German influence helped shape America

Family of five in black and white photo (National Park Service)
Three generations of a German family arrive at Ellis Island, a New York immigrant-inspection station, in the early 1900s. (National Park Service)

Christmas in the United States would be unrecognizable without the traditions that German immigrants brought to America. The decorated Christmas tree and the gift-giving figure of Santa Claus — hallmarks of Christmas in America — arrived with German families and soon spread to other American homes.

A few Germans were among the first European immigrants to arrive in the New World, joining the English at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1608. In search of land and religious freedom in the 1700s, they settled primarily in Pennsylvania and New York.

Young girl and young boy dressed in traditional German outfits (© Sherry L. Brukbacher)
Children in traditional clothing at Milwaukee’s annual German Fest, one of the largest German festivals in North America. It features German folk dancing, music and food. (© Sherry L. Brukbacher)

Nearly 8 million Germans migrated to the U.S. between 1820 and 1870, mostly settling in the upper Midwest states of North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. After the British, Germans are the largest ancestry group in the U.S., representing nearly 15 percent of the entire population with more than 40 million descendants. 

German-Americans contributed to the development of the United States in numerous and profound ways. For example, a German immigrant and engineer, John Roebling, built New York’s famous Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883

German-Americans founded many successful U.S. companies, including:

People walking along bridge (© Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)
People walk on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City on July 2, 2017. (© Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)
  • William Boeing, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1868, founded Aero Products Company in 1916 and renamed it Boeing Airplane Company in 1917. Today, Boeing is the world’s largest aerospace company.
  • Levi Strauss arrived to America in 1847, and in 1853 founded the first company to manufacture blue jeans, Levi Strauss & Company, in San Francisco. Levi blue jeans are now famous worldwide.
  • Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg immigrated to New York with his wife and eight children in 1850, Americanized his name to Henry Steinway, and founded the piano manufacturer Steinway & Sons in 1853. Today Steinway pianos can be found in nearly every concert hall around the world.