Understanding Ancestors: German Edition

Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Me neither (at least not yet), but I am still doing what I can to learn about my German ancestors!

German is the most commonly reported European ancestry in the United States. According to the 2000 Census, 1 in 6 people claimed German heritage. A lot of cultural traditions that we consider “American” are actually German in origin, such as hot dogs and holiday traditions like gingerbread houses, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees. American beers (think Budweiser, not microbrews) are brewed in the German lager style.

So, how and why did so many Germans come to the United States?

While Germans were coming to the U.S. as early as the Jamestown days of the early 17th century, often for religious reasons (think Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, etc.) the majority of German immigrants arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s. At that time, there technically was no Germany—the country didn’t unify until 1871—but the German States (Prussia, Austria, etc.) experienced quite a bit of turmoil. Failed democratic revolutions sent political refugees packing, and the enclosure movement and instability of the time led many to seek economic opportunities elsewhere. Trouble at home, paired with the promise of land opening up in the American West, drew many farmers and craftsmen to take their chances in the United States.

While many 19th century German immigrants (including my ancestors) ended their journey in New York and other cities of the Northeast, large numbers settled in the Midwest, in cities like Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.

The turmoil of the early 1900s and the oppression and violence of the Nazi regime led thousands of Germans to seek freedom and asylum in the United States. While German immigration peaked in the second half of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Germans continued to enter the U.S. in the 1900s, with almost a million arriving in the second half of the century.

I have German ancestry running through several branches of my family. Both of my paternal grandmother’s parents came northern Germany in the Cuxhaven region of Lower Saxony. They immigrated to the U.S. in the first years of the 20th century, and met and married in a suburb of New York City.

On my mother’s side, my grandmother’s mother’s family, the Schumanns, arrived in the United States during that major rush of Germans in the 1840s and 50s. A branch of that family, the Conrad clan, also seems to have arrived in the 1840s.

I have found research in Germany to be quite tricky, but I am loving the challenge. I’ve been unable to find my German relatives using online archives, but connections abroad have uncovered some amazing documents, like the birth certificate of my great-great grandmother, Katharina Dorothea Steffens.

Do you have German ancestors? I would love to hear their stories!