German immigrants first settled in the United States in the seventeenth century. Germany contributed over 6.9 million immigrants to the United States in the period between 1820 and 1970, accounting for fifteen percent of total immigration during this time. This has made German Americans one of the most significant ethnic groups in American society.

Most German immigrants who came to the United States in the nineteenth century were from southwestern Germany. They came chiefly for economic reasons. For many German immigrants cultural and religious conflict were additional factors that made migration to a distant land a viable alternative. After 1870 significant numbers emigrated from the Volga River region of Russia, the descendants of migrants from southwestern Germany who were lured to Russia in the eighteenth century by the colonization program of Catherine II. In the early 1870s Russia instituted policies of forced assimilation and mandatory military service specifically aimed at the Volga Germans. Poor economic conditions and a shrinking land base were additional factors that prompted many Volga Germans, or German Russians, to immigrate to the United States.

Migration to the Columbia River Basin

Most German immigrants settled in New York and in the midwestern states of Wisconsin, Ohio, and Missouri; others ventured south into Texas. The Volga Germans took up farms in Nebraska and Kansas, but unfavorable climate and farming conditions caused them to look west for better farming opportunities. They became some of the earliest German American settlers in the Pacific Northwest. Their numbers increased substantially starting in the early 1880s when they and other German Russians, mainly from the Black Sea region, were lured to the Pacific Northwest by the aggressive recruitment of the railroad companies. Companies such as the Northern Pacific needed unskilled labor and wanted to sell their lands and develop the region. They hired agents in the East, Midwest, and in Europe, and promoted the region extensively in newspapers, distributed thousands of circulars extolling the economic potential of the Pacific Northwest, and offered discounted fares and employment to lure immigrants to the area. In the 1880s agents of Henry Villard’s Northern Pacific Railroad recruited many Germans in Europe.

Work and Economic Life

Historically, German Americans have been an influential group in American society and in the Columbia River Basin. This influence is especially evident in economic life. Germans who arrived in the United States prior to 1870 migrated in family groups and had capital to buy land. The Volga and Black Sea Germans who came after 1880 were cash poor but were experienced farmers and industrious, hard-working people, which helped them succeed in agricultural production. Other Germans were represented in a wide variety of occupations in the Columbia River Basin. They were carpenters, bakers, saloonkeepers, brewers, merchants and professionals. Prominent German Americans who distinguished themselves as entrepreneurs included Henry Villard, who built a transportation empire constructing railroads and selling land in eastern Washington; John Lemp, a banker, brewer, and mayor of Boise; and Henry Thiele, who built a highly successful catering and restaurant business in Portland.

Social Life and Culture

Like other ethnic groups, German Americans have been characterized by great diversity in religion, politics, and voluntary associations. In the mid-nineteenth century Germans formed the Aurora Colony, a utopian religious community in the Willamette Valley. German Americans formed volunteer associations such the Turnverein in Boise and the General German Aid Society in Portland. Women’s associations such as the German Ladies Relief Society of Portland were also active. The Turnverein, an institution originally founded in Germany, focused on the overall physical and mental development of its members through gymnastics and physical exercise. The German Ladies Relief Society and General German Aid Society emphasized benevolent and relief activities in the German American community. U.S. involvement in WWI made German Americans targets of anti-German sentiments and suspicion. In the Columbia River Basin German Americans exhibited genuine patriotism but some were singled out as “unpatriotic” for speaking German . During World War II, some German Americans were openly pro-Germany and thus were under surveillance by the authorities.

German Ethnic Identity

Religion and culture have been central to German ethnic identity. Most Germans were Catholics and Lutherans, but many others were Jewish or members of other Protestant churches such as Methodists, Unitarians, or Evangelical. Religion was a strong factor in nourishing German ethnic identity. Celebrations such as the wedding dance and the feast at the home of the deceased after a funeral signified family milestones. Festivals celebrating the anniversary of a church dedication or patron saints affirmed communal values, while the German Christmas, with the traditional exchange of gifts, (Link: IHSH Ida Mielke Newman interview OH 0263) reinforced the bonds of close-knit families.

The German language was also an important factor in sustaining German ethnicity. In the Palouse countryside of eastern Washington, German Americans brought teachers from Germany to teach the language to the young and, specifically, to teach them to edit German-language newspapers. Although some congregations began holding services in English under the pressure of the World War I anti-German environment, many congregations in the region held services in German until the 1940s.

During World War II, German Americans were once again under pressure to assimilate. In the latter half of the twentieth century most German Americans did not self-identify as Germans but as Americans. Since the 1960s most signs of German ethnicity have disappeared from the Coloumbia River Basin landscape. However, this does not diminish the German American influence and contributions to development of the region's economy, society and culture.

- Mario Compean


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