As many as 58 million U.S. residents have German heritage, and a lot of immigrants from Deutschland settled in the Midwest. As recently as 1980, German was the third most-spoken language and could still be heard in many small communities in Kansas and Missouri. Up to 5 million arrived between 1840 and 1910, mostly in three large waves: the first from 1840-1857, the second from 1864-1873, and the last from 1880-1893.
Most left the northern harbors of Bremen and Hamburg, never to see their homeland again. Many believe that a majority of those who emigrated from Germany were poor laborers, but research suggests that’s not likely. At the time, average fares from Bremen to New York City, the most affordable rates during the first wave, averaged around 33 to 35 Thalers ($23) for adults. By comparison, a farm laborer would average around 24 Thalers a year, making it very tough for a person of that standing to afford one ticket, let alone as much as 100 Thalers for a family of five or six. The journey would be between 14 days for a steamship, which was far less common, or via sail ship for around a total of 45 days. Families came in groups to preserve familial links. It was incredibly common for multiple generations and entire family trees to settle close together, many having land that bordered one another.
The motivations to leave were varied, but most had to do with the changing economy and land ownership. Due to poor economic conditions in modern-day northeast Germany (then East Prussia), a surplus of farm laborers moved into the North Rhine Westphalia and Bavaria regions, and new technological advances, like the threshing machine, were making some jobs obsolete. To make matters worse, the agrarian economy in these regions was shifting into one that was far more industrial. Land in these areas was becoming more scarce because farms were becoming smaller when the custom of splitting the land amongst heirs happened generation after generation. By the third wave of immigration, those leaving agrarian life were highly unlikely to remain on the farm. Many Germans hoped to move to an American city and earn enough money to buy a farm and settle there, but the reality was that, by this time, the American economy had become far too industrialized. After this third and final large wave, German immigration to the U.S. declined steeply.
For those seeking information about their German ancestors, there are many good resources. In addition to many pay sites, numerous free resources exist, such as ship manifest information at The National Archives and The Library of Congress. The Kansas City area also has a fantastic resource, the Midwest Genealogy Center, which is part of the Mid-Continent Public Library system. The MGC offers over 50,000 square feet of resources, access to vast online databases, and connections with researchers that are available for hire, should the task prove overwhelming.
About the Author
Jason Rose is a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City studying Business Administration and Spanish and is the community intern at the IRC for Fall 2018.