German immigration to Cleveland began as early
as the 1820s. From that small trickle, the stream of German immigrants
coming to the U.S. and Cleveland in particular grew to a torrent. The
reason for the sudden increase can be traced to the development of the
Ohio and Erie Canal in the 1830s, which transformed Cleveland from a
sleepy hollow at the mouth of the Cuyahoga to a bustling center of commerce
that opened up much of the Great Lakes to Ohio trade. Skilled German
workers found many opportunities in this dynamic environment. German-born
Americans outnumbered those of any other ethnic group during the latter
half of the 1800s, and were the largest single element among first-generation
immigrants from 1880 to 1920. In fact, Germans were still more numerous
than any other group of first- and second-generation Americans as late
as 1950, until they were overtaken by the Italians.
The reasons for German immigration varied according to the time period.
From 1816-1817, when German immigration could be said to have begun
in earnest, the stimuli for emigration from Germany ranged from disastrous
harvests to economic dislocation from the Napoleonic Wars. Few emigrated
for purely political reasons. Little immigration motivated by religion
occurred in the nineteenth century, although German Chancellor Bismarck’s
Kulturkampf against Catholics in the 1870s did force out some clergy.
Overwhelmingly, economic issues were the primary impetus for Germans
to emigrate to the United States in the 1800s. According to Stephen
Thernstrom, social and economic changes in Germany had begun to threaten
the old ways of life: "...the slow diffusion of the Industrial
Revolution into Germany, agricultural reform, and rural overpopulation
made emigration for many farmers, traditional craftsmen, and small shopkeepers
the most reasonable, even conservative way of sustaining familiar habits."
In this era, then, emigration from Germany functioned as an overpopulation
safety valve, and overruled any concern that may have existed in Germany
over skill or brain drain. Emigration from Germany seemed not only enticing,
but utterly natural and sensible. During this time, 90% of German emigrants
headed for the U.S., whose political freedoms and economic opportunities
made it preferable to Latin America and Canada, according to Thernstrom.
Approximately 6,000 Germans immigrated to the United States in the 1820s,
but that number grew to over 950,000 by the 1850s and peaked in the
1880s at almost 1.5 million immigrants. Because of industrial expansion,
skilled craftsmen and artisans were the most displaced, and, therefore,
most common of the Germans coming to America.
German immigrants brought skills with them that helped them quickly
find a place in the American economy. Assimilation occurred at a rapid
pace. The blending was not necessarily immediate, as Thernstrom notes,
as new arrivals came to small, comfortable, ethnic communities during
the 1800s: "...in newer cities of the Midwest, Germans arrived
early enough in sufficient numbers to dominate entire neighborhoods...certain
areas took on a distinctively German cast as immigrants sought the convenience
and comfort of neighbors who spoke the same language and patronized
the same shops, churches, and social activities. Reflecting the social
and economic heterogeneity of the German immigration, the [German centers]
were microcosms of an urban society, not just a segment of it."
Many clung to a conservative,
defensive business mentality, which was out of step with the more
speculative U.S. economy, but they eventually won respect from
the broader population and a reputation for thrift. German-Americans
were cautious with savings and apt to invest in real estate. They
were content to achieve economic success early through hard work,
and were disinclined to invest speculatively for more spectacular
success (according to Thernstrom). As Carol Poh Miller and Robert
Wheeler note, immigration led to the formation of many German-American
institutions that brought a German flavor to Cleveland: "Germans
added a German language newspaper in 1846, a military group, the
German Guards, in 1847, and a German music society in 1848. In
the 1850s, many Saengerbunden, German singing societies, were
formed, and in 1859 the city hosted a North American Saengerfest,
which included a group of 400 singers from Cleveland representing
twenty-four separate local societies."
In 1901, this German-American assertiveness reached a peak when
a National German American Alliance was formed by Charles J. Hexamer.
The charter of this organization prohibited the Alliance from
taking direct political action on behalf of German causes, but
it promoted cultural issues, such as German instruction in the
public schools. Citizenship and participation in politics in general
were also encouraged, and the Alliance worked to forge better
relations between the United States and Germany. The German-American
community was even successful in 1909 in electing Herman Baehr,
a German-American, Mayor of Cleveland in a shocking upset of the
progressive titan Tom L. Johnson.