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Ted Stillwell: Immigrants endured long journeys

Staff Writer
The Examiner
Ted Stillwell

It seems like everyone you talk to these days claims to either have a Native American heritage or a German background. I have a little of both. Actually I guess you could say I am a Heinz 57, a typical American boy who grew up in this “melting pot” called the United States.

One grandfather was English and the other one Scots-Irish. My grandmother’s people on my dad’s side were Native American, Cherokee and Kaw. On my mother’s side, our dear ol’ grandmother always said her folks were Dutch and were shoe carpenters and made wooden shoes in Holland. A genealogy study on her heritage confirmed that they were originally Germans who fled oppression and migrated into Holland before coming to America.

Today in the U.S., there are about 50 million people of German ancestry, or 17% of the population – America’s largest ancestral group, ahead of even Irish Americans and African Americans. California, Texas and Pennsylvania have the largest numbers of German origin. Several Upper Midwest states – Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and the Dakotas – have the highest proportion of German Americans, about one-third of the population of those seven states.

If you remember your high school American history lessons, you may remember that the first English settlers arrived at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, and they were accompanied by a German doctor, Dr. Johannes Fleischer. He was followed in 1608 by five German glassmakers and three carpenters. The first permanent German settlement in what became the United States was Germantown, Pennsylvania, founded near Philadelphia in 1683.

None of the historical German states had American colonies, so all of those early German immigrants landed mostly in English colonies on the East Coast.

Large numbers of Germans migrated from the 1680s to 1760s, with Pennsylvania the favored destination. They migrated to America for a variety of reasons. Of course, religious freedom was high on that list, but other factors were the worsening opportunities for farm ownership in central Europe and conscription into the military.

Hoping for better economic conditions in America, German immigrants often were willing to pay for their passage by selling their labor for a period of time as indentured servants.

Large sections of Pennsylvania and upstate New York attracted Germans. Most of them were Lutheran or German Reformed; many also belonged to smaller religious sects, such as the Mennonites. German Catholics did not arrive in large numbers until after the War of 1812. As time unfolded and more states were created, German immigrants pushed westward as pioneers just as other American did at the time.

The unique story of German settlers in our neighborhood probably began in the 19th century German kingdom of Saxony. Lutheran Pastor Martin Stephan and many of his followers found themselves increasingly at odds with established Lutheranism. Stephen rounded up his flock of nearly 1,100 Saxon Lutherans and piled into four ships and left for the United States in November 1838.

They arrived and docked at New Orleans two months later. Somehow, only three ships arrived safely though, they never knew whether the fourth ship may have encountered heavy seas and sank, or maybe had gotten lost and ended up on some other distant shore.

After spending some time waiting and praying for that last ship, most of the remaining 750 immigrants headed up the Mississippi River, settling heavily in St. Louis and in present day Perry County, Missouri. As the years unfolded, they began to spread out into the rich farm lands along the Missouri River and continued onward upstream toward our neck of the woods by the time of Kansas statehood.

Reference: “The Pennsylvania Germans,” by Ralph Charles Wood.

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at or call 816-896-3592.