Introduction, From the Colonial Economy to Early Industrialization, 1720-1840

Before 1720 German-American business was a matter of individual entrepreneurship by very few German-speaking immigrants who could be characterized as daring or desperate adventurers and religious seekers for whom the English colonies in North America offered refuge and new beginnings. With the development of those colonies, especially Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, and New York, the recruitment of settlers from the European continent became attractive to proprietors and landowners whose fortunes depended on the improvement of vast land grants extending from the eastern seaboard westward toward the Appalachian mountains. Promotional literature about those American settlement opportunities and fantastic tales of some early settlers who had made it successfully in the New World circulated among German-speakers in central European territories and fired the imagination of many who dreamt of ways to leave behind the difficulties and uncertain futures they faced at home. Emigration from German territories started slowly and small in the late seventeenth century and then accelerated impressively early in the eighteenth century. From the 1720s onwards the stream of German-speaking immigrants fluctuated but never ceased, bringing relatively large numbers of newcomers first to the American colonies and then the United States—well before the absolute peak of German immigration in the middle of the nineteenth century. Over the course of four generations those eighteenth and early nineteenth-century immigrants and their descendants made their mark on American society and culture that included significant German elements and that provided opportunity for immigrant entrepreneurship and shaped German-American business.

All immigrants are risk takers but not all immigrants are entrepreneurs. This first volume of Immigrant Entrepreneurship covers a long period of time (1720-1840) and, when compared with subsequent volumes, a small number of entrepreneurs whose imprint is a reflection of the gradual building of German-American communities that witnessed extraordinary change. The first cohort of entrepreneurs (1720-1750) operated in a world where the focus was local and where markets were constrained by policies of the growing British empire. The second group (1750-1780) experienced the vicissitudes of war not only as imperial powers fought for colonial advantage in North America but also as the Americans declared independence from Britain. The challenges of building a new, vastly expanding nation provided the framework for the third cohort (1780-1810) while entrepreneurs in the last cohort (1810-1840) faced the transition from traditional ways of production in agriculture and manufacture to increasingly industrial operations. Across the first generations of German-American businesses the size of markets and the number of those participating in it expanded extraordinarily; the speed, capacity, and reach of information and transportation increased rapidly; and the identity of German immigrants and their progeny was defined and redefined repeatedly as times and the composition of communities changed. The transformation of business practices was even more dramatic, in part because the system and practices of national and international banking presented openings for entrepreneurship that were unimaginable at the beginning of the eighteenth century. German-American entrepreneurs found ways to do business in many different venues. Most common were entrepreneurial examples in the areas of printing and publishing; banking, financing, and investment; trade in goods, especially luxury goods, and merchandizing; brewing; and real estate ventures. Taken together and over a span of more than a century the entrepreneurial enterprises of immigrants and their descendants showcase how German-American business achieved respect and prominence.

Read the full Volume 1 introduction