The story of German immigration to Iowa is closely tied to the formative years of state history. In 1832, when the Sauk, Meskwaki and Ho-Chunk were first forced to cede land west of the Mississippi, the few European Americans in the future state’s boundaries were French. But by 1850, four year’s after Iowa’s statehood, 7,101 immigrant Germans resided in the state, more than any other immigrant group. By 1890, at the peak of immigration, nearly 7% of all Iowans had been born in Germany, and the number of German Iowans continued to grow with successive generations. As recently as 1990, half of Iowans claimed German ancestry.
The journey from Europe to Iowa was arduous, particularly before railroad lines reached the state. Transatlantic shipping lines employed agents in Europe to sell package fares from emigrants’ home towns via ports such as Hamburg, Bremen, or Le Havre (France). Relatives or community members might pool resources to pay passage for one of their own. Some left without a clear final destination: after reaching Illinois in 1851, the travel party of Wilhelm Fischer chose Davenport only after advance scouts reported back from exploratory trips to Iowa and Wisconsin. Other settlers, such as Jacob Nauman, grandfather of Iowa historian Margaret Nauman Keyes, first tried their luck in other states before pushing on across the Mississippi. Family members who had already made the journey often sent money back home to allow siblings or parents to join them. This process of chain migration explains why many Iowans still have strong connections to specific regions in present-day Germany, such as Schleswig-Holstein and East Frisia (Ostfriesland).
The state of Iowa soon established a state Board of Immigration, which maintained agents in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and London to attract skilled laborers and farmers. The state’s efforts to foster immigration are most visible in Iowa, the Home for Immigrants. Published in 1870 in five languages, this handbook drew immigrants from Ireland, England, Holland, and Scandinavia as well as German regions.
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