While arrivals into the South had been much smaller over the years, there were a number of Germans in the New Orleans area, as well as North Carolina. Texas also had a very large number of German immigrants, establishing cities and towns all over the state. The largest number, however, were in the North. During the Civil War, almost 176,000 German immigrants fought for the Union.

20th Century

The 20th century saw two world wars fought between the U.S. and Germany. During World War I, anti-German sentiment raged. Many German-Americans changed their Germanic surname to avoid retribution. This creates a unique problem for genealogists beginning their research, as many times this name change was not officially recorded.Between the two wars, thousands of Germans fled the Nazi regime and came to America. While there was some anti-German sentiment, it was much less than that suffered by Japanese-Americans. Nonetheless, the U.S. placed 11,000 German immigrants in interment camps between 1940 and 1948. After the World War II, large groups of displaced refugees came from German-speaking areas.

Tips For Researching Germanic Ancestors

  • Ship passenger lists are a good way to find your ancestor's arrival in America. Hamburg was one of the largest ports in Europe for America-bound immigrants.
  • You should also familiarize yourself with the German principalities. This can give you valuable clues when reading the censuses.
  • Church records are particularly valuable for Germanic immigration research. Baptism, marriage and burial records are helpful in linking generations to each other. Check Cyndi's List for possible online research sites.
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German Immigration to the US