19th-century map courtesy of Deb Gunther
In 1837 an Irishman from New York named John Hustis bought a plot of land 50 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin, and founded the town of Hustisford. For a few years, the town spoke English, the language of the Irish and English families who got there first. Then came the Germans.
Between 1840 and 1880, millions of German-speaking immigrants settled in the United States. Many of them came to Wisconsin. The German families who came to Hustisford set up German-speaking schools, churches, clubs, and shops. Soon nearly every aspect of Hustisford life was conducted in German. Even the Irish were learning it.
So far, the story of Hustisford looks very much like the story people usually tell about their immigrant ancestors: the great-grandparents came from the old country, bringing their language and customs with them. However, the story then usually continues with those immigrants working hard to assimilate, gradually learning English and adapting to their new circumstances. It ends with their children casting off the old language for good and voilà!—the melting into the pot is complete. But that's not the way it happened in Hustisford.
The 1910 Census
Around 2007, when University of Wisconsin linguists Miranda Wilkerson and Joseph Salmons began looking at historical language data in eastern Wisconsin, they found something unexpected. The 1910 Census numbers revealed that not only was German still widely spoken in the region at that time—a half-century after German immigration had tapered off—but many of those German speakers could not speak English.
In 1910, a quarter of the population in Hustisford were still monolingual German speakers. This was not because they had recently arrived; almost 60% of them had immigrated before 1880. A third of them had been born in the U.S. More surprisingly, a number of those had been born in the U.S. to U.S.-born parents. In other words, they were the grandchildren of immigrants, third generation, who had still not learned English.
Even the ones who claimed to speak English could not necessarily speak it all that well. Court records from that time show cases where people who'd claimed English on the Census form could not respond in English to simple questions from a judge.
Despite occasionally running into difficulty at the courthouse, for the most part, the lack of English didn't get in the way of a happy, successful life for the German speakers of Hustisford. Non English-speaking citizens were baptized, confirmed, educated, and married in German. They worked as blacksmiths, tailors, and merchants. They built their homes, farmed their land, and saved up for the benefit of future generations who did, eventually, learn English.
A wave of anti-German sentiment during World War I helped speed the decline of the German language in some parts of the U.S., but did not kill it off completely. German was still a big part of daily life in Hustisford and other eastern Wisconsin towns, at least until the 1930s. For example, records show that a church in the nearby town of Lebanon decided to introduce one English language sermon a month "on a trial basis" – in 1929.
It took almost 100 years and nearly five generations for Hustisford to become a purely English-speaking town. Wilkerson and Salmons point to the story of Hustisford and the region around it as a refutation of the commonly made claim that immigrants today just don't learn English like they used to. In fact, according to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, today's immigrants are learning English faster than ever. They're certainly learning it faster than they did in Hustisford.