German immigrants historically were the second largest immigrant group (behind people from the British Isles) to settle in Iowa. Immigrants from Germany settled in every Iowa county. No other immigrant group was that widely spread across the state. By 1920 half of all Iowa farmers were of German descent. As late as 1970 German immigrants were still the largest group of foreign born people in Iowa, although this is no longer the case in the early 21st century.
Problems in Germany
Germans began arriving in Iowa during the 1840s. Like many other immigrant groups, Germans came for a variety of reasons. Before 1871 what we today know as Germany was really a collection of small kingdoms and duchies (territory belonging to a duke or dutchess). Around 1848 people in some of the German states began revolutions against their rulers. When these revolutions failed, the people who had supported them, known as “forty-eighters” immigrated to the United States.
In the 1860s Otto von Bismarck became the chancellor of Prussia, the largest German state. Under Bismarck’s leadership, Prussia forced the other German states to unite into a single country under the Prussia king, Kaiser Wilhelm I. In order to achieve his goal of a unified Germany, Bismarck began a program of conscripting, or drafting, young men into the army. Many young men did not want to serve in the military and they, and often their families, left Germany for the United States.
Farm and City Dwellers
The Germans who settled in Iowa were both farmers and city dwellers. The city of Davenport was particularly well known for its large German population. Davenport Germans formed Turnvereins (turner halls), organizations that promoted physical education for young people. They also enjoyed going to parks for picnics, where they would listen to band music and drink beer. This practice of the “Continental Sunday,” bothered some Protestant religious groups. These groups wanted Sunday to be a “day of rest” devoted to meditation or other quiet activities, not public recreation and socializing. These churches supported “Blue Laws” that banned playing baseball, having businesses open on Sunday and other activities.
Speak No German
When the United States went to war with Germany in World War I, many Iowans became suspicious of their German neighbors. Governor William Harding issued a proclamation on May 14, 1918 that prohibited anyone from speaking a foreign language in public. Although the war was soon over, the lingering anti-German feeling that it had created led many German descendants to be ashamed of their heritage and to try to assimilate more closely with their neighbors. The use of the German language declined, German names were removed from streets and towns, and turner halls lost their popularity.
Several Iowa communities celebrate their German heritage today. A large German Hausbarn (combination house and barn) from northern Germany was shipped to the town of Manning, Iowa where it has been reconstructed in honor of the northern German ancestry of many people in that community. The Amana Colonies celebrate two German festivals, Maifest and Oktoberfest. Manning celebrates a Weinachtsfest (Christmas Festival) each year, while Davenport is home to the German American Heritage Center.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Peter Hoehnle.