Introduction, Volume 1: From the Colonial Economy to Early Industrialization (1720-1840)

The very long eighteenth century, 1720-1840, is a period of extraordinary change and growth, starting in North America as a colony of Great Britain and ending well after the founding of the United States of America when European immigrants and settlers had pushed the frontier to the Pacific.

Updated: February 13, 2017

The very long eighteenth century, 1720-1840, is a period of extraordinary change and growth, starting in North America as a colony of Great Britain and ending well after the founding of the United States of America when European immigrants and settlers had pushed the frontier to the Pacific. This period can be divided in many ways to reflect significant milestones in the development of North America and to mark different phases of development in German immigration and entrepreneurship. One way is to look at the four cohorts that characterize the migration of German speakers from Europe to North America and the communities that those immigrants built: the “pioneering” cohort (1720-1748), the “revolutionary” cohort (1749-1783), the “young republic” cohort (1784-1814), and the “westward expansion” cohort (1815-1840).

Beginning with the early pioneers and extending into the time of the first cohort (1720-1748), the Delaware Valley region developed as the most attractive to German-speaking immigrants because of its well-publicized and sympathetically matched geographic, social, and cultural characteristics to which those who had relocated there successfully attested reliably and encouragingly. The promise and upheavals framed by the French and Indian War and the War of Independence mark the second segment (1749-1783), while the struggle of the new nation, including the War of 1812, affected the third period of extraordinary growth of the country that Americans founded (1784-1814) and of which already established settlers and immigrants took possession. The period of the final cohort (1815-1840) is in many respects transitional, in that old ways were discontinued and the dispersal of German-speaking immigrants followed the general population movement westward.

Time-specific circumstances of transportation, communication, banking, and markets for goods and services provide frameworks for entrepreneurial opportunity and action that shifted from the early beginnings of German settlements in the American colonies to the decade before the great flood of nineteenth-century German immigration to the United States. The interdependence of the German-speaking migration across the Atlantic and the distribution of the newcomers’ settlements, first in the colonies and then throughout most of the states of the new nation, brings into focus the centrality especially of transportation—in this case foremost of people but also of the goods and services on which they relied and which they offered.

Exploration of the four major strands that make up the fabric of immigrant entrepreneurship as exemplified by select German-American business biographies, as well as of characteristics that significantly shaped the context in which entrepreneurs operated, follows after some general observations.

Entrepreneurship in the Eighteenth Century

In the eighteenth century entrepreneurship was a concept that few people would have recognized or applied as a label to their efforts of making a living and accumulating wealth. All immigrants experienced the risk inherent in relocating across the Atlantic to build a new life but it is most often impossible to tell whether they undertook that move with the goal of making a decent living or creating a business to maximize financial returns. In the early eighteenth century, most German immigrants would have understood business as part of the world of trade and commerce; by the early nineteenth century their understanding of German-American business and businessmen had been shaped by examples of compatriots who built their success through commercial firms. Yet none of those German-speaking immigrants would have used the term entrepreneur with the meaning of one who undertakes an enterprise or owns and manages a business and takes the risk of profit or loss (as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary).[1] Put differently, the biographies of the German-American businessmen in volume 1 of the Immigrant Entrepreneurship project allow us to evaluate their roles in terms of entrepreneurship even if they themselves would not have described their activities and impact—failures and successes—in that way.

Comparable to clarifying the understanding of entrepreneurship as an analytical term rather than a common and commonly understood description of certain characteristics of business people is the typically implicit assumption that German immigrants were also citizens. It is critical, however, to distinguish between the cultural identification, self or other, as German or German-American and the legal status that affected immigrants and their descendants in the conduct of business. During the long eighteenth century the vast majority of migrants who left German-speaking lands forfeited their citizenship or similar status when their territorial lords released them formally from German-speaking homelands. Before the American Revolution and the founding of the United States, relatively few German immigrants in the colonies applied for English citizenship, most often in efforts to pursue secure title to real estate and also to participate in transatlantic trade. During the War of Independence and especially in the early years of the young republic the question of the loyalty of aliens became pressing and was at some times and in some states contentious. In other words, the path from immigrant status to gaining American citizenship was different from the processes of acculturation by which German-speaking immigrants developed from newcomers into ethnic Americans. Closely linked to issues of status and citizenship were questions of national origin. Throughout the long eighteenth century German-speaking immigrants self-identified most commonly in regional or local terms of their native origins and their English-speaking neighbors, American-born as well as migrants from Great Britain, labeled them with different names, including Dutch, Palatine, and Hessians. Native German as well English speakers at that time shared a very strong sense of local identification. In both cases their American identity became layered in addition to their geographical and cultural group affiliations as a result of the founding of the United States of America, in which citizenship was a reflection of the ideas of liberty and freedom in a democratic society as expressed in the Constitution.

“Missing” Women Entrepreneurs

If knowing how the articulation of entrepreneurship in the eighteenth century differed from that of today and of how the role of citizenship developed from the colonial period to the ante-bellum years in the United States helps with better understanding the role and impact of German-American immigrant businesses and success, the cultural and legal restrictions that kept women from participating independently and in their own right in the business world presents a very serious limitation. In the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century men, and many women themselves, considered women unsuitable and unable to conduct business. This belief was broadly persuasive and the attitude extended to both sides of the Atlantic even though men and women knew of examples that identified women with outstanding business sense and managerial skills, often as partners in their husbands’ or fathers’ businesses or as widows continuing successfully in enterprises that had come to them through the death of their spouses when there were no sons to inherit the business or when sons were not yet of age. The cultural barriers to women in business, often articulated and rationalized in religious terms that prescribed the role of women, were easily kept in place because of the ways the law in England and the United States defined the status of women. A married woman, or feme covert, was considered to be under the authority and protection of her husband, having no separate legal identity or rights to her own property. In comparison, an unmarried woman, specifically a divorced or widowed woman, or feme sole, had not only a legal right to own property but also to carry on a business. Under these circumstances few women were able to stand out in the surviving records even if there is indication that some of them were entrepreneurial. For example, Catherine, the wife of the senior minister Johann Martin Bolzius of the Salzburger refugee settlement in Ebenezer, Georgia, was successful as manager of the local silk industry. And Anna Marie, née Weiser, as well all as the daughters of the pioneering Lutheran minister Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg in Pennsylvania handled the transatlantic pharmaceutical business by which medicines from the Franckesche Foundation in Halle/Saale, Saxony-Anhalt, were ordered for distribution in the middle colonies and states. Times of upheaval and uncertainty such as the move across the Atlantic or, more broadly, vicissitudes related to war compelled women or offered them opportunities to raise to and even excel at tasks and businesses that were deemed the affairs of men and that were typically returned to the purview of men when extraordinary situations returned to normal. As a result there is little evidence whether, in what ways, and with what impact women took on entrepreneurial roles that would have otherwise warranted inclusion of more of their biographies in the early period of the project.

In the case of women as entrepreneurs the dearth of evidence is largely a reflection of cultural customs and attitudes and legal constraints characteristic for the eighteenth century. The lack of useful sources, especially of sufficiently detailed business records, however, presents an artificial barrier to a more general and well distributed selection of German-American business biographies. Not only the vagaries of time but also a different thinking as to what to document and keep for posterity has affected the choice of entrepreneurs to be included in the Immigrant Entrepreneurship project as well as the detail to which their risk-taking, business model, and impact are apparent and suitable for measurement and comparison to the enterprises of those German-speaking immigrant entrepreneurs who came at a later time.

The World of Business in the Eighteenth Century

When focusing on how the expression of entrepreneurship developed as the cohorts of German immigrants changed from the first rather small group of pioneers to the last much more numerous one before the middle of the nineteenth century and the Civil War, it is important to keep the different understanding of business throughout the long eighteenth century in mind. It is also crucial to be aware of the effect that legal status had on immigrants and especially on the participation rate of women in the business sphere. And one needs to remember the limitations that imperfect sources had on the selection of and details about German-American businessmen between 1720 and 1840.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century the economic sphere for German and German-American businessmen who clustered in the mid-Atlantic colonies was very different from the world of business a good century later. The geographic expansion for entrepreneurial endeavors was enormous, increasing from a relatively small strip of land for settlement by European colonists and two major port towns, New York and Philadelphia, and their respective hinterlands to access first the mid-West and then the Pacific coast. It afforded access to other ports of entry for immigrants and for the shipping of goods from and to the United States.

Hand in hand with the geographical expansion came the development of markets, driven in part by the increase in population, native-born as well as immigrant, and in part by developments in transportation, which affected not only the character of ties that linked the two sides of the Atlantic but also the networks that were forged across the North American continent. Before the age of steam and with it industrialization marked revolutionary shifts in the pursuit of business around 1840 the change up to that point was significant. Transatlantic shipping by sail remained dependent on wind and currents but better knowledge of the seas, technological improvements in ship building, and an increase in the number and size of vessels that connected Europe and America led to more, faster, and more frequent crossings. This affected not only the kinds of goods and services dependent on overseas transport but also their price, thereby opening up opportunities for business. Similarly, developments of transportation on land, beginning with roads and rivers and expanding to networks that included canals lured investors and not only connected already existing markets but also created new ones, offering unprecedented openings for financing ventures and the scaling of businesses. Closely tied to the evolution of more, better, and faster transportation at sea and on land were improvements in communication, mostly through letters and newspapers, which were critical for directing the flow of immigrants as well as for providing businessmen with information necessary for planning and decision-making.

The growth of established markets and the formation of new ones in which German and German-American immigrant entrepreneurs were active over the course of this period was closely tied to political circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic. Armed conflicts caused disruptions and uncertainty that affected the European and American economies, as did periods of peace that brought safe passage for overseas shipping and (re-)building under changed political organization and order. In the American colonies the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the War of Independence (1775-1783), and the War of 1812 (1812-1815) in the still young United States caused death, destruction, damage, and difficulties for most colonists and settlers, immigrants and citizens, with the exception of a few who could capitalize on particular needs during war times and leverage shortages into profit. In Europe, the conflicts among the continental powers in the 1740s, the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the nineteenth century disrupted trade and transportation routes and created hardships for many inhabitants of the German territories, the Habsburg Empire, and some of the cantons of Switzerland. They were so serious as to encourage emigration, even if the execution of such decisions had to be postponed until relocation across the Atlantic was available, affordable, and safe. War destruction and the dislocation it caused led to economic uncertainties and hardships that affected any re-building, but it was particularly far-reaching in the new republic where the organization of government differed greatly from that of the colonies of Great Britain. Under a new federal constitution, with boundaries open to the West, a new currency and banking system business could not be reestablished as before the war. The path for the new nation was uncharted and therefore included promises of growth and development that captured the imagination of immigrants and entrepreneurs. The first few decades of the nineteenth century brought success and failure for business ventures as the country went through great fluctuations in its economy as a result of serious, often devastating credit crises.

Over the course of the very long eighteenth century the conditions for entrepreneurial activities changed significantly with regard to transportation, communication, and markets for goods and services. Importantly, however, those one hundred and twenty years can be divided into the time leading up to the founding of the United States, when German and German-American entrepreneurs pursued a variety of businesses on a relatively small scale, and the time of nation building after independence, when entrepreneurial ventures attracted a different kind of German immigrant who operated in the financial industries on a large scale. As the United States expanded and developed, so did opportunities for German and German-American businessmen.

The “Pioneering” Cohort (1720-1748)

The first of the four generational cohorts of German-speaking immigrants landed in American ports from about 1720, when German immigration began to flow regularly albeit in relatively small numbers, to 1748, the year just before the number of immigrants sky-rocketed in each of the six years before the French and Indian, or Seven Years, War. Some of the characteristics of this first cohort of German-speaking immigrants stand out because of their effects on setting the parameters within which entrepreneurship could occur. In those first three decades of regular German migration flow the proportion of families among the immigrants was relatively large. Also, significant numbers relocated to Pennsylvania with a strong motivation to take advantage of the freedom in the Quaker colony that allowed them to exercise their various Protestant faith practices without interference from the government. They also sought to pursue ways of making a living in agriculture and as craftsmen and artisans without much regulation and taxation. Quite a few of the immigrants were relatively well off in that they brought with them children or other kin who could help with the setting up and staffing of newly purchased farms or shops. Others who did not come as part of a group of relatives or co-religionists could employ indentured servants, who were increasingly other German immigrants who became temporarily indebted for their labor to those who could redeem their outstanding fare debts for the transatlantic voyage.

The effect of the first cohort of German immigrants on settlements and communities was three-fold. Groups of relatives, neighbors, or co-religionists who came to settle in the Delaware Valley region because they shared religious convictions and experiences with oppression at home and who relocated with some financial and human resources encountered fewer problems in adjusting successfully to life in the New World than immigrants in later cohorts. Since they undertook the relocation when land for purchase or rent was still affordable and not too far from Philadelphia they had choices as to where to settle and therefore tended to cluster in communities of like-minded colonists. And when their children reached adulthood their prospects for starting out on their own were promising even if it meant that they had to look for affordable land further inland, competing with immigrants of the second cohort of German immigrants in search of land but already well versed in making their livelihood in colonial America.

The “Revolutionary” Cohort (1749-83)

The second cohort of German-speaking immigrants to the American colonies (1749-83) differed significantly from those immigrants in whose footsteps they followed. They came in much larger numbers that were very unevenly distributed across the years between 1749 and 1783, in large part because warfare on both sides of the Atlantic curtailed passage for immigrants. The characteristics of this second immigrant cohort were also markedly different in that it attracted German speakers who left their homelands in search of better opportunities elsewhere; it included fewer families, which tended to be younger; and many more single young people, mostly men, relocated and did so with very limited resources. The advances in organizing the transatlantic voyage for passengers embarking in Rotterdam enabled more German immigrants from more varied regional and denominational backgrounds to undertake the transatlantic relocation but they did so at greater risk during the voyage and upon landing in mostly Philadelphia. Immigrants indebted for the fare of the voyage and those with limited resources faced more limited opportunities for employment and those able to search for land had to move much farther inland to settle. As a result, in the thirty-four years from the peak of the eighteenth-century German immigration to the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, communities of Americans of German background did not only grow in terms of their numbers of residents but also with regard to their locations, reaching along the eastern seaboard from New York to the southern colonies and well into the hinterlands of what became the Northwest Territory. And those communities included settlers whose degree of familiarity with and successful acculturation to life in America ranged from descendants of the pioneers in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century to those newcomers who had arrived just before the outbreak of hostilities in the 1770s. Members of the second cohort of immigrants were instrumental in changing the landscape of German settlements with regard to geographical expansion and characteristics of colonists, both with significant impact for entrepreneurial activities. This is reflected in the relatively large number of business biographies from this period when compared with those before and after, suggesting not only an unusual immigrant cohort but also attesting to a period of rapid transformation as the North American colonies developed and fought for independence from Great Britain.

The “Young Republic” Cohort (1784-1814)

The third cohort of German-speaking immigrants (1784-1814) is a relatively small but interesting one in that it included those immigrants who were attracted by the United States of America, a new nation that was very different from the German-speaking territories from which they originated and departed as emigrants. In this period, too, wars and hostile actions that involved European powers and the young United States determined when shippers offered and arranged passage for German speakers drawn to the opportunities across the Atlantic. Around the turn of the century trade with strangers had not changed much, but because it had become highly routinized it could respond readily according to varying circumstances of safety at sea and shifting demand in response to emigration triggers in German-speaking lands. In comparison to the second immigrant cohort the numbers are small but their distribution across the ports of entry is much more varied, shifting away from the Delaware River ports not only to neighboring New York and Baltimore but other ports as well, establishing points of entry for the distribution of German-speaking settlers across almost all areas of the expanding United States. With this cohort another shift in the characteristics of the immigrants is evident, namely that, while the majority of newcomers came with goals of bettering their circumstances and prospects in life through employment and the acquisition of land, there was also a small but distinct proportion of immigrants who were drawn to the more strictly business-like investment opportunities in the new nation. This cohort, different from the others, confronted questions about loyalty and allegiance as the role of foreigners or aliens was defined and re-defined primarily in light of citizenship in the United States and also as part of the discussion of the nature of the nation state more generally.

The “Westward Expansion” Cohort (1815-1840)

The character of the fourth cohort of German-speaking immigrants (1815-1840) was shaped by the end of an era in immigration. Passage across the Atlantic was still by sail, but average fare prices had dropped by more than a quarter and sailings were more regular and predictable, making relocation to America imaginable and affordable for geographically and socially broader segments of potential emigrants. In addition, well established connections between shippers and employers on both sides of the Atlantic contributed to the ways by which newcomers were distributed across the United States, clustering along expanding transportation lines and hubs besides the fast-growing urban centers on the eastern seaboard and in the towns and cities of the rapidly developing Midwest. The few business biographies that fall into this cohort are decidedly among those that demonstrate the success of enterprises that focus on German-rooted expertise and culturally focused goods and services and those endeavors that require considerable resources and intensive management.

The Importance of Transatlantic Networks

The interdependence of the German-speaking immigration across the Atlantic and the distribution of the immigrants’ settlements, first in the colonies and then throughout most of the states of the new nation, brings into focus the centrality of transportation—in this case foremost of people but also of the goods and services on which they relied and which they offered.

Transportation networks were of critical importance because they connected emigrants from their places of departure to the European ports from which they sailed to the ports in North America where they landed, as immigrants, and from where they made their ways to transitional and permanent locales to build their lives and communities. Transportation networks were also closely tied to networks of communication, all of which depended on physical means by which to convey information by word of mouth or in varied forms of writing. Similarly, markets that made use of and relied on trust and banking, especially with respect to credit, intersected crucially with transportation networks and in particular concentrated in certain nodes of those networks. Since entrepreneurial activities become evident by the ways in which businessmen made use of—if not exploited—markets, outlining how the transportation networks developed in each of the four immigration cohorts offers some insights into the framework of opportunity for German-speaking entrepreneurs.

Transatlantic Networks 1720-1748

Up to the middle of the eighteenth century, when German-speaking immigrants and their descendants were concentrated in the mid-Atlantic colonies and especially in Pennsylvania, the transportation networks that connected them in Europe, across the Atlantic, and along the eastern seaboard were largely irregular, complicated, slow, dangerous, and dependent on personal connections. Distances on land were measured by the time it took to walk even though there was the use of horses and carriages, each of those at a price, and also the relative accessibility, convenience, and comfort of river or coastal boats at a time when both the use and availability of roads was limited. The voyage across the Atlantic,[2] typically from Rotterdam via an English port to Philadelphia, was uncertain at best and always expensive, in part because it took months—a long time for which victualing was required. As a consequence immigrants and their baggage traveled slowly with many stops, requiring dealings with many different people along the way, often negotiating in more than one language and almost always involving transactions in different currencies. Under those circumstances of often unforeseen and unforeseeable negotiations, knowing of or finding trustworthy help was critical in minimizing risk and reaching one’s goal without ill effects. Kin, co-religionists, and compatriots typically represented the promise of fair dealings but among them there were always some who misused that trust for their own gain. Boatmen, inn keepers, shippers, captains, and others along the way as well as fellow travelers played varying roles as cultural brokers in that they had familiarity with language and customs particular to the negotiating parties, in small as well as in large transactions such as translating instructions and contracts or facilitating purchases of goods and services.

In this early period the transportation networks on which immigrants depended in their relocation across the Atlantic developed links and nodes common to all German-speaking voyagers, but overlaying those connections were other networks based on ties of kinship, religious affiliation, and place of origin. With few exceptions immigrants of the first cohort made use of the transportation network only once and only in one direction, from Europe to America. Among the five early entrepreneurs portrayed in the Immigrant Entrepreneurship project, four played roles as cultural brokers in pursuit of their respective business, but only two of them made use of the transportation network that had been established and developed for moving German immigrants across the Atlantic. Caspar Wistar, who had come to Philadelphia in 1717 as a young man, relied on a transportation network particularly shaped by persistent connections to kin in his place of origin for importing sought-after goods and bringing men with special expertise and experience to manage his glassworks, thereby advancing his business. Henry Keppele also landed in Philadelphia as a young man (1738), having been guided by the knowledge and support of particular pietist networks, an experience he had in common with Henrich Miller and Johann Christoph Sauer. Keppele expanded his role as cultural broker and well-respected member of the German Lutheran community, including being a founding member in the German Society of Pennsylvania (1764) and, importantly, as the owner of ships built and engaged in the transportation of German immigrants to Philadelphia. As a businessman of the first immigrant cohort he put his knowledge of the transatlantic immigrant trade to profitable use during the period of the second immigrant cohort. Keppele leveraged his knowledge of and familiarity with partners in Europe and America who shared his religious views to manage a business that was unpredictable in terms of demand for transatlantic transportation as well as uncertain because of wars that affected safety at sea and that required trust in agents in far-away places, credit over extended periods of time, and skillful manipulation of demand for immigrant labor in the Delaware valley and beyond.

In comparison, Henrich Miller, Johann Christoph Sauer, and John Zenger capitalized on their respective expertise as cultural brokers differently. All of them acquired, by different means and routes, expertise in printing and used their specialized knowledge and skills to build different kinds of businesses. Sauer and Miller, both of them operating on a foundation of strong, faith-based convictions, strove to shape opinions among German immigrants and their descendants through German-language publications, especially newspapers. Sauer began to make his voice public in the period of the first immigrant cohort and published his views well past the middle of the eighteenth century, while Miller’s newspaper was particularly influential because of his support for the American Revolution among immigrants of the second cohort as well as the children of earlier immigrants. Excepting William Rittenhouse, who belonged to the founding generation of immigrants whose Mennonite beliefs had influenced their decision to settle in Pennsylvania and who built a business that depended on knowledge and skills acquired in Europe but that flourished because of demand in the colonies, all businessmen belonging to the first immigrant cohort succeeded in their respective endeavors because of their ability to exploit their knowledge of the workings of the transportation networks that spanned the Atlantic or to take advantage of the increasing demand for their particular printing and publication services that were an outcome of the immigrant trade and the development of the colonies in which they settled.

Transatlantic Networks 1749-1783

In the period during which the second immigrant cohort arrived the transatlantic transportation networks developed in ways that affected how communication took place and how markets expanded geographically and structurally with the result that innovation and entrepreneurial activities, albeit limited, were especially vibrant, diverse, and noteworthy.

In the very long eighteenth century the year 1749 is the one with the absolute highest number of German immigrants landing in the American colonies. That year marks the beginning of the second immigrant entrepreneur cohort (1749-1783) that spans two military conflicts, the French and Indian War and the War of Independence, ending with the Peace Treaty of Paris (1783). While the flow of German-speaking immigrants in the first half of the eighteenth century fluctuated around an upward trend, in the second half of the century the tide was punctuated with three peaks. The first one around 1750 had very high numbers of newcomers, subsequent highs in the 1760s and 1770s were relatively smaller, and the resumption of German immigration to the young United States falls into the period of the third immigrant entrepreneur cohort (1784-1814).[3] What distinguishes the context for entrepreneurial activities in the second cohort from that for the first one is not only the number of immigrants from which the selected entrepreneurs were drawn but also the geographical expansion and organizational development of the networks on both sides of the Atlantic that earlier immigrants and their children had created.

Within the transportation networks that shaped entrepreneurial behavior, four sectors evolved for immigrants to harness the promise of relocation to the American colonies. Foremost among them were opportunities for profit from participation in the immigrant trade. By the middle of the eighteenth century the organization of transporting immigrants across the Atlantic had become a specialized component of the general trade networks that connected different parts of Europe with North America within the constraints set by the British system of mercantilism. The commercial connections that linked merchants and their agents primarily in ports along the northern coast of the continent (Hamburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Le Havre) with ports along or close to the English Channel (London, Cowes, Dover, Portsmouth) and secondarily with their various partners inland had grown from occasional arrangements, mostly along lines of kinship and religious affiliation, to more regular and regularized relationships among more, more widely dispersed, and denser groups of associates with ties through family, faith, native origin, and common interest. In this constellation the web for trading was closely aligned with communication because information was transmitted from person to person or by letter or print publications that were dependent on the same transportation networks used by people and goods.

Similarly, payment for commodities and services as well as lines of credit in connection with transatlantic trade occurred along the links forged by the transportation networks. Considerable improvements in the structural ties of transportation, communication, and banking bound merchants and traders in expanding markets in Europe and in the American colonies and shortened the time required for transactions. Nevertheless, delays along the way on land and dependence on wind and currents at sea continued to put everyone connected to transatlantic networks at a serious disadvantage. German-American immigrant entrepreneurs like John Henry Keppele, who had begun their transatlantic trading ventures as members of the first cohort, and members of the second cohort such as the Gratz brothers Barnard and Michael profitably leveraged their knowledge and contacts in their respective German-speaking communities. They did so in two ways: by effectively targeting recruitment in areas beyond those already known as regions of potential emigrants, and by coordinating more usefully fluctuating labor market demands in the greater Delaware Valley region with uneven inflows of immigrants who had undertaken the move across the Atlantic indebted for the full or partial cost of the fare for the voyage. As culturally attuned brokers in the transatlantic immigrant trade those entrepreneurs were well placed to balance the risks of complicated and extended credit networks. They were also in a position to influence the framework for and particulars of this specialized trade, and to diversify trading in merchandise on the bases of their familiarity with specific groups of customers who had integrated successfully into their new lives in American society to become consumers of imported goods.

Knowledge of markets in the American colonies, especially those in the mid-Atlantic region that included considerable numbers of German-speaking immigrants and their children and, increasingly, grandchildren was also of advantage to immigrant entrepreneurs whose activities were focused on producing items that were in high demand and required specialized skills, were dependent on training in Europe, or on materials not readily available locally or regionally. Gottfried Aust started a successful pottery as part of the Moravian settlement in Salem, South Carolina, whose products fulfilled functional needs among a growing population in an expanding region. Jacob Dickert, the leading gunsmith in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, profited from the demand for America-made rifles at all times but especially in war times when orders for guns soared. In response, he successfully coordinated many small-scale gun-makers into a thriving, expanding, and protected industry. William Stiegel, who manufactured glass and steel, is another immigrant entrepreneur in this group whose members depended on the immigrant trade for skilled and common labor and, to a lesser extent, materials. They marketed their products among German-speaking immigrants and their descendants as well as their neighbors of different origins. By comparison, Peter Hasenclever, a German-born international businessman, failed to achieve the success he sought with establishing a transatlantic enterprise to produce, transport, and market iron and steel in New York and New Jersey.

If knowledge about the demands for labor and consumers’ desire for particular goods in local and regional markets benefited immigrant entrepreneurs involved in the immigrant trade and in the importation and production of particular commodities, another group’s focus on a specialized market aligned their members’ entrepreneurial activities with circumstances of demand that resulted from shortages during the War of Independence. Daniel Hiester, a second generation immigrant, and Christopher Ludwig recognized and capitalized on entrepreneurial opportunities that were based on their respective business skills and experience. As a consequence they accumulated wealth that they reinvested in real estate which contributed to raising their social status in the German-speaking community as well as among the broader community. Another immigrant entrepreneur for whom the American Revolution was both opportunity and demonstration of commitment to the cause of independence from Britain was Haym Salomon. He was a Jew from Poland with extraordinary skills for and experience in operating on very high levels of finance in several European countries that proved invaluable to the Americans. As “financier of the American Revolution” he carried out his entrepreneurial activities that were of a different kind and on a different scale than those of any of the previous immigrant entrepreneurs. He also differed from immigrant entrepreneurs who came with access to considerable resources or amassed significant wealth as a result of financial acumen in subsequent years, like Charles August Heckscher and David Parish, whose endeavors in the pursuit of profits were more singularly directed toward their own, respected good even if the development of regions or industries was a notable consequence, too.

The second immigrant entrepreneur cohort was the largest, in part a reflection of the considerably larger number of immigrants who had already settled in the American colonies and to whose settlements many more immigrants were added; in part because they built on enterprises and connections that earlier German-speaking entrepreneurs with transatlantic networks had established; and in part because they could not only weather the economic difficulties that affected colonial Americans during and especially in the aftermath of the French and Indian War but also because they supported the American Revolution as a cause worth fighting for that also offered opportunities distinct from any available in peace time.

After the end of the War of Independence (1783) the transatlantic transportation networks that circumscribed the range within and the ways by which immigrant entrepreneurs could operate changed in two significant respects even though the technologies that determined the common modes of transportation, sailing vessels and roadways, remained fundamentally the same. The shift from the British regulatory and legal system that governed transatlantic trade until the end of the eighteenth century to the authority of the federal government of the United States affected the flow of people and goods and services as well as the transfer of capital along the links within the European and American networks and the ties that connected them. Closely related to transportation networks, communication and banking contacts became generally denser and expanded much farther, making for more and more frequent connections that affected how information shaped planning and decisions. Allegiance of foreign-born residents in and immigrants to the new nation was questioned and tested in different ways, focusing on “American” no longer mostly in geographical and cultural terms for defining identities but as a category for citizenship that became more clearly defined after the ratification of the United States Constitution. One of the consequences of that shift from being part of the British Empire to a young republic in its own right was the decreasing use of Dutch ports of embarkation for German-speaking immigrants in favor of Hamburg and Bremerhaven from which ships sailed without stopover in English ports directly to destinations in the United States. Here, especially Baltimore gained importance relative to Philadelphia. In addition, the expansion of links into the Midwest as a consequence of the extraordinary expansion of the early republic created new markets and signaled promise for more and more diverse entrepreneurial activity in the United States.

Transatlantic Networks 1784-1814

The third German immigrant entrepreneur cohort (1784-1814), which was made up of relatively fewer immigrants but very large numbers of third and second-generations of earlier immigrants reflects the uncertainty and promise of the time between the Peace Treaty of Paris (1763) and the War of 1812. John Jacob Astor has become the stereotype for the very successful German immigrant entrepreneur, yet his example is both extraordinary in the ways he recognized and seized opportunities with balanced risks and typical in the sets of circumstances that allowed him to exercise his entrepreneurial talent. Born after the end of the Seven Year War (1763) he had no direct knowledge of America’s Revolutionary War when he landed in New York in 1784, a place and time favorable for gaining profit from the trade with luxury goods and on a national course toward enormous geographic expansion westward, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Astor contributed actively to the nation’s expansion and profited from it, especially in the antebellum period of the fourth German immigrant entrepreneur cohort (1815-1840) during which his trading interests and networks within the United States and across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans forged new links with significant impact on transportation, communication, and banking, until his death in 1848—two years before California joined the Union. The example of Frederick W. Brune, prominent merchant in Baltimore, echoes that of Astor in that it starts fifteen years later, when Brune arrived in Baltimore in 1799, and extends well past 1840, underscoring the promise of the early national period for establishing enterprises with the potential for long-term development even though the context for managing risk and maintaining success changed dramatically during the decades leading up to the Civil War. Like Astor, Brune built a trading network, first with business partners and later with his sons that connected the United States with Europe—in his case Baltimore with Bremen, both of which expanded importantly because of their respective role in operating the German immigrant trade, and that expanded beyond North America into South America.

The remarkable success with which Astor and Brune seized the opportunities related to the expansion of the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century was matched with contrasting intent and outcome by the role Johann Georg Rapp played in using and developing transportation networks across the Atlantic and from the mid-Atlantic states to the Midwestern states. Rapp was a sectarian like the ones of an earlier period who had led like-minded followers from oppressive situations at home to North America in search of building communities where they could exercise their faith truly and without interference from the authorities. In the early nineteenth century that meant that Rapp had to search in places that were not yet fully claimed or developed by settlers with no interest in joining his experiment of a “Divine Economy.” In founding Harmony and Economy in Pennsylvania and New Harmony in Indiana Rapp conceived, put into place, and developed a business model for sustaining a community with substantial numbers of his followers that had as its goal communal, not individual wealth. In this agricultural enterprise he leveraged its products through a trade network that connected Europe, especially Wurttemberg, with the United States in innovative ways, including the transfer of many small capital resources of individuals in different countries and the conveyance of a completely developed community, New Harmony, to a buyer who, in turn, made it into the anchor of a new network of westward exploration and development that drove innovation and further risk-taking.

On the other end of the spectrum of successful entrepreneurial activities that passed from the first generation to the next, like Astor and Brune, was the enterprise of Christopher Demuth, a tobacconist who developed a shop into a thriving business that benefited several generations of his descendants. If his success was extraordinary in the long term, the scale of his endeavor was very limited when compared with the far-flung, diversified, and complex operations of the two immigrant merchants Astor and Brune based in New York and Baltimore respectively. That difference was in part the result of the time and place in which Demuth operated. As the son of an immigrant, who had settled in the Pennsylvania backcountry in the first half of the eighteenth century, he belonged to an earlier generation that experienced the upheaval of armed conflict twice, during the French and Indian War and the War of Independence. In addition, his business had a strong regional focus but depended in its success on recognizing and matching mostly ordinary consumer demand with a product line that was manufactured locally, representing challenges of inter- and intra-regional transportation, communication, and credit lines in times of war and peace and offering opportunities as the network of roads improved and the density of retailing outlets for tobacco products increased.

Between the ends of the spectrum fall the examples of Frederick Muhlenberg and John Reed for both of whom the experience of the American Revolution determined their very different approach to seizing opportunity. Reed landed in New York, involuntarily, as a soldier of the Hessian troops sent to support the British forces in their fight against the Americans. By desertion he became an American, and, although illiterate, proceeded very systematically and successfully when he transitioned from making a decent living as a farmer to profitably operating the first commercial gold mining operation in the United States. Reed’s entrepreneurial activities had a distinct regional focus because of the location of the mine in North Carolina. Reed’s example demonstrates the broad potential for pursuing ambitious goals at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it serves as reminder that the kinds of innovation and risk-taking that can lead to the accumulation of considerable wealth were not the prerogative of formally educated men, occurred in a variety of geographical areas of the United States, and not just in trade but also in industry. The impact of the revolution on Muhlenberg had a very different result that also showed that entrepreneurial success was not restricted to merchants with networks based in the major cities along the eastern seaboard. Muhlenberg, who was the son of an immigrant, and as such demonstrably bilingual and bicultural but proudly American as evident in his active service in the Revolutionary War seized his opportunity for success in an area not typically associated with generating wealth. In his case the impact was as a successful and respected politician in his home state of Pennsylvania as well as in the newly formed federal government where he served as speaker of the House of Representatives. It bears underscoring that by taking on a prominent political role as elected representative of the American people Muhlenberg did not pursue a way to wealth in the early republic but set a powerful precedent for German immigrants and their descendants to fully embrace American citizenship with its rights, duties, responsibilities, and privileges at a time when aliens were under much suspicion.

Transatlantic Networks 1815-1840

After the War of 1812 concluded, emigration from Germany surged. The stream of emigrants was channeled through the northern German port cities of Hamburg and Bremen and the port of Bremerhaven for embarkation onto ships bound for several port cities in the United States. New York developed into the strongest entrepôt from which immigrants dispersed into the Midwest and its rapidly expanding cities and backcountry. The flow of emigrants originated in many different regions of German-speaking lands, in part because recruitment by shipping firm agents on both sides of the Atlantic and by American developers, especially of roads and canals, was effective; in part because private news from former emigrants through personal means of communication as well as specially targeted and publicized reports about the United States in widely circulating newspapers increased the general knowledge about faraway opportunities, even if the perspectives with which such information was produced and from which it was consumed were highly selective and therefore not fully reliable. Mostly Protestants but increasingly Catholics made the move, too, foreshadowing the broad appeal of migration without any special filter for religious affiliation. If an increased demand for labor to develop the expanding markets of the Midwest was responsible for advertising the need for more immigrants, improvements in the operation of sailing vessels, which were relatively bigger and with more regulations better managed, and especially advances in calculating and remitting transatlantic (and overland) fares that were both reasonable and profitable had the result that more people could relocate relatively more cheaply. Under those circumstances in which resource-poor people were no longer wholly dependent on using their labor potential and skills as collateral for financing the move to America but could take advantage of prepaid tickets offered by prospective employers or kin that represented in effect credit for the relocation costs, the pool of potential emigrants became considerably broader. This set the stage for releasing the very large flood of emigrants from Germany in the middle and second half of the nineteenth century.[4]

Yet the last German immigrant entrepreneur cohort (1815-1840) of volume 1 is small. Given the general character of a significant proportion of relatively poor emigrants who moved across the Atlantic at that time, this may not be surprising. The dearth of entrepreneurs among the third and second generation of earlier immigrants suggests that with increasingly successful integration into American society and culture the children and grandchildren of immigrants were less likely to embrace risk with the goal of accumulating wealth. Rather, they were content with solidifying the gains their forebears had achieved as ways to preserve the status they had reached without jeopardizing their relative position among respected peers in their respective communities through endeavors and innovations with uncertain outcomes.

Only two members of this immigrant entrepreneur cohort landed as immigrants in that time period (1815-1840). Christopher Bechtler operated the most successful mint out of South Carolina; and David Gottlieb Yuengling founded what eventually became the largest domestically owned brewery, establishing a tradition of German beer brewing that extended mostly into the period covered by volume 2. Rudolph Christ had immigrated in the second third of the eighteenth century and continued and further developed the very successful pottery enterprise that Gottfried Aust had established in South Carolina as part of the Moravian settlement in Salem. David Parish is best described as an immigrant of Scottish descent with residences in the border area that connected Denmark and Hamburg, more a cosmopolitan citizen whose interests and influence led to roles of consul and advisor to several of the leaders in countries to which he traveled and in which he conducted high-stakes financial business rather than an American of German descent and heritage. Vincent Nolte and Charles August Heckscher shared Parish’s connection to the merchant community in Hamburg and they, too, pursued ventures that were high stakes and international in character.

The diversity of entrepreneurial focus in this group offers some insight into the impact and success of particular business activities in certain parts of the United States. Excepting Parish, whose network of contacts and dealings in efforts to increase his wealth and status and in service to high-ranking leaders and prominent banking establishments spanned cities and trade centers on both sides of the Atlantic, two of the immigrant entrepreneurs located their operations in South Carolina, a state heavily dependent on the institution of slavery. Christ excelled at the production of pottery, a consumer item that was innovative in design and in its manufacturing process. It therefore appealed to an expanding, increasingly diverse and well-off market even though, in comparative terms, his operation was small and remained so. Yuengling, who located his brewery in Pennsylvania, close enough to but not in Philadelphia, also produced a consumer good,  determining ways to expand operations that promised more profits. The success with which Yuengling managed the risks of innovation in procuring the necessary ingredients for producing and distributing his beer came only to bear after the mostly experimental fourth decade of the nineteenth century. Like Parish, Bechtler was a banker, albeit in a very different way since his operation depended on the production of coins in the mint he established and ran successfully for a dozen years until his death in 1743. His move to North Carolina—a traditional entrepreneurial move following the 1830s gold rush—was a calculated risk by which he capitalized on his skills as jeweler and watchmaker. He provided the population of that area profitably with a good in demand—coins—and as a result also with services because the use of those coins facilitated private and commercial transactions of all kinds. All entrepreneurs in this cohort profited in some ways from their German background, culture, education, and skills but none of them developed or served a market that was particularly German in its culture or preferences, reflecting sets of circumstances in communication and market conditions that were broadly American and well integrated in terms of immigrants and the descendants of earlier immigrants from Europe.


Over the course of the very long eighteenth century the German and German-American businessmen whose ventures can be followed, albeit imperfectly, through the records that survived make up a group that is diverse in many respects but also shows certain common traits and clustering of characteristics. Drawing on the biographies, which provide details for a much more systematic analysis, some features are worth noting here. All the immigrant entrepreneurs pursued businesses that built upon or were closely related to skills, knowledge, and training that they acquired, received, or practiced because of their family background, most often the occupation, profession, and status of their fathers. For some of them that meant humble means of making a living, for others it provided them with a starting position based on wealth.

Comparable to the importance of family background was the businessmen’s religious background. Ties to particular denominations varied and differed significantly in strength but connections to family and others who shared religious beliefs and religiously based values shaped immigrant entrepreneurs’ lives in some ways in their homelands as well as where they settled in America. During the colonial period the group of businessmen whose ventures were significantly affected by the strength of their commitment to dissenting convictions—Moravians and Separatists with a pietist bent—is relatively large and stands out. While the number of entrepreneurs who were Jewish is small, their connection to networks of co-religionists was strong and influenced the conduct of their businesses. Between those two distinctive groups occurred other forms of engagement with church and congregations of likeminded believers, ranging from active involvement to occasional participation, including considerable contributions of time and money and little or none. And unlike German immigrant entrepreneurs in later periods, the number involved in clubs or ethnic societies was very small.

It may well be a particular characteristic of the German immigrant entrepreneurs in this group that almost all of them were primarily based in the mid-Atlantic colonies and states. That kind of geographic clustering distinguished them from other immigrant businessmen. Given the concentration of German immigrants and their descendants in Pennsylvania and its neighboring colonies and states one might expect that the businessmen with successful ventures among them would also cohere in defining their ethnic identity. Since businessmen of that time period did not leave much record of a reflective nature about themselves it is difficult to judge how they dealt with labels of identity from others or how they thought of themselves in ethnic terms. Indirectly, their need to operate in an English-speaking world and their pursuit of business suggests that they brought with them a strong sense of local and regional identity tied to their place of birth and upbringing and that the place where their family lived and where they conducted their business shaped their American identity—also mostly locally.

The individuality of background, drive, and personality of the businessmen is evident in the areas of entrepreneurial activity and their choice of marriage partners. The categories for occupations, professions, and industries that allow for meaningful groupings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries do not compare well with the pursuit of successful ventures among the German immigrants and German-Americans. It seems that there is notable difference between businesses that center on goods and services that are locally based and those that depended on networks that were inter-regional, transatlantic, or international in nature.

At this point it is impossible to tell how the experience of immigration to the United States of America, a background of origin in a German-speaking land or German parentage and upbringing in a German-American community, and entrepreneurship are related. A closer look at this particular group of immigrant entrepreneurs in comparison with German and German-American businessmen and businesswomen in later periods of American history and also with other immigrant groups may lead not only to a greater appreciation of immigrant entrepreneurship but also to ways in which we can foster the pursuit of business ventures among recent and future groups of immigrants.


[1] Richard Cantillon (1680-1734) was among the first economists who studied entrepreneurship in depth. Mark Thornton, “Richard Cantillon and the Origins of Economic Theory,” Journal des Économistes et des Études Humaines 8, no. 1 (1998): 61–74.

[2] Cf. Marianne Wokeck, Trade in Strangers. The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 37-58.

[3] Wokeck,Trade in Strangers.

[4] Cf. Hans-Jürgen Grabbe, Vor der grossen Flut. Die europäische Migration in die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika 1783-1820 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2001).

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Introduction, Volume 1: From the Colonial Economy to Early Industrialization." (2017) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved February 28, 2017, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship:

Chicago Style

Wokeck, Marianne S. "Introduction, Volume 1: From the Colonial Economy to Early Industrialization." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 1, edited by Marianne S. Wokeck. German Historical Institute. Last modified February 13, 2017.

MLA Style

"Introduction, Volume 1: From the Colonial Economy to Early Industrialization," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2017, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 28 Feb 2017 <>

Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway