Much has been written on this site and elsewhere about Indianapolis’s German influences. German immigrants played a big part in shaping the city from very early on. From its architecture to its laws and customs, Indianapolis is a product of its people, and many of its people were German.

Because of the saturation of German settlers in the city, its fair to say that many of its residents, at least those with a long history in the city, are of German descent. But how do you know for sure?

The Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument ca. 1895, designed by Bruno Schmitz of Germany (image courtesy of Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives, University Library, IUPUI)

Many German settlers came to Indianapolis after the 1848 revolution in Germany. Often known as Forty-eighters, these men and their families came in pursuit of freedom and wealth. If your ancestors were among this group, then they will likely be listed in the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Censuses. In both documents, residents are asked to provide their country of origin. Once you’ve traced your ancestry back this far, discovering your heritage is as simple as reading the name of the country recorded there. Just keep in mind that names and boundaries have changed over time, so you may need to consult an 1850 map of Europe.

If your ancestors were not among the Forty-eighters, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t come from Germany. German immigrants settled in this area for many years before and many years after 1848. It’s also possible that they may have settled in another area, such as Pennsylvania, prior to moving to Indianapolis. If this is the case, then your trail will be a little longer and a bit more complicated.

Musikverein Chorus, 1914 (image courtesy of Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives, University Library, IUPUI)

Once you determine that your ancestors were from Germany, you can begin searching German-specific collections in Indianapolis. Perhaps your ancestor was a member of the Maennerchor.   Or maybe you have a Turner in your family tree. These and many other collections are available for your perusal.  Even if you are unable to find specific mention of your ancestor in these collections, they will add context to the city and time they lived in, and this will help you build their stories.

A toast at the Athenaeum, ca. 1910 (image courtesy of Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives, University Library, IUPUI)

8 responses to “Family Tree: Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

  1. Louis Mahern says:

    I have been told that the two largest immigrant groups in Indianapolis were the Germans and the Irish. And there were twice as many Germans as Irish. Don’t forget there was also a potato famine in Ireland in the late 1840’s. On my mother’s side my Irish ancestors arrive in Indianapolis in 1850. On my father’s side the arrived in Rushville in 1866 and came to Indianapolis at the turn of the century. The other big difference was that many Germans came for political reasons and therefore had money in their pockets when they arrived enabling them to establish businesses and buy farms. The Irish came almost exclusively for economic reasons and arrived with very little in the way of funds thus becoming a substantial part of the working class.

  2. basil berchekas jr says:

    being from Indianapolis and being part “German-Irish”, I’ll stay with this one!

  3. basil berchekas jr says:

    A good rendition of the earlier German immigration to Indianapolis and the Midwest…the “fourty-eighters” had more money and education, and could therefore better establish themselves on arrival and were politically astute. The earlier Germans usually had less money and education, and the post-civil war Germans were essentially poorer, less educated, and blue collar…that’s where this “socialist” fear of immigration started. By that time German immigrants were some of the best established communities and the older immigrant communities distanced themselves from the more recent German immigrants, who did have positive credit for working politically to improve working conditions, ending child labor, and so forth. The Irish immigrants came here primarily due to the starvation engendered by the potato famine; they were less educated (thanks to British rule) had no concept of the political process (again thanks to British domination) and took any labor job to simply improve their economic lot. When the English and Scottish ethnic dominated local government in Indianapolis (and in Chicago too) in the 1850s tried to establish local prohibition, the German and Irish immigrants traditionally didn’t relate to each other but since these groups couldn’t enjoy their one day off…Sunday…(no 40 hour work week yet) with family and friends at their Rathskellers and pubs with Sunday blue laws and general prohibition, the Germans and Irish coalesced and Indianapolis’ “primitive” law enforcement (township constables) were ineffective in enforcing these laws. the State Supreme Court later ruled the local prohibition laws unconstitutional due to a violation of the interstate commerce clause. Just some history..if I’ve missed something here, please let me know!

  4. basil berchekas jr says:

    Ironically, Indianapolis first REAL police department was established after the constables’ ineffective response to the lager beer “riots” in the 1850s…

  5. Krystal Becker says:

    Thank you both for adding a bit more history! I’ll be writing more about the Irish in Indianapolis in a future post!

  6. basil berchekas jr says:

    Great! Appreciate it! My Mom was “German-Irish”, so she had some interesting stories to tell. She was just old enough to remember the anti-German prejudice engendered by WW I, that stymied “our” war effort somewhat due to the large German and Irish populations in this country. That would cause consternation on draft boards and in elected official circles since these ethnic groups were now represented at all elected levels. The Irish were ambivalent to WW I since their nemesis, the British, were fighting the Germans, with whom the Irish had no real “quarrel” with, versus their British rulers….the Germans were overall, pro-American during the war; they just had issues trying to convince their fellow Americans of that fact.

  7. Anonymous says:


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