Back to top

Pfaender, Wilhelm (1826–1905)

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
Black and white photograph of Wilhelm Pfaender, ca. 1880.

Wilhelm Pfaender, ca. 1880.

As an active member of the Turner movement, Wilhelm (William) Pfaender proposed creating a town in Minnesota Territory specifically for German Americans. Together with other immigrants, he helped to found the town of New Ulm in 1857.

Born in Heilbronn, Germany, in 1826 to a family of laborers, Wilhelm Pfaender came to the United States with ideals shaped by his involvement with the Turner movement. First in Heilbronn and then in Ulm, Pfaender helped to found Turner societies. The Turners (from turner, the German word for gymnast) encouraged gymnastics and other forms of exercise while promoting nationalism, political and religious freedom, education, and equality.

Pfaender left Germany amid the turmoil of the 1848 revolution. Traveling first to England, where he met Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, he settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. There he again founded a Turner Society and served as its first president. In 1851, he married Catherine Pfau, who had grown up in a Turner family.

In 1855, Pfaender wrote a letter on “Practical Turnerism” for a national Turner newspaper. In it, he called for creating a German American colony. In such a town, Pfaender thought, Germans could live free from harassment by anti-German nativists. They could act on their Turner values and practice German customs. In response to his appeal, the Cincinnati Turner Society set up the Settlement Association of the Socialist Turner Society and named Pfaender as its leader.

In 1856, Pfaender traveled throughout the Midwest in search of a location for the new town. Along the banks of the Minnesota River, the Chicago Land Association had already started to build a new town for German Americans in 1854. Pfaender decided to join in this effort, and the Cincinnati group united with the Chicago Land Association to form the German Land Association of Minnesota. With support from the Cincinnati Turner Society, they purchased more land and sold lots to their members. In 1857, the town of New Ulm incorporated.

Together with fellow Turners, Pfaender founded the New Ulm Turner Society in 1856. They built a Turner Hall in the center of the town a year later. The German Land Association set up several businesses in New Ulm, including a mill and a store. Individuals soon took over ownership of these enterprises, and the German Land Association dissolved in 1859. Turner beliefs, however, in sound bodies and minds, freedom, fellowship, and the common good continued to influence the new town.

New Ulm’s Turner Hall housed the town’s first school as well as many social and athletic activities. Strongly secular, the New Ulm Turner Society encouraged religious tolerance towards immigrants who joined the Forty-Eighters (as the participants in the failed 1848 revolution were called) in moving to New Ulm. When the first Turner Hall burned down during the US–Dakota War of 1862, the Turners quickly rebuilt it. The Turner Hall returned to its central place in New Ulm cultural life.

Pfaender filled many important positions in New Ulm. He served as president of the new town’s city council and its postmaster. He performed the first marriage ceremony held in New Ulm, on March 17, 1857. As a member of the Electoral College, Pfaender cast a vote for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election.

In 1861, Pfaender acted again on Turner values when he, along with other Turners, joined the fight for the Union. An officer in the First Battery of Minnesota Light Artillery, he fought at the battle of Shiloh, where he and his unit played a vital role. He returned to Minnesota during the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862. As a lieutenant colonel in the Second Minnesota Cavalry, he was in charge of Fort Ridgely until 1865.

After the Civil War, Pfaender continued to take an active role in the civic life of New Ulm and Minnesota. By the time of his death on August 11, 1905, he had held a wide variety of offices, including mayor, state representative, and state senator. He also served two terms as Minnesota State Treasurer.

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Gimmestad, Dennis. “Territorial Space: Platting New Ulm.” Minnesota History 56, no. 6 (Summer 1999): 345–350.

Hoisington, Daniel John. A German Town: A History of New Ulm, Minnesota. New Ulm, MN: City of New Ulm, 2004.

“Lights Out! In Silent Camp.” New Ulm Review, August 16, 1905.

Müller, Hans, and Annette R. Hofmann. William Pfaender and the German American Experience. Edited by Grady Steele Parker. Roseville, MN: Edinborough Press, 2009.

May, Grace Lovell, and Wilhelmina Pfaender Loenholdt. Memory’s Trail. Edited by and Printed for the New Ulm Centennial, 1854 to 1954. New Ulm, MN: New Ulm Daily Journal, [1954?].

Nesbitt, Kurt. “Pfaender Park.” New Ulm Journal, April 19, 2009.

Spengler, Kremena. “The Pfaenders: Revolutionaries, Artists, Pioneers—and a Major Pop Star.” New Ulm Journal, October 12, 2008.

Steinhauser, Fredric R. New Ulm Minnesota Germans: Adults of German Birth Settled in New Ulm and Surrounding Areas, 1860. Typescript. Minneapolis: General College, University of Minnesota, 1986.

“This Side of the White House: A Brief Sketch of Colonel William Pfaender.” Hanska Herald, July 10, 1914.

Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. “Wilhelm Pfaender, A German Forty-Eighter and Turner Leader in Germany and America.” Palatine Immigrant 39, no. 2 (March 2014): 18–23.

Tyler, Alice Felt. “William Pfaender and the Founding of New Ulm.” Minnesota History 30, no. 1 (March 1949): 24–35.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Wilhelm Pfaender, ca. 1880.
Black and white photograph of Wilhelm Pfaender, ca. 1880.
Black and white photograph of Wilhelm Pfaender, ca. 1870.
Black and white photograph of Wilhelm Pfaender, ca. 1870.
Black and white photograph of Catherine Pfaender, ca. 1870.
Black and white photograph of Catherine Pfaender, ca. 1870.
Black and white photograph of Wilhelm Pfaender, ca. 1900.
Black and white photograph of Wilhelm Pfaender, ca. 1900.
Colorized postcard of Turner Hall, New Ulm, ca. 1920.
Colorized postcard of Turner Hall, New Ulm, ca. 1920.
Founders of the New Ulm Turnverein, November 11, 1956.
Founders of the New Ulm Turnverein, November 11, 1956.

Turning Point

In 1856, Pfaender merges the Cincinnati Settlement Society with the Chicago Land Association to form a new group that stabilizes the town of New Ulm, enabling it to flourish.



Wilhelm Pfaender is born in Heilbronn, Germany, on July 6.


On March 26, Pfaender leaves Germany for the United States.


Pfaender’s letter “Praktische Turnerei” (Practical Gymnastics) appears in the German-language newspaper Die Turnzeitung. A settlement society is formed with Pfaender as its president.


The Chicago Land Association combines with the Settlement Society to create the German Land Association.


New Ulm is incorporated; residents build a Turner Hall.


Pfaender is elected as a state representative. He casts an Electoral College vote for Abraham Lincoln.


Pfaender is commissioned as a lieutenant in the First Battery of Minnesota Light Artillery and fights at the Battle of Shiloh.


Pfaender returns to Minnesota, where he serves as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Cavalry.


Pfaender is elected to the state senate.


Pfaender is elected mayor of New Ulm.


Pfaender is elected state treasurer.


Pfaender dies in New Ulm on August 11.