What Kind of German Are We?

A Look at the State Origins of German Immigrants

I just recently returned from Germany, where I spent some time in Berlin, Wittenberg, and Bremen, the longest amount in Bremen. I like Bremen a lot (this was my second time there) for many reasons, but am particularly fond of it because I’m a huge fan of Bremer Knipp, a local sausage product. One reason I like Bremer Knipp is because it tastes good. But another is because it is either the ancestor of, or shares a common ancestor with, one of my favorite foods of all time, goetta. Goetta is a sausage local to Cincinnati, developed by German immigrants there. Goetta is not eaten in Germany, and Knipp is not eaten in the US, but the two products are very similar.

But more than similar: they may actually be related. Exploring historical evidence for that relationship sent me down a rabbit hole of 19th century German demographic history, which I will now share with you.

Let’s start with goetta. Goetta is an anglicization of a German word for crushed oats; oats are one of the ingredients in goetta. Surprise surprise, oats are a major ingredient in knipp as well! In fact, Knipp is a subset of “grutzwurst” sausages, and that German word I mentioned is “grotte,” which is the Low German cognate of “grutze,” which, you guessed it, is where the “grutz” in “grutzwurst” comes from. In other words, I say goetta, you say knipp, tomato, tomato. It’s not quite that simple, but it’s close.

But look, Germans mixing oats and meat might have been a case of convergent evolution. Can we show actual historical linkages?

Yes we can. First of all, Knipp is very localized as a food product within Germany: Bremen, Oldenburg, Westphalia, and Hannover are about the entire regional extent of the product. So what we should be curious about is: did settlers in the Cincinnati area disproportionately come from those regions?

About 6 percent of Hamilton County, Ohio’s population was from Knipp-eating parts of Germany. That is much higher than in most of Ohio. Representing Knipp-eaters as a share of the German population, similar regions are prominent: this isn’t just a story of lots of Germans of all types in these counties. One notable county is Auglaize, that dark county in the center west shaped like a lumpy pistol. It was over 5 percent composed of Knipp-eating immigrants in 1860, and they mad up about 2/3 of all Germans in the county. Wikipedia claims that to this day, people in Auglaize refer to goetta as “grits,” which is a more phonetic rendering of “grutze,” the original German word for this meat product.

Goetta was not importaed from Germany; it’s a home-grown Ohio product not eaten anywhere in Germany. But the Germans who made it did so in imitation of a food they were already familiar with, grutzwurst. They were familiar with this food because large numbers of them were from northwest Germany, where grutzwurst is particularly prominent in the regional food culture. It’s worth noting that Westphalia, Oldenburg, Frisia, and Osnabruck all have their own prominent local variations on grutzwurst: it’s a regional specialty, and the varieties they make are strikingly similar on visual appearance and taste-test (I worked hard to procure extensive tastings this year) to goetta.

So goetta is almost certainly a regional product in Cincinnati thanks to the specific regional origins of those German immigrants. Indeed, we should not call goetta a “German Breakfast Sausage.” We should call it a Westphalian Breakfast Sausage.

Identifying Specific German Origins

But this task reminded me of something I have known for a long time but rarely think about: some of the early Censuses have very different definitions of place of birth than modern censuses. For example, before German unification, German immigrants were supposed to give the exact German state in which they were born, not just “Germany.” In practice, many still said “Germany,” but many gave a specific location. This level of detail is carried into many origins: specific Canadian provinces are named, subdivisions of the UK are named, basically any island area gets its own line, etc. Strangely, all of Italy is merged from 1850 onwards, despite Italy having numerous constituent parts and not being unified for some time after 1850.

But Germany is covered in great detail. For this post, I will use data from the Census of 1860. In this census, 1.3 million people were counted with birthplaces anywhere in a very large definition of Germany, which includes Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria. Of these, 930,000 gave a specific German state of origin, so about 72%. I reallocate the unspecified groups straightforwardly: any “German, unspecified” population is apportioned among the other origin groups in a given state based on those other groups’ share of the total state-level German population. This is implicitly an assumption that these unspecified Germans are likely to have the same origins as the origin-reporters in the same state. That may be wrong, but it seems like a reasonable enough assumption.

I wanted to use the earliest data I could. But the 1850 Census saw hopelessly incomplete reporting of specific state origins: only about 10% of respondents born anywhere in greater Germany reported a specific state of origin. This was likely due to poor-quality Census-taking in 1850. By 1860, the situation is improved. In 1870 it is even more improved, with specific origins reported for more than 90% of Germans, but again, I wanted the earliest data I could get, to estimate a kind of “founding stock.”

So without further ado… where did all those German-Americans actually come from?

The Major Powers of Germany

In 1860, Germany was divided. The map below shows the German states within the German Confederation.

Prussia and Austria dominate. Bavaria, Hannover, Wurttemberg, Baden, Saxony, and Mecklenberg make up a second tier of states. Then you get the Hessian states, Holstein, Oldenburg, arguably the Hanseatic cities like Hamburg, Bremen, and Lubeck. Below these you get the minor principalities, the Thuringian states, Brunswick, Waldeck, Anhalt, Sigmaringen, etc.

So where did everybody come from?

The largest single group is Germans with nothing in particular specified for origins. Then comes Prussia, with its western territories in the Rhineland, Berlin, and a few other subdivisions excluded, as they are listed separately. Of course, it’s possible that Rhinelanders in particular may have identified as Prussian even if from the Rhineland, as Rhineland was a subdivision of Prussia. The number of Rhinelanders in the sample does seem unusually small, so it seems likely that most Rhinelander respondents identified themselves as Prussian. After Prussia come Bavaria, Baden, Hanover, Wurttemberg, the two big Hessian states, and then we get to Switzerland. I included some non-German, part-German, former- or future-German areas in this list just for comparison.

After Switzerland we get Saxony, then the Netherlands, then Mecklenburg, then Bohemia and Austria, then Oldenberg and Schleswig, and then we’re into really small potatoes. About as many people immigrated from Hamburg as from the entirety of Poland as of 1860.

But how were these people distributed? Here, for convenience and completeness, we need to do some consolidation. First of all, I re-allocate the unspecified Germans as noted above. Then, I consolidate geographically proximate groups together into clusters. Here’s the resulting populations of immigrants:


Again, Prussians dominate. Then comes Bavaria. But after Bavaria, Baden is displaced by northwest Germany. Oldenburg, Westphalia, Hannover, Bremen, and the Rhineland together end up being a large amount of immigrants. Then come the Hessian states and Waldeck from central Germany, and then Baden and Wurttemberg. The remaining regions are quite small. It may be interesting for Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod readers to hear that Perry County, Missouri showed 897 people of Saxon, Thuringian, or Anhalt birth. But on the whole, Saxons were a small part of German migration.

Mapping German Origins

So now we have the groups and their numbers. Where were they located? For this, I’ll show maps of each group’s share of state-level population, mapped with the same colors and on the same scale. But before I do those symmetric maps, let’s show the geography of German origin generally.


The midwest shows a familiar pattern of German dominance. We all know that.

But what may surprise some readers is the early German dominance in California and Nevada, and the strong shares in Texas and Louisiana. Note as well the very low German shares in most of New England. This is close to the mental map you may have of midwestern Germans, but has a number of substantial complexities as well. The most German state, Wisconsin, was about 15 percent German.

So let’s get into this! We’ll go from largest group, to smallest.

The Prussians are numerous, and, by and large, they pretty clearly drive a big share of the overall German distribution. You see them in the midwest, you see them out in California and Nevada, and you see them in Texas and Louisiana. Subjects of the Hohenzollern Family have defined many American stereotypes of Germans not only because Prussia dominated Germany, but because Prussian immigrants dominated immigration from Germany.

Bavarians give us a much more familiar German map. Very weak in the south and west, prominent in the midwest and Rust Belt. Bavarians are much more common than Prussians in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and about equivalent in New York, this, despite being substantially less numerous overall. It’s worth noting that one American stereotype of Germans, lederhosen, is actually distinctively Bavarian… but it’s no surprise Bavarian culture came to typify German culture, because Bavarians tended to be concentrated in German-dominated states. That is, it would be unusual to find Bavarians in places with few other Germans, unlike, say, Westphalians, who one could easily expect to find in places with few other Germans. For what it’s worth, my wife’s family lineage is Bavarian although, curiously enough, they were Protestant Bavarians, which is sort of unusual.

And then we come to people from northwest Germany and yup they’re weirdos.

Northwest Germans disproportionately ended up in Missouri and Illinois, with California, Texas, and Ohio being secondarily prominent areas. They show up as unusually low-prominence in the upper midwest; for how numerous they were nationally, you’d expect more of them to be in German-dominated Wisconsin.

Hessians, aside from being liberty-hating lapdogs of the evil redcoats, seem to follow a similar dispersion as Prussians, with the exception of Arizona where there must have been some Hessian enclave or something. I don’t really know anything about Hesse, so there’s not much I can say here.

Then we come to Baden… again with a fairly similar dispersion. This is getting a little dull here. But I will note, Baden shows a visually-discernible shade of red for Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Carolina: that’s unusual! For whatever reason, folks from Baden seem to have been more southern-friendly. I find that particularly curious because Baden was one of the more liberal German states, so I’d have expected an aversion to slave states.

Then we have Wurttemberg. Again, like Arizona for Hessians, South Dakota for Wurttemberg reflects a recently settled area with a small population and probably a few enclave communities. Of note here is that Wurttemberg, like Baden, does a bit better in some more southerly places like Kentukcy and West Virginia, but that Wurttemberg is also one of the more prominent origins for Germans on the west coast. Maybe landlocked Wurttembergers just craved the seaside?

The map above is for immigrants from Saxony, Anhalt, or the Thuringian States. The Thuringian states were a cluster of small states in Thuringia. Two of them were different branches of the same dynasty, in which the “Family Law” dictated that, from the 1200s onwards, every male be named Heinrich. Once you get to Heinrich the 100th, you start over at Heinrich the 1st. There were two different principates being ruled by high-integer Heinrichs in the Thuringian states, plus a cluster of other states. I will admit that I do not understand the history being the existence of the Thuringian States. But I will note here that Missouri, Texas, and Wisconsin make strong-ish showings here, and that’s, for Texas and Missouri, reflecting the disproportionately religious nature of Saxon, Anhalt, and Thuringian migration to the U.S. An appreciable share of these migrants were religious dissidents ultimately associated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Recall that Saxony is the region where Martin Luther began the Reformation.

Then we get to northern Germany. Northern Germans headed farther west. They show up significantly in the upper midwest, but also in Nebraska and Colorado, probably reflecting frontier-communities of Schleswigians or Hamburgers.

And finally we are coming to the fringes of the German Confederation. Bohemia sent only a few emigrants to the US as of 1860, and they were concentrated in the upper midwest.

The same is true for Austrians:

And for Alsatians:

So that rounds up our major groups.

It may be worth noting some simple correlations here. The two groups with the most different settlement patterns are Wurttemberg and Northern Germany, which makes sense given their distance. The most similar groups are the Alsatians and Bohemians; but they’re both very small with lots of zero-value states. For major groups, the most similar are Baden and Bavaria: regions that border each other. Curiously though, Wurttemberg has no strong correlation with either Baden or Bavaria in terms of settlement patterns; indeed Wurttemberg has no strong correlation with any other group. Wurttembergers are apparently just odd ducks, though I suspect their blow-out in South Dakota is driving much of this.

On the whole, I don’t know that I have some big takeaway from this. I just came back from Germany interested in the topic, curious about the cultural origins of my preferred meat products, and impressed with how much, to this day, Germany still maintains substantial regional difference. I hope you found this nerdery as interesting as I did!

I’m an Advisor at Demographic Intelligence, the nation’s leading producer of rigorous national- and regional birth and marriage forecasts. I’m also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a Senior Contributor at The Federalist, and I write periodically for Vox’s Big Idea column. I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate of Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth. I am not paid one penny by anybody for this blog post.

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DISCLAIMER: My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.

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