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What brought so many German immigrants to Minnesota?

August 22, 2012
By Kevin Sweeney - Journal Editor , The Journal

NEW ULM - It would be hard to contemplate the history of the U.S.-Dakota War without knowing a little something about what brought European settlers to this area. Dr. Gerhard Sollbach, a German historian from Dortmund, filled in much of the back story in a standing-room-only talk at the New Ulm Public Library Tuesday night.

From the middle of the 19th Century to about 1890, Germans made up the largest group of immigrants coming to the U.S., said Sollbach. What brought them to leave their homeland?

The causes were many, he said. They left unwillingly, seeking a more independent life, better economic opportunity, or political or religious freedom.

Article Photos

Staff photo by Kevin Sweeney
Dr. Gerhard Sollbach speaks with audience members following his talk at the New Ulm Public Library Tuesday evening.

Sollbach cited letters sent home by immigrants throughout his talk. Some wrote back about how no one had to bow and scrape to those with property, and how anyone willing to work could support themselves and eventually buy a small farm.

Many of the emigrants fled after the failed social revolutions of the 1840s, to escape persecution and find political freedom.

Economic pressures brought about by steady population growth drove others. Germany's population grew from 1750 to 1850 from 18 million to 32 million. The agrarian economy could only sustain so many. In parts of Germany where inheritance laws called for dividing farmsteads equally among descendants, farms grew smaller and smaller, until they couldn't sustain a family. Those people sold their land and headed for America and its wide open spaces. In parts of Germany where inheritance laws kept the farms in one piece, the oldest child inherited and the rest had to find another living. With few job opportunities, they also left for America.

Advances in farm machinery made those who could afford equipment more competitive. Those who couldn't afford equipment couldn't compete, so they left.

Other economic downturns affected other parts of the economy, too, said Sollbach. The linen industry suffered when industrialization in other countries made their linen cheaper.

In fact, it wasn't until Germany's industrialization took off that emigration began to slow in the 1890s.

German emigrants weren't the "poor, tired, huddled masses" spoken of at the Statue of Liberty, they were fairly well off economically, and fairly educated as well.

They came by ship, most of them traveling in steerage, the cramped underdeck of the sailing ships. For six weeks or more they were crammed into small bunks, with little light, fetid air and primitive sanitation.

Steam ships shortened the ordeal to two weeks or 10 days, but the descendants of those travelers should be grateful for their willingness to endure such suffering so that their children could live in a better land.

What brought so many German immigrants to Minnesota? All of the states competed for immigrants with promises of good, cheap land, but Minnesota had Edward Pelz, a radical and revolutionary who fled Germany and discovered Minnesota, and made it his life's work to encourage Germans to come here. Pelz wrote dozens of top selling pamphlets extolling the virtues of Minnesota's land and climate, so similar to middle and northern Europe.

It's hard to say how many came to Minnesota because of Pelz, but for many years, Germans made up the largest foreign contingent of Minnesota's population until Scandinavians took over in 1905.



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