My brother and I used to inform new acquaintances that we are Swedo-German-Americans. This was in response to other neighborhood kids who bragged about their own ancestry in similar terms. Mark even followed my example of learning to speak German. It was during my late teens that I learned enough American history to connect with the larger part of German-American contributions to the United States.
On October 6, 1683, English Quaker William Penn arrived with the first group of Germanic settlers to North America. Penn had been granted the territory as payment of a debt that the King owed to his father. The king called the land “Pennsylvania” or “Penn’s Woods”.
In the process of finding suitably “righteous” settlers for his new colony, Penn advertised his land this way: “The air is sweet and clear, the heavens serene, like the south parts of France, rarely overcast.” One group consisted of 13 men from the town of Krefeld, in the lower Rhine Valley. They qualified because of their Quaker or Mennonite affiliation.
Penn brought the 13 men along with their families aboard the “Concord” to help settle his colony. This group became the very first German immigrants, or Deutschamerikaner, in the original 13 English colonies. It was on October sixth that the arrivals founded the settlement of Germantown, near Philadelphia. It didn’t take more than five years for the German settlers to irritate the original English Quaker community.
William Penn had set up Pennsylvania as a “Holy Experiment”. His aim was to create a new society based on the Quaker ideals of equality for all, freedom of religious worship, and nonviolence. In reality, equality and freedom of religion turned out to be conditional.
Although Catholics, Jews, and Muslims were tolerated, colonial government office-holding and voting privileges were restricted to protestants, only. In addition, equality did not extend to women, there was no women’s suffrage. Equality was compromised because Penn was a slave-owner. Five years after the arrival of the German immigrants, several Germantown leaders sent a two page condemnation of slavery to the governing council of the Quaker church. Hence, German Americans founded the anti-slavery movement, long before American Independence was accomplished.
Many Christians may not know that the first American Bible was printed in Germantown. Historians are aware that the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Germantown took place on Main Street of the town with musket fire from the house windows. Several years later, the first kidnapping incident in the United States happened in Germantown.
Later Germanic immigrants arrived to begin settlements in New York in 1710. A contingent of protestant exiles from Salzburg founded Ebenezer, Georgia in 1731. Another wave claimed areas of Texas in the 1840s. By the end of the 1790s, German Americans made up an estimated 6.6-percent of the US population. Some individual states ranked them as high as twelve-percent. Eventually, German immigrants were a thriving group in the Great Plains in the 19th Century.
An indentured servant from the German region, John Peter Zenger, founded the New York Weekly Journal. He was later acquitted in an important freedom of the press trial.
What most Americans regard as a traditional Christmas holiday celebration is largely the adaptation of German immigrant customs. The tradition of bringing in an evergreen tree and decorating it was introduced by the Pennsylvania Dutch (“Dutch” is an Americanization of the German word “Deutsch”. It doesn’t refer to people from Holland). The germanic version of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, became our Santa Claus. The German immigrant, Thomas Nast was the famous political cartoonist who first drew the image of Santa.
Celebration of the spring holiday, Easter, was popularized by the adoption of the traditional German Easter Bunny and colored eggs.
Beer drinkers understand that the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association has German roots. Rhineland native, Adophus Busch married into the Anheuser family and later formed the famous company in the 1860s.
The 1880s saw the heaviest German immigration rates. At that time, about 1,500,000 Germans left Europe for the US. A quarter of a million of them arrived in 1882, alone.
An intellectual wave of German brain power was started when Adolf Hitler came to power. Artists, musicians, scholars, scientists, and writers fled Germany to avoid persecution by the Nazis. Some notables included Thomas Mann, Marlene Dietrich, Bruno Walter, Hans Morgenthau, and Albert Einstein.
The origins of German American Day go back to the early 1800s in the US. Celebration of the holiday died out as a result of strong xenophobic, anti-German sentiments during the first World War that washed over America in the 1910s. The holiday was revived by a Congressional Resolution that passed in August of 1987.
Happy German American Day to you.