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German Immigration

...I hope, therefore, that my beloved countrymen and all Germany will care no less to obtain accurate information as to how far it is to Pennsylvania, how long it takes to get there; what the journey costs, and be sides, what hardships and dangers one has to pass through; what takes place when the people arrive well or ill in the country; how they are sold and dispersed; and finally, the nature and condition of the whole land. I relate both what is good and what is evil...
--Gottlieb Mittelberger's Journey to Pennsylvania, 1754

1724, Christopher Sauer (Sower), his wife, and young son left Germany for an uncertain life in the colony of Pennsylvania.  Twenty-six years later, Gottlieb Mittelberger made the same journey, landing in Philadelphia in 1750.  Both men came from the same area and traveled to the same colony and both men left written accounts of their experiences.

But this is where the similarity ends.  Sauer and his family permanently settled in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and operated a respectable printing establishment.  Mittelberger, a musician by trade, delivered an organ to a church in Pennsylvania and returned to Germany after four years.  The letter that Sauer wrote to his family upon his immediate arrival to Pennsylvania contrasts markedly to Mittelberger’s journal which he wrote two years after his return to Germany.

The object of the lesson is three-fold.  First, students will learn about the treacherous trans-Atlantic journey from first-hand accounts.  They will read about the conditions on the ships and descriptions of colonial Pennsylvania.  Second, students will understand the importance of placing events within their historical context and be able to make comparisons between two time periods.  They will consider the perspectives of people living during these time periods and be asked to place themselves in their shoes.  Last, students will learn about the biases inherent in certain forms of historical record.  The readings will ask students to think about tone, accuracy, and motivation and students will analyze the documents with the critical eye of an historian.  While illuminating their knowledge of settlement to colonial Pennsylvania, the students will learn about the questions historians ask themselves when looking at historical documents.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has an extensive archival collection on German immigration to Pennsylvania and holds an impressive number of secondary source materials.  The Society preserves family papers in its manuscript collections as well as the records of German ethnic organizations and newspapers.  The Library Company of Philadelphia has an original German copy of Mittelberger’s published journal.  Students are asked to exercise their critical thinking and creative skills, using the Historical Society’s primary source collection.

Big Ideas

Cause and Effect

Perspective on Events

Essential Questions

  • What role do multiple causations play in describing a historic event?

  • What role does analysis have in historical construction?


  • Historical causation involves motives, reasons, and consequences that result in events and actions.  Some consequences may be impacted by forces of the irrational or the accidental.

  • Historical comprehension involves evidence-based discussion and explanation, an analysis of sources including multiple points of view, and an ability to read critically to recognize fact from conjecture and evidence from assertion.

  • Historical literacy requires a focus on time and space, and an understanding of the historical context of events and actions.


  • Evaluate cause-and-result relationships bearing in mind multiple causation.

  • Contrast multiple perspectives of individuals and groups in interpreting other times, cultures and places.

  • Articulate the context of a historical event or action.

Background Material for Teacher

  • Grubb, Farley.  “German Immigration to Pennsylvania, 1709 to 1820.”  Journal of Interdisciplinary History 20, no. 3 (Winter 1990):  417-436.     Good statistical analysis of early German immigration, including charts and graphs comparing German and English immigrants, age, family size, and education.

  • Kamphoefner, Walter D., Wolfgang Helbich, and Ulrike Sommer, eds.  News from the Land of Freedom:  German Immigrants Write Home.  Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1991.  Translations of letters written by German immigrants during the nineteenth century.  Split into three groups:  farmers, workers, and domestic servants.

  • Kazal, Russell A.  Becoming Old Stock:  The Paradox of German-American Identity.  Princeton, NJ:  PrincetonUniversity Press, 2004.   Excellent study of how Germans reinvented themselves during the twentieth century as “American” rather than as ethnic American.

  • Parsons, William T.  The Pennsylvania Dutch:  A Persistent Minority.  Boston, MA:  Twayne Publishers, 1976.   Good study of the Pennsylvania German community from earliest immigration to contemporary times.  Looks at Pennsylvania German art, politics, education, and social life.

  • Wolf, Stephanie Grauman.  Urban Village:  Population, Community and Family Structure in Germantown, Pennsylvania, 1683-1800.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1976.  Community study of Germantown, Pennsylvania.  Examines probate records, wills, deeds, baptisms, and other governmental and institutional sources.

End of Unit Assessment

Have students create a model of one of the ships German immigrants would have used to travel on during their voyage to America.  Then have the students write a short paper discussing the different parts of the ship, what life was like aboard and what problems were faced during the journey.


Plans in this Unit

German Immigration: A Warning for Travelers to Colonial Pennsylvania

German Immigration: Praise for a New Life in a New World

German Immigration: Table of German Passenger Ships from 1683-1775

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content






About the Author

This lesson was created by Hannah Kim. Updated for SAS by Clara McGrath, Education Intern, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


Subject Guide

German American Genealogy Resources

Blog Post

Teaching about Immigration

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