German Americans – History & Heritage

More Americans trace their family roots to Germany than to any other country.

German Amercians and people of German descent constitute one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States. Germans began emigrating to America in the seventeenth century. More people came to the United States from Germany in the post-colonial period than from any other country, with the largest waves arriving in the 1850s, 1870s and 1880s as a result of economic woes at home.

In 2013, the Census bureau recorded that 46m Americans claimed German ancestry (16% of the population): more than the number who traced their roots to Ireland (33m) or England (25m). In whole swathes of the northern United States, German-Americans outnumber any other group.

German Belt

The largest wave of Germans came to America during the middle of the 19th century, facing civil unrest and high unemployment at home. The German belt of the U.S. extends from eastern Pennsylvania to the Oregon coast. A majority of counties in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas are predominantly German, and they make up a plurality of Ohio and Indiana counties.

German immigrants flocked to New York and Chicago, and residents in numerous small Midwestern towns spoke German almost exclusively. German-language newspapers, theaters and churches flourished.

In some of these areas, the German influence was so pervasive that other non-German settlers ended up learning German so they could communicate with fellow residents. Germans helped establish General Electric and designed New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. They dominated the beer industry and that influence lingers in name brands like Busch, Miller and Pabst.

Pennsylvania has the largest population of German-Americans and is home to one of the group’s original settlements, Germantown in 1683. The state has 3.5 million people claiming German ancestry – more than in Berlin. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, is home to nearly 350,000 German-Americans.

German Americans map

Traditions & Culture

Many traditions that we think of as being fundamentally American, were either introduced or popularized by German immigrants in the 19th century. German culture has truly influenced several aspects of American life.

The popular baseball snacks of hot dogs, pretzels and beer came from the German culture, and there are many other German traditions that Americans have adopted as their own. In addition to foods and beers, German culture has provided the American educational system with the concept of kindergarten, which was regularly practiced in Germany following the increased immigration during the early nineteenth century. Other German contributions to American culture include two-day weekends, gymnasiums, Christmas trees and theme parks.

Today in America, there are hundreds of clubs, societies and associations dedicated to promoting and preserving German heritage and culture through dance and other cultural events.

Directory of German-American Clubs and Associations

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