German Immigration and Settlement Patterns in the United States and the American Midwest

German migrants came to North America since colonial times and became one of the most important European immigrant groups to the United States. Early strongholds of German settlement were the mid-Atlantic states, such as Pennsylvania and Maryland. They moved into existing towns and settlements but also founded and named new locations such as Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1683. Driven by economic and socio-political prospects, a heterogeneous group of "German(ic) migrants" from different European source regions, including "related groups" from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Switzerland, and Russian exclaves, boarded sailing ships and (later) steamers for the "New World". Depending on political and socio-economic conditions in Europe and abroad, the migrants came in several waves, with peaks in the mid-1850s, 1870s and 1880s. Major source areas also shifted accordingly, for instance from Southwest (early 1800s) to the Northwest (mid-1800s) and the Northeast of Germany (around turn of the 19th century).

German Source Areas in Central Europe 1871

Programing & Design: Stephan Fuchs;

→ Click here for a static map.

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. As the case study of Douglas County, Kansas, shows, the migrants progressively moved into the territories opened for settlement, often taking intermediate steps. Many German(ic) immigrants had only limited financial resources and/or followed friends and family as they first moved into established rural settlements or 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, where family work and hardship could offset the lack of money, they established and/or named numerous rural communities across the region. Spatial cohesion gradually developed around the landholdings of initial pioneers as secondary settlers joined in.

German(ic) Residents in the American Midwest 1870 & 1900

Programing & Design: Stephan Fuchs; Sources: U.S. Federal Census 1870 & 1900; Data source: University of Minnesota, National Historic Geographic Information System.

→ Click for static maps of German(ic) nativity 1870 and 1900.

The regional pattern of settlement shows a broad distribution of German(ic) migrants as well as certain areas of clustering (see maps 1870 and 1900). These patterns continue on the local level where German(ic) migrants were among the first pioneers as well as joined or replaced earlier settlers. Several areas of German(ic) concentration existed in 1870, such as in eastern Wisconsin, eastern Missouri, southwest Illinois, or northeast Nebraska. At the turn of the twentieth century, Germanv nativity rates have decreased in earlier settled areas in the east with the passing of the pioneer stage and the demographic transition from the Europe-born immigrant generation to their U.S.-born descendants. To the west, new concentrations had been established, especially in North and South Dakota where "related" immigrants from German exclaves in southern Russia and the Black Sea area predominate. The German(ic) background still reveberates in the cultural and ethno-demographic structure of these areas today, for instance reflected by high German(ic) ancestry rates.

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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