German Contributions in American History

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1878
A German Guggenmusik band performs at the Steuben Parade in New York

German Americans helped win the Revolutionary War and build a strong nation during the 19th Century. German contributions span 300 years and include a love for freedom.

Fall is the season of German-American identity. It begins in September when New York area Germans march down 5th Avenue in the annual Steuben Day parade, continues into October with October Fest, and culminates at Christmas with the many practices and images brought over from the old country such as decorated trees and Santa Claus. Over 33 million Americans can claim some German ancestry through the various phases of immigration that began in the Colonial period. It’s hard not to find tangible evidence of German influence in American history, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the first NASA rockets. German contributions have helped further the cause of American freedom and well-being for over three hundred years.

Germans in the Colonial Period

In 1683 thirteen Pietist families settled near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a community that came to be known as Germanton. Some historians refer to this as the first wave of German immigration, although individual Germans were already living in various colonies, including Jamestown. In future years, however, so many Germans flocked to Pennsylvania that to this day the Amish are referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch – a misnomer. The originally used term was Deutsch, the German term of self-identification, but it rapidly devolved into the anglicized “Dutch.”

Pennsylvania was also the site of Valley Forge where the Continental Army wintered in 1778. It was here that a Prussian officer from Germany was asked by General Washington to bring order to his troops. Baron von Steuben drilled the troops and later wrote an army training manual that was used into the next century. Following the American victory at Yorktown, the Prussian king, Frederick the Great, concluded one of the first agreements with the new nation: the Treaty of Amity and Commerce. Perhaps the king was aware that thousands of German mercenary soldiers had chosen to remain in America rather than return home.

It is also noteworthy that the Zenger libel case in 1733 radically altered existing interpretations of English law in a first, crucial step toward freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Post Colonial German Contributions

Most general American History texts never mention the visit by Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist, to President Thomas Jefferson in 1804. Von Humboldt had been invited by Jefferson to travel from Philadelphia to the new capital on the Potomac River in order to discuss the pending Louisiana Purchase. Von Humboldt’s input helped convince Jefferson to buy the vast area of land from the French.

The American Westward Movement was fueled by the second wave of German immigration after 1830, many of them traveling in Conestoga wagons, another German invention. Cities in the Ohio River valley like Cincinnati flourished, harboring distinct German influences. St. Louis grew as a German community; the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is still headquartered here. Milwaukee became identified with German breweries while Chicago saw a tremendous population boost after the European Revolutions of 1848. To this day the German influence in Chicago is strong, including restaurants, delis, and a German pharmacy.

Important Germans in Post Civil War America

The most influential German in the second part of the 19th Century was Carl Schurz, a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. Schurz had fled Germany as a student during the 1848 revolutions, risking his life to save his imprisoned university professor. A founder of the Republican Party, Schurz became a Civil War general, US Senator, and Cabinet Secretary. He never forgot the ideals that made America great. In the 1890s, he helped direct the Anti-Imperialist League.

Other history-changing German Americans included Albert Einstein, Werner von Brown, and Chester Nimitz, whose grandfather emigrated from Germany to Texas where he opened and operated the Nimitz Hotel. Although German Americans suffered periods of mistrust, such as in the late 19th-century labor movements deemed socialist, and during World War I, overall, Germans strove to become good and loyal citizens by becoming part of everyday life in America.

Sources:

  1. German Information Service, German Embassy, NY
  2. Don H. Tolzmann, The German-American Experience (Humanity Books, 2000)
  3. Diane Yancey, Immigrants in America – the German Americans (Lucent Books, 2005)