German immigration to Puerto Rico

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German immigration to Puerto Rico
Germany Puerto Rico
Notable Puerto Ricans of German descent

83pxFederico Degetau.jpgEstevesWP.jpg
90px90pxFrederic Louis Riefkohl.JPG
First row:
Salvador Brau • Federico Degetau • Luis R. Esteves Völckers
Second row:
Virgil R. Miller • Rudolph William Riefkohl • Frederick Lois Riefkohl

Location of the island of Puerto Rico (green)

German immigration to Puerto Rico began in the early part of the 19th century and continued to increase when German businessmen immigrated and established themselves with their families on the island. However, it was the economic and political situation in Europe during the early 19th century plus the fact that the Spanish Crown issued the Royal Decree of Graces (Real Cédula de Gracias) which allowed Europeans who were not of Spanish origin to immigrate to the island that contributed the most to the immigration of hundreds of German families to Puerto Rico in search of a better life. Puerto Rico was ceded by Spain to the United States under the terms of the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish–American War and the U.S. established military bases there. Many soldiers of German-American descent stationed in the island intermarried with local women and established their homes there. With the passage of the Jones Act of 1917 Puerto Ricans could be conscripted to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States. Puerto Ricans fought in Germany during World War II and have served in U.S. military installations in said country since then. Many of these soldiers married German women who eventually moved to the island with their husbands. Puerto Ricans of German descent have distinguished themselves in different fields, among them the fields of science, business and military.

Early German immigration

According to Professor Ursula Schmidt-Acosta, German immigrants arrived in Puerto Rico from Curaçao and Austria during the early 19th century. Many of these early German immigrants established warehouses and businesses in the coastal towns of Fajardo, Arroyo, Ponce, Mayagüez, Cabo Rojo and Aguadilla. One of the reasons that these businessman established themselves in the island was that Germany depended mostly on Great Britain for such products as coffee, sugar and tobacco. By establishing businesses dedicated to the exportation and importation of these and other goods, Germany no longer had to pay the high tariffs which the British charged them. Not all of the immigrants were businessmen, some were teachers, farmers and skilled laborers.[1]

Situation in 19th century Europe

Economic situation

Cheering revolutionaries after fighting in March 1848

Many economic and political changes occurred in Europe during the latter part of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century which affected the lives of millions of people. One of those changes came about with the advent of the Second Industrial Revolution. Many people who worked the farmlands abandoned their homes and moved to the larger industrialized cities with the hope of finding better paying jobs. Those who continued to work in the agricultural sector suffered the consequences of the widespread crop failure which came about as the result of long periods of drought and diseases, the cholera epidemic and a general deterioration of economic conditions. Starvation and unemployment were on the rise.[2]

Political situation

Europe also faced a series of revolutionary movements known as the European Revolutions of 1848 which erupted in Sicily and then were further triggered by the French Revolution of 1848. Soon, the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states erupted, leading to the Frankfurt Parliament. Ultimately, the rather non-violent "revolution" failed. Disappointed, many Germans immigrated to the Americas and Puerto Rico, dubbed as the Forty-Eighters. The majority of these came from Alsace-Lorraine, Baden, Hesse, Rheinland and Württemberg.[3]

Spanish Royal Decree of Graces

Royal Decree of Graces, 1815

The Spanish Crown had lost most of its possessions in the Americas. Two of its remaining possessions were Puerto Rico and Cuba, who were demanding more autonomy and had pro-independence movements. The Spanish Crown issued the Royal Decree of Graces (Real Cédula de Gracias) which was originated August 10, 1815, with the intention of attracting European settlers who were not of Spanish origin to the islands. The Spanish government, believing that the independence movements would lose their popularity, granted land and initially gave German, Corsican, Irish, and French settlers who swore loyalty to the Spanish Crown and allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church "Letters of Domicile". After a period of five years, settlers were granted a "Letter of Naturalization" that made them Spanish subjects.[4]

Religious influence

Iglesia Santísima Trinidad of Ponce

In the early 19th century German immigrants introduced the "Christmas Tree" to the Americas.[5] The custom of adorning Christmas trees in Puerto Rico began in the city of Bayamón in 1866 when Dr. Agustin Stahl adorned a Christmas tree in his back yard. The people of Bayamón baptized his tree "El Arbol de Navidad del Doctor Stahl" (Dr. Stahl's Christmas tree).[6]

In 1870, the Spanish Courts passed the "Acta de Culto Condicionado" (Conditional Cult Act), a law granting the right of religious freedom to all those who wished to worship another religion other than the Catholic religion. The Anglican Church, the Iglesia Santísima Trinidad, was founded by German and English immigrants in Ponce in 1872. Among the original founders was G. V. Wiecher, who wrote to the Anglican Bishop of Antigua, W. W. Jackson, requesting a Spanish speaking priest for their church.[7] The church, which is located in "La Calle Marina" (Marina Street) was the first non-Roman Catholic Church established in the Spanish Colonies and is currently an operating parish, as well as a tourist attraction. Albert and Betty Ostrom, began training Puerto Ricans for pastoral service in the Lutheran Church of Puerto Rico from 1905 to 1931.[8]

The Mennonite Church, which began with the Anabaptists in the German and Dutch-speaking parts of central Europe in the 16th century, also established congregations in Puerto Rico. The first Mennonite congregation, in Puerto Rico, named Bethany (Betania) Mennonite Church, was founded in 1946 in Coamo, Puerto Rico. The first meetinghouse was a tabernacle type church, built in 1946 and pastored by Paul Lauver. It was replaced in 1949 and by 1958 had 111 members.[9] In 1957, a church was built in Cayey, Puerto Rico called the Guavate Mennonite Church, replacing a smaller structure of the Guavate Mennonite Church, which was founded in 1954 and destroyed in 1956.

There is a Mennonite School in Summit Hill and a Mennonite Church in San Juan. In the town of Aibonito, the Puerto Rican Mennonites established their first hospital and conference center.[10] As of 1986 the conference had 893 members in 16 congregations with churches in Ponce and Bayamon.[9]

German cuisine

In recent years, two commercial establishments in Puerto Rico became gathering places for Puerto Rico's German community, the more than half-century-old Zipperle's Restaurant in San Juan,[11] and the Casa Bavaria restaurant located in the central mountain range (Cordillera Central) in Morovis, visited in 2008 by President Bill Clinton.[12] Puerto Rican-German cuisine can also be found in Heidelberg Haus German Restaurant in Rio Grande, Carolina and at Das Alpen Cafe, in the town of Rincon.

Influence in the economy

The Riefkohl and Verges children of Maunabo, Puerto Rico (c. 1890s)

The descendants of the first Spanish settlers owned most of the land in the coastal areas, however some of the well-to-do German immigrants were able to settle in these areas and establish their businesses in coastal towns such as Fajardo, Arroyo, Ponce, Mayagüez, Cabo Rojo and Aguadilla. Those who expected free land under the terms of the Spanish Royal Decree, settled in the central mountainous areas of the island in towns such as Adjuntas, Aibonito and Ciales among others. They made their living in the agricultural sector and in some cases became owners of sugar cane plantations. Others dedicated themselves to the fishing industry. Amongst these German settlers in Puerto Rico were Johann Kifenhover, who in 1832 established a school in San Juan and Adolfo Rauschenplatt, who founded a sugar cane export business.[13] In 1915, Walter Tischer married Carmen Vargas Alayon and opened a ballet school in San Juan which still exists today. Some of the businesses founded in Puerto Rico were Mullenhoff & Korber, Frite, Lundt & Co., Max Meyer & Co. and Feddersen Willenk & Co. Korber Group Inc. one of Puerto Rico's largest advertising agencies was founded by the descendants of William Korber.[13]

Unlike their counterparts who settled in the United States mainland in close knit communities, the immigrants in Puerto Rico intermarried with Puerto Ricans and adopted the language and customs of the island thereby integrating themselves into the society of their new homeland.[13]

20th century

On December 10, 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded by Spain to the United States under the terms of the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish–American War. The former Spanish military bases were transferred to the United States and many of the soldiers of German-American descent stationed in the island intermarried with the locals and established their homes there. With the passage of the Jones Act of 1917 Puerto Ricans were required to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States. Puerto Ricans fought in Germany during World War II as members of Puerto Rico's 65th Infantry Regiment and continued to serve in said country as members of the regular Army after the war. Many of these soldiers married German girls who, as in the case of Dr. Ursula Acosta, eventually moved to the island with their Puerto Rican husbands. Dr. Ursula Acosta, who was born in Germany, is a psychologist and retired professor of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. As a member of the Puerto Rican Genealogy Society, she has studied and written many works on genealogy and the German influence in Puerto Rico. Among her works are the following:[14]

  • Familias de Cabo Rojo, 1983 (with David Enrique Cuesta Camacho)
  • Cabo Rojo: Notas para su historia (with Antonio "Mao" Ramos Ramírez de Arellano)
  • Cofresí y Ducoudray: Dos hombres al margen de la historia, Editorial Edil, Río Piedras, PR, 1991
  • New Voices of Old: Five Centuries of Puerto Rican Cultural History, 1987

By the beginning of the 20th century, many of the descendants of the first German settlers had become successful businessmen, educators, and scientists and were among the pioneers of Puerto Rico's television industry.

German influence in Puerto Rican and popular culture

Besides having distinguished careers in agriculture and the military, Puerto Ricans of German descent have made many other contributions to the Puerto Rican way of life. Their contributions can be found, but are not limited to, the fields of education, commerce, politics, science and entertainment.

Puerto Rican politics has been influenced by the contributions of politicians such as Federico Degetau, Erwin Kiess,[15] Henry Neumann, Kimberly "Kimmie" Raschke,[16] Larry Seilhamer Rodríguez, and the former President of the Puerto Rican Senate Thomas Rivera Schatz. Carlos Vélez Rieckehoff, relative of the late German Rieckehoff, president of the Puerto Rican Olympic committee, was the President of the New York chapter of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in the 1930s.[17]

Puerto Rican scientist Dr. Agustín Stahl worked in the fields of ethnology, botany and zoology.[18] Dr. Sixto Gonzalez Edick was named Director of the Arecibo Observatory, the world's largest single dish radio telescope.[19]

Two brothers from the Riefkohl family had distinguished military careers, they were Frederick Lois and Rudolph W. Riefkohl. Rear Admiral Frederick Lois Riefkohl, U.S. Navy, was the first Puerto Rican to graduate from the United States Naval Academy and in World War I he also became the first Puerto Rican to be awarded the Navy Cross.[20] His brother, Colonel Rudolph W. Riefkohl, U.S. Army, played an instrumental role in helping the people of Poland overcome the 1919 typhus epidemic.[21] Major General Luis R. Esteves Völckers, U.S. Army, became the first Puerto Rican and Hispanic in 1915, to graduate from the United States Military Academy. Esteves Völckers also organized the Puerto Rican National Guard.[22] Colonel Virgil R. Miller, U.S. Army, was the Regimental Commander of the 442d Regimental Combat Team (RCT), a unit which was composed of "Nisei" (second generation Americans of Japanese descent), during World War II. He led the 442nd in its rescue of the Lost Texas Battalion of the 36th Infantry Division, in the forests of the Vosges Mountains in northeastern France.[23] Rear Admiral George E. Mayer, U.S. Navy, was the first Hispanic Commander of the Naval Safety Center. He led an international naval exercise known as Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2003 from his flagship, the USS Vella Gulf (CG-72). It was the first time in the 31-year history of BALTOPS that the exercise included combined ground troops from Russia, Poland, Denmark and the United States.[24]

German Consular Presence in Puerto Rico

The Federal Republic of Germany maintains an official presence in Puerto Rico through the appointment of an Honorary Consul, who falls under the jurisdiction of the German Consul General in Miami. The current Honorary Consul, installed in a 2010 ceremony attended by Puerto Rico Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock and the Consul General, is Eric Stubbe.

Surnames of the first German families in Puerto Rico

The German element of Puerto Rico is very much in evidence and German surnames such as Herger and Rieckehoff are common in the island. The following are the surnames of the first German families to settle in Puerto Rico:[13]

Surnames of the first German families in Puerto Rico
Baltmann, Behn, Bey, Bose, Bultmann, Christiansen, Degener, Estronz, Elvers, Fritze, Fromm, Ganslandt, Haase, Hartmann, Hau, Herger, Hoffman, Hohl, Kleibring, Kifenhover, Koppel, Koppisch, Korber, Krammer, Küchler, Kupferschein (later changed to Cofresi), Kuster, Lange, Lameyer, Lassen, Lundt, Meyer, Miller, Mirande, Müllenhoff, Müller, Nitsche, Oppenheimer, Overmann, Piterson, Pottharst, Raschke, Rauschenplar, Reichard, Rieckehoff, Riefkohl, Roehrs, Roller, Sanders, Schimk, Schink, Schmidt, Schnabel, Schomburg, Schröder, Schultze, Spieker, Stahl, Stege, Steffens, Steinacher, Stubbe, Tischer, Voigt, Völckers, Wedstein, Wiechers, Willenk, Wirshing, Wolff, Wolmart, Zaiter.

See also


  1. Dr. Ursula Acosta: Genealogy: My Passion and Hobby
  2. Beaudreau, Bernard C. The Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes: How the Second Industrial Revolution Passed Great Britain By, (New York, New York:iUniverse, 2006)
  3. [Breunig, Charles (1977), The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789 - 1850 (ISBN 0-393-09143-0)]
  4. Archivo General de Puerto Rico: Documentos
  5. The History of the Christmas Tree
  6. El Primer Arbol de Navidad de Puerto Rico
  7. Iglesia Episcopal Puertorriqueña
  8. History of the Lutheran Church in Puerto Rico
  9. 9.0 9.1 Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia
  10. Tour Maazine
  11. Mercury News
  12. Para conocer "la Isla menos"
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 La Presencia Germanica en Puerto Rico
  14. Dr. Ursula Acosta: Genealogy: My Passion and Hobby, Retrieved July 13, 2007
  16. Pacific News
  17. Carlos Vélez Rieckehoff
  18. Botanical Legacy of Dr. Agustín Stahl, Retrieved October 17, 2008
  19. Sixto González is first Puerto Rico-born head of Arecibo Observatory
  20. Descendants of Otto Julius Riefkohl
  21. 1910 MIT Yearbook
  22. "Major General Luis Raúl Esteves Völckers". Bell South. November 1, 2002. Retrieved 2010-03-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Be Thou at Peace: Virgil Rasmus Miller, Class of 1924" (PDF). Assembly. Association of Graduates, U.S. Military Academy. 28 (2): 132–133. Summer 1969.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Defense News, Retrieved July 5, 2007

External links