We Came to North America: the Germans by Greg Nickles

German immigrants and their descendants have lived in North America for more than 400 years.  The first Germans in North America sailed and landed with some of the earliest European explorers in the 1500s.  In the early 1600s, a few German tradespeople moved to the settlement of Jamestown in the British colony of Virginia.  German immigrants soon began arriving in a steady stream throughout the 1600s and 1700s.  They settled first in the British colonies along the east coast of what is now the United States.  In the last half of the 1800s, German immigration reached its peak and then continued on a smaller scale throughout the 1900s.

The Germans did not come only from lands that were part of Germany. Many came from German-speaking communities in the countries that surround Germany, including Austria, Poland, Switzerland, and Russia.  Germans from each land brought their own distinct customs to their new homes in North America.

Germans came to North America for many reasons.  Some came to practice their religion without fear of the punishment they suffered in their homeland.  Others came fleeing wars, famine, or poverty in Europe.  Many came to find new work and share in the wealth of the New World.

Today, millions of German immigrants and their descendants have made important contributions in the United States.  German tradespeople provided early settlements with the skilled labor needed to build industries.  Since then, German immigrants and their descendants have done well in the arts, science, literature, journalism, politics, industry, and sports.

German influences can be seen in the hundreds of North American cities and towns named after German settlements in Europe.  Some of these include Bismarck in North Dakota, Anaheim in California, and New Braunfels in Texas.



In 1683, a group of immigrants founded the first German community in North America, which became known as Germantown.  They wanted to escape the unfair treatment they suffered at the hands of other Christians in Europe.

Tired of the unfair ways in which many Protestants were treated, William Penn of England dreamed of making a refuge where people were free to worship as they wished.  Penn was a member of the Quakers, or Society of Friends, a group of Protestants that believed strongly in peace, equality, and community.  In 1681, the British king gave Penn land in North America to set up a new colony, named Pennsylvania.  Protestant settlers from Europe were invited to his refuge.

In 1683, thirteen Quaker families from the town of Krefield, in western Germany, accepted Penn's invitation and sailed in the Concord to Philadelphia.  There, they were joined by another German, Franz Daniel Pastorius, a lawyer who became their leader.  Pastorius helped the families obtain land six miles northwest of Philadelphia.

It took a lot of hard work to set up the new community called Germantown.  The settlers had only enough time to dig and cover the cellars of their homes before cold weather set in.  They spent their first winter underground. Once spring came, they continued building their log homes and clearing trees to make fields for their crops.

Part of Germantown lay in the town's design, which helped encourage the settlers to form a strong community.  Instead of building large scattered farms, the German homes were built close together to form a small town, complete with vegetable and flower gardens.  Larger crops were grown in surrounding fields outside the town.

Germantown soon prospered by selling materials to companies in Philadelphia.  By the mid-1700s, Germantown's success encouraged other German Protestants to move there.  Germantown's industries expanded to include weaving, tanning leather, printing, woodworking, and papermaking.

Germantown became more than a thriving community.  Its success proved to other settlers that German immigrants were valuable additions to their communities.  It provided an example for other new settlements, and raised hope among Germans in Europe that they could lead successful lived in North America.

Pennsylvania Dutch Today

Today the term Pennsylvania Dutch is used to describe the population of Old Order Mennonite and Amish people of Pennsylvania.  Being Old Order means that they imitate the way their ancestors lived and isolate themselves from the rest of society to maintain their religious beliefs.  Many work as farmers or tradespeople.  Most of the Old Order communities still speak mostly German.  They wear plain clothes because they believe people should not feel more important than others based on the clothing they wear.  They choose to live a simple life without electricity, indoor plumbing, automobiles, and other machinery.  Many Amish use modern devices and appliances, such as calculators, refrigerators, and gas stoves.  In the 1880s, many Mennonite families moved to Canada.  Today, there is a large Old Order Mennonite community in Waterloo, Ontario and other smaller ones on the prairies.

Eyewitness to History

1.  Max Richter was born in 1864 in Saxony, a region of northwest Germany.  He was trained as a cabinetmaker, but life was hard in Germany, even for those people who knew a trade.  At the age of seventeen, Richter emigrated, in the hope of making a better life for himself.

"Most of the people were farmers where we lived in the Saxony part of Germany.  The highest wage paid for a farmhand was three dollars a week, and living expenses had come out to this.  To cure fine wood such as black walnut took from two to three years, therefore we had to be very saving with our wood.  The prospect for getting ahead being very small, and, then, every male had to serve a time out in the army, I decided in the year 1881 to try my fortune in the new country many of my countrymen were coming to--America.  So I embarked on the passenger boat, the Ethiopia, and, in nineteen days, I landed in New York.  From there, I went by boat to Galveston, Texas, then moved to Austin County.

But there were very few of my nationality at this place and we were anxious for our comrades from the old country.  So we then moved to Gillespie County, Texas, and lived near the town of Fredericksburg.  This was mostly a German settlement.  We kept up our way of getting together which we had in Germany...only we were not as free in Germany as in America.  Truly, we found this new country of America to be the land of the free."

2.  Eliza Brandes was born in Sage, Germany, in 1858.  When she was eight years old, her parents sold their farm in Germany and emigrated to the United States.  It was almost a year before her father finally found suitable land to settle in Nebraska.

"My father and mother had a log house on their homestead, and they had to go and live on it for a while; and I had to stay on the home place and do all the chores and housework; and I did not have much time to got to school regularly.

My father had a pair of heavy work oxen, and they did all the plowing and other hard work; and, later, he bought a team of horses for $300.  The corn we planted with a small hand planter.  We also had a reaper, but we had to bind all the grain by hand.

I remember my father had a hard time to find milk cows.  He would drive all over the country, and he finally got four cows.  I remember we had one staked out, and she broke loose and started to run down a hill and broke her neck.

The Indians used to come to our house so many times.  They came mostly from the Omaha tribe.  They would always ask for some things to eat.  At one time, a large band of them camped close to our place for a whole week.  They were camped so close to the creek so they would have plenty of water and could fish, but they didn't bother us so very much."


In the 1600s and 1700s, more than half of the German immigrants to North America could not afford to pay for their voyage across the Atlantic.  Instead of staying in Europe, they became redemptioners.  Redemptioners agreed to work from four to seven years--or even longer--for anyone who paid for their trip once they arrived.  Some immigrants were met by family members or friends already living in America who redeemed, or paid for them.  Many had no family waiting and were redeemed by strangers.  As a result, families were often split up and forced to work their term apart.

German Music and Food

The culture brought over by the millions of German immigrants to North America over the last 300 years has had a strong influence on life in the United States and Canada.  German foods, for example, have become part of the daily North American diet, and German music is a part of celebrations and festivals across the continent.

Traditional German bands are often called Bavarian bands, after the region in Germany where they originated.  They consist of horns, often accompanied by the clarinet and accordion.  The Musicians dress in Bavarian costume--white shirts, vests, and dark shorts or skirts--and play slow waltzes and lively polkas.  These dances were popular among people of all ages during the 1800s and early 1900s.  Today they are usually danced at celebrations.

One of the greatest influences German immigrants have had on North American life is with their food.  Many German foods are found at special festivals and restaurants.  They include fried pieces of breaded veal or pork, called schnitzel, sausages such as bratwurst and knackwurst, and sauerkraut, which is made of shredded, pickled cabbage.

Foods inspired by German cooking are found in almost any North American home.  Hamburgers were introduced in St. Louis, Missouri, around 1900.  Their name come from the "hamburger steak," or ground beef, eaten by people in Hamburg, Germany.  Wieners, also called frankfurters, are a type of sausage first made in the German city of Frankfurt.  Pickles, ketchup, and other German-prepared foods were popularized in North America by Henry John Heinz.

North America's beer industry, too, was transformed by Germans.  Most of its largest breweries were founded in the 1800s by German immigrants or their descendants, including Adolph Coors, Frederick Pabst, and Joseph Schlitz.  Today, Anheuser-Busch, the brewery begun by Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch, produces Budweiser, which is one of the world's best-selling brands of beer.

Sweet Treats

Chocolate was first mass-produced by German-American Milton Hershey of Pennsylvania.  He perfected the first chocolate bar in 1900 and built the world's largest chocolate factory.  Henry Heide, another candy maker of the German heritage, invented the fruity gumdrops known as jujubes.

Traditions and Festivals

Over the last 300 years, German immigrants and their descendants have often celebrated the traditions and holidays of their homelands.  Many of their customs and festivals were adopted in turn, by other North Americans.

One of the most famous and widespread German traditions is decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas.  The tree, which stays green all winter, represents Christ's promise of eternal life to his followers.  Some people believe that Germans first began this tradition outdoors over a thousand years ago, using fruits, nuts, and lighted candles as decorations.  It is thought that later, in the 1500s, Martin Luther was the first to cut down a Christmas tree and bring it indoors.  In the German tradition, the tree is decorated on Christmas Eve by the mother of the household.  The children do not see it until it is decorated.

The Easter holiday is also celebrated with German influences.  The custom of the Easter bunny, who hides colored or chocolate eggs for children on Easter morning was brought to North America by the Germans.

German history, music, and food are the main attractions at many German festivals celebrated each year in the U.S. and Canada.  These include the famous Steuben Parade, which is held each September in New York City.  It honors the contributions of German immigrants during the American Revolution.  Its namesake, General Wilhelm von Steuben, helped George Washington train his troops.

Many celebrations are modeled after Oktoberfest, a huge beer festival held each October in Germany, as well.

Germans and Education

German customs have influenced the education of all North American children.  Physical education, a subject emphasized in Germany, was encouraged by a German-American club called the Turnvereins in the second half of the 1800s.  The club promoted fitness by setting up athletic facilities and organizing gymnastic competitions.

The word "kindergarten" is German for "nursery school."  North America's first kindergarten, similar to the ones in Germany, was started by German immigrant Margaretha Meyer Schurz in 1856.


Baseball, America's national pastime, has produced many stars of German heritage.  One of the brightest was Babe Ruth.  He was born in 1895 in Baltimore, and is famous for his career with the New York Yankees.  For almost 40 years, he held the record for the most home runs.  He retired as a player in 1935, and, in 1946, was diagnosed with throat cancer.  In his honor, April 27, 1947 was declared "Babe Ruth Day."  Ruth died on August 16, 1948.  Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to pay their last respects to a baseball legend.


Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society