Germans In Wisconsin
By Richard H. Zeitlin for
The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, 1977

Of all the nations of Western Europe, Germany played the greatest role in the peopling
of the United States. Even in colonial times Germans constituted the largest
non-English-speaking group of settlers. Over the years the numbers of Germans
Crossing the Atlantic in search of new homes, new opportunities, and new freedoms
steadily increased, most dramatically in the years between 1820 and 1910, when nearly
five and a half millions arrived.

Most of these newcomers settled in the North Central states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois,
Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota and
Wisconsin. By 1900, out of Wisconsin's total population of a little over two million,
709,909 or 34 per cent of its citizens were of German background, and the state's
enduring Germanic heritage had been firmly established. German farmers provided a
sizable and stable rural population; German cultural societies and institutions such as
the musical groups called Liederkranz, the Turnverein, and the Free Thinkers flourished
in many communities. Milwaukee, with its active literary life and a professional stage
dating from 1868, was known as the "German Athens."

Although it is popularly believed that the political upheavals of 1848 were primarily
responsible for a large part of this German mass migration, the situation was historically
more complex. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century there was no such country
as "Germany". Instead, hundreds of small administrative units existed, controlled in a
feudalistic manner by a hierarchy of princes, grand dukes, dukes, margraves, abbots,
electors, barons, and counts. By 1815 these units had been consolidated into some
thirty different states, either voluntarily, or through the aggression of the more powerful
states such as Prussia. But all were mere political arrangements: religion, language,
types of agriculture, cultural and architectural traditions, and forms of government
differed from region to region.

Thus, the individuals whom English-speaking American census takers later lumped
under the category "German" included people of widely varying backgrounds, as well
as such minority groups as Alsatians, Kashubians, Poles, and Jews.

For centuries the social system of the Germanic regions remained feudalistic and
unchanging. Farmers were virtually serfs of their overlords; artisans abided by the
ancient regulations of the medieval crafts guilds. So regimented was life that each type
of agricultural worker, each type of artisan from each region, province, or state could be
readily distinguished by his distinctive dress, made of homespun materials and dyed by
hand. It was a world aptly described by the old saying, “Everybody in his place and a
place for everybody.”

The French Revolution, with its liberating ideals, abolished this rigid system altogether
and led to changes which set the stage for the eventual migrations. Agricultural
reforms, industrialization, the rise of capitalism, a 38 per cent increase in the birth rate, a
disastrous potato blight and other crop failures in the period between 1846 and 1853 all
conspired to produce an army of dispossessed farmers. Artisans, displaced by factory
workers, roamed the countryside in search of employment. To such people America did
indeed seem the land of hope and shining promise.

German emigration to the United States occurred in three major waves. The first, which
came mainly from southwestern Germany in the years 1845-1855, consisted of 939,149
men, women, and children, 97 per cent of whom came from the states of Nassau, Hesse,
the Rhineland, Pfalz, Baden, Wurttemberg, or Bavaria, areas in which the plight of small,
inefficient, overpopulated and often mortgaged farms threatened by repeated crop
failures and the potato blight made calamity a certainty. Although a flow of emigrants
continued, the second wave did not break until ten years later, when 1,066,333 people
reached the United States between 1865 and 1873. Most of these came from
northwestern Germany, specifically from the states of Sehleswig-Holstein, Ost Fnesland,
Hanover, Oldenburg, and Westphaha, an area of prosperous middle sized grain farms.
Beginning in the 1850's the influx of cheap American wheat had begun to depress the
world market to such an extent that by 1865, with the American Civil War over and with
a prospect of a continuing decline in grain prices, many owners of moderately sized
farms, fearing foreclosure, decided to sell out while they could and depart for America
with enough cash to begin anew. In addition, the area's industrial centers were filled
with unemployed former agricultural workers anxious to build a new life abroad. The
vast majority of the emigrants, according to one historian, came from the lower-middle
economic strata: "people who had a little and had an appetite for more "
The third tide of German emigrants began in 1880, coinciding with the beginning of the
great influx of southern and eastern Europeans. Of the 1,849,056 persons involved in
this migration, which lasted until 1893, the vast majority came from northeastern
Germany, an area dominated by Prussia but including the states of Pornerania, Upper
Silesia, and Mecklenburg. This was the domain of the Prussian aristocracy or Junker
class which had led the progressive unification and industrialization of the region while
swallowing up 21,000 peasant holdings between 1816 add 1859, thus, in the name of
"consolidation," creating a land-less  agricultural proletariat whose only recourse lay in
Fortunately for those leaving Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century, many of
the vicissitudes that had plagued earlier emigrants had been eased . Steam and sailboat
service to major ports had been regularized, and the terrors of confronting an unknown
land had been reduced by floods of information about America in newspapers, travel
books, immigration guides, and promotional tracts. More importantly, improved postal
services brought the reassurance of glowing letters from friends and relatives already
established in the New World.
But even so, the human costs involved in the decision to emigrate remained high and
departure scenes were usually heart-rending, as many German immigrants to Wisconsin
were to testify. A member of the Schuette family, who departed Germany for Manitowoc
County in 1848, wrote: "The neighbors and fiends were on hand to say a last farewell
and tears flowed in profusion (since) anyone leaving for America was considered about
to pass into eternity." Sometimes bitterness towards those "deserting" the homeland
split families apart, and on occasion the separation proved too much for those left
behind. Jacob Eifler of Sheboygan recalled that his grandfather "passed away from grief
and heartache" two years after members of his family set sail for the United States.
For many, the passage across the Atlantic was the longest voyage of their lives. Some
had never been out of their native districts. Almost always they viewed the harbor
scene with wonderment and awe. One Schuette family member described Bremen, one of
the principal ports of departure: "On arrival at this seaport we saw for the first time what
we had longed to see, ships of all nations, in all colors, with symbolic figureheads and
majestic spars - oh how different from our inland town! What a grand and enchanting

A journey by sail across the Atlantic took between one and one and one-half months.
Steam power cut the time in half. Judging by their diaries, reminiscences, and letters,
most immigrants seem to have had similar shipboard experiences - poor food, sea
sickness. deaths, births, disease, crowded sleeping quarters, joys, sorrows, and hopes.
Generally they carried foodstuffs along with their scanty possessions. One German
traveler advised bringing zwieback, dried meat, and prunes, as well as vinegar "which
will be useful aboard ship to mix with the ill smelling drinking water." Even so, meals
were monotonous, sometimes insufficient, and often badly prepared.
Boredom and sea sickness were the two most common complaints. Forty-four-year-old
Johann Diederiehs, bound from Elberfeld to Manitowoc with his wife and four children
in 1841, wrote in his diary: "Only a few days at sea and how bored we are with life on a
ship." On September 23 he noted: "Sea sickness in full swing, and it is amusing to see
how big strong men writhe and choke and roar

Storms added an element of danger, as well as intensifying the pervading sea sickness.
Of one such storm Diederichs wrote in his diary: "Saturday 9 October: Doleful
awakening or rather doleful waking, for there was no thought of sleep since the spirit
was too agitated over shattered hopes. Stormy southwest winds have met we, the sea is
running high, a sail has been torn by the force of the gale, and now we are drifting, the
Lord knows how long. I am completely downcast from the long duration of the
But the transatlantic crossing was not all suffering and dogged endurance. Shipboard
friendships blossomed, and since the majority of the passengers were young, on warm
nights there was much socializing on deck and the singing of folk songs. A
never-to-be-forgotten thrill was the first sight of the shores of their new home,
heightened by the knowledge that the initial  and most trying stage of their voyage was
ended. Commonly, arrival in New York proved a shock as an army of con men and
fraudulent agents of all types descended on the newcomers, some offering to sell
Wisconsin "farmlands" on the spot. "One must guard against dealing with . . . others in
New York," Diederichs noted in his diary.
Wisconsin made active efforts to attract the German immigrant and assist him in his
initial adjustment. In 1852 the state legislature established a Commission of Immigration
with a resident commissioner in New York whose duty it was to distribute informational
pamphlets extolling Wisconsin's advantages to prospective emigrants in Europe as well
as to new arrivals, who were also provided with full information as to how to get to
Milwaukee. Disbanded in 1855, the commissioner's office was reopened in 1867 at the
time of the second major wave of migration from Germany. Previously, private efforts
had been made to encourage immigration. Starting in the 1840's, leaflets praising
Wisconsin were distributed in the coastal areas of Germany. Milwaukee newspapers
such as the German-language Banner published favorable descriptions of Wisconsin
and of the warm welcome accorded immigrants. During the 1850's citizens groups
discussed various methods of advertising the state so as to draw German immigrants
away f form competing areas.
But by far the most effective stimuli to German immigration were the unsolicited
testimonials of recently arrived settlers. Immigrants wrote back to their friends, relatives,
and neighbors in the Old Country, describing their new lives in America and Wisconsin.
This was information to be trusted and acted upon. From his new home in Waukesha
County, J. K. Meidenbauer wrote to his sister in Germany in 1849: "You will next ask: is
it really good in America...? and I can give you the answer, from my full conviction . . .
Yes, it is really good here. I would advise my sister Barbara to come over with her
intended for she can do better than in Germany. There are no dues, no titles here, no
taxes . . . no (mounted) police, no beggars.” Such so-called "America Letters" prompted
hometown "clubs" in Europe to send emissaries to Wisconsin in search of land suitable
for settlement. New Holstein in Calumet County was settled in this fashion when a
group of Free Thinkers, impressed by enthusiastic letters and newspaper reports from
their United States agent, emigrated as a body.
The common route followed by immigrants to Wisconsin was by steamboat up the
Hudson River to Albany, thence by canal or railroad to Buffalo, and finally by steam or
sailboat to the port of Milwaukee, a trip lasting about ten days. The journey from New
York to Milwaukee was greatly reduced after rail service was made available all the way
to Chicago via Detroit during the 1850's.
The welcome that Milwaukeeans gave the German immigrant was often compounded of
more than mere goodwill, since he brought with him money to invest in land, equipment,
and supplies. J. S. Buck, a pioneer businessman turned historian, described the financial
boost which the incoming Germans gave the city: "The effect of the arrival of these
hardy sons of toil, with their gold and silver wherewith to purchase homes for
themselves and their children upon the country was electric." Using their money to take
advantage of minimally priced government land, and aided by speculators and land
agents, Germans quickly shed the role of immigrant to become bona fide settlers.
Economic factors, while the most important, were not alone in attracting Germans to
Wisconsin. Religious leaders and institutions also played key roles. For example, as
early as the 1840's, a colony of Old Lutherans from the Oder River Valley in
Brandenburg and Pomerania settled as groups in Jefferson and Dodge counties and in
Friestadt in Ozaukee County, where, once established, they were joined by other
co-relgionists in succeeding years. The Old Lutherans were a part of a body of religious
nonconformists who had refused to bow to the will of the Prussian Kaiser when he
united various Protestant churches under the Reformed banner. Led by several of their
pastors, small groups of Old Lutherans began emigrating after 1837. One group, which
settled in Buffalo, New York, sent back such encouraging reports that in 1839 forty
families, under the leadership of Heirrieh von Rohr, an ex-military officer, came over from
Pomerania. Quarrels over matters of doctrine led von Rohr to remove his followers from
Buffalo to Wisconsin and eventually to establish Trinity Lutheran Church near
Friestadt, the first Lutheran congregation in the state.
In addition to Lutherans, other religiously motivated Germans settled St. Nazianz, in
Eaton Township, Manitowoc County. This was a Catholic communal sect led by
Reverend Ambrose Oschwald, initially composed of 114 people from the Baden area
who migrated to Wisconsin in 1854 after having suffered "vexations under Protestant
rule." Holding their property in common, the colony attempted to establish a
self-sufficient economy, living a frugal and Primitive life and wearing peasant dress until
Oschwald's death in 1873. Bereft of their spiritual leader, disputes arose, and a court
settlement led to a division of St. Nazianz' communal property. Although this Catholic
utopian experiment came to an end, the Church of St. Gregory still remains, a reminder of
its founders idealism. More-over, the presence of Reverend John Martin Henni, a
German speaking Swiss immigrant who was consecrated bishop of the diocese of
Wisconsin in 1844, gave Wisconsin wide publicity in the Catholic states of Germany as
well as Switzerland and did much to attract potential settlers. Henni, from his Milwaukee
base, was influential in assisting Catholic clergymen in establishing themselves in
various sections of the state.
In the period before the Civil War, Germans tended to locate primarily in the eastern and
lake shore regions. Calumet, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, Ozaukee,
Washington, Dodge, Jefferson, and Waukesha counties were all areas of intensive
German settlement. Other communities also existed in heavily forested areas of southern
and eastern Wisconsin, leading some observers to conclude that German immigrants
preferred dense woodlands. Other observers, however, have demonstrated that the
supposed Germanic predilection for forested areas was more a matter of the time of their
arrival and the availability of cheap government land not too distant from the existing
transportation facilities and the city of Milwaukee. Then, too, the immigrant needed a
certain amount of woodland to provide building material for houses, animal shelters,
fences, and for fuel. One German pioneer explained succinctly why he chose a wooded
area for his new home: "On the open land there are farms with 100 acres sown in wheat
.... I do not want to buy there because I know what a scarcity of wood means, for I
experienced that in Germany."
Even though many immigrant letters advised potential settlers to purchase cleared lands
with existing homes, few German pioneers had sufficient capital to do so. As a result,
the majority of the recent arrivals had to spend part of their first season in Wisconsin
constructing a dwelling, using raw materials taken from the forest, first in the form of
logs, then in the form of lumber. Johann Diederichs described the home he built: "Our
log house is 25 feet long and 16 feet wide, and at present consists of only one room,
which I shall later transform into two .... it is one and a half stories high .... We get to our
bedroom on the second floor with the help of a ladder, having yet had no time to build
stairs ...."
Building a house took about four weeks, often with the assistance of neighbors. In this
early stage, bartering took the place of cash. Logs were common items of trade, and in
one case a hundred feet of logs could be traded for fifty feet of boards. Farm produce
was also a common medium of exchange. Having secured a roof over his family's heads,
the German immigrant turned his full attention to felling trees and clearing enough land
for a subsistence garden and later for the larger scale farming which would enable him
to enter the cash economy as soon as possible. Most of these initial "farms" were
hardly more than large gardens. In the words of one German farmer, "The earth between
the stumps is freed from roots as far as practicable, the earth tilled, and the potatoes are
inserted." Johann Diedsichs described the state of his farm as it was in 1849: "I now
have cleared two acres, part of which I intend to use as a garden and on part of which I
shall plant potatoes, corn, and beans."
Clearing the land was backbreaking work, and the physical effort involved in removing
the numerous stubborn stumps impressed German farmers to the extent that "they all let
the stumps stand in their fields . . . that is the right way." Suckers grew up around the
stumps as they awaited later removal.
Livestock on this early farm operation consisted of a few swine, oxen, chickens, and
perhaps a cow and a calf, obtained either through purchase or barter. On his arrival in
Manitowoc County, Johann Diederichs wryly observed that his livestock consisted of
"only a dog and a cat." Germans consistently expressed surprise at the American
custom of allowing their stock to wander about unprotected, even during winter. "It is
disgraceful the way they (cattle and swine) are neglected and left without protection."
wrote Wilhelm Dames in the late 1840's. "Hence they lie all through the snow, frost, and
The role of the German woman throughout the pioneer era can-not be overestimated. In
addition to bearing and caring for children, women had constantly to prepare meals
without the benefit of many basic necessities. Tending the garden, the major source of
the family's food supply, took much of the woman's time, in addition to which she was
expected to work in the wheat or corn fields alongside the men, for the European
practice of women working in the field was a cultural transfer from the Old Country.
"Back to work again accompanied by the good mother and Mrs. Kohl to aid us in the
fields," Diederichs wrote, "until after sundown ...." in fact, everything involved women's
labor, unless the task proved to be beyond their strength.
Germanic pioneers adopted native American crops almost immediately. On evidence of
the manuscript census records, Germans began using and planting corn soon after their
arrival. They adapted equally well to the local scheme of agricultural economics and
quickly entered the market mainly by raising and selling wheat. During the Period
1840-1890 wheat was king in Wisconsin, the primary cash crop of the frontier. Immigrant
guides stressed the advisability of planting wheat. Primitive farming methods did not
hinder its growth; it yielded a quick marketable return for a small capital outlay, needed
no complex machinery for its cultivation, stored easily, and shipped well, despite the
poor roads of the day. But though Germans specialized in wheat, they grew other crops
as well, sold wood from their woodcuts, and acquired as much livestock as they could.
By contrast, many of their Yankee neighbors had settled on prairie lands which they
transformed into wheat plantations through the expenditure of large amounts of capital,
going into debt to buy whatever else was needed, such as expensive horses rather than
slow-moving oxen to enable them to keep ahead of next year's payments on their debts.
"Wheat," reported Philander Judson, a Kenosha County farmer, in 1851, was "the
talismanic word . . . as though there were no ways to make a purchase or pay a debt
without a wheat crop."
However, changes were soon to occur. The spreading railroad network of the 1850's had
assured the primacy of wheat growing in Wisconsin, bringing seaboard and European
markets to the farmer's doorstep. But as railroads continued to expand northward and
westward, new wheat-growing regions opened up, and continued high production
drove prices steadily down. To keep growing wheat meant that additional outlays m
time, effort, and manure would be necessary. Finally there came a point when wheat was
no longer profitable, and many farmers became Convinced that they would do better to
switch to different and more rewarding crops. Between 1860 and 1890 there was a slow
shift in agricultural production. Transitional phases in the search for a new cash crop
occurred as farmers experimented with hops, flax, sugar beets, sheep raising, tobacco,
and sorghum before turning to dairying, as had the farmers of New York state decades
before. Although wheat retained an important place, a new era of diversified cropping
had arisen.
Historically accustomed to a diversified crop economy, Germans had little difficulty in
adjusting to the changed conditions. Like their neighbors, they tried various
alternatives in search of a reliable cash crop until, in the 1880's, they achieved success
as dairy farmers. Probably because of the distance to the large markets of Milwaukee
and Chicago, Germans seemed to concentrate on the production of cheese rather than
milk. Other produce was taken to market in the larger towns near the German
settlements, two of the most important being Watertown and Milwaukee. Both had
open-air markets similar to those in Europe. Milwaukee's Jahrmarkt was situated on
North Market and Juneau streets: "Operated by the farmers themselves, it was an array
of stalls where every kind of local produce was sold - grains, seeds, herbs, fish, flowers,
butter, and vegetables." The Watertown market, or Der Viemarkt, was a stock fair held
on the second Tuesday of each month. Leopold Kadisch, a German immigrant, began
this institution which became a popular social event as well as a "day of sharp
bargains." During the 1850's, stock dealers from Milwaukee and Chicago frequently
attended in search of likely animals.
As they slowly but steadily established themselves, Germans continued to attract more
of their countrymen to Wisconsin through letters and information transmitted back to
Europe. Social pull, then, became an important factor in the immigration process, and
much like other ethnic groups, Germans concentrated in settlements according to their
home provinces and religious backgrounds. Often adjoining townships were dominated
by one or another of the German subgroups. Thus a small settlement from Bavaria
would exert a selective influence on other emigrating Bavarians who might hear of the
community through formal or informal channels. This selective process was what has
been termed "chain migration," whereby the bonds linking one group to another in the
homeland often determined where the newcomer would settle in the New World.
Although local records are inadequate, it is clear that Germans in Wisconsin did tend to
cluster together in settlements according to the province from which they had come. In
1889, John S. Roeseler undertook an immigration survey for his master's thesis at the
University of Wisconsin. Responses to his lengthy questionnaire indicated the
concentration of identifiable German groups in specific Wisconsin townships according
to their religious and provincial origins
The process of acculturation and assimilation is bound up with the consideration of
what made Germans in Wisconsin a distinctive group. What features of their native
culture survived, what did not, and how quickly did changes take place? One of the
basic prerequisites to acculturation was the creation of a "German identification. Rather
than being a Bavarian, a Saxon, a Lipper, or a Prussian, Germans began to assimilate, as
one of Roeseler's informants explained, within "the different creeds." German ethnic
awareness, then, developed only after they had reached America, a phenomenon that
was true of other immigrant groups as well.
Ethnic institutions helped to form a communal Germanic consciousness in Wisconsin.
Much of German social life revolved around their numerous musical and athletic
societies, free-thinking organizations horticultural societies, cultural clubs, socialist
groups, and religious organizations. A strong German-language press and the informal
institution of the beer hall also played key roles in assimilating Germans within their
own communities and m making the transition from European to American society easier
and pleasanter. Indeed, until 1914 and the dislocations caused by the First World War,
one of the most distinctive attributes of the German-American experience was a rich and
well-organized social life
The Turnverein or Turner Society evolved from a German organization which stressed
physical and social improvement. Suppressed by Prince Metternich of Austria because
of their involvement in liberal polities after 1815, the Turners enjoyed a revival in all
American communities containing large numbers of Germans. Its program consisted of
athletics and gymnastics, combined with delusions of current political and social
theories in an atmosphere of conviviality. Milwaukee had a particularly active Turner
Society after 1850, and Turner halls were common in many other towns as
Free-thinking societies were often associated with the Turners, especially in the period
before 1870. Free Thinkers, or Freie Gemeinden, opposed the religion authoritarianism of
both Protestant and Catholic churches, upholding doctrines of rationalism, science, and
humanism while contributing significantly to the growth of religious and social
liberalism. Congregations of Free Thinkers were widespread in pioneer Wisconsin. In
1852, for instance, there were thirty-one free-thinking congregations, mostly in small
towns near German settlements in the eastern part of the state. Other more radical or
socialist German groups associated with the Free Thinkers and at times participated
with the Turners in community events. In 1876 the Milwaukee German Union of
Radicals. for example, called upon "lovers of Free Thinking" to join them in "the name of
freedom, justice, and the general welfare." On another occasion radicals joined Free
Thinkers and Turners in celebrating Thomas Paine's birthday. Socialist meetings often
took place in Turner halls while German workers formed Reading and Culture Clubs "to
improve their education and knowledge through . . . the exchange of opinions in the
field of social reforms."

Germans also associated with each other in such institutions as the Odd Fellows and
the Hain der Druiden Lodge. A horticultural Society, or Garten Verein, became popular
in Milwaukee early in the 1850's. Musical societies were extremely popular and existed in
both urban and rural German communities. Singing groups such as the Liederkranz
brought German communities a degree of culture not found elsewhere. So popular and
influential were these Musik-Ver-eine in Milwaukee that the city became renowned as
the center of the fine arts in the Middle West. Not only did these various groups
provided outlets for social mingling, but they also served as vehicles for keeping the
German language actively in use.
The ubiquitous tavern or beer hall also played a conspicuous part in the social life of
Wisconsin Germans. While not uniquely German, it was the way Germans used the beer
hall that made this informal institution function as an Integral part of community affairs.
In German settlements it served as a meeting place or ballroom, and as a "carnival
atmosphere for turning strangers into friends." Yankee taverns, according to
contemporary accounts, offered scenes of "ready drunkenness" and were places where
people bought "rounds" for their friends, drank them standing up, and quickly went
about their business.
Schooling and instruction in the mother tongue concerned Germanic settlers, who
contributed funds to establish and maintain private German-language schools. Loyalty
to their native tongue was universal. In the words of one immigrant, "All would like to
have their children read and write in German, and to receive religion instruction in that
language." Germans brought with them a distinct regard for learning, and many
immigrants had attained relatively high levels of education in their homeland. Even in
remote rural areas a surprisingly large number of latinische Bauern or "scholar farmers"
could be found.
One important attitude which German settlers displayed in Wisconsin was a feeling of
proprietorship towards their new land. Conditioned by European memories, they looked
on the land as the foundation, the basis for an estate that could be passed on to
succeeding generations, a viewpoint that assigned locational stability. Many Yankees,
on the other hand, thought of their land as a resource to be exploited, to be used for
speculation, and perhaps to be sold. "They did not give back to the soil those elements
necessary to maintain its fertility," observed a Washington County historian in
comparing Yankee and German farmers. "For this reason Wisconsin was fortunate to be
favored so much by the German immigrant farmer who came here to stay ...." Moreover,
according to Reverend A. F. Evast, writing in 1889, German farmers taught Americans
methods of "rational farming," by rotating crops and the liberal use of fertilizer - a
practice summarized in the old German folk sayings, "The manure pit is the farmer's gold
pit," and "Where there is manure there is Christ." Above all, the German farmer
eschewed speculation, preferring to invest his savings m neighboring fields with which
he was intimately familiar. Avoiding risks and adventurous experiments necessitating
loans, Germans were content to cultivate their small plots intensively, and to progress
slowly but steadily towards stability and success.
Caring for livestock seems to have been related to German attitudes towards sound
farming practices. Settlers who arrived with enough capital soon constructed barns to
house their livestock. Johann Kerler expressed the general feeling when he wrote in
1849: “I could not bring myself to leave cattle out in the open during the cold months as
the milk would freeze in the cow's udder."
It is small wonder that the results of German frugality, careful husbandry, and plain hard
work were evident by the time of the state census of 1905. At that time, in the townships
of Herman and Theresa in Dodge County, an area which had been extremely poor and
heavily German in the pioneer era, farms were discovered to have achieved the highest
per unit evaluation in the state. By contrast, Yankee townships in the same county,
which had led in individual farm valuation for nearly half a century, had declined in
value, making the methodical progress of German agriculturists manifest.
Other evidences of Germanic material culture brought to Wisconsin are difficult to come
by. Immigrants traveled light. Bedding, a change of clothing, undergarments, wooden
shoes, wooden slippers called pnntoffel, and high hopes were about all that could be
carried. It was probably just as well that the immigrant did not bring an extensive
wardrobe, for undoubtedly there was nativist pressure on them to conform to American
dress. This was felt especially by the younger generation anxious to become
Americanized. Writing to his mother in Germany in 1852, one young man said, "Dear
mother, you ought to see me now with my new clothes, long black coat, black vest and
trousers, choker, black silk hat, and my hair parted not only on the top but also on the
back of the head! I suppose it looks funny, but then you must do as the Romans, or
they will point at you: 'Look there, that Dutchman."' As with other immigrant groups,
the Americanization of second-generation Germans progressed rapidly because
younger settlers especially yearned to adopt and conform to American customs.
Gradually, the designs of buildings and interior home furnishings came under the
influence of American styles, growing stronger with each decade as low-priced,
mass-produced goods became more readily available. As early as 1850, Ernst Frank
wrote, "The furnishing of homes in America is the same everywhere."
This does not mean that all material evidences of German culture disappeared
immediately upon the immigrant's arrival. But during the initial pioneer stage the
immigrant had little time to express his Germanness, since basic physical survival was
his paramount concern. Germans followed the advice of guide books, copied their
neighbor's log cabins, and planted locally tested crops such as corn. Not until
immigrants reached a level of economic security could ethnic preferences become
possible. Then they could, and did, display certain preferences which have been called
examples of "cultural rebound," or a return to older, long-established ways of doing
things. The half-timbered house, which had been popular in Germany since the
sixteenth century, is one of the best examples of this development. Half-timber
construction was a by-product of increased prosperity. Initially, immigrant dwellings
had been crude log cabins, or, as was the case with the Lippe-Detmolders in Sheboygan
County, even crude straw huts. But with the advent of better times, settlers could build
the more elaborate, time-consuming Fachwerk structures. An example of the two stages
of immigrant housing can be seen on the Lueterbach farm east of Germantown in
Washington County, where the original log cabin stands near a newer half-timber
Not all efforts to recreate Old Country models proved successful, nor did a purely
Germanic style of architecture catch on in the United States. Neither did many Germans
desire that it should. An example of unsuccessful adaptation can be seen in the efforts
of a German rural community in Marathon County to establish a European-styled
agricultural community, with a centralized location requiring farmers to travel to and
from it to their fields. The experiment failed, as did others of its kind, because American
space, distance, and the lack of transportation made them impractical.
Modification of "cultural rebound" in Wisconsin led to the adoption of the Germanic
urban half-timber house style (Deutsches Dorfhaus) instead of the more complicated
and more difficult to build rural farm dwelling, or Deutsches Bauernhaus. None of the
hundreds of Fachwerk buildings which have been surveyed in Wisconsin appears to
have been built in the true rural Germanic style. Two houses that exemplify how
selective their builders were when returning to the older methods are the Schulz house
built in Dodge County in 1856, and the Koepsell house built in Washington County
about 1858. Both houses have been relocated to the German Area at Old World
Wisconsin, the outdoor ethnic museum operated by the State Historical Society of
Wisconsin near Eagle in Waukesha County.
The introduction of balloon-frame construction influenced all immigrant groups, the
Germans included, for these buildings could be rapidly put up by relatively unskilled
people. As balloon-frame barns gained popularity - they were easy to construct and
could be enlarged without excessive effort - the spatial arrangement of farm buildings
was changed, The hollow square pattern, or Vierkanthof, gave way to a single large
barn with multiple functions. "Nowhere was the search for a more efficient organization
of space more noticeable than in the new type of barn that became popular in the United
States," noted an architectural historian, referring to the period following the 1860's.
Less tangible aspects of German cultural identity in Wisconsin include such matters as
religious affiliation (which for Germans includes the large group of Free Thinkers),
family and marriage patterns, and foods. Churches were basic social institutions,
exerting a unifying effect, and religion was probably the most powerful social and
spiritual force influencing the immigrant. Family life was inextricably linked to religion,
as one observer of German communities stated in 1888: "Many . . . live as they did in the
old country. They conform to the general laws but keep up their church and family life
as they would in Germany.”
Details of the German immigrant's diet are hard to obtain, but obviously in the early
pioneer times, Germans ate, as did all settlers, at a subsistence level. Gardens produced
enough to go around, but luxuries such as meat were scarce. Rye, or "German corn,"
was a popular standby, although it was soon to be replaced by wheat with which
German housewives began baking their bread. J. K. Meidenbauer, writing to a German
relative, said: "Here in America eat nothing but white bread . . . (always wheat bread,
seldom rye, and even that is very white)." Bread was baked in outdoor ovens, one of
which each family owned, or if they did not, they carried the dough to a neighbor who
did. Streams abounding in fish and forests thick with game added a welcomed variety to
the family table.
When life became more secure, Germans reverted to the foods they liked best. Among
the favorite dishes were Suelze or blood sausage and are Wurst, a sausage made from
buckwheat oats ground up with pork and pork blood. Schwarzauer, a kind of stew made
of goose and duck wings, livers, gizzards, and hearts cooked with apples, plunge blood,
and dumplings was another delicacy. Spickgans, still another favorite, consisted of the
breast and shanks of goose immersed in brine for nine days and then smoked.
Although their participation in Wisconsin and national polities displayed the Germans'
European indoctrination in the beginning, involvement in the American scene
eventually exercised a pervasive influence on immigrants and especially on their
descendants. Many German immigrants, especially in Milwaukee, had become politically
aware during the struggle for a unified and democratized Germany during the ill-fated
revolution of 1848. Many of these Forty-Eighters fled Germany after their movement
collapsed, hoping to realize their democratic aspirations in America. A number settled in
Milwaukee, where they became influential as editors of German-American newspapers,
members of German societies, and eventually as politicians.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, German radicals, Forty-Eighters, Protestant liberals,
Turners, and Free Thinkers generally rallied to support the antislavery cause and
adopted pro-Union, pro-Republican, and pro-Lincoln stances, largely because of their
previous struggles for social reforms in Europe. Many of the volunteers in the two
purely German regiments formed in Wisconsin were members of the Liederkranz and its
rival musical society, the Liedertafel.
However, not all Germans favored the Republican party, anti-slavery, or other reforms.
Many German Catholics actively opposed these positions, as well as the North's
involvement in the war. An-other group of dissenters were known as War Democrats,
one of whom joined the Union Army but later expressed his cynicism about the war's
aims in a letter to his wife in Wisconsin: "Dearest, take my word for it, the whole war
from beginning to end is nothing but humbug and a swindle."
Despite their differences of dialect, religion, customs, and philosophies, Germans were
no more immune to the Americanization process than any other immigrant group. But
one curious feature distinguished them: their American experience consolidated them,
especially in Wisconsin relatively new and frontier land which made similar demands on
all who sought to tame it and left them with a lasting sense of community. Thus it might
be said that these varied Germanic peoples became Germans about the same time that
they became Americans. Oddly, in this same period in their home-land, Prussia's victory
over France in 1870 was producing a unified Germany with a rising national
The German imprint on Wisconsin lives on in the names of villages, towns, and streets,
id the telephone book of every locality in the state, in the special German ambiance of
such places as downtown Milwaukee. More subtly, and more importantly, it endures in
the commitment to efficient agriculture, to hard work, education, culture, and to the
good citizenship and political freedom which were an integral part of the German
immigrant's luggage.
Please note - This article was in a booklet that was labeled by the State Historical Society of
Wisconsin, Madison, 1977, that was given to me by a friend. There was/is no copyright protection
notice in the booklet and it is not my intent to plagiarize someone else’s work, but to provide what I
believe is a very interesting article.