The U.S., first populated by Native Americans, rediscovered by Europeans and colonized under the flags of the Spanish, English and French, is now filled with Germans.
More than half of the nation’s 3,143 counties contain a plurality of people who describe themselves as German-American, according to a Bloomberg compilation of data from the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey. The number of German- Americans rose by 6 million during the last decade to 49.8 million, almost as much as the nation’s 50.5 million Hispanics. (Click here to explore an interactive county-by-county map of U.S. ethnic groups.)
“A lot of people aren’t aware that German is the largest ancestral group in the country,” said Don Heinrich Tolzmann, a Cincinnati author who wrote “The German-American Experience.” “It’s an eye-opener, and it’s something that’s commonly overlooked.”
While Hispanics and Asians make up the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population, the increase in those identifying themselves as German-American underscores the nation’s European immigrant roots. It also reflects the use of new ancestry-tracking tools, a longing for identity and a surge in ethnic pride after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, more than four decades after Nazi Germany’s defeat.
Many families in the Hill Country around Austin still speak a hybrid of English and German known as “Texas German,” said Jean Warneke, executive director of the German-Texan Heritage Society. Though the dialect is more common among older Texans, Warneke said classes offered by the society have become popular among teenagers as more Austin public schools have dropped German instruction.
“Our classes are always full,” she said.
Germans have been immigrating in significant numbers to the U.S. since the 1680s, when they settled in New York and Pennsylvania. The bulk of German immigrants arrived in the mid- 19th century; they’ve been the nation’s predominant ethnic group since at least the 1980 census.
The increased identification with German culture contrasts with earlier eras in U.S. history -- during both world wars -- when many kept those ties quiet. The passage of time has replaced that impulse with a search for enduring traditions, said J. Gregory Redding, a professor of modern languages and literature at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.
“The more homogenized our society becomes, the more we see some people seeking to differentiate themselves by forming distinct personal identities,” Redding wrote in an e-mail. “For those who can find Germanic family traditions somewhere in their past, it can be personally fulfilling to cultivate that aspect of one’s life.”
The 49.8 million German-Americans are more than triple the 14.7 million Asians counted in the 2010 census. Bloomberg’s county-by-county analysis broke down the Hispanic and Asian populations into subgroups by national origin, with Mexican- Americans and Chinese-Americans making up the largest share of their respective groups.
Americans of German descent top the list of U.S. ethnic groups, followed by Irish, 35.8 million; Mexican, 31.8 million; English, 27.4 million; and Italian, 17.6 million, the census shows.
An ancestral map of the U.S. confirms regional stereotypes, with Italian-Americans clustering from central Connecticut to southern New Jersey. In New York City, Staten Island is the only borough with a plurality claiming Italian ancestry, the census shows. The city’s other predominant groups include Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Chinese in Queens and Dominicans in Manhattan.
Irish-Americans still hold sway in Boston, with heavy concentrations in southern New England and Appalachia. People claiming English ancestry make up a plurality in much of Virginia and the Carolinas, as well as Utah.
Finnish-Americans are the largest ancestral group in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and people of Norwegian extraction are the biggest along the northern edges of Minnesota and North Dakota. Clusters of French-Americans extend along the northern New England border with Canada and the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
Only nine counties were predominantly African-American, all in the South, even though the 2010 census reported there are now 37.7 million blacks. The Census Bureau doesn’t break out ancestry by African tribe or nation for descendants of blacks who came to the U.S. as slaves.
The German belt of the U.S. extends from eastern Pennsylvania to the Oregon coast. A majority of counties in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas are predominantly German, and they make up a plurality of Ohio and Indiana counties.
Census figures show German-Americans are slightly older and better-educated than the general population, with one-third having a bachelor’s degree or higher. More than 85 percent live in the same place as they did in 2009, and 40 percent are employed in management, business, science or the arts.
Pennsylvania has the largest population of German-Americans and is home to one of the group’s original settlements, Germantown in 1683. The state has 3.5 million people claiming German ancestry -- more than in Berlin. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, has 348,979 German-Americans, according to the census.
While most Germans settled across prime Midwestern farmland, small pockets of immigrants gathered in less- hospitable locations. German settlers made peace with the Comanche tribe in the mid-1840s to settle large parts of the Texas Hill Country, a granite, cedar and cactus-studded region of central Texas stretching from Austin to Kerrville.
At least three-dozen Texas communities celebrated Oktoberfest last year, said Warneke, of the German-Texan Heritage Society in Austin. A spring Germanfest in Muenster, a town of 1,544, drew almost 30,000 visitors, she said.
The cultural influence also is evident in the teen dialect that echoes through the hallways of some schools in the region - - as in the Texas German variant on a standard adolescent shot of dismissiveness: “Vas-ever.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Flynn McRoberts in Chicago at firstname.lastname@example.org