According to the 1860 U.S. census 1.3 million Germans had immigrated to America (principally from the southwestern states of Württemberg, Baden, and Bavaria)! By 1890, an estimated 2.8 million German-born immigrants lived in the United States. A majority were located in the “German triangle,” whose three points were Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. My G-G-Grandfather Jacob Burger, his wife, son and three daughters were among them in Dubois County, Indiana. Note the dark colored county (Dubois) in the tip of southern Indiana on the map below depicting a high concentration of German immigrants.
It was a dangerous and difficult trip across the Atlantic. Germans began the journey by making their way to a port city. During the high peaks of emigration there was a steady flow of traffic on the roads to the ports made up of families pushing carts loaded with their belongings.
The conditions on the sailing ships that took the German immigrants across the Atlantic were terrible. Many people could not afford to purchase a first- or second-class ticket, and so they traveled in steerage, in the lower decks of the ship that were designed to carry cargo. Aside from being miserably overcrowded, the accommodations often lacked clean drinking water and adequate toilet and washing facilities. Rats, head lice, and bedbugs were common, and infectious diseases spread quickly sometimes with catastrophic consequences.
Details of this arduous journey were well known based on experiences of others who had already made the trip, but the Burger families joined hundreds of others determined to escape poverty and repression by their governments.
Germany did not become a nation until 1871. Political turbulence up to that time was rampant. Many German citizens organized into groups of resistance to fight against the tyrannical monarchies of the various German states, including Baden, but the rebels faced arrest and persecution at the hands of the German princes.
Religious repression prompted some early immigration of small groups to the U.S., but the later mass migrations were mainly motivated by the desire for economic opportunity and prosperity not possible under the rule of a monarchy. According to the U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library, U.S. History in Context (2004), rural Germans had lived on small family farms for many years. As the German states faced industrialization, the old way of rural life quickly disappeared. Many were forced to move into cities and learn new skills. Yet, with unemployment in Germany rising, the cities did not always hold much hope. Among those who emigrated, most had few options left in Germany.
There were also a number of “pull factors” that prompted the journey for some. The north-central states (WI, MI, MN, IN) had programs for settlement with funding and support from their state legislatures, and aid societies promoted immigration by supporting and bettering the conditions of immigrants. Chain migration occurred during the later phases of immigration as newcomers joined family and friends who had made the journey before them.
Until World War I, many German Americans lived in German-speaking communities throughout the United States. The communities ranged from tiny rural villages to city districts. German communities or “Little Germanies” developed in many large cities, such as New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Occupations dominated by Germans including baking, carpentry, and brewing. They were also farmers, musicians, and merchants.
According to Willi Adams, Lavern Rippley, and Eberhard Reichmann in their excellent review of German immigration to America (The German Americans: An Ethnic Experience), the dream of most German immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries was the debt-free ownership of a farm.
Taking up city residence initially often was a strategy to build up savings of $50 to $150. Around 1850 in the Midwest this sum was sufficient for a down payment on a farm of about 40 acres, which was about the size needed to make a living. In addition, the immigrant needed about $500 to acquire implements, cattle and seed grains, as well as food that would last until the first harvest. The minimal chattel needed to be able to start a family farm in the Midwest around 1870 was a team of horses, a plow and other field implements as well as seed grain, which together cost about $1,200. That was more than the average annual income of a factory worker. Compared to most immigrants, German farmers were far more attached to their farms than others, succumbing less frequently to speculative fever. Instead, they tried to buy up land in their own vicinity for their siblings and children in order to be able to farm together for several generations.
German immigrants assimilated more slowly than others due to their high numbers. Their basic needs, including churches, monasteries, schools, businesses, and stores could be met within their communities using their native language and traditions.
This was indeed the case during 1855 in Dubois County, Indiana, where Jacob moved his family and became a landowner and farmer. Five generations later (mine), the German culture was still intact. It remained a rural, German-Catholic community where both German and English languages were commonly spoken, German social traditions remained prominent, and within the County courthouse all official records were recorded in German until 1945, the year I was born.
However, slowly but surely the American melting pot swallowed the Germans whose progeny became German-Americans and theirs became Americans, including those in my own community in Dubois County, Indiana. My parents still spoke German to each other and to their parents and siblings, but spoke only accented English to me and my brothers and sisters. Jacob, his wife, and children were the immigrant Germans; my grandfather and father were the German-Americans; and my brothers and sisters and our children are the Americans, who are, nonetheless, very proud of our heritage and undeniably products of German people and culture.
All illustrations are from Willi Adams, Lavern Rippley, and Eberhard Reichmann in their excellent review of German immigration to America (The German Americans: An Ethnic Experience) unless otherwise noted.