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Waves of German Immigrants


German Immigration to the United States

When were the major waves of immigrants from Germany to the United States?

  • Before the major waves of German immigration began, already 8.6% of the population was German.  Many had immigrated to Pennsylvania seeking religious freedom or had come under the redemptioner system.  German peasants would receive free passage to America but would be required to work for a businessman for 4-7 years to repay the cost of the voyage. 
  • 1850's - Nearly 1 million Germans immigrated to the United States.
  • 1870's - 723,000 Germans immigrated to the United States.
  • 1880's - 1,445,000 Germans immigrated to the United States.

From which regions of Germany did they leave?

  • In the 1850's small farmers and their families left southwestern Germany.
  • Soon after, artisans and manufacturers left the central states of Germany.
  • Later waves were made up of day laborers and agricultural workers from the rural northeast.

Push Factors

  • After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 the German economy was suffering.  Foreign imports (especially cloth from England) flooded the German markets and German industry could not compete.  In addition inheritance tradition of dividing farms among families was making farms so small that they were unsuccessful. 
  • The population had grown very large and was dependent on the potato to sustain it.  In 1840 rural Germany was struck by the potato blight which led to famine.
  • German princes sponsored societies (in the 1830's and 40's) that provided one way tickets to the poor with the idea that in the long run it was cheaper than long-term subsidies.
  • A bestselling book in 1829 about Missouri by Gottfried Duden inspired a tidal wave of emigration.
  • Social and economic discrimination in Germany led to the emigration of thousands of German Jews during all the immigration waves and Catholics after the May Laws of the 1870's.
  • During several of the immigration waves, young men emigrated to escape being conscripted in the German (Prussian) military service.


Pull Factors

  • Aid societies promoted immigration by supporting bettering the conditions of immigrants
  • The north-central states (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michegan) promoted their states for settlement among Germans with funding and support from their state legislatures.
  • The transcontinental railroads sent agents to ports of departure and arrival to recruit immigrants to take up their land grants or ship their goods through their freight lines.
  • Chain migration occurred during the later phases of German immigration as newcomers joined family and friends who had made the journey before them,

Where did they settle, and why?

  • German Americans are most densely settled in the traditional "German belt" of Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.
  • One settlement pattern was named the "German triangle" from Saint Paul to St. Louis and Cincinnati incorporating other cities of German settlement: Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Davenport.
  • Germans had an important role in the cotton trade based in Louisiana so many arrived in New Orleans and made their way up the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri rivers.
  • Early German immigrants arrived in the port of Philadelphia and many chose to settle in Pennsylvania.
  • Many who arrived in New York traveled the Erie Channel and the Great Lakes to the Midwest.
  • The section on Pull factors will indicate other reasons why The German Belt consisted of the above mentioned states.


  • Homeownership was valued highly among German immigrants and they purchased homes as soon as possible and preferred homes made of brick.


  • Occupations dominated by Germans included baking, carpentry and brewing. They were also laborers, farmers, musicians and merchants.
  • Many German immigrants had an agricultural background and also farmed in the United States.  The entire family (often large) worked the farm.
  • Small family operated businesses were also common for German immigrants. 
  • Children left school at a young age.  Boys helped with the family business and girls worked as domestic servants.
  • German women who were employed outside of the home, farm or family business did not tend to work in factories.  Rather they labored in janitorial or service industries.
  • Their involvement in labor unions helped German immigrants achieve better working conditions and they formed networks with workers of other backgrounds.


  • German immigrants assimilated more slowly than other immigrants due to their high numbers within the population.
  • Also their basic needs - churches, schools, businesses, and stores - could be met within the German immigrant community.  Therefore interaction with the native-born community was not as urgent. 

Stereotypes, Discrimination, and Other Struggles

  •  The popular culture presents a sterotyped view of Germans as either brutal or jolly, overwheight and beer-guzzling.
  • German culture is portrayed very narrowly and only represents one region of Germany - Bavaria.  The typical traditional costume of that region is the lederhosen (short pants with suspenders) and dirndl (full skirt) which has come to symbolize all of Germany.

Contributions to the United States

  • The German Christmas was the base for many of the American Christmas traditions including the giving of gifts, the Christmas tree and the emphasis on family.
  • The labor movement was made strong by the particpation of many German immigrants.
  • Albert Einstein, the prominent scientist in the field of physics and atomic energy in particular, was an immigrant from Germany.
  • Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were both baseball legends and sons of German immigrants.

Interesting Facts to Compare to Today's Immigration Debate

  • From 1850-1870 German was the most widely used language in the United States after English.
  • Germans sought to maintain the German language through establishing German language schools.  In 1881 approximately 1 million children were attending schools with all or part of the curriculum taught in German .(42% of that total were being educated in the public school system.)


Resources Used for this Report
Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, 2nd edition.  Edited by Jeffrey Lehman.  New York: Gale Group, 2000.