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. 

 

 

Genealogy Research Services in Iowa

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The Music Man!

We Iowans are very proud of our own Meredith Wilson, creator of “The Music Man,” long running Broadway musical and award winning movie. 

Professor Harold Hill, The Music Man himself, extolls the secret of his success to his fellow salesmen when he states, “Ya Gotta Know the Territory!” 

I often hire experienced genealogy researchers in other locales. Why? Because they “know the territory!” Local researchers are knowledgeable and familiar with the resources and repositories in their area. Remember too, that only a small percentage of historical records are online – the vast majority are only to be found in the local and regional libraries, archives, courthouses, historical societies and more. 

So if a research trip to the midwest is not in your plans, Ancestor Research Iowa (ARI) can help you find your Iowa ancestors. You may seek a particular document or wish to trace a family or individual who migrated to Iowa. There are many aspects to a person’s life and times and records that document their lives too.  

Every state has its own unique history. Despite our image as a farm state, tall corn and pigs, Iowa’s people are historically diverse, hard working, educated, and political from the start. Here’s a brief timeline through the 1940’s in Iowa…where do your ancestors fit into this history? 

1846:   Iowa becomes a “free state,” (not slave state)
1850’s: First union formed by printers in Davenport and Dubuque
Hungarian refugees establish colony in Decatur County
Iowa School for the Blind opens in Keokuk, 1852
Iowa State Teachers Association formed
State University of Iowa, held its first classes in Iowa City
German immigrants established the Amana Colonies
Federal land granted to railroads
1860’s:  Iowa Agricultural College (ISU) established as land grant school
First session of the Iowa Legislature held in Des Moines
Sawmill industry boomed into the 1880’s, along the Mississippi
Civil War changes lives, Iowa woman forms Soldier’s Aid Society
Railroad Act gave grants to railroad companies, opening many jobs
Homestead Act brought new wave of settlers
Iowan from Keokuk appointed to the US Supreme Court
Iowa Integrates Public Schools; Iowa ratified the 13th amendment
Medical School established, open to men and women
1870-1890’s: Iowa’s wheat crop destroyed by insects over a ten year period
Meat packing plants established; first Creamery in Manchester, Iowa
Nationwide economic depression impacts Iowa too
Electric lights and streetcars and telephones come to Iowa cities
Unions representing miners and other workers grow in Iowa
Gas powered tractor invented in Clayton Co, revolutionizing farm machinery
Antonin Dvorak spent a summer in the Czech settlement of Spillville
Iowa’s first nursing school opened in 1898 at University Hospital
Immigrants from Ireland, Swedes, Norwegians, Holland and England
settle in Iowa.
1900-1920: In 1900, there were over 400 coal mines in Iowa
Carrie Chapman Catt became President of the Nat. Women’s Suffrage
Association. Catt grew up in Charles City and graduated from ISU.
Mason Motor Company designed, produced and sold cars in Des Moines
“Niagra Movement” founded in Iowa, later to become the NAACP
TB Treatment Facility in Oakdale, Iowa
Maytag Company begins manufacturing washing machines in Newton
University of Iowa’s Art Department established
Prohibition Closes Iowa Breweries!
John Deere opens factory in Waterloo
1920-1940’s: Iowa State University launched Iowa’s first radio station in 1919; by the 1920’s most Iowa farm families had telephones
Farm recession hit Iowa, resulting from loss of European markets at end of WWI
Iowan, Herbert Hoover became President of the United States
1929 Stock Market crash
Iowans developed the first computer at ISU
WWII, thousands of Iowans served

This is a very brief look at the events that not only impacted the direction of Iowans lives, but shows too, how Iowans contributed to the building of their state.

If you are interested in the research services offered by Ancestor Research Iowa, learn more on the ARI Research Services page, where you’ll also find a query form. Send a message…I’ll get back to you!

Your comments are most welcome on this post.

 

 

Ya Gotta Know the Territory!

Your ancestors lived in and were a part of a community. They may have purchased land, attended school, voted, celebrated life events, gone to war, owned a local business, advertised in the local paper, attended church, or broke the law! And there could be a record of any one of those everyday occurrences in a life. Clues, possible records await, but as the Music Man said, “yah gotta know the territory.”

Family historians often hunt for the most obvious of life event records – birth, marriage, death – but with some knowledge of the place, the life of your ancestors could become far more complete, even colorful! A study of place, within the timeframe of your ancestor(s) life there will very likely yield new discoveries about them.

Recently,  I wrote about Eva Gillan and her siblings, who in the 1870-80’s attended Illinois Wesleyan College in Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois. Eva’s parents, James and Sarah McClure Gillan, were Irish immigrants from County Antrim, arriving in Philadelphia about 1846, where they stayed about 2 years. According to James’ obit in 1907, the family migrated to Tazewell County, Illinois, “traveling by steamboat down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to Pekin [Illinois].”

What no wagon train?! No, the Gillan family traveled from Philadelphia to Pekin, Illinois by waterways (this tidbit found in a county history). This is a researchable moment…was this a common mode of travel in the 1850’s? What records exist of the steamboats and river travel of the time? Maybe passenger records exist. How much would it have cost? How long did it take?

After a few years in Tazewell County, James and Sarah moved to the next county, McLean (1865). James bought a large farm of 600 acres. At that time, McLean County was a prosperous place with a sizable population, flourishing businesses and train service. In 1850, Illinois Wesleyan College was established in Bloomington, Illinois.

From my research, I found that James help establish a school in his area, gave land for a cemetery, served as a county supervisor and Justice of the Peace in McLean County. He and Sarah were literate and educated people who sent at least 5 of their 10 children through school and on to college at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State at Normal….daughters too!

How did I find out the Gillan children went to Illinois Wesleyan…or that James was so active in his community? Hints in daughter, Eva’s obit about her going to Wesleyan and Illinois State. So I contacted both schools and was able to get transcripts and other details on siblings who attended. Schools have archives and I’ve found helpful historians and librarians at schools who are glad to help. The archivist at Wesleyan also sent me a copy of book about the history of not only Wesleyan, but the development of McLean County.

Getting to know McLean County involved contacting the area libraries, courthouses, exploring county history books and genealogy journals and newspapers in the area. The local courthouse, too, yielded land records, estate and death records. I was able to find Gillan relatives and descendants of James or his siblings still living in the area, leading to a fruitful exchange of family research and adding cousins too. There was even a story of James’ horses running off with his buggy in the local press!

James Gillan (wife, Sarah died 1880) lived in Martin township, McLean County from 1865 till his death in 1907. It was a time of great changes in that county and “knowing more about the territory” certainly led to finding more about my ancestors’ lives and led to the records that told their stories.