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“Germans in America” with Dr. Walter Kamphoefner

May 11, 2023 @ 6:00 pm 8:00 pm

About the speaker, Walter D. Kamphoefner

Walter D. Kamphoefner is descended from five or six generations of Missouri Germans on all sides of his ancestry. He grew up on a farm near Defiance, Missouri, that has been in his family since 1889, where his nephew is now the fifth generation farming it. As a teenager, he put up hay bales in Daniel Boone’s back yard. He received his first eight years of education in a one-room Lutheran grade school, and went on to earn his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in 1978.

His dissertation and first book traced German immigrants from the Westphalia region to Warren and St. Charles counties, among them half a dozen of his great-great grandparents. Since then, Kamphoefner has published nine more authored or coedited books, among them two immigrant letter anthologies in both German and English versions. Kamphoefner has spent his entire teaching career in immigration hotbeds: first Southern California (Caltech), then University of Miami, Florida, and since 1988, at Texas A&M University—punctuated by three yearlong guest professorships at German universities, most recently in Osnabrück near his ancestral home.

On the side, he helped to initiate several town partnerships between mother and daughter communities on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Although he has lived for more than three decades in Texas, he’s still a Midwesterner at heart.

Photo of Walter D. Kamphoefner
Dr. Walter D. Kamphoefer will be speaking at the WCHS this May 11.

About Germans in America, a new book discussing German immigration to the United States

Germans in America, a new book written by BDHS member Dr. Walter Kamphoefner, is now available for purchase online at several websites. One reviewer wrote that this book “is the engaging interpretive history of German America I’ve been waiting for. Walter D. Kamphoefner pairs his encyclopedic knowledge and deep research with vibrant writing and arresting anecdotes, producing a book that will be widely enjoyed and long consulted.” The following excerpt is from the chapter entitled “German Niches in the American Economy.”

Germans who settled in rural areas often wrote home in praise of the egalitarian American society, especially those with roots in northwest Germany, which was characterized by a polarization between a group of rather prosperous landowning farmers kept stable by impartible ineritance and a growing agricultural lower class of tenant farmers, Heverleute in the regional parlance, eking out a living from a combination of agriculture and cottage industry. They had no land and little security, and were obliged to work for the landowners whenever called upon. Resentments of the rural lower class continued to echo through their letters home for nearly half a century.

In the 1850s, one immigrant from this class spelled out his grievances in a letter from Missouri: “If I and Wilhelmine [his wife] would have stayed with you, you know what my lot would have been, namely a poor tenant farmer, how they get along you also know. Here I needn’t pay any land rent, any house rent, no money for wood or for cropland, and also don’t need to buy bread. Here I stay year in, year out with my family, here I hitch my own team to the wagon or plow and sow my fields as good as I want and can.” He goes on to comment on the pace of work: “Here I don’t need to do nearly as much work, especially hard work; threshing is left to the horses. I don’t need to spin and work flax, here you only have to work by day … and no landowner will order you to work or put you out of your house” [that is to say, a tenant’s cottage].

Writing from Illinois during the Civil War, another immigrant applies American terminology to the old homeland: “Anybody that wants to work can get along much better than in our slave-land, ..if the tenant farmers and servants knew how it is in America then not a single one would stay there.” He then lists a half-dozen or more one-time neighbors, perhaps expecting skepticism from his readers: “Those were all tenant farmers from Germany and now they’re farm [owners], we found things better than we would have thought, we’re not thinking of going back to Germany and I’ve written you the truth just as true as my hand has written it.”

As late as 1867, an immigrant writing from my home county of Missouri echoes similar sentiments: “Dear friend, believe me, I’ve thought of you quite often, and I have thought of Germany quite often, but I have never yet thought that I wished I had stayed in Germany. Because here there is no pressure from the landowning farmers, for here a common man counts for as much as the rich and big shots, and everyone can undertake what he wishes, because it’s a free land here.”

Even the son of a small-scale but indebted landowner reflected such class tensions. Writing on the eve of the Civil War, he contrasted his situation with that of the local bailiff’s sons, noting that in Germany “he was looked up to, and I was dirt on the street in his eyes, and here it is the other way around, because here nothing counts but education.”

The egalitarian ethos of Americans and the lack of socal distinctions come up repeatedly in letters back to Germany. Despite minor reservations about America, another immigrant wrote from rural Illinois in 1864: “They’re of the opinion here that the war will be over around springtime. I can’t write you anything else good about America, except for the good custom that the servants here are respected just like the masters themselves. They only eat three times a day here, but so as if it was a wedding over there.”

This was just one of many points about which there was a broad consensus among immigrants who wrote home to Germany. At the most basic level, nearly everyone agreed that common folks had more and better food than back in Germany. Even during the severe depression of the 1890s, one farmer wrote from Minesota: “One thing I’m sure of, that we live better here than the farmers in Germany who have three times as much money as I do. … Anyone who isn’t able to eat meat 21 times a week if he wants to is in bad shape.” Or as an immigrant to Michigan wrote back in those innocent times when eating wasn’t sinful and cholesterol had not yet been discovered: “Here there’s more grease on top of the dishwater than there is on top of the soup in Germany.”

An immigrant farmer in Missouri, writing in 1851, seems to have encountered disbelief on the German side: “The reader should not get upset, meat is eaten at every meal. On winter days you fry sausage in the pan in the morning when you’re having coffee, and everyone can have it lke this here, even if he didn’t have a dime of money left when he arrived in this country. … Dear reader, whether you believe it or not, it is indeed the truth. America is a land that leads honorable, hard-working people out of poverty into prosperity, from ‘small bites’ to ‘eating your fill.”

Fifteen years later, his opinion was echoed by a woman writing from rural Illinois: “When I think back on Germany, I’m often astonished that in Germany the farming folks have to slave away so awfully hard, and some of them still don’t have that to eat what the livestock eats over here. When we arrived here, we thought at first that is was just like there was a wedding feast here every day. Now we’ve gotten used to it, and the men still have to slave away awfully hard, but now it only goes from 7 in the morning till 6 in the evening.”

Almost all German letter writers agreed, however, that the pace of work was faster in America; there is testimony of this from both rural and urban settlers, in the early as well as the late nineteenth century, though some, especially if they had a background in cottage industry, did remark that the workday was shorter in America. For example, a farmer’s son wrote from rural Ohio in 1834, “The Americans want to see a lot of work done in a day, and anyone who think he can get by easy shouldn’t come here. The Americans are strong and quick, they can do more in one day than the Germans.” Still, most of them were also of the opinion that this hard work paid off, as a wagonmaker wrote from rural Illinois in 1866, “Everything here is different from Germany and faster. You also have to work hard here, but if you’re careful with your money you can certainly earn a lot.”

102 W Walton Street
Warrenton, Missouri 63383 United States
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