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The Westfalians: From Germany to Missouri

The Westfalians: From Germany to Missouri

by Walter D. Kamphoefner

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The author offers many new insights for students of migration and ethnicity across several social science disciplines. Focusing on the ordinary immigrants who have often been ignored in the historical record, he demonstrates that German newcomers arrived with fewer resources than previously supposed but that they were remarkably successful in becoming independent


The author offers many new insights for students of migration and ethnicity across several social science disciplines. Focusing on the ordinary immigrants who have often been ignored in the historical record, he demonstrates that German newcomers arrived with fewer resources than previously supposed but that they were remarkably successful in becoming independent farmers.

Originally published in 1987.

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The Westfalians

From Germany to Missouri

By Walter D. Kamphoefner


Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04746-1


At the Crossroads of Economic Development: Background Factors Affecting Emigration from Northwest Germany

The dividing of lands and fields undoubtedly increases the population ... but it increases only the number of consumers, not, to the same extent, the producers ... and then what is left over for times of need or for the state? ...

... The division even of individual fields should be allowed near towns and in factory and artisan districts; let it run its course undisturbed, for example, in Ravensberg, Mark, Tecklenburg, and Berg; but take care to prevent it in the rural areas around Paderborn, Münster, Julich, and Cologne. These lands are the granaries when those of the factory districts give out.

Though apparently unrelated to emigration, these recommendations by an early-nineteenth-century German agronomy expert illustrate one of the most important factors of European population dynamics on the eve of industrialization. Local economic conditions, not the mechanistic operation of inheritance customs, were the main determinants of whether peasant holdings would be subdivided. The needs of the state for a prosperous peasantry that would yield large surpluses of grain and taxes, and the desire of local communities to keep their poor-relief rolls unburdened, militated against partition in regions of full-scale peasant agriculture. Where the land was in any case too poor to provide much more than subsistence, and much of the surplus income was generated by artisan production for distant markets, attitudes toward partition and population growth were much more favorable. But even such an acute observer as Schwerz failed to realize that such "factory and artisan districts" were approaching a crossroads of economic development in the early nineteenth century. Some made the transition to modern machine industry, as did Berg and Mark and neighboring areas along the Ruhr. Those which did not, such as Tecklenburg and Ravensberg, saw a large proportion of their artisan population made redundant by the competition of industrializing regions. Where such displaced groups — rural but only marginally agricultural — made up a large share of the population, heavy overseas emigration was usually the result. In such purely agricultural regions as the Münsterland or Paderborn, population pressure seldom reached such extremes.

Accounts of German emigration as far back as Friedrich List have ascribed to inheritance systems the primary role in influencing regional variations in emigration. While in the greater part of Germany impartible inheritance (Anerbenrecht) prevailed, in southwest Germany, and in Rhineland Prussia and most of Hesse after the Napoleonic occupation, partible inheritance, equal division among heirs (Realteilung) was the rule. The latter system, it is argued, encouraged population growth and led to progressive splintering of peasant holdings, a "dwarf economy" in which many marginal operators were driven to emigration.

This view is not entirely wrong, but it is misleading unless further qualified. Although eighteenth-century emigration was largely restricted to areas of southwest Germany such as the Palatinate, Baden, and Wurttemberg, pietism and the depredations of French invaders probably rivaled partible inheritance and fragmented landholdings as precipitating factors. This region was the source of the earliest and heaviest exodus in the nineteenth century, but partible inheritance was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for heavy emigration (see Figure 1.1). Rates from the industrial areas of the Rhineland were among the lowest in Germany despite partible inheritance. Moreover, there were Districts in northwest Germany such as Osnabrück and Minden (areas of impartible inheritance) with emigration rates comparable to those of Baden and Wurttemberg in the southwest.

Because of the emphasis on southwest Germany, these heavy rates of emigration from parts of the northwest have been largely ignored. The District of Osnabrück, with less than ? percent of Germany's inhabitants, was responsible for more than 7 percent of all German immigration to the United States during the 1830s. Bordering portions of Oldenburg were even harder hit, and the neighboring Prussian Kreis Tecklenburg experienced similarly heavy emigration (see Table 1.1). Statistics at the District level mask considerable local variation, though Bersenbrück and Tecklenburg represent the extremes in their respective Districts. High rates of emigration from this region persisted over several decades. In the thirty years before the American Civil War, the population of the Fürstentum Osnabrück continued to flow overseas at an average annual rate exceeding 1 percent. In the years from i860 to 1866 (assuming equal accuracy of record keeping in Hannover and Prussia), Osnabrück had a higher rate of emigration than any Prussian District. Minden, the Prussian District adjoining Osnabrück, also ranked consistently near the top among Prussian Districts in intensity of emigration, rivaling even Sigmaringen in the heart of Baden-Württemberg.

A feature common to all these areas of heavy emigration was a well-developed cottage linen industry carried on by the rural lower class on a part-time basis but rapidly succumbing to machine competition in the nineteenth century. This downfall of cottage industry is the predominant factor that must be superimposed upon inheritance systems to understand patterns of emigration. Though its effects were perhaps most dramatic in the northwest, it was also important in central and southwest Germany. What is significant for America is that, at least until the Civil War, expulsive forces in Europe were the main factors behind emigration, and the displaced rural lower class constituted the majority of emigrants. Thus any success that German immigrants achieved in America requires a better explanation than that they were middle class before they left.

Flight to America was not necessarily the only alternative. A second, related factor affecting emigration was the development of — or failure to develop — centers of modern machine industry that could absorb surplus population. Both of these factors will be examined with special reference to the region of northwest Germany: the states of Hannover, Oldenburg, Brunswick, and Lippe, and the Districts of Minden and Münster in Prussian Westfalia. Despite this lack of political unity, and confessional differences and a somewhat varied geography as well, this region nevertheless is unified linguistically by its Low German dialect and culturally by traditions of independent peasantry (Grundberrschaft) and impartible inheritance. These characteristics set the northwest apart from the districts of great estates (Gutsherrschaft) east of the Elbe, and on the south from Hesse and the Rhineland, the approximate northern extent of High German dialects and customs of partible inheritance. Within the northwest, special attention will be focused on the Minden, Münster, and Osnabrück Districts, centers of the handloom linen industry and sources of particularly heavy emigration.

The influence of rural industry on population growth, though already noted by contemporary observers, first gained scholarly attention in Rudolf Braun's study of the Zurich highlands. Franklin Mendels then provided a more rigorous economic formulation and testing of this thesis for the area of Flanders and also coined the term protoindustry. As it will be used here, protoindustry refers to the decentralized, rural, labor-intensive production of goods for a distant market, usually supplemented by marginal agriculture.

Although Mendels made an important contribution by illuminating the interrelationship between economic and demographic processes, other aspects of his model are less convincing. Quoting the subtitle of his dissertation, he calls protoindustrialization "the first phase of industrialization," but subsequent studies suggest that he was overly optimistic. One might argue that it was a necessary precondition for industrialization, but by no means a sufficient one. Examples of "deindustrialization" — regions that failed to make the transition to modern, mechanized industry — were every bit as common as success stories. It is precisely these regions where modern industrialization took place belatedly or not at all that will constitute the chief focus of this study.

The handloom linen industry prevalent in northwest Germany differed in minor details from that in other regions, but protoindustry everywhere brought with it similar demographic consequences. It contrasted sharply with a system of full-scale peasant agriculture that contained built-in demographic safeguards. Since an heir had to wait until his father's death or retirement before he could marry and take over the farm, late marriages and small families were the rule. These restrictions on population growth were eliminated almost completely in a system of rural industry. A loom and a rented cottage were the only prerequisites for marriage and the establishment of an independent existence. With early marriage came large families, especially since children were now an economic asset, ready to be put to work spinning at the age of five. This process created an expanding rural lower class, which could find employment only through the expansion of rural industry. The end result was concentrations of population too large even to be fed, much less adequately employed, by local agriculture alone.

In northwest Germany, protoindustry was always closely associated with the Heuerling system. Which came first is difficult to determine, though in most cases rural industry developed where a rural proletariat was already present. In any case, the growth of the two was clearly mutually reinforcing. The word Heuerling has no real equivalent in English, though perhaps "tenant farmer" or "sharecropper" comes closest both as an occupational description and in class connotation. A Heuerling normally owned neither house nor land, but rented, usually for a brief tenure of four years, a cottage that was often a converted outbuilding or even a barn, and a plot of land no larger than two to three acres. For this, in addition to a small cash rent, he was usually subject to service for the landowner (a Kolon, or landowning peasant). A Heuerling either worked a fixed number of days, usually without pay, or more commonly whenever called upon, for a substandard wage. Under these conditions, subsistence without the income from the spinning and weaving of home-grown flax was hardly possible. Even in the late eighteenth century when the linen trade was flourishing, this was often supplemented by seasonal labor in Holland.

During the first half of the ninetenth century, the handloom linen industry in Germany suffered a series of shocks that reduced it from a major supplier for export to economic insignificance. First, the Napoleonic Wars and the Continental blockade denied Germany access to its main markets in the Western Hemisphere, especially Latin America. The exclusion of British competition from the Continent temporarily compensated for this loss, but the end of the war found the South American colonies on the road to independence and their markets firmly in the hands of the British, accompanied by an enormous expansion of handloom weaving in Ireland. Second, linen production was being mechanized — first the spinning and then the weaving — with Ulster taking the lead and German production centers making the transition only belatedly and incompletely. Third, linen itself was increasingly being replaced on the market by cotton, which was better adapted to mechanized production. Thus a once-booming rural industry faded into insignificance, and many of the areas where it had flourished reverted to simple agriculture.

For the landless or land-poor classes dependent on linen weaving for supplementary or even primary income, the decline of the industry had serious consequences that reached catastrophic proportions in such times of agricultural crisis as the mid-1840s. These crises produced waves of emigration, which appear upon cursory observation to have been especially heavy in areas with a concentration of rural industry.

The three Districts of Westfalia present in microcosm three contrasting patterns of economic and demographic development (see Table 1.2). In the east, Minden-Ravensberg, a center of protoindustry in the form of linen weaving and spinning, was the most densely populated area in all Prussia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But its patterns of high birthrates and rapid population growth were reversed before midcentury by the collapse of the linen industry, leaving in its wake widespread misery and massive emigration that subsided only when parts of the region made a successful, if belated, transition to modern textile and other industries.

The rugged District of Arnsberg in the south, traditionally a center of small-scale charcoal-iron industry, witnessed during the nineteenth century the booming growth of Germany's largest concentration of heavy industry, the Ruhr valley. Here emigation was the lowest, and birthrates and population growth the highest, in Westfalia, although the shifting economic center of gravity from southeast to northwest did require some internal migration.

To the west, the sandy plain of the Münsterland, level and easily worked if not especially fertile, had traditionally been the home of a prosperous, independent peasantry engaged in comparatively large-scale agriculture. Patterns of late marriage and low birthrates brought only a low rate of emigration and slow growth of population into the period of industrialization.

These characteristics are clearly reflected in District statistics even though the economic regions do not correspond exactly with administrative boundaries. Not all of the Minden District was protoindustrialized. Kreis Recklinghausen in the southeast of the Münster District is really a part of the industrial Ruhr valley, while Kreis Tecklenburg in the north is a western extension of the hilly, protoindustrialized region of Minden-Ravensberg. In general, the economic regions conform more to geography than to political boundaries. Protoindustry was largely restricted to the area between the Teutoburger WaId and the Wiehengebirge, stretching from Tecklenburg across the intervening tongue of Hannoverian territory around Osnabrück and the northern half of the Minden District to the dwarf state of Lippe-Detmold (see Figure 1.2).

While the broad regional outlines of the extent of protoindustry are easily sketched, a more differentiated measure of its intensity at the local level is not so easily obtained. Where weaving was the primary activity, as in the Münster and Osnabrück Districts, the number of looms is a good indicator; but where large proportions of the population were engaged in spinning, as in Minden, statistical information is harder to find. For Kreis Tecklenburg and most of the Fürstentum Osnabrück, the number of looms per 1,000 inhabitants exceeded 120 in the early nineteenth century; for Minden-Ravensberg the index figure was only 36 in 1796. But an 1838 figure shows 22,594 spinner families in Minden-Ravensberg, or nearly 1 for every 10 inhabitants. Assuming 5 persons per family, 60 percent of Tecklenburg's population would have been directly dependent on protoindustry; with the combination of spinning and weaving, the proportion in Minden-Ravensberg would have been even higher. Another indication of the importance of rural industry is the volume of linen sales, which amounted to nearly 10 taler per capita annually in some areas.

These areas were no longer agriculturally self-sufficient, another reflection of the dependence on protoindustry. By the end of the eighteenth century, Tecklenburg grew enough grain for its own use only in the best of years; with bad and even average harvests, imports were necessary. If this was the case in Tecklenburg, with a population density of 155 persons per square mile in 1843, the dependence on imports must have been much more severe in Minden-Ravensberg, where only one Kreis in five had a density below 250, with two of them exceeding 330 persons per square mile. So for a considerable proportion of the population, agriculture no longer provided an alternative when protoindustry failed them.

The widely varying intensity of rural industry in the early nineteenth century is reflected in several inventories of linen looms at the local level in the Münster and Minden Districts. The number of looms per capita in 1816, 1831, and 1849 were correlated with the per capita rates of emigration for the years 183? through 1850 from each rural Kreis of the Münster District (see Table 1.3). The results in all cases are very similar: an r value approaching .90 for the association between rural industry and emigration. Expressed in terms of the R2 value, knowing the number of looms in each Kreis, one could have predicted approximately three-fourths of the variation in the level of emigration. For the Minden District, credible emigration statistics are not available until the 1850s, and spinners as well as weavers have to be taken into account to approximate the importance of rural industry. Here, too, the correlation with emigration rates is rather close, though not so high as in Münster. In Minden, the proportion of Heuerleute in the population prove to be an even better predictor of emigration, but this only shows how interdependent all three phenomena were.


Excerpted from The Westfalians by Walter D. Kamphoefner. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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