The most prominent contingent of German-speakers was in Charleston, where a vibrant artisan and mercantile community had been established by the decade before the Revolutionary War.
Germans were present in South Carolina at the beginning of settlement. In 1674 German-speaking immigrants settled on James Island, west of the Ashley at Albemarle Point. Populating the townships of Londonborough, New Windsor, Orangeburg, Purrysburg, and Saxe-Gotha, most German-speaking immigrants arriving in the colonial period fell into one of two groups: German-Swiss (Switzers) and Palatines (from upper Bavaria and parts of southwestern Germany). Of these two groups, the German-Swiss tended to be more prosperous, while the Palatines often arrived as redemptioners (indentured servants).
The most prominent contingent of German-speakers was in Charleston, where a vibrant artisan and mercantile community had been established by the decade before the Revolutionary War. Founding St. John’s Lutheran Church in 1759 and the German Friendly Society in 1766, they formed a separated ethnic community within the city, generally referred to as Dutchtown. Charleston’s Germans were at the forefront of Revolutionary political and military activity. While a large number of the colony’s German-speakers sided with the patriots, another sizable contingent, especially among the more recent arrivals in the backcountry, supported the Loyalist cause. In May 1775 Charleston’s Germans formed the first German military company in the United States, the German Fusiliers, which distinguished itself at the Battle of Savannah.
Between 1790 and 1830 few Germans came to South Carolina, and German language and culture began to decline in the state. Notable exceptions to this occurred in the so-called Dutch Fork, where language and culture continued into the early twentieth century, and in Charleston, where German organizations formed a strong institutional base for an ethnic community. The few German Jews who came to Charleston in this period were not invited to join these organizations, nor any of those founded subsequently.
The Altdeutsch (colonial-period Germans and their descendants) eventually became more Charlestonian than German. Altdeutsch merchants involved themselves in the politics of the city, and two were elected mayor in the early 1840s, Jacob F. Mintzing (1840– 1842) and John Schnierle (1842–1845, 1850–1852). This assimilation caused a degree of class division in the late 1830s and early 1840s, when German immigration resumed to the city. The number of new north-German immigrants (Neudeutsch) overwhelmed the small institutional base of the Altdeutsch community. In order to define their own path to success, a group of emergent Neudeutsch leaders created a diversified German-America in the city–one that was based in a blend of Altdeutsch, Charleston, and German forms. The organizations they started became the basis for the strong pan-German ethnic community that grew to flower just before the onset of the Civil War. Clearly, the Neudeutsch and the Altdeutsch had reached an accommodation.
Charleston’s German-America was prosperous in the 1850s, with a German grocery or other retail store on almost every corner, its own newspaper (the Deutsche Zeitung), a firefighting company, several fraternal and sports organizations, six militia companies, and two Lutheran churches. Several more enterprising immigrants made the trek to develop a German colony at Walhalla in Oconee County, establishing hotels and other businesses, where the wealthy among Charleston’s Germans made their summer homes. Few problems were experienced during the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing period, simply because South Carolina’s German immigrants adopted the values–states’ rights and slavery among them–of their new homeland. During the Civil War, South Carolina’s Germans fought and died to preserve those values, resulting in their almost complete assimilation into South Carolina society.
The Civil War effectively ended German immigration to South Carolina, despite the state’s efforts to encourage it–in part from a desire to maintain a white voting majority. Separate attempts at promoting German immigration in the 1860s, 1880s, and early twentieth century brought negligible results. Later, both Charleston’s and Lexington’s German Americans opposed America’s entry into World War I. Once war was declared, however, they fully supported the cause. German American influence in South Carolina had waned, however, to the point that the Deutsche Zeitung ceased publication in 1917.
Estimated at 15,000 in 1775 and some 30,000 in 1790, Germans had once comprised more than twenty percent of the state’s free population. By 1870 their number decreased to 2,754, and by 1920, only 1,079 South Carolinians reported being “German-born.” South Carolina’s Germans were a diverse lot, and contributed much to the social, political, and cultural history of the state. As they settled, they brought their culture with them, and developed a unique blend of Germanic and South Carolina culture. Exemplified through such diverse manifestations as the state’s Lutheran Church, folk art traditions, and the mustard-based barbecue sauce of the Dutch Fork area, South Carolina’s Germans found ways to both adjust to their adopted homeland, and maintain their Germanic culture and traditions. See plates 13 and 14.
Bell, Michael Everette. “‘Hurrah f├╝r dies s├╝sse, dies sonnige Leben’: The Anomaly of Charleston, South Carolina’s Antebellum German-America.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1996.
–––. “Regional Identity in the Antebellum South: How German Immigrants Became ‘Good’ Charlestonians.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 100 (January 1999): 9–28.
Faust, Albert Bernhard. The German Element in the United States: With Special Reference to Its Political, Moral, Social, and Educational Influence. 2 vols. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1909.
Two Hundred and Twenty-Five Years of American History Taken from the Minutes and Other Records of the German Friendly Society of Charleston, South Carolina. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1999.