"A Community of Immigrants"

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 and Canada.

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 County.
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


View second article

Science and Technology 203
Southwest Minnesota State University
1501 State Street Marshall, MN 56258
Phone: (507) 537-6226
Fax: (507) 537-6147

Last updated: March 21, 2006