Germans were among our very earliest settlers. They arrived in what is now West Virginia in the 1720s, along the Potomac River. They called their settlement Mecklenburg (now Shepherdstown), having come from Mecklenburg, Germany. The town was incorporated in 1762.
Soon other Germans came. Among them were Jacob Reger, John Minear, and Johann Dahle. Reger settled in Hampshire County, but he and his family later moved to what is today north-central West Virginia, eventually settling farms in the Tygart, West Fork, and Buckhannon river valleys. Some of them settled along a tributary of Hackers Creek in what in 1816 became Lewis County. Near its headwaters a small community named Berlin was established. Minear settled in present Tucker County and erected the first sawmill west of the Alleghenies. Dahle, a Hessian deserter from the British army during the American Revolution, settled in Pendleton County in 1781, and some of his descendants settled in what is today known as Dolly (from Dahle) Sods.
By 1748, according to a Moravian missionary to the region of the South Branch Potomac and Patterson Creek, there were so many Germans along those streams ‘‘that in order to reach the people a minister should be fluent in both German and English.’’ In 1762, about 30 percent of the population of Jefferson and Berkeley counties was German, and the centers of the German population were Shepherdstown and Martinsburg.
Simultaneous with these developments in the Eastern Panhandle, Dunkards established small settlements in the Monongahela Valley, and the John Wetzel family settled along Wheeling Creek in the Northern Panhandle in 1772. John’s son, Lewis Wetzel, would become, next to Daniel Boone, the most famous frontiersman in Western Virginia.
Over the next century, the number of Germans steadily increased. The desire to escape persecution in the fatherland in the wake of the 1848 Revolution, and the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, provided some of the incentive, as did the desire of some Germans already settled in eastern Virginia to make a new start west of the Alleghenies. Also important was the work of West Virginia’s first commissioner of immigration, Joseph H. Diss Debar, before and after he assumed the official position of commissioner in 1864.
Diss Debar established a German-Swiss colony in Doddridge County in the early 1850s and named it St. Clara. Between 1848 and 1860, two German-language newspapers were established in Wheeling, and by 1860 there were more Germans living there than in any other community. A German settlement had also been founded at St. Joseph in Marshall County, and more German settlements had appeared in Lewis County. German settlements, including Lubeck, had been made in Wood County in the 1850s. In 1865, Diss Debar appointed an agent in southern Germany. Because of the oil boom near Parkersburg, that community’s German population dramatically increased from 1860 to the eve of World War I. Both Parkersburg and Wheeling had Germania singing societies.
America’s entry into World War I in 1917 and the resultant anti-German prejudices caused the study of German to be dropped in many schools, caused the Germania Society in Parkersburg to discontinue, and slowed German migration into West Virginia. After the war, some Germans living in Cumberland, Maryland, moved to West Virginia to work in glass plants in Weston in the 1920s, and after World War II some West Virginia GIs brought German war brides home. In recent years German-owned corporations, such as Schott Scientific Glass of Parkersburg and Bayer of New Martinsville and South Charleston, have established a presence. Germans living in West Virginia have been for the most part members of one of the following religious groups: Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Evangelical United Brethren, and Jewish.
West Virginians of German descent who have gained distinction in the past century include members of the Bloch family of Wheeling, leaders in the tobacco industry; Walter P. Reuther of Wheeling, long-time president of the United Auto Workers of America; opera singer Eleanor Steber of Wheeling; Lewis L. Strauss of Charleston, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and president of RCA; comedian Don Knotts of Morgantown; folklorist Marie Boette of Parkersburg; air ace General Charles ‘‘Chuck’’ Yeager of Hamlin; film producer Pare Lorentz of Clarksburg; oil wildcatters Michael Benedum of Bridgeport and ‘‘Wig’’ Bickel of Parkersburg; and the Nobel Prize winning writer, Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, of Hillsboro.
The best demographic estimates indicate that about one-fifth to one-fourth of West Virginians are of German ancestry.
This Article was written by Bernard L. Allen
Last Revised on November 07, 2010
Ambler, Charles H. & Festus P. Summers. West Virginia: The Mountain State. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958.
Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.