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Largest Ancestral Group in U.S. Beginning to See Numbers Wane

TUESDAY, OCT 29, 2019

A 200-year-old immigration wave in the U.S. is finally ebbing.

The number of Americans who claim to be German-Americans – the nation’s largest ancestral group – has begun to drop precipitously over the last decade since peaking at 50.5 million in 2009, according to a Social Explorer analysis. Slightly more than 45 million Americans, or roughly 1 in 7, now claim some type of ancestral tie to a country whose own population barely tops 82 million people.

German-American population dwindles but remains largest ancestral group. Visualize and analyze these changes on the county level. Click here to explore further.


As the nation continues to debate the fate of refugees from Central America, Census data show significant changes in groups that weren’t immediately accepted when they immigrated, such as Asian, Italian, Irish, and German arrivals. Roughly 7.5 million Germans immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1870; another 1.5 million came in the 1880s, including President Donald Trump’s grandfather, who fled his homeland as a boy to avoid serving in the military.

The number of people claiming German ancestry has fallen during the past decade even in traditional strongholds of Teutonic immigration, such as Chicago, where there were almost 197,000 fewer people claiming German ancestry in 2017 than in 2009, according to the American Community Survey. The German-American population fell by almost 180,000 in New York City and dropped another 128,000 in Philadelphia. The decline in the number of German-Americans occurred even as the three cities gained total population during the decade. 

The number of people reporting Pennsylvania German ancestry also fell by 40,000 between 2009 and 2017, down to roughly 305,000. The largest drop in the Pennsylvania German population occurred in Allentown, Penn. The former manufacturing hub lost 12,500 of its 40,000 Pennsylvania German-Americans during the decade. 

The vast majority of German immigrants settled in the Upper Midwest, although substantial numbers of their descendants still live throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Texas Hill Country. New Ulm, Minn., is the capital of the German diaspora; almost 63 percent of residents of the city, which was founded by the German Land Co. and bills itself as the Polka Capital of the World, claim some ancestral tie to the western European nation.

Other cities with the highest concentrations of German ancestry included Carroll (58.5 percent), a west Iowa city that once supported four German-language newspapers; Celina (56.8 percent), a western Ohio city settled by German immigrants that gave Trump his largest margin of support in the state during the 2016 election; Merrill, Wisc. (53.7 percent); and Jamestown, N.D. (53.6 percent).

Among major metropolitan areas, Milwaukee remained the capital of German ancestry. More than one-third of the city’s residents claimed German ancestry; during the heyday of immigration to Milwaukee in the 1850s, as many as 36 percent of the city’s residents were born in Germany.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro, where 30.7 percent of residents claim German ancestry, ranked second, and Cincinnati, which hosts the largest Oktoberfest celebration outside of Munich, ranked third, with 28.4 percent of people telling the Census Bureau that they had German ancestry.

Among the top 100 places for German immigration, only one – Fredericksburg, Texas – was located outside of the Midwest or Pennsylvania. Like many cities in the Midwest with strong ties to Germany, people in the Texas Hill Country city still maintain a strong interest in their cultural and linguistic roots, supporting their own Oktoberfest celebrations and special programs to keep the German language in use.


Author: Frank Bass

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