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  • John Adler

A Concise History of German Immigration to Indiana

The Haubstadt Sommerfest in June 2014 will be a celebration of the town’s German heritage. In preparation for our reunion at this event, I thought it would be interesting for the family to have an historical perspective of why our ancestors left Germany and what they added to American culture once they settled here. Using excerpts from books and articles on the subject, I have compiled the following comments:

Germans come to America seeking political freedom, 1816-1848

This is the generation that founded St. James Church and began the German settlement in Indiana. Theodore Witt (who married Juliana Adler) and his family emigrated from Germany in 1839 and were part of this generation.

According to Peopling Indiana: The Ethnic Experience by Giles R. Hoyt, “...the extremely conservative policies of Prince von Metternich, the Austrian chancellor who dominated post-Napoleonic war politics, led to the restoration of old-line monarchies in most of Europe, ending the dream of Republicans for a new political order that would guarantee more individual freedoms and prosperity in peace. On the economic side, overpopulation, poor harvests, and the devastating effect of England’s industrial revolution on Germany’s home industries led to widespread poverty and unemployment. At times some communities found it more feasible to finance their impoverished citizens’ departure for America rather than keep them on welfare.” This is the reason Mathias Adler left Viernheim at age 27 in 1852, according to sources at the local historical museum visited by David Adler (Norbert Adler’s son) in 2013.

Hoyt’s book also states, “Another reason frequently given for emigration was the onerous military conscription policies...Standing armies were maintained at considerable expense both to the governments and the citizenry. The latter paid high taxes and gave up their sons for extended service, often as long as five years, for low pay and poor living conditions.” According to family lore, this is the reason Nicholas Adler left Germany at the young age of 16 in 1853.

“Emigration was seen then by many as the only way out of misery,” according to Hoyt. “Also, letters and reports from established immigrants to friends and relatives provided the ‘pull’ that combined with the ‘push’ factors in Europe to create a chain of migration as people followed each other to the newly opened areas such as Indiana.” One can surmise that these reports from her brothers stimulated Juliana Adler to depart Viernheim in 1857.

The Forty-eighters, 1848-1861

“The Forty-eighters were Europeans who participated in or supported the revolutions of 1848 that swept Europe,” according the Wikipedia article on the subject. “In Germany, the Forty-eighters favored unification of the German people, a more democratic government, and guarantees of human rights. Disappointed at the failure of the revolution to bring about the reform of the system of government in Germany or the Austrian Empire and sometimes on the government's wanted list because of their involvement in the revolution, they gave up their old lives to try again abroad. Many emigrated to the United States, England, and Australia after the revolutions failed. They included Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, and others. Many were respected, wealthy, and well-educated; as such, they were not typical migrants. A large number went on to be very successful in their new countries.”

The article goes on to say, “Each generation brought a different type of German immigrant. Certainly the best educated, most politically and socially motivated, and most vocal of any generation of German immigrants were those who came following the Revolution of 1848...For the most part the Forty-eighters were totally disaffected by German politics and saw in the young, undeveloped American society an opportunity to work for a better society here...They found the American political virtue of tolerance in a classless society commensurate with their ideals...They grasped the issues of American politics quickly and became activists for various causes, particularly equal rights, the abolition of slavery, and women’s rights...The arrival of the Forty-eighters in Indiana coincided with a virtual explosion in the number of German-language newspapers and periodicals...Indiana had, over the course of time, over two hundred German-language periodicals.” As you can see, the Adlers and Stecklers and others in Haubstadt were part of this educated, industrious, and remarkable generation of German immigrants. Margaret Steckler’s son, Adam Adler, described her to his descendants as a remarkably beautiful and intelligent woman. The less-educated and less-prosperous Germans did not arrive in America until after the Civil War in the Great Migration of 1870-1890.

Indiana Germans in the Civil War, 1861-1865

According to Hoyt’s Peopling Indiana, “German-Americans wrote and spoke forcefully for the cause of preserving the Union and for the abolition of slavery, and when war came, they served in numbers far beyond their proportionate share of the population...There were many reasons why German immigrants became involved in a bloody struggle in their new homeland. Many of the immigrants were young men of military age and had military backgrounds. Signing up meant certain citizenship without fuss and a bounty for doing so...There were numerous full German regiments and such were encouraged by politicians in the North.” Nicholas Adler served nearly three years in the Union Army. Apart from the times he was admitted to the Evansville Marine Hospital, we can assume that he participated in several skirmishes. It is documented that he was a drummer in his regimental band.

German immigrant economy and culture

As Hoyt documents in his book, “Prior to 1871 (the founding year of the Second Reich) Germans defined themselves as citizens of a given sovereign kingdom, duchy, or autonomous city-state.” This is why the immigration records of the Adlers and Stecklers state that they were from the Duchy of Hessen. “Unlike the Irish, who were predominantly Roman Catholic, the Germans were divided almost equally into Catholics and Protestants.” In their choice of a spouse, this may explain why the children of Mathias Adler all attended Protestant services except for the descendants of George P. Adler who remained part of St. Bernard Catholic Church in Snake Run, Indiana. “It is significant that German-speaking immigrants were the first non-English-speaking group in America. They defined to a great extent what ethnicity meant in America and opened American society to others. Indiana ranks ninth among the fifty states in terms of the number of people claiming German ancestry.”

“Hoosier Germans did not cast aside their cultural heritage,” says Hoyt. “Rather they sought to retain for themselves and their offspring essential aspects of customs, tradition, language, music, and values governing public and private behavior. Here and elsewhere German-speaking immigrants and their children greatly influenced the development of American mainstream culture—from kindergarten and the Christmas tree to graduate education and symphony orchestras...It can be demonstrated that the reinforcement of the values of democratic government, individual and natural rights, equality before the law, separation of church and state, and free enterprise is one of the greatest contributions of German immigrants to Indiana and to the United States as a whole.”

“In addition to the labor and skills German immigrants brought, they also brought capital so badly needed by their new country,” Hoyt states. “Contrary to what is often thought, immigrants, particularly German immigrants, were not necessarily poor. German statistical tables indicate that the amount of gold carried by emigrants during the early part of the nineteenth century varied from $76 to $318 per person.” Adjusted for inflation, that is between $1,170 and $4,890 in today's dollars. “In addition to money, they also brought apparel, tools, watches, books, and jewelry. If one estimates the personal property of the German emigrant as $150, and since approximately 4,297,980 immigrants arrived at the port of New York from 1847 to 1870, the national wealth of the United States for this period was increased by five billion dollars!” This underlying financial security, as well as his personal industriousness and thrift, probably explains how Mathias Adler was able to buy property in Vanderburgh and Gibson counties in Indiana so soon after his emigration from Germany. Nicholas Adler likely obtained his property through favorable terms for his service in the Union army.

“Religion constituted the central point in the life of the majority of early German immigrants,” Hoyt continues. “It provided a spiritual and psychological framework for understanding life and its difficulties. The church was the physical manifestation of their belief system; it connected them with the cultural life of the world they left behind and, at the same time, gave support in their new surroundings. It provided counseling, helped educate children, maintained culture and language, rendered help in times of need, and served as the center of social activity. The use of German in church functioned to preserve ‘the right faith’ and to protect the young from outside influences, much as it still does for the Amish...German immigrants arriving in either cities or in farming towns devoted their attention to establishing a church and a church school after securing a place to live. Hundreds of churches were founded in Indiana by German immigrants and their descendants.”

According to Hoyt, “It was much more likely that German-speaking immigrants, regardless of province of origin, would tend to live close together whenever possible. This principle of association or grouping of people of like culture led to seventeen distinct German communities in southwestern Indiana.” For example, Haubstadt and Jasper were two of these. “Aspects of everyday life, farming, folkways, and religion fused in the more isolated rural regions of the state where German Americans lived. The religious calendar and the farm calendar overlapped. For rural life the centrality of religion cannot be disputed.” German was spoken in all schools and churches until America entered WWI in 1917. Unfortunately, the nuns, priests, and citizenry were subjected to anti-German hysteria, prejudice, and distrust during WWI that would continue until after WWII.

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