History Pages: 13 - Pioneer German-Speakers of Santa Cruz County

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Frederick Augustus Hihn

The original goal of this article was to research a "forgotten minority" of early days in Santa Cruz. Although perhaps an odd choice at first glance, it is indeed forgotten that German-speaking immigrants were a significant minority in the population of early Santa Cruz County. The main reason they're forgotten (the point of the article) is that, compared to non-northern-European immigrants and indigenous Californians, German-speakers were more successful at quickly assimilating into the English-speaking dominant local culture in the U.S. state of California.

The best-known of the pioneer German-speakers, Frederick A. Hihn, was introduced briefly in "History Pages: 10 - The Gold Rush". Hihn merits placement at the head of this page as the most ambitious and economically successful of all the early Santa Cruz County German-speakers.

Pioneer German-Speakers of Santa Cruz County


People from many different places around the world came together in the early days of what we know today as Santa Cruz County in the State of California, brought here mainly by the Gold Rush. Many language and ethnic groups were present, but only one numerically-significant group of non-English-speakers was fully accepted into the Anglo-American culture during the earliest days of Santa Cruz County.

Because that acceptance was so rapid and complete, however, those early immigrants are rarely thought of as a distinct group. The group was composed of native-German-speakers, and they only became numerous in California after the onset of the Gold Rush in 1848. When the gold fever abated, many of the German immigrants spread out to other areas, including Santa Cruz County.

Because they were accepted into local communities, the Germans were able to integrate successfully with English-speakers in Santa Cruz County, while remaining free to keep their identity as Germans. Their adaptation to a new life created a new identity: they became German-Californians(1, piii). As a group, the German-Californians contributed significantly to the early growth and development of the new State of California, and to Santa Cruz County.

By studying a representative cross-section group of those German-speaking county pioneers, we can identify a number of characteristics that made them unique. Equally, we can see how they were not so different from Anglo-American pioneers in our County.


The following criteria were used to select from these immigrants for a smaller study group. Study group members:

  • were born in a German-speaking country,
  • arrived in California by 1855,
  • were naturalized and settled in Santa Cruz County by 1870,
  • were representative of a particular population segment, and
  • have sufficient published biographical information for a comparative study.

Note that these criteria do not guarantee that the study group will include all of the earliest German immigrants to our County. For instance, the Prussian watchmaker and jeweler William Effey came to Santa Cruz in 1865, where he took over a business from Charles Winterhalder, also a native-German-speaking jeweler who settled here in the 1850s(2). Baker William Vahlberg was an 1850s business partner to Andrew Trust. The amount of available biographical information was the main factor in deciding which individuals to include.

Study Group table.png

From a group of about eighty known early German immigrants, nineteen individuals were selected for study, chosen as representative of the larger group, and also because of the depth of available biographical information about them. The table at left enables some quick comparisons among these nineteen, a group that includes Charles Bern, Reuben Bernheim, Cornelius Cappelmann, John Daubenbiss, John Dreher, William Effey, Werner Finkledey, Frederick Hihn, George Kohl, Charles Kuhlitz, Johann Kunitz, George Otto, Jacob Schwann, Louis Schwartz, Charles Steinmetz, Otto Stoesser, H. Andrew Trust, John Werner, and Henry Winkle.

Because information depth varies considerably, that last selection criterion introduces an unavoidable bias favoring those who were more active in the community and therefore more likely to have things written about (or by) them. So it should be borne in mind that the German immigrant group can only be compared to a subset of the overall Santa Cruz County population meeting the same “sufficient published biographical information” criterion.

Before the Gold Rush

Very few “foreigners” (that is, those who were not Spanish-speaking Spanish/Mexican citizens) lived in our area prior to the Gold Rush(3). The colonizing Spanish Empire had discouraged immigration by foreigners – especially Americans – fearing (rightly) being overrun by the numerous and aggressive hunters, trappers and squatters who kept pushing relentlessly to the west during the first half of the 1800s.

A few early foreign immigrant men gained the right to own California land by converting to Roman Catholicism (if not already Catholic), and becoming naturalized. Most of these men also married daughters of rancheros (large cattle ranch grantees), who co-owned property with their husbands under Mexican law.

A few other immigrants impressed Mexican authorities by their willingness to settle in remote inland areas where the limited Alta California government had little presence or control. One of the best known from this latter group is the German-Swiss Johann (John) Sutter – one of the very first German-speaking immigrants to California – who in 1838 created the settlement known as “Sutter’s Fort” in the area that became Sacramento.

In what is now Santa Cruz County, among the seventeen original rancheros, there was one American - Joseph Majors; an Englishman - William Buckle; an Irishman - Michael Lodge; a Frenchman - Pierre Sainsevain, and even one Russian - Josef Bolcoff. All of these men married into land-owning Californio families. Another group of early English-speaking County residents were not exactly welcome, but perhaps too much trouble to get rid of. They were predominantly American hunters and trappers, who gravitated to the Rancho Zayante settlement established in 1841 by Isaac Graham, an American frontiersman companion of Joseph Majors. There were, however, very few (if any) native German-speakers in the Santa Cruz area at that time. Soquel’s John Daubenbiss (originally spelled with a single “s”) was one of the first Germans to settle in our area, and his immigration to California – once he arrived in the United States - is similar to the experience of most California immigrants in the years just before the Gold Rush.

Born in Bavaria, Daubenbiss left home in 1835, at age nineteen, and crossed the Atlantic to New York City. From there, he went to Cincinnati, Louisville, Vicksburg, New Orleans and Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he joined a wagon train to Oregon. In 1843, he moved south from Oregon to Sutter’s Fort (now Sacramento) in California. After several other stops around northern California, Daubenbiss found his way to Santa Cruz County, where he partnered with John Hames to buy property in 1847. Brother Henry Daubenbis (he never changed the spelling) followed John to Santa Cruz County and acquired land nearby (see A Companion to Capitola (2018 book)).

The Population explosion

First, the Mexican-American War (1846-48) brought California to the United States; then the Gold Rush that began in 1848 brought the world to California. Within a few years, the huge influx of gold-seekers from all over the globe completely transformed the sparsely-settled, slow-paced, isolated Alta California of missions and cattle ranches and native villages. Most importantly, many who came initially as treasure-hunters stayed to become Californians, including a sizable number of Germans.

As late as 1850, however, very few of the new German-Californians had found geographically-isolated Santa Cruz County. The U.S. census of that year found a total county population of just 643(4). A follow-up census in 1852 found 1,219 – twice as many – including 110 “Indians Domesticated” and 33 “Foreign Residents”(5). By 1860, the count jumped to 4,944 County residents – a nearly eight-fold increase from 1850 – of whom 1,078 (22%) were listed as “foreign born”(6). Because this was a United States census, the “foreign born” category included all of the California-born former Mexican citizens. The census does not indicate how or whether Native Americans were counted. No numbers or countries of origin were given for other foreigners.

Santa Cruz County may be viewed as the southern edge of the area profoundly affected by the Gold Rush population explosion. Comparing population changes for Santa Cruz and Monterey counties shows that Monterey County had three times more residents in 1850 but, by 1860, Santa Cruz County’s population had passed Monterey’s. After 1860, the two counties’ populations and growth rates were comparable for the rest of the century.

Pioneer German-speakers

The 1854 “Poll List” reproduced in Santa Cruz County History Journal Number Two includes only one German immigrant – Andrew Trust, a member of our study group(7). Of course, poll lists were limited to naturalized males over age twenty-one, and we know that a number of other German immigrants were residing in the County by that date.

By 1866, however, the picture was very different. A Santa Cruz precinct Poll List, published in the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, includes the additional information that the voter was either “native” or “naturalized”(8). A somewhat un-scientific count yields twenty-two German-sounding and/or known German names (noted as “naturalized”) out of a total of 133 naturalized (16.54%). Santa Cruz County’s Germans had become not only Californians but American citizens.

Over the next several decades, a number of pioneer biographies and autobiographies were published, some collected in historical works; others produced individually for local newspapers or family histories. More recently, Santa Cruz County History Journal Number Four (1998) pulled together, edited and annotated biographies of early residents belonging to the Society of California Pioneers of Santa Cruz County. The Society’s Santa Cruz chapter was organized and headed by Frederick A. Hihn, probably the best-known of the German-born County pioneers. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the Society’s foreign-born membership included a higher percentage of native German-speakers (twenty-nine percent) than appears to be the case for the County as a whole(9, p.241).

What they left behind: German home countries and conditions

German origins map.png

The years between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and German unification, which was largely complete following Prussia’s defeat of France in 1871, were turbulent times in many of the forty independent states comprising the German Confederation. Many saw violent revolutions in 1848-49. Some Gold Rush immigrants probably left home as much to escape local political conditions as to seek their fortunes. For example: Charles Steinmetz, after first coming to California in 1850, returned to his native Hanover in 1866 to bring out a younger brother who had been a prisoner-of-war following Hanover’s defeat by neighboring Prussia(9, p.222). Emigrants to the US came from many of the Confederation member states. By contrast, few came in these early years from more-stable Austria and Switzerland.

Home countries of early Santa Cruz County German-speakers included Saxony, Wurttemberg, Baden, Hesse, Nassau, Prussia, Hanover, Bavaria, Brunswick and Pomerania. All of these once-independent small nations belonged to the German Confederation from 1815 until at least 1866, and are today included in the German Republic - except for parts of eastern Prussia and Pomerania now in Poland. For several members of the study group, native country is recorded only as the generic “Germany”. Coincidentally, these same few were all related, either by blood or marriage: Otto, Schwann, Trust and Werner.

How they got here

Before the Gold Rush, most German-born immigrants to reach California came overland, like John Daubenbiss. With the discovery of gold, however, seaborne transport quickly surpassed the slower and more difficult land travel. Seemingly overnight, the little village of Yerba Buena was transformed into the bustling city of San Francisco. It became the main port-of-entry for the gold-seekers, including those from the German countries.

From San Francisco, the objective was to get up the Sacramento River and beyond to the gold fields as fast as possible. New riverside settlements such as Sacramento and Marysville became staging areas for prospective miners, including the new German immigrants(1, p.2). Once there, however, some found that there were better opportunities in the settlements than out in the wilds. Many of the Germans were trained in skilled trades and merchandising, and the rapidly growing population of northern California needed people who knew how to do those things. After a few years, some of those now-experienced tradesmen and merchants found their ways to Santa Cruz County.

Group characteristics

Pioneer biographies are stories full of fascinating twists and turns leading eventually to Santa Cruz County, but the focus here is on the German-speakers as a group and their lives after arrival in our county. What did they have in common with non-German County arrivals in the same time period, and in what ways were they different as a group? It appears that, in general, the Germans made every effort to adapt to the ways of their new Anglo-American communities and were readily accepted into those communities, so differences may be less apparent. One set of shared characteristics relates to a common heritage. Although their first language was German, they would have been visually hard to distinguish from the British, French, Americans and others of north-European heritage who together comprised the most numerous ethnic type among early Santa Cruz County immigrants.

The high percentage of businessmen seems to indicate that they were quick to learn English (a language not so different from German), at least enough for commercial transactions. Also, these men had all been in California for a least several years before coming to Santa Cruz County, giving them time to learn the language and American ways.

Another advantage was that, judging from the absence of anti-German editorials in early newspapers, the German immigrants seem to have suffered little of the overt discrimination aimed at Spanish-speaking former-Mexican-citizens left behind in an alien culture after the Mexican-American War. Chinese immigrants who also arrived during the Gold Rush years fared even worse in later years than the Spanish-speakers.

Characteristics in common with other pioneers

The three pre-Gold Rush German immigrants in our study group – John Daubenbiss, John Dreher and George Kohl - had things in common with non-German arrivals which set that early group apart from the later “forty-niners” of the Gold Rush. For instance, shortly after arriving in the County, Daubenbiss enlisted to serve in the Mexican-American War, as did many other “foreign” County residents. Dreher came to California as a member of the 1st Regiment of New york Volunteers, a U.S. army unit recruited for the war.

Another fact setting these three apart from the rest is that they were the only three members of the study group from Bavaria, one of the most southerly states of the German Confederation. It is not known whether the three knew each other prior to emigration, or may have met during travels within the United States before settling in Santa Cruz County. Other than Bavarian origins, the only common bond found, in this study, was membership in the Society of California Pioneers (see below).

A limited number of work choices were to be found in largely-rural Santa Cruz County before the Gold Rush. Dreher and Kohl became farmers (it’s unknown whether they were previously farmers in Germany). Daubenbiss, on the other hand, possessed a rare and valuable skill – he knew how to build and operate a water-powered mill. In Santa Cruz County, Daubenbiss built sawmills and a grist (flour) mill. All three men later expanded into other sources of income as County growth presented new opportunities.

Many early County settlers were able to acquire large land holdings. Dreher and Daubenbiss (and later Hihn) became developers, subdividing their large land holdings. Kohl became a brick manufacturer in addition to farming. Both Dreher(10) and Daubenbiss(9, p.83) donated land to local school districts.

All the members of our study group had other things in common with most other California pioneers, whether arriving just before or during the Gold Rush. They were:

  • Young. Ages, upon arrival in Santa Cruz County, ranged from twenty-one (Schwartz) to thirty-one (Schwann)
  • Male. Frontiers tend to be largely male places, at least in the early years.
  • Unmarried. These young men mostly waited until they were established and settled in their new home County before marrying. In this study group, Jacob Schwann was the one exception, having married in New York before sailing on to San Francisco in 1853.

More similarities to other Santa Cruz County north-European-heritage groups:

  • They were not cliquish in business and social activities. Although plenty of examples can be found of Germans doing business or otherwise associating with other Germans, an equivalent number of transactions and partnerships occurred between Germans and native-English-speakers – especially in later years. The successful partnership of Soquel pioneers John Daubenbiss and John Hames is an early example.
  • They became involved in County civic activities at about the same rate as the more numerous native-born, descendants of immigrants. Such activities included registering to vote, becoming active in political parties11 and contributing to charitable causes. To cite just one example of the latter, a list of Santa Cruz donors to the “Orphans’ Home and College Subscription” in 1870 includes twelve of the nineteen study group members, plus a number of other Germans(12).
  • They held public office roughly in proportion to their numbers. John Daubenbiss, F. A. Hihn and Charles Steinmetz each served several terms as County Supervisors, and Hihn served a term as State Assemblyman. Otto Stoesser served as Watsonville City Treasurer and George Otto as County Treasurer. Werner Finkeldey was a Santa Cruz City Councilman and Henry Winkle was a school trustee(13).
  • They were comfortable with the American legal system. Judging from court notices published in newspapers, the Germans were as likely as any early Santa Cruzans to make use of the American “tort” system of civil law. F. A. Hihn was especially active in that regard, probably because he was especially active in business(14).
  • They joined fraternal orders and other similar organizations. This form of civic and social involvement, very popular in those days, attracted many of the early German-speakers in our study group. Several belonged to more than one organization. Local branches of German-specific organizations like Deutche Verein were established early in San Francisco and San Jose, but not in Santa Cruz until many years later. The most popular in early days were:
    • Masons: Daubenbiss, Effey, Schwartz, Steinmetz, Winkle
    • Oddfellows: Cappelmann, Otto, Kuhlitz
    • Society of California Pioneers

This last organization deserves separate mention, both because so many early German immigrants joined and because, more than any other, it demonstrated the desire to be identified first as Californians and pioneers rather than as Germans. Public demonstrations of connections to homelands left behind were secondary: The Santa Cruz branch of the Society was organized and led through most of its existence by the most active and successful promoter of local interests of his generation, Frederick A. Hihn.

From the beginning, Hihn demonstrated his desire to fit into his new English-speaking home, as evidenced by the early change in spelling of his name. Realizing that Americans found it impossible to pronounce Hühn correctly, he anglicized his surname to Hihn. The new spelling didn’t work completely, but got Americans closer to a correct pronunciation than what he would have heard before: “Hoon” or “Hun”. In contrast, Hihn’s brother Hugo, who followed him to Santa Cruz, kept the German spelling and eventually returned to live in German Switzerland, in 1867.

Leadership of the Pioneer Society was another effort toward identification with California, Santa Cruz County and pioneer pride. Hihn recruited many of the other Germans to join him, including more than half of our study group: Cappelmann, Daubenbiss, Dreher, Kohl, Kunitz, Steinmetz, Stoesser, Trust and Winkle.

Unique characteristics of the Germans

Some of the early German immigrants who ended up in Santa Cruz County had met previously in the course of their travels. Hihn and Kunitz were shipmates departing from Germany, and were partners in a Sacramento candy factory in 1850. Bern and Werner met in San Jose and came to Santa Cruz together in 1853. Jacob Schwann married an immigrant relative of Andrew Trust while still in New York.

Only one member of the study group ever had a criminal conviction, and that was for what we would today call a “white collar” crime. In 1879, while serving as the elected County Treasurer, George Otto was tried and convicted of embezzlement of public funds(15).

Some differences can be seen in the kinds of occupations the early German-speakers favored. To a greater extent than other early County immigrants, they seem to have come from urban areas, and relatively few were farmers, miners (after the initial gold fever) or timbermen.

Early occupations among the men in our sample group (many moved into a different one later in life) include:

  • Skilled trades, manufacturing (9) – includes a variety of skills: two leather workers (Bern, Werner), a mill-builder (Daubenbiss), a watchmaker (Effey), a piano maker (Finkeldey), soap and glue manufacturer (Kunitz), cabinetmaker (Steinmetz), and baker (Schwann,Trust). Many other skilled trades are found in the aggregate German immigrant group.
  • Merchant (6) – Bernheim, Cappelmann, Hihn, Otto, Schwartz, Stoesser. Some of the “skilled trades” group above also engaged in merchandising, especially in their later years.
  • Farmer (3) – Dreher, Kohl, Winkle. It’s notable that two of these three were among the earliest German-speaking immigrants in this County.
  • Brewer (1) – Kuhlitz. Although considered a skilled trade, brewing merits special attention because it’s the one occupation dominated in early County days (not so surprisingly) by German-speakers. Two other early brewers, Henry Bausch and Otto Diesing, also belong to the larger German pioneer group. Other Germans entered the local brewing business in later years, but those three seem to have been the only brewery owners in Santa Cruz County for many years. In addition, Cappelmann began as a saloonkeeper, and later developed a wholesale beer and liquor distribution business.

Religion is another area where distinctions can be found. Early eastern-state Protestant Americans established churches as soon as they arrived: Methodist, Episcopal, Congregational, Baptist. In contrast, although biographies mention that several members of the study group were nominal Lutherans, no Lutheran or other German-associated church was established in Santa Cruz County until the 1880s, when a Danish Lutheran church opened in Watsonville. In 1884, a German Methodist Episcopal church was founded in Santa Cruz, but that denomination was born in the United States(16). Jacob Schwann was involved with the founding of that church. Otto Stoesser was the lone Catholic in the study group (the brewer Henry Bausch was also Catholic).

The beginnings of this County’s Jewish community trace back directly to the first German-speakers. The first Jewish immigrants came almost entirely from German Confederation states, including German-speaking areas of what is now Poland. In our study group, Reuben Bernheim (one of three merchant brothers) and Louis Schwartz were Jewish(17).

The largest concentration of native-German interments is found at what was then the non-denominational Oddfellows Cemetery(18). Evergreen Cemetery, oldest in Santa Cruz and also non-denominational, hosts the remains of John Dreher, Andrew Trust and a pair of Hihn infants. Bernheim and Schwartz are buried at the Home of Peace Jewish cemetery.

Pioneer Germans were probably no more or less interested in music than others, but would have brought with them the kinds of music they knew best. Werner Finkeldey was a merchant, piano-builder and noted amateur vocalist. He founded and led the “German Liederkranz” in the later 1860s, a choral music group(19). In other places, Liederkrantz groups aimed to promote traditional German music, but it’s not known whether the Santa Cruz group’s repertoire was similarly focused or more eclectic. Published programs include non-German musicians along with the singers, and are not exclusively German music.

Concluding assessment

Most pioneer German-speaking immigrants to Santa Cruz County about whom we have a sufficient amount of biographical information were business-oriented, civic-minded and socially-active, eager to participate in and be accepted into local society. Most were – at least in early days – more interested in identification as California pioneers than as Germans. F. A. Hihn and many others put their energies into the California Pioneers and popular fraternal orders rather than forming German-specific organizations. Ready acceptance allowed early Germans to retain as much of their native culture as they wished, while simultaneously learning the ways of the Anglo-Americans.


  1. Terry, Carole Cosgrove. 2012. Die Deutschen in Kalifornien: Germans in Urban California, 1850-1860. Digital Scholarship@UNLV. [1].
  2. Dunn , Geoffrey (1996). Pioneer Spirit: A History of the Winterhalder Family in Santa Cruz County. Local History Articles, Santa Cruz Public Library website.
  3. Reader, Phil. History of Villa de Branciforte, Santa Cruz County History Journal Number Three, page 17. “A ‘padron’ or census taken in the fall [1845] gives the names of 470 residents of Branciforte and the Santa Cruz area including 80 foreigners.”
  4. Population Statistics for Santa Cruz County and Cities, 1850--2000. Santa Cruz Public Library. Local History Articles, Santa Cruz Public Library website.
  5. United States Census and California Census (1852)
  6. United States Census (1850, 1860) and California Census (1852) records for Santa Cruz County, online at: http://www.sfgenealogy.com/santacruz/szdata.htm#census
  7. Santa Cruz County History Journal Issue Number 2, page 54
  8. Poll List (Santa Cruz precinct), Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, 1866-09-01, p.1, col.4
  9. Santa Cruz County History Journal Issue Number 4.
  10. Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel (SCWS), March 21, 1868, p.2/col.3
  11. SCWS, July 22, 1871, p.5/col.2. Santa Cruz County Democratic Convention. Steinmetz, Daubenbiss, Cappelmann and Otto are mentioned.
  12. SCWS, September 24, 1870, p.2/col.4
  13. Public offices held, and other non-footnoted information about study group individuals, is found in biographies contained in the “Principal Biographical Sources” listed below.
  14. SCWS, August 15, 1862, p.2/col.4. “District Court Calendar” includes Charles Bern, George Otto and Otto Stoesser as plaintiffs; F. A. Hihn as a defendant.
  15. SCWS, June 19, 1880, p.3/col.7
  16. Tutwiler, Paul. Santa Cruz Spirituality. Local History Articles, Santa Cruz Public Library website.
  17. Gibson, Ross Eric. Jewish Pioneers Played a Big Role in Santa Cruz. Local History Articles, Santa Cruz Public Library website.
  18. Krassow, Janet and Randy. A Walk Through Time: A Historical Guide to Santa Cruz Memorial Park. Local History Articles, Santa Cruz Public Library website.
  19. SCWS, October 26, 1867, p.3/col.1

Principal Biographical Sources

Next: History Pages: 13 - The County