The first of a series
by Paul Neufeld Weaver, April, 2003
When three year-old Karl Schafer arrived in Worthington
from Germany in 1924, he was one of the last members of the first
wave of immigrants to arrive in Nobles County. Today, as one of
the county's nearly 1900 foreign-born residents, Karl finds himself
among people from a new wave of immigration, representing over
two-dozen countries of origin!
Two great waves of immigration mark the history
of Nobles County. Between 1870 and 1920 thousands of people came
here from Northern and Western Europe. Beginning a century later,
the second wave, 1970-present, saw thousands of people arrive
from the other major regions of the world-Latin America, Asia,
Africa. These waves correspond to two national immigration waves,
divided by immigration restrictions in effect from 1920-1965.
If we compare the two waves of immigration, most
noticeable are the ethnic and cultural differences-language, skin
color, food preferences. But there are also important similarities
in the immigrant experience - reasons for coming, the experience
of adjustment, and the hard work necessary to "make it"
in a new country.
Just how many people have come to Nobles County
from other countries, and when and where did they come from?
Almost all of the county's population growth took place between
1870 and 1920. In 1870, just before the founding of the city of
Worthington in 1871, Nobles County had only 117 residents. By
1920, nearly 18,000 people lived here. Reaching a peak of over
23,000 in 1960 and 1970, today there are just under 21,000 people
in the county, only 3,000 more than in 1920.
Much of the growth of the first 50 years came from
immigration. During this period more than half of the people living
in Nobles County were either immigrants or children of immigrants.
By 1910, 71 percent, or nearly three-fourths, of county residents
were either first or second generation immigrants. About half
of these came from Germany. Together, Sweden and Norway accounted
for another 25%. The rest were divided between Irish, Dutch, British
and Danish, with a very small number from other European countries
In all, an estimated 10,000 people came to Nobles
County from Northern and Western Europe between 1870-1920. Some
2652 foreign-born individuals still lived here in 1920. The others
had either died, returned home, or moved elsewhere.
The most striking fact of the first wave was the
dominance of people of German heritage. Even today, nearly half
of county residents claim German ancestry.
The current wave of immigrants began in the 1970s
as a trickle of Southeast Asian and Latino immigrants. By the
1980s both communities were growing rapidly, and by the 1990s
they were a large flow, joined by immigrants from NE Africa. In
2000, 1881 foreign-born individuals lived in Nobles County, about
800 less than there were in 1920. People of non-European ancestry
today make up 17 percent of the county's population and 30 percent
of Worthington's population.
Of the foreign born in 2000, 1242, or two-thirds,
were from Latin America, mainly from Mexico, with significant
numbers from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Puerto
Rico, and Cuba, in that order, and a handful from other Latin
American countries. Since 2000 the number of Central Americans
coming has continued to increase.
Asians comprise the second largest group of current
immigrants accounting for one fourth of the foreign born. These
are mostly Lao and Vietnamese, but include significant numbers
of people from Thailand, China and India, as well as a handful
from a number of other countries throughout Asia.
The newest group of immigrants is from Africa, primarily
Ethiopia, with some coming from Sudan and Eritrea. They represent
five percent of Worthington's current immigrants. Only 2.5 percent
of foreign-born individuals living in Nobles County in 2000 were,
like Karl Schafer, born in Europe. Of the nearly 1,900 immigrants
in 2000, half came in the 1990s and half came in previous decades.
Looking back over the coming of the various groups,
there are two ethnic groups, Germans and Mexicans, which have
clearly dominated immigration in the county.
Taken together, people of Mexican and German ancestry
make up 62 percent, or nearly two-thirds, of Nobles County's population.
While a majority of immigrants of both waves were
farmers in their home countries, they settled in very different
ways. Most from the first wave were able to continue in this profession.
Land was plentiful and available.
This was not possible in the second wave, where
nearly all have gone to work in meat packing plants. This also
means that while most European immigrants settled in rural areas,
nearly all current immigrants have settled in the urban area of
Worthington. Of the 2325 Hispanics living in Nobles County today,
for example, 2175, or 94 percent, live in Worthington. Overall,
just over half of the county's population live in Worthington.
So while the first wave of immigrants was able to continue their
close connection to the land in this new country, today's immigrants
have seen that connection severed.
The 130-year history of immigration in Nobles County
can tell us much about our journey as a community. Most of all,
it can serve to remind us that we all have roots elsewhere and
we all are part of creating a mosaic of cultures in a community
on the prairie.
Worthington resident Paul Neufeld Weaver was a research fellow
at the Center for Rural and Regional Studies at Southwest State
University. This is the first of several articles which will describe
and compare the two waves of immigration in the history of Nobles
The upcoming articles will look at some of the issues related
to these two waves of immigration, including education, language,
relations between ethnic groups, and participation in the community.
To contact Weaver:
Paul Neufeld Weaver
Center for Rural and Regional Studies
Southwest State University
Marshall, MN 56258