The German heritage deep in Illinois? Yes

Saturday is German-American Day, celebrated every October 6.

In Illinois, there are many reasons to celebrate.

German ancestry remains widespread in Illinois, as it has for the past century and a half. The strength of the German-Americans helped shape the history of Illinois through a civil war and two world wars against the old country.

Of the nearly 1.8 million inhabitants of Illinois in 1860, nearly 325,000 were of foreign birth. The Germans were the largest ethnic group with 130,000, or nearly 8% of the state’s total population. In Chicago, 20% of the population was German. Many had arrived after the failure of the German revolution of 1848.


A high concentration of Germans was also found in St. Clair County, near Belleville. Others settled in cities such as Quincy, Alton, Peoria, Springfield and Galena. In the Peruvian community of northern Illinois, Germans made up 1,000 of the total population of 3,500 in 1854. The names of a number of communities across the state honor German heritage, most notably New Baden, New Minden, Germantown, Darmstadt and Meppen.

Many Germans were farmers, while others were skilled workers, merchants and artisans. Some followed folk crafts from their home countries and worked as butchers, bakers, shoemakers, furniture and cart builders, and cigar makers. The architecture of traditionally German-American buildings, often in brick, remains visible throughout the state.

German-language newspapers were found throughout the state, even in small towns. In 1859, future presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln bought the press and type to found a German-language Republican newspaper. In Peoria, future Illinois Secretary of State Edward Rummel, from Baden, Germany, ran a German stationery and printing company that produced documents in German and English.

John Wood, founder of the town of Quincy and governor of Illinois for 10 months in 1860 and 1861, was born to a German mother. In 1892, Prussian native John Altgeld, best known for pardoning three of those accused of the infamous Haymarket riot, won election for governor of Illinois.

Politically, the support of the Germans was crucial for a candidate, and their power was felt in 1856 at the first convention of the Republican State of Illinois. German influence was also a key factor in the presidential race of 1860, and at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, German resolutions were even incorporated into the national platform. The Germans were seen as staunch abolitionists, although some scholars dispute this claim.

Almost 6,000 Germans from Illinois enlisted in the first six months of the Civil War, comprising nearly three entire regiments. One of the main German commanders was Friedrich Hecker, a famous revolutionary of 1848 who was a gentleman-farmer near Belleville, in the heart of the strongly German colonies.

Another German regiment commander in St. Clair County was Gustav Koerner, who served as lieutenant governor of Illinois from 1852 to 1856 and was Lincoln’s funeral bearer in Springfield.

By 1910, more than 319,000 German immigrants were in Illinois, and more than a million people of German descent – one tenth of the national total – called the state home. With nearly 400,000 first and second generation German immigrants, Chicago was the sixth largest German city in the world in 1914.

The high concentration of Germans sparked protests at the outbreak of World War I, as many German descendants decried their adopted country’s position against their homeland. The music of German composers such as Mozart and Beethoven was banned in some public places, and some German Americans were under the surveillance of state and federal officials.

Other German-Americans were forced to recite loyalty oaths in public performances. Within a few years, the use of the once predominant German language disappeared from schools and churches.

As a result, many Illinois Germans strayed from their heritage. From 1914 to 1920, the number of Illinois residents who identified themselves as Germans in the census fell by more than 41%, to 112,000. But many Germans remained loyal to the American cause and played a role. active in the war effort, both at home and abroad.

A quarter of a century later, dislike of German residents was a minor issue during World War II, as many chose to focus their disgust on Adolph Hitler, rather than their German neighbors.

Today, Illinois’ German heritage is celebrated at festivals and carnivals statewide, while some communities in Chicagoland – as well as Moline, Peoria, Gibson City, Mascoutah, Waterloo and Millstadt – offer dining popular Germans. Museums and research centers on German-American history and heritage can be found in several major metropolitan areas, including Chicago and the Quad Cities.