Utah History Encyclopedia


By Allan Kent Powell

German WWI prisoners of war at Fort Douglas

German-born immigrants have played significant roles in Utah's history since the first Anglo-Europeans entered the region because of the fur trade. Probably the first German-American to set foot in Utah was John H. Weber, who joined the William H. Ashley expedition in 1822. Born in Hamburg in the state of Holstein in 1779, Weber has been identified by some as Danish because at the time of his birth, Holstein, though predominantly German speaking, was under the control of Denmark. In 1824 Weber led a party of trappers into present-day Utah by way of Bear Lake, which was known to American trappers initially as Weaver's (Weber's) lake in his honor. The group spent the winter of 1824-25 in Cache Valley before continuing south, where Weber became one of the first Anglo-Europeans to view the Great Salt Lake. His name is commemorated in Utah in Weber Valley, Weber River, Weber County, and Weber State University, among others.

During the next two decades other German-born travelers entered Utah. One was Frederick A. Wislizenus, an adventurous German traveler who attended the last great mountain man rendezvous in 1836 and then visited the Flaming Gorge area of northeastern Utah. In 1843 Charles Preuss, born in Germany and the official cartographer and artist for the John C. Frémont expedition, visited the Great Salt Lake with the famous explorer and paddled out to Fremont Island in a rubber boat they carried with them. Three years later, in 1846, German-born travelers, including some members of the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party, passed through Utah over the Hastings Cut-off on their way to California.

The year 1847 saw the arrival of the first permanent settlers of Utah. Among the original 143 Mormon pioneers to enter the Salt Lake Valley was Konrad Kleinman, a native of Germany.

Once Mormons had established a foothold in Utah, they began sending missionaries to Germany and Switzerland in the mid-1850s. The greatest number of converts initially came from Switzerland. Coming to Utah, some as handcart pioneers, most Swiss immigrants scattered throughout the state, especially to the communities of Santa Clara, Midway, and Providence. At the same time, one of the first (and perhaps the most famous) German convert to Mormonism, Karl G. Maeser, was baptized in the Elbe River near Dresden. Immigrating to Utah in 1860, Maeser--an educator by training--was asked by Brigham Young to move to Provo in 1876 to establish Brigham Young Academy, the forerunner of Brigham Young University.

While conversion to the Mormon faith was the primary impetus for most German immigrants to come to Utah, others came as miners or as merchants. The latter were almost exclusively German-born Jews who established businesses in Salt Lake, Ogden, and some of the mining communities.

The most successful German-born miner in Utah was John Beck. Born in 1843 in Aichelberg, Wurttemberg, Beck joined the Mormon Church in 1862 and served as a missionary in Switzerland and Germany before leaving for Utah in 1864. In the early 1870s he made a fortune with his Bullion Beck mine in the Tintic Mining District. A number of German-born Mormon converts were hired by Beck to work in his mines.

Germany produced two of Utah's most famous architects: Richard K.A. Kletting, architect of the Utah State Capitol and a number of other significant buildings; and Karl Neuhausen, who designed the Cathedral of the Madeleine and the Thomas Kearns Mansion--the current Utah Governor's Mansion.

The decades between 1850 and World War I saw a steady increase in the number of German-born immigrants coming to Utah. Although there were only sixty German or Swiss residents in the Utah Territory in 1850, by 1910 the number had reached 7,524. While this figure equalled only about two percent of the total state population of 373,000, the German presence was felt in a number of areas beyond those of education, mining, and architecture which have been mentioned. John Held's band played concerts from the 1890s to the 1930s. The John Held collection, housed at the Utah State Historical Society, is one of the finest collections of band music in the United States. Alexander Schreiner, a 1912 immigrant from Nuremberg, became the best known of all the Salt Lake Tabernacle organists. Breweries operated by German-born brewers Henry Wagener and Albert Fischer in Salt Lake City and Gustav Becker, the son of a German immigrant, in Ogden were important.

As German immigration peaked around the turn of the century, German organizations flourished. The Salt Lake Beobachter, begun in 1890, was a German-language newspaper which served to foster the German language in Utah, provide news of the homeland, and maintain a network for German-born immigrants residing not only in Utah communities but also in Idaho and Wyoming.

World War I brought a significant change to Utah's German-American community. Deeply concerned about events affecting their former homeland, most Utah Germans demonstrated their loyalty to Germany from the war's outbreak in August 1914 until America's entry into the war in April 1917. Some returned to join the German army. Most followed, as best they could, the fate of relatives and friends fighting on the eastern and western fronts. German-Americans resented the pro-English press and urged strict adherence to President Woodrow Wilson's neutrality policy. With the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany, the United States entered the war as an ally of the British and French. Faced with the dilemma of perceived dual loyalties, Utah's German-Americans demonstrated their unswerving loyalty to the United States through meetings, parades, proclamations, the purchase of war bonds, fund-raising drives, registering for the draft, and joining the army. Still, their loyalty often was suspect and German clubs, including the LDS German organization, were forced to suspend activities. Official action even was taken to end the teaching of German in Utah schools. However, unlike other parts of the country, the Salt Lake Beobachter was allowed to continue to be published but only under the masthead, "American in everything but language."

World War I also brought a contingent of German prisoners of war to Utah's Fort Douglas. More than five hundred German seamen, captured on board the German cruiser SMS Cormoran at Guam and the SMS Geier at Hawaii when America declared war on Germany, were interned at Fort Douglas between June 1917 and March 1918. Fort Douglas was also the prison for enemy aliens, conscientious objectors, and others arrested for violations of wartime legislation.

World War I halted immigration from Germany to Utah for nearly a decade. By 1920 there were nearly 1,400 fewer German-born residents in Utah than in 1910. After about 1924 immigration resumed as a significant number of members of the LDS Church came to Utah. But they served only to slow the rate of decline in the number of German-born residents in Utah, as the newcomers only partially replaced the passing generation of nineteenth-century and turn-of-the-century immigrants.

During the 1930s, the combination of worldwide depression, felt especially severely in Utah, and the ascent of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party in Germany, significantly reduced the number of German immigrants to Utah. Whereas 7,524 German- and Swiss-born immigrants resided in Utah in 1910, by 1940 the number had dropped to 4,889. Still, the 1920s and early 1930s was a period of significant activity as newly arrived young immigrants founded the Germania Athletic Club, sponsored outings, and performed choir concerts and German operettas in German. Germans marched proudly in Salt Lake City's July 24th parade and memorialized the German war dead through commemorations at the graves of German prisoners who died at Fort Douglas during and just after World War I. A monument to those twenty men was created by the German-born stonecarver and immigrant to Utah, Arlo Steineke, and dedicated on Memorial Day 1933 after an extensive fundraising campaign.

During World War II, more than 7,000 German prisoners of war captured on the battlefields of North Africa, Italy, and France were brought to twelve different camps in Utah. The largest number were interned at the Tooele and Ogden Defense depots. Utah's German community was involved to a limited degree with the prisoners of war; some sought to carry out missionary work among them on behalf of the Mormon Church among them while others petitioned their representatives unsuccessfully trying to make arrangements for relatives and other members of the LDS Church to be sent to Utah. All prisoners of war were returned to Germany after the war. A few returned to Utah in the 1950s along with more than 3,000 Germans who came primarily because of their ties to the LDS Church.

By 1960 there were 5,585 German-born residents in Utah, nearly 1,500 more than the 4,104 residents in 1930, but still two thousand fewer than the peak number of 7,524 in 1910. Many of the post-World War II arrivals had lost their homes in the eastern parts of Germany during the Russian advance and occupation that followed. Others lost their homes during British and American bombing attacks. Many different forces drove them from their German homeland and pulled them to Utah. Once in Utah, many skilled workers were able to find ready employment, while others had to accept more menial positions. These postwar immigrants tried to adapt to the local way of life as quickly as possible. Some did this by severing all ties with Germany, German culture, and the German language as quickly as possible. For some, Utah was a place of exile to which they were banished because of the war and related circumstances. Adaptation to Utah came slowly and with great difficulty, and in a few cases was not achieved at all. Others maintained German customs, taught their children to speak German, became active in German organizations, fostered German music and theater, and returned to Germany for periodic visits. At the same time, they worked with, lived by, and attended church and social events with non-German Utahns while developing a strong attachment to the community and the surrounding land.

Although the Salt Lake Beobachter ceased publication in the mid-1930s, today's German community remains tied by a weekly German radio program produced by Klaus Rathke, a Berlin-born Salt Lake City businessman. The German chorus Harmonie offers an annual concert series; its membership is comprised mostly of those who came as adult immigrants in the 1950s and early 1960s. An annual commemoration is held at the Fort Douglas cemetery under the direction of the German Air Force liaison officer at Hill Air Force Base on the German National Day of Mourning on the second Sunday in November. A German-American Society of Utah, organized in 1983 after a highly successful celebration of the three-hundredth anniversary of German immigration to the Untied States, also serves to coordinate, facilitate, and promote activities to preserve the German language and customs and to encourage good will and a better understanding between Utah and Germany.

As is the case with other countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and Greece which once supplied hundreds of emigrants to Utah, few emigrants today are leaving Germany's shores. Still, several factors suggest that German influence will remain an ongoing element of Utah life. More and more Utahns are traveling to Germany, and German remains behind Spanish the most popular foreign language offered in Utah schools. German restaurants and delicatessens are popular with both German-born and other Utah residents. Finally, Germans come to Utah in greater numbers than ever before, but now they come as tourists rather than as immigrants. Utah's national parks in particular have become one of the most popular draws, and Germany ranks as the leading country for overseas visitors to Utah with more than 100,000 Germans visiting the state each year.