German 1830’s – 1950’s

From Cincinnati’s founding in 1788, the first settlers were primarily of English and Scottish ancestry and members of Protestant denominations, such as the Baptist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian. In 1830, 5% of the city’s total population had German roots. Within ten years the number of German-born immigrants reached 30%, and that number doubled between 1840 and 1850. Backgrounds and dialects of the Germans varied and religions consisted of a mixture of Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Jewish. Germans founded hospitals and various cultural institutions in the city. By the 1850s, the German language was used in four newspapers, in all church school classes, for sermons at church, and in transactions at banks and stores.

Many German immigrants arrived in Cincinnati searching for new opportunities and some came with funds to buy land. They often had technical skills or could work as tradesmen, such as butchers, bakers, or tailors; however, German Catholic immigrants were often denied work at publicly financed construction jobs, and were excluded from joining clubs established by native-born Cincinnatians. German customs clashed with the lifestyle of American-born Protestants who frowned upon the way that German families spent Sundays in theaters, saloons, and various singing societies. Catholic loyalty to the pope in Rome seemed to prohibit the notion that these foreigners could ever become proper American citizens. This anxiety grew, resulting in the formation of the “Know-Nothing” party in the 1850s. A political group of nativists, they were alarmed as immigrants, Catholics, Jews and blacks streamed into “their city.” The panic continued to grow, causing a major riot on Cincinnati streets.

After victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the country of Germany was formed in 1871. In the 1880s and 1890s, other Germans from Eastern Europe created a smaller, less affluent wave of immigrants into Cincinnati. Loyalties of German Americans during World War I were often questioned.


Based in Over-the-Rhine, the Cincinnati Germans developed a rich subculture. They founded organizations and institutions which helped cushion the impact of the American environment for themselves and others from the “Fatherland”, while making lasting contributions to the quality of life in Cincinnati (Fig. 1). Churches, schools, breweries and beer gardens sprang up throughout the area. (Hurley)

Like immigrants in any time, these Germans faced an array of problems. Many suffered extreme hardships, especially in their early years while establishing themselves and looking for jobs. Collectively, however, German immigrants possessed advantages over other groups. Many of them were skilled tradesmen and craftsmen who could find work as bakers or tailors, or in the rapidly developing industries. The mechanical skills and training that some brought with them established the foundation for Cincinnati’s development as a printing and machine-tool center. (Hurley)

Much of the disparaging attitude toward immigrants fostered the Nativists political movement that sought to deny equal rights to recent arrivals in America. Unflattering caricatures taken from a . . . Cincinnati tabloid show Germans either drinking beer or eating too much (Fig. 3). (Grace)

The “Knownothing” movement was directed as much against the German “infidel” as against the Roman Catholic. The breaking up of peaceful German picnic parties by gangs of rowdies, which had been a common thing during former outbreaks of nativistic hostility, occurred more frequently than ever. In self-defense it was proposed that Germans should arm themselves . . . This aided in the rise of the legend that the “foreigners” were aiming to destroy American institutions. (Tolzmann)

In April 1855 an effort to elect city officials resulted in three days of violence. The nativists imported 300 Kentucky toughs to “protect the polls.” These men seized the ballot boxes in the predominantly German 11th Ward and tried to do the same in the Ninth. Violence continued into the following day when German militia barricaded the bridges into Over-the-Rhine. The nativists stormed the barricades at night yelling such rallying cries as “Kill the Dutch,” but the trained militia easily repulsed [pushed back] them (Fig. 2). The anti-Catholic and anti-foreign sentiment – which had surfaced in many American communities at the same time – soon subsided in the face of the rising national controversy with the South over the extension of slavery. (Hurley)

Literature Sources

1) Grace, Kevin and Tom White. Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine: Images of America. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.

2) Hurley, Dan. Cincinnati: The Queen City: Bicentennial Edition. Cincinnati: The Cincinnati Historical Society, 1988.

3) Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Forty-Eighters: 1848-1998. Nashville, IN: NCSA Literature, 1998.


Fig. 1 Cincinnati Museum Center, German Immigrants file, “A Wienerwurst With Each Drink.”

Fig. 2 Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. Images of America: German Cincinnati. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

Fig. 3 Grace, Kevin and Tom White. Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine: Images of America. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.

Fig. 4 Courtesy of Cincinnati Historical Society.

Fig. 5 Courtesy of

Fig. 6 Courtesy of