contents ©2016 by Harold Pfohl
During the second half of the Nineteenth Century, German immigration to the United States reached such large proportions that by the 1980s Americans claiming German ancestry numbered more than 50 million. Many immigrants to the Cedarburg area left Germany in the 1840s and 50s, influenced by economic crises and, to a lesser extent, political unrest.
In 1845, a blight destroyed potato crops throughout northern Europe, and grain harvests were poor. In 1846, both potatoes and grain were ruined by bad weather. In 1847, although harvests in England were bearable, they were bad in France and even worse in Germany. This occurred at the same time as the great Irish Potato Famine. As a result of these agricultural difficulties, Germany, normally a large exporter of grain, was compelled to turn to importing for survival. Thousands died of famine in East Prussia and Upper Silesia, where poor roads and an inadequate rail network gravely hindered distribution of the imported grain. Costs became forbidding as the price of staple foods rose by 50 percent. The distress of the rural poor was severe; the privation of the urban poor was even worse.
The agrarian crisis made it impossible for many peasants to keep up with payments on their land. Flight from the countryside to the cities increased the ranks of unemployed, which also grew as journeymen lost their jobs in the concurrent depression. In 1846 the number of emigrants escalated to 93,000 and in 1847 surpassed 100,000 for the first time.
Crime spread in city and country, and a spirit of violence embittered the increasingly frequent popular riots. The most ominous event was the “Potato Revolution” on April 21, 1847, in Berlin, brought on by a hungry mob who plundered food stands in the public market squares. Subsequent fighting with troops lasted three days. The spirit of revolt smoldered, especially among impoverished artisans and jobless journeymen.
Industrial development did not begin to keep pace with population growth. Between 1850 and 1859, close to one million Germans emigrated – mostly to the U.S. This wave of humanity reached its climax in 1853-54. Although political resentment was a contributing factor, this emigration was not fundamentally a political movement.
The primary causes of emigration were economic and social. The majority of the immigrants were farmers and artisans from Southwestern Germany, the Rhineland, and Northwestern Germany, all agrarian regions in which overpopulation had become a particularly pressing problem. In some cases, local communities helped to finance the emigration of the poor as a less expensive alternative to lifelong relief. Although occasionally groups of indigent Germans arriveddestitute on the threshold of the U.S., the German immigrants usually arrived with some savings of their own; most settled as farmers in the new Midwestern states without great difficulty. The artisans were easily absorbed into the growing American industries, although many of these skilled people suffered severe reverses in the US economic crisis of 1857.
(Adapted from: “A History of Modern Germany 1840-1945” by Hajo Holborn)
Below: The locations in Germany that were home to the four families whose emigration and establishment in the New World form the core of this story.
Photos & description: HEIMAT (HOMELAND) – LÜDERS, NIEMANN, & FROMM FAMILIES – NEAR SCHWERIN
Photos & description: HEIMAT (HOMELAND) – BRÜSS FAMILY, TREIGLAFF, NEAR GREIFENBERG, POMERANIA