German and Austrian Immigrants

Generalizing about German immigrants living in nineteenth-century Nevada is difficult for several reasons. Before 1870, various German states were autonomous, and people coming from these principalities often identified with individual states more than with the concept of a German nation. Many German speakers did not even come from the area that would become Germany; people from Switzerland or the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe had little reason to identify with Germany. In addition, religion separated the German speaking world. Jews, Catholics, and Protestants often regarded religion as more important than language for self-identification. Nevertheless, several observations about German and Austrian immigrants in early Nevada are possible.

In 1860, there were roughly 444 settlers from the German and Austrian states in the western Great Basin. Only the Irish exceeded this group among the foreign born that year. Eighteen of the German speakers were women, and 183 lived in Virginia City. They dominated the brewing industry in the region; of the twelve people producing beer in Carson City and Virginia City, all but two listed Germany or Prussia as a place of birth during the 1860 federal census.

The Germanic contribution to Nevada far exceeded a good glass of beer, however. Engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs including Philipp Deidesheimer, Herman Schussler, and Adolph Sutro are giants in the history of the Comstock Mining District. Other promoters of business and industry were less well known but nevertheless essential to the economic success of the young state. Germans, including the Dangbergs, for example, began arriving in the 1860s in the Carson Valley and established an important agricultural empire that dominated the region for decades.

By 1870, Germans had settled in the state in sufficient numbers to maintain their place as one of the most significant ethnic groups. The census that year recorded roughly 2,300 Germans and Austrians representing nearly forty different states and cities. The diverse places of origin underscore the lack of unity within the group. Still, these speakers of a common language were numerically surpassed only by the Irish, Chinese, and English among the foreign born in Nevada.

The immigrant population was sufficiently large in places such as Virginia City to support German-speaking church services and newspapers. Many communities founded German organizations known as "Turnvereins" to promote good health and mutual support. Although Germans sent nearly equal numbers of men and women to North America, the latter only represented eighteen percent of the whole in Nevada in 1870.

By 1880, the demographic profile of German speakers had changed slightly. Although Nevada's overall population had increased since 1870 (from 42,491 to over 62,266), these immigrants declined in number as their ranks thinned in the face of economic decline. At roughly 2,100 in 1880, German speakers had slipped to fifth place among the foreign born. Still outdistanced by the Irish, Chinese, and English, the Germans now found themselves also outnumbered by Canadians. Nevertheless, the German immigrants who remained to build the state were of sufficient status to warrant a disproportionate presence in nineteenth-century histories profiling Nevada's leading citizens.

By the turn of the century, many German speaking immigrants, like other ethnic groups, had left Nevada. Still, with a population of almost 1,271, the German and Austrian presence remained strong; only the Irish and Chinese numerically outdistanced them. Nearly a third of the German speakers were women, diminishing the gender imbalance.

As a whole, immigrants from Germany and Austria made considerable contributions to the state. Because descendants of German immigrants tended not to celebrate their roots, organizations representing this ethnicity waned. Nevertheless, the significance of so many community leaders emerging from this important group places German and Austrian immigrants in a prominent role in early Nevada history.

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