The Great German Immigration

August H. Wehmeyer and Caroline Rothert decided to emigrate from Germany to the United States in 1871. They traveled by steamship to Baltimore, Maryland and, in that same year, moved to Cincinnati, Ohio (Baltimore Passenger and Immigration Lists). What could have caused this couple to uproot from the place they had grown up in, and why choose Cincinnati? Many factors both pushed and pulled Germans to emigrate to the United States. They could be leaving their home country to be with other family members, escape war, find better job opportunities, or just establish a life under better circumstances for their children and generations to come. The Wehmeyers are only one family out of the tens of thousands like them, but their journey seems to be the story of many.

Promotions and new career opportunities cause families to relocate all the time, and this was no different for the German immigrants settling in industrial hubs like Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus. These cities held a realm of possibilities for incoming settlers. If one could afford it, they could farm on quickly disappearing land, work in the booming coal industry, in a multitude of factories such as pork and tobacco plants or iron and steel manufacturing (“Early Industrialization”). August Wehmeyer worked as a carpenter, building in a time where more housing was necessary to accommodate the rising population, and his son, John E. Wehmeyer, would go on to become the foreman of a chemical factory. Neighbors of the Wehmeyers in 1880 had careers such as cabinet maker, engineer, laborer, and cigar maker, all of which are such varied trades that exemplify how many options immigrants had when looking for work (1880 and 1940 Census). Many of these neighbors have large families, extended sometimes included, which presents the next possible reason for immigrating to places like Cincinnati.

German immigrants set up their lives in Ohio to rejoin their relatives or establish families of their own. When families traveled to America, they did so together, sometimes with many other families from the same area they had lived in. It was helpful to have familiar people that would help each other maintain, “a group that shared the same customs, traditions, and spoke the same dialect,” (Tolzmann 29). After settling in Ohio, the immigrants would then write to their remaining friends and family overseas about how wonderful life was in the United States, how many jobs there were, and who else was with them. After reading these letters the others would decide to move there, later writing letters of their own to bring over more immigrants; this cycle was called “chain migration” (Best 11). Chain migration spiked the German population in Ohio from 328,249 to 458,734 between 1860 and 1900, and most of the Germans in Cincinnati lived in the “Over-the-Rhine” area of the city where German culture was preserved among the immigrants living there (“German Ohioans”). While a great number of Germans left to be with their families, there were still many leaving their home country for less pleasant reasons.

Famine, religious persecution, and political strife are just a few of the hardships which forced immigrants to abandon their home and start fresh in Ohio. Instead of waiting for a better harvest, for the famine to cease, and for the economy to start looking up, Germans chose to look overseas where there was a government that provided more aid than the one they currently lived under (“Irish and German Immigration”). Other families, such as the Wehmeyers, may have found more trouble with their beliefs than the economy. In the 1870’s, under the policy of prime minister Otto Von Bismarck, Catholics in Germany were sought out for persecution. Bismarck believed that the Pope would keep Catholic Germans from helping to make the country more progressive, so he arranged the arrests of churchgoers and clergy members (Best 8). The promise of religious freedom in the United States was enough for Germans to drop everything and seek sanctuary. Among them were those who sought sanctuary for more political reasons. Germany, before becoming unified, was unable to form a government that was either a republic or had a constitution of some kind. After German princes were placed back into power, Germans fled to a country with the constitution they so desired, free of an oppressive monarchy (Best 6). When faced with hardships, Germans had to make the decision to leave everything they had ever known and embark on a journey to the country and state where they could provide for their families and live their lives to the fullest.

German immigrants made the choice of moving to cities like Cincinnati in order to find work, reunite with family members, and to be free of the turmoil in Germany. The "Land of the Free" was and remains appealing to all who seek a better life; it just so happens that many German immigrants chose Ohio to pursue the American Dream on their own terms. If the Wehmeyer family had not left Germany, they would not have been able to spread across the United States to continue into today’s generations.