Germans First Arriving In America

In the U.S. we can find some 50 million Americans of German descent. In fact, the Germans form the largest ancestry group in the United States. Their number is higher than that of English, Irish, Mexican, African, or Italian Americans and in total, German Americans make up some 17 percent of the entire American population. Not bad, is it, for a group of settlers that started with only 13 families from a German town named Krefeld, right?

German-American Day is celebrating the German-American heritage that started when in 1683, 13 families first set up home on American soil in Pennsylvania and the annual holiday is held on October 6. The first Germans that actually came to America arrived already in 1608 but it wasn’t until 1683 that the settlement of Germans in America really set off. In that year, a small group of German religious dissidents from Krefeld approached a lawyer for the German Society in Frankfurt named Francis Daniel Pastorius to help them to acquire land in the area that is now Pennsylvania. They planned to set up a settlement in that area and when they finally had made it to the American shores, that’s precisely what Pastorius did for the group.

Pastorius’ negotiations led to the purchase of almost 6.000 acres of land from the Englishman who had established Pennsylvania some years earlier, William Penn. This piece of land is exactly where the town of Germantown was founded. See also: Germans in America – Language and Food.

Of course, the early German settlers didn’t escape the Germany that we know today. In the late 17th century, Germany did not exist as a nation or country. It wasn’t until 1871 that Germany as a state was established. Around 1683, however, there were separate states that were (although they all spoke German) self-ruled as sections of the Holy Roman Empire. Religious tensions in those self-ruled states grew stronger, however, since Martin Luther had published his 95 in Wittenberg. Though this already had occurred in 1517, it wasn’t until many years later that his call for people to stick to the words of the Bible rather than those of the Pope caused so much uproar.

In 1618, The 30 Years’ War broke out and this conflict turned out to be one of the worst periods in European History. This actually made that many Germans decided to turn their backs on their homeland and emigrate to The New World. The Thirty Years’ War had a terribly devastating impact on portions of Germany and Europe. The conflict resulted in a loss of some 25 percent of the German population and many decided t seek a better future in America. Nowadays, immigrants face some other tough hurdles.

In those days, William Penn made a few travels to Germany which attracted quite a few Germans. William Penn spoke at meetings in the Rhineland area and in Frankfurt am Main about the religious freedom that could be found in Pennsylvania. His speeches ignited much interest in America and many Germans became interested in immigration. So when Pastorius was approached by a group of religious Mennonites in 1683, he went to Pennsylvania to buy land for the group.

In August of that same year, Pastorius arrived in American and he negotiated the tract of land with Penn that was located just north-west of Philadelphia and, as we now know, Germantown was born. Pastorius divided the land between investors of the German Society and the emigrants from Krefeld who arrived in in Philadelphia, on their ship The Concord, on October 6 of that year. During the following years, Germantown was a rapidly growing settlement consisting of mostly skilled farmers and dedicated craftspeople who sold their farm produce in and around Philadelphia and set up (among many other activities, a flourishing linen weaving business. In later posts, I’ll talk some more about the history and education challenges of Germans in America.