Understanding Your ...

Understanding Your Immigrant Ancestors:
Who Came and Why: German Immigration

By Leslie Albrecht Huber

The following is an early version of an article that eventually appeared (much different than this) in New England Ancestors. Most of its content deals with German immigration in general, but some does just deal with Germans in New England.

When most people think of German immigrants, states like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin come to mind – not Massachusetts or New Hampshire. It’s true that German immigrants, although one of the largest immigrant groups in history, have always remained a minority in New England.

Yet the massive and influential German immigrant left no part of the country untouched. From their first permanent settlement in Germantown in 1683 through the boom years of the 1880s, Germans have impacted the history of our country – even in New England.

Migration and intermarriage has meant that now a large proportion of Americans can trace at least one ancestor to Germany. In fact, in the 2000 census, nearly forty-eight million or seventeen percent of the population claimed German as their most important ancestral ethnicity. German was the largest group in the U.S. – higher than those claiming English roots. Sixteen percent of these forty-eight million were from the Northeast. Countless others would claim German as a secondary ancestral ethnicity.

Understanding a little about the Germans who have come to the U.S. for the past three hundred years can give us some important insights into our German ancestors. What patterns can we see in German immigration? Why did these thousands of people leave their homes to journey into the unknown? Where did they settler when they arrived? And why did they largely bypass New England?

The First Germans

Franz Daniel Pastorius has been credited with officially founding the first permanent German settlement in America in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1683. He arrived in the port in Philadelphia on August 20 of that year along with a handful of other immigrants. The group was joined by thirteen other families several months later. Over the next couple years, others trickled in.

Religion served as the most influential motivating factor for these largely Quaker and Mennonite families. Many had lived in or near the town of Krefeld on the Lower Rhine. Although historically this area had practiced relative religious tolerance, still persecution and lack of true freedom of worship made life difficult for these non-conformists. When stories and letters from William Penn’s colony reached them, some chose to make the journey there where freedom of religion was protected.

Although Germantown holds an important place in German-American history, greater scrutiny has shown that Germantown was perhaps not as German as its name implies. Many of the emigrants from Krefeld were new arrivals there, having actually come from Holland. In fact, Germantown had a significant population of both Dutch and Swiss, besides German. But although Germans were not the sole settlers, Germantown maintained a distinctively German flavor for the next one hundred years.

The Palatines of 1709

Although Germantown marked the beginning of a permanent German presence in America, not until a quarter of a century later did the first real large-scale migration occur. This well-known group of people have gone down in history as the Palatines. Their name came from the only partially correct belief that the people originated from the Palatinate region of Germany.

The Palatine immigration began in 1709 when around fifteen thousand Germans immigrated to England under the false conviction that Queen Ann intended to pay their way to America. When the Germans descended on the unsuspecting English, the found the English had no plans or accommodations for them. The Palatines lived in makeshift camps while the English tried to come up with a plan. Finally, they sent many home, some to Ireland, a few to North Carolina and around three thousand to New York.

Detailed studies of their papers petitioning the government for permission to leave show a recurring cause for the desire to leave – poverty. Many stated simply that they did not have enough bread to feed their families and saw no sign of this changing. America offered them hope. Most would be disappointed.

Robert Hunter, the new governor of New York, agreed to take the refugees with the understanding that they would produce tar and pitch in settlements along the Hudson. From the start, the plan faltered. Hundreds of Germans died along the way. Once they had settled on the lands, the disgruntled Germans periodically challenged Hunter and refused to work. On September 6, 1712, just two years later, the project was abandoned.

After the demise of the tar and pitch plans, the Germans were free to leave the Hudson Valley. Many of the Palatine immigrants stayed in New York or moved to New Jersey or Pennsylvania. Only a few made their way to New England.

Later Eighteenth Century Arrivals

The Palatines of 1709 didn’t mark the only mass migration to America of that century. Instead, they marked the beginning of a trend. As word traveled home, excitement to come to America grew. When the port of Pennsylvania began keeping seemingly complete and accurate records in 1727, about six immigrant ships were coming every year. These numbers grew until around 1756 when the Seven Years War halted immigration. After the war’s conclusion, immigration picked up again until the outbreak of the American Revolution.

German immigrants generally came from the same area and settled in the same area. As before, the majority came from the southwestern part of Germany. The term “Palatine” continued to be used to describe the German-speaking emigrants throughout the century, although they came from a variety of places.

Pennsylvania became the destination of choice. This was partly because the earlier settlement of Germans there led to families, friends, and others following their lead. It can also be attributed to the fact that many arrived through the port in Philadelphia. Also, Pennsylvania offered good, fertile land to these mostly farmer immigrants.

From 1728 until 1820, a unique system shaped the character of German emigration. Over half of the approximately one hundred thousand German emigrants to come this county arrived as redemptioners. In this system, poor Germans made the journey to America for free in exchange for providing labor for a certain number of years to a master. The master, in turn, paid the ship’s captain. Critically called “white slavery,” the redemption system brought thousands of Germans who couldn’t have come otherwise.

Around the middle of the century, the only substantial group of Germans to come to New England during the colonial period arrived. Although there is some conflicting evidence, many believe that the first German emigrants arrived in what is now Waldoboro, Maine in 1739 – then part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Within a few years, starvation, disease, and Indian attacks had wiped out the settlement completely.

New families followed – most significantly sixty families who emigrated from southwest Germany to Portsmouth, Maine in 1753. The new settlers also found life to be hard. In addition to the plagues of hunger and cold, the French and Indian war broke out. Numerous settlers were killed or kidnapped. Others lived in constant fear. But, this time the colony survived. Although English settlers joined the Germans in the 1770s, Waldoboro retained its German character.

The numbers from near the end of the eighteenth century show how lopsided German emigration had become. One-third of the population of Pennsylvania was German, followed by Maryland with just under twelve percent. On the other hand, of the six New England states, all but Maine had less than one percent of the population claiming a German background. In Maine, the number was 1.3 percent. New England with its strongly British and Puritan identity had managed to stay a fairly homogenous area – and not one very open to outsiders.

The First Flood, 1816-1817

Total immigration up until 1790 only hovered at around one million. This increased just slightly over the next several decades as war on both sides of the ocean limited movement. When immigration picked up again after peace was reached in Europe in 1815, it had changed.

While immigration had trickled in the 1700s, it roared through the 1800s. The flood gate first opened in 1816. Once again, the emigrants came largely from the southwestern section of Germany. And once again, economic hardship drove the movement. Poor harvests and extreme deprivation among a turbulent and fairly mobile population led many to want out. And living near the Rhine meant they had a way out.

But the numbers – and the directions were different. This time the population didn’t only look west. Many went east as well. While three thousand seemed a huge number of Palatines in 1710, in one year perhaps fifty thousands people from Baden attempted to leave. Most were unsuccessful. In all, around twenty thousand Germans went to America while fifteen thousand settled in Russia in 1816-1817. And the numbers would keep rising.

Mid-Century Influx

German emigration entered its strongest phase around 1830. For the next sixty years, Germans were never less than a quarter of all emigrants. The percentage peaked in the 1850s when nearly thirty-seven percent of immigrants arriving in the U.S. came from Germany.

Not only was emigration expanding in numbers, it was also expanding in reach. No longer did the pull only extend to the southwestern part of Germany. Better communication and travel meant that Germans in the interior knew more about emigration and found it to be more of a possibility. The gates opened in Hessen-Darmstadt, Hessen-Kassel, Westphalia, Hanover, and Oldenburg as people left their homes behind in search of a better life in America.

Those that left were generally small farmers, not the rich by any means – but also not the poorest of the poor. The redemption system has closed down. These mid-century immigrants had enough resources to finance their trip, but not enough to keep them rooted to their hometowns. The promise of land extended from America was exactly the promise they were looking for in areas increasingly squeezed for the needed space for farming.

Economics wasn’t the only motivating factor for these nineteenth century immigrants, but it was the most important. Political upheavals, climaxing with the revolutions of 1848 that swept across Western Europe, drove some Germans to seek new homes. Although the legend of these activists has lived on in German-American communities, historians have shown that the so-called “forty-eighters” barely caused a bump in the German emigration numbers. Similarly, religious persecution pushed only a relative few to leave their homeland.

These mid-century immigrants also had different destinations in mind. They largely found their way to the rich farmland of the Midwest. The cities of Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee became known as the German triangle. Many Germans settled there, elsewhere in the Midwest, and in Texas.

Two-fifths of German immigrants chose urban centers for their residence. In addition to the Midwest cities, some Eastern cities such as New York City and Philadelphia developed large populations of Germans. While New England cities such as Boston did develop a German community, these German centers were not among the largest or most influential. This stood in sharp contrast to the Irish, the other large immigrant group of the mid 1800s. Six of the nine cities with the densest Irish populations were in New England.

Shifting East

As the century progressed, the emigration pull in Germany shifted further east. And, while the percentages declined slightly, the numbers didn’t. Civil war in the U.S. in the early 1860s and then the Wars of German Unification which led to the formation of the German nation in 1871 depressed immigration somewhat. By the 1880s, these limiting factors had passed. German emigration reached a high of nearly 1.5 million that decade. Yet, immigration in general was increasing, meaning Germans made up a smaller portion – around twenty-eight percent – of all immigrants to the U.S.

By the 1870s, the concentration of emigrants from Germany moved to Mecklenburg and the Prussian provinces of East and West Prussia, Pomerania, Posen, and Brandenburg. These tended to be the most rural areas of Germany – and usually the most backwards. Here, desperately poor peasants made up the majority of the population. With few rights and often no land, there was little to tie them to their homeland.

Changing economic patterns left more people without land. Yet once again, the poorest people in society did not leave – they had no way to finance such an undertaking. Instead, the lower middle class of agricultural laborers, often those with families, most frequently set off to make a new life across the ocean.

Immigration in the Twentieth Century

The turn of the century brought drops in German immigration to the U.S. By 1911-1920, about 143,000 Germans came – representing only 2.5 percent of the total immigrants of those years. By this time, Eastern European groups made up the bulk of immigrants.

The rise of Third Reich altered the immigration patterns greatly. Of the 104,000 Germans and Austrians who left for the U.S. between 1933 and 1941, eighty percent were Jewish. About ten percent came from the intellectual upper class of professors, university lecturers, or independent scholars. These people fleeing the new German government came from cities and largely settled in cities – most notably in New York City – although other East Coast cities gained a numbers of immigrants also.

After a slight post-war spike around 1950, German immigration since World War II has slowed to a trickle. Now, regions outside of Europe dominate the immigration scene, with Germans and other Europeans only playing a small part.

In all, about seven million Germans made their way to our country in the past three centuries. But despite their overwhelming numbers, the existence of a distinct cultural group of German-Americans has died quickly away. Some speculate the success Germans have had in adapting to American culture has led to their failure to effectively preserve their own culture.

But even if not many people consider their German heritage a separating and defining characteristic, the fact remains that many of us can trace at least one branch of our family tree back to Germany. New England may have remained one of the least affected parts of the country – but even here, many can find a German root or two in their tree.

Websites for Germans in New England

The Palatine Project: New England http://www.progenealogists.com/palproject/ne/index.html. This website contains brief information about Palatine Germans in New England. It site also has links and information about the Palatine experience in general.

Germans in Boston Resource Center http://homepages.rootsweb.com/~mvreid/bgrc/bgresctr.html. This site contains a collection of links for people with Boston German ancestry. Included in this is a fact sheet, information from the 1800s census, some marriage records, death, records, property records, and others for select surnames, surname lists, and other links.

New England Naturalization Petitions http://www.daddezio.com/genealogy/german/surnames/nenp.html The available petitions, which is not all-inclusive, cover the years 1791 to 1906. This particular subset contains petitions for mostly German immigrants.

Immigration: The Journey to America: Germans http://library.thinkquest.org/20619/German.htm This website doesn’t contain information particular to New England, but does give a good background on German immigration – the patterns and reasons for it.

The German Americans: An Ethnic Experience http://www.ulib.iupui.edu/KADE/adams/toc.html. This front page has links to different “chapters” focused on certain aspects of the German immigration experience. Like the site above, the information isn’t specific to New England but contains a great background for understanding the German experience coming to this country.

The Old Broad Bay Family History Association. http://www.rootsweb.com/~meobbfha/ This is the society’s website. It contains a little background, some family names, and contact information for those with ancestors who were part of this early settlement in Waldoboro, Maine.