Germans in the American Midwest

Germans were one of the most important European immigrant groups to the United States. Driven by economic and socio-political prospects, they formed a crucial part of the transatlantic migration stream since colonial times. But who is or can be considered “German”?

German-speaking groups from different German states/regions and European countries, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Switzerland, France, and Russia, came to North America in several immigration waves. For this research and dataset, I therefore use the comprehensive term Germanic to describe a geographically heterogeneous but ethnically and culturally similar collective of German and German-related immigrants and their descendants.

Based on timing, transportation lines, and flows of information, the American Midwest became a focal point of German(ic) settlement over the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The spatial pattern of settlement shows a broad distribution of German(ic) residents as well as certain areas of clustering.

Germanic Residents in the American Midwest 1870
This map shows the distribution of German and German-related residents in the American Midwest in 1870

U.S. Federal Census 1870; Data source: University of Minnesota, National Historic Geographic Information System; Cartography: Stephan Fuchs

The migrants established and/or named numerous rural communities across the region. In some areas that had been settled earlier, they bought out the initial pioneers. Many German(ic) immigrants, however, had only limited financial resources and either went directly to the frontier, where family work and hardship could offset the lack of money, or moved into major “gateway” cities such as Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Saint Louis for acculturation and work. There, ethnic neighborhoods formed that became socio-economic and cultural centers for the incoming individuals and groups. On the frontier, spatial cohesion gradually developed around the landholdings of initial pioneers as secondary settlers joined in.

Today, historic immigration and settlement still reverberate in the demographic structure and cultural landscape of the American Midwest. 22.5 percent of its residents claim German(ic) ancestry thus representing the dominant ancestral group of the region. In addition to material features such as buildings and monuments, numerous place names express the immigrants’ impact and legacy. German(ic) people and culture therefore represents a notable ethno-cultural element of the Midwest through time despite the subsequent integration of immigrants and their descendants into American mainstream society and the socio-political impacts of two World Wars.

Germanic Ancestry in the American Midwest 2010
This map shows the distribution of claiming German or German-related ancestry in the American Midwest in 2010

Data Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2006-2010 American Community Survey; Cartography: Stephan Fuchs

Further Reading

Adams, W. P. (1993): The German-Americans. An Ethnic Experience. Indianapolis, IN: Max Kade German-American Center, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Conzen, M. (1996): The German Speaking Ethnic Archipelago in America. In: K. Frantz, R. A. Sauder (Eds.): Ethnic Persistence and Change in Europe and America. Traces in Landscape and Society. Innsbruck: Office for Public Relations and Scientific Transfer of the University of Innsbruck, pp. 67–92.

Daniels, R. (2002): Coming to America. A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York City, NY: Harper Collins.

Fuchs, S. (2013): German(ic) Toponyms in the American Midwest. A Study of Place, Identity, and Heritage. Erlangen: Fränkische Geographische Gesellschaft.

Fuchs, S. (2015): Germany in the Midwest. Deutsche im Amerikanischen Mittelwesten. Geographische Rundschau 67 (3), pp. 29-35.

Hornbeck Tanner, H. (1995; Ed.): The Settling of North America. The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America from the Ice Age to the Present. New York City, NY: MacMillan.

Kamphoefner, W.D. (1983): 300 Jahre Deutsche in den USA. Geographische Rundschau 35 (4), pp. 169–173.

Marschalck, P.; Köllmann, W. (1973): German Emigration to the United States. Perspectives in American History 7, pp. 499–554.

Rippley, L.J. (1990): Germans. In: F. Cordasco (Ed.): Dictionary of American Immigration History. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, pp. 241–247.

Rippley, L.J. (1995): German Americans. In: R.J. Vecoli, J. Galens, A.J. Sheets, R.V. Young (Eds.): Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, pp. 565–577.

Tolzmann, D.H. (2000): The German-American Experience. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

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