One Language, Many Identities


Iowa’s German-American community was quite diverse. Most Germans identified according to their region of birth, such as Prussia, Schleswig-Holstein, Swabia, Austria, or German-speaking areas of Switzerland. Regional allegiances and rivalries abounded, even in the U.S. In Burlington, Swabian men formed their own choir, and one of Davenport’s most exclusive clubs was for Schleswig-Holstein veterans who had revolted against Danish rule in 1848-50.

Germans were also religiously diverse, often establishing the first houses of worship for their respective faiths in their communities. In 1877, German Jews founded the state’s first synagogue, Temple B’nai Israel in Keokuk, followed by Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines in 1883. The creation of the diocese of Dubuque in 1837 drew Catholics from Germany and Luxemburg to northeast Iowa, but testaments to German-Catholic piety dot the state, such as West Bend’s Grotto of the Redemption. Lutherans and other Protestant denominations similarly thrived, with German Mennonites and Pietists founding the state’s Amish and Amana communities, respectively. Despite their common language, these denominations generally maintained separate social networks. At the same time, linguistic barriers led German and Swedish Lutherans or Irish and German Catholics to worship on their own.

Many first-generation immigrants never fully mastered English. These German Iowans relied on the state’s 60+ German newspapers. Dubuque’s “Catholic West” (Katholischer Westen), which reached readers across the Midwest, was the state’s most widely read German paper. The “East Frisian News” (Ostfriesische Nachrichten), likewise with a national readership, was the state’s longest running German publication, appearing out of Breda and Wall Lake from 1884 to 1973. Many papers were directly affiliated with a particular political party: During Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign, the Republican editor of Des Moines’s German-language Iowa Post traded jibes with his rivals at the Davenport Demokrat and the Dubuque National-Demokrat.

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