by Carl A. Brasseaux
German immigrants are among Louisiana's first families. Within four years of the founding of New Orleans (1718), German families, fleeing poverty in their homeland, boarded Louisiana-bound vessels in search of a better life. Believing the false promises of John Law's propagandists, their expectations were high, but they found even harsher conditions in the New World. So many died of pestilence during the journey that the boats became known as the "German Pest Ships," but a few hundred survivors eventually made their way to present-day St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes, collectively known at the German Coast (Côte des Allemands). Despite periodic flooding, hurricanes, and the rigors of frontier life, the industrious German pioneers made a success of their settlement. Indeed, their farming endeavors allowed them to provide food not only for themselves, but also for New Orleans' residents. Some historians credit these hard-working farmers with the early Crescent City's survival.
Many German Coast families eventually intermarried with Acadian families from the Acadian Coast immediately upstream. There were many similarities between the two groups, but the Acadians, being more numerous, eventually dominated the Germans. Except for German surnames along the Mississippi River and street names in the St. Charles Parish town of Des Allemands, there are few visible vestiges of this historically important ethnic community.
Because many early German settlers traced their familial origins to Switzerland, they were commonly called Swiss-Germans. This distinction helped set them apart from the more numerous nineteenth-century German immigrants.
Nineteenth-century German immigrants came to Louisiana in three waves cresting in the 1850's. The first wave of immigration resulted famine and economic dislocation following in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. From 1820 to 1850, many of Louisiana's thousands of Germans who came to Louisiana were redemptioners, indentured servants. This group of peasants agreed to work on farms and plantations in order to support themselves.
The German immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century were quite different from their predecessors. Fleeing civil war in Germany, the mid-century immigrants were generally drawn from professional calico, and most settled in New Orleans. As physicians, engineers, lawyers, technicians, and other skilled professionals, these newcomers contributed greatly to the Crescent City's physical and cultural improvements of the late antebellum period. The German immigrants of the 1840's and '50's were responsible for the introduction of German music, architecture, numerous breweries, churches, and theaters, as well as the building of city streets and waterworks. Fifty-three thousand German immigrants arrived at New Orleans—the nation's second-leading antebellum port of entry—in 1853 alone. Many of the late antebellum German immigrants left Louisiana for other states, but by 1850, 25,000 Germans had made the Pelican State their adopted home.
The final wave of German immigration was the largest. Composed primarily of industrial workers, this migration began in 1864, peaked in 1882, and declined dramatically by 1898. Almost three million German immigrants entered the United States during this period, and New Orleans was the initial stop for many of the migrants. The Crescent City, however, was merely a waystop for most of the late nineteenth-century German immigrants.
A small group of late nineteenth-century German immigrants settled in southwestern Louisiana, establishing the Fabacher and Robert's Cove communities in present-day Acadia Parish. The availability of cheap land and the coming of the railroad to the region attracted these pioneer families. After a short period, the Fabacher settlers dispersed, but the Robert's Cove community persists to this day. Although many of the younger generation have intermarried and moved some distance from home, a distinct culture remains. St. Leo's Catholic Church, the religious parish serving Robert's Cove, is credited with preserving traditions through the celebration of German religious holidays. The church serves as common ground to all who return to remember ancestors.