Iowa’s Deep German Roots

The following was written by H. Glenn Penny, Professor of History at the University of Iowa, and is reprinted here with Professor Penny’s permission. Professor Penny was one of the organizers of the October, 2016 Oberman Humanities Symposium (University of Iowa) “German Iowa and the Global Midwest.” This article appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen as a Guest Opinion, September 21, 2016.

                                   “Iowa: The Home for Immigrants”
                             by H. Glenn Penny, Professor of History, UI

Immigrants-Statue of Liberty

Coming to America

That was the title of the 1870 volume published by the Iowa Board for Immigration in Des Moines. It was translated into multiple languages and distributed across Northern Europe. The goal was to spur Europeans to abandon their home and move to the state.

And it worked. Germans were the most numerous group to arrive. In fact, German immigrants consistently accounted for the largest number of foreign-born people in Iowa from the 1850s through the 1870s. While today we focus on recent immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia, our state remains deeply impacted by an earlier group of newcomers. 

As waves of German immigrants arrived in Iowa over more than a century, they created much of the built environment. German Iowans created land; they built farms, towns and neigborhoods; they founded countless social organizations, such as singing clubs, shooting societies and the gymnastics or “Turner” associations. Some of those Turner halls can still be seen in Iowa towns today. Germans dominated local government in many cities and counties. They built some of the first and finest churches and synagogues, including the stunning St. Boniface Church in New Vienna. They founded untold numbers of banks, businesses, industries and many of the 130 or more breweries established in the state by 1880. They also supported more than 60 German-language newspapers, three of which were in Iowa City. They created bilingual schools, and they lived in multilingual and multicultural neighborhoods. 

From St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis, the Mississippi was essentially a German river. Every river town on the Iowan side was filled with German speakers from the 1850s through World War I. In fact, the German language was so widespread that many German-Iowans lived here for decades without ever learning English. Within a year of the United States entering the war, however, Iowa Gov. William L. Harding issued the Babel Proclamation, forbidding the use of foreign languages. 

Not unlike the waves of anti-Muslim sentiment that followed the 9/11 attacks or the recent rise of ISIS, World War I provided a convenient excuse to transform some Americans into pariahs. Many Iowans took advantage of this moment to usurp the economic power of German-Iowans, to undercut their influence in local, municipal and state politics, and even to harass and harm them because of their ethnicity. The harassment was so grim that businesses, individuals and even towns, such as Berlin, Iowa (now Lincoln), anglicized their names to hide their identities. 

Meanwhile, from Davenport to Spirit Lake, other Iowans publicly burned German books with glee. Despite the decline in the public use of German language and the transformation of many public spaces in Iowa’s cities during the war, subsequent waves of German immigrants continued to be able to speak German in Iowan homes, towns and on farm – albeit on the down low. Fast forwarding to the 21st century, and it is ironic that tight school budgets are now pushing German language classes out of Iowa’s classrooms, including here in Iowa City. 

As one of the organizers of the symposium[2016 October, Iowa City], I invite you to join us in learning more about Iowa’s German immigrants. Their stories offer us insights into the vulnerability of civil liberties as well as the multicultural and multilingual history of our state. 

2016, H. Glenn Penny, professor of history, University of Iowa
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Readers, I invite you to share your family immigrant story here in the comment section. Why did your immigrant relative(s) come to American, what was their experience…or yours if you are foreign born. 

 

 

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