chapter  5
67 Pages

Age, occupation, and family composition

The largest group of non-British Europeans arriving in North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were Germans. Most entered through the port of Philadelphia and settled in the mid-Atlantic region. From 1730 to 1760, German immigrants represented 20 to 30 percent of the population growth in the middle colonies. Pennsylvanians of German ancestry accounted for 50 to 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s population in 1760 and 33 percent in 1790. They were a potent force in shaping the social, economic, and political life of the midAtlantic region.1 The social composition of German immigrants has been used to explain why Germans emigrated and how German colonists influenced, and were influenced by, American society. However, the exact nature of this composition has remained unresolved. Were Germans “pushed” to emigrate because economic conditions and inheritance customs made farm holdings or craft trades marginal? Or were they “pulled” to America by recruiters? Were German colonists mostly uneducated peasant farmers who arrived in family groups, clung to traditional kinship or communal ways, and only slowly assimilated Anglo-American culture? Or did they have an individualistic spirit, an independent migratory propensity, an extensive interest in education, books, and newspapers, many craft skills, and an ability quickly to assimilate Anglo-American culture?2 The literary and quantitative evidence on the social composition of German immigrants has been fragmentary and less than representative. Literary evidence has many biases. For example, British colonists may have held prejudicial views of German immigrants. Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the head of the German Lutheran Church in Pennsylvania during the mid-eighteenth century, concluded that “The ‘superior’ nations look upon the Germans as nothing but wig-blocks, which are thick and hard to be sure, but wanting brains.” The quantitative evidence has been limited and has typically measured the character of German immigrants either before they left their home village or after they had acclimatized to the New World, rather than at the point of debarkation in America. These measures may be biased because German emigration records are fragmentary, unrepresentative, and seldom indicate whether emigrants reached their destinations and because the social characteristics of immigrants changed while they lived in America. Finally, generalizations about the social composition of German

immigrants have seldom indicated magnitudes or trends-for example, the number of farmers or families who emigrated, their level of education, and how these patterns changed over time.3 Measuring the social composition of German immigrants at the point of debarkation in America with quantitative evidence yields better estimates. Ship manifests for German immigrants arriving in Pennsylvania have survived for 1727 through 1820. A total of 89,544 passengers were enumerated. Although the purpose and information in these manifests varied over time, the coverage is relatively complete and unbiased. Compared with records of other immigrant groups, the German passenger manifests represent the most extensive and comprehensive body of direct information collected at the point of immigration for a single migration stream.4 The passenger lists frequently recorded information on occupation, literacy, age, and family composition. This information was extracted and forms the basis here for estimating the secular trends in the social composition of German immigrants. Evidence from the first large German migration to America in 1709 was added to expand the coverage of the study. In addition, evidence concerning English immigration to Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania population as a whole was included to aid ethnic and geographical comparisons. The magnitude, duration, and continuity of this evidence provides valuable insights into the long-term trends in immigration to America, the causes of German emigration, and the assimilation of Germans into American society.5