Mid-19th Century Germans in St. Louis

Do you have ancestors who emigrated from Germany to Missouri in the mid-1800s? As part of our deep dive into Missouri research, this two-part series will discuss why German emigrants chose the St. Louis area of Missouri to settle and their part in the Civil War. Guest blogger, Heidi Mathis provides us with an in-depth view of the time and place through several “characters” in history.

By Heidi Mathis

Diana’s previous article “Research in Missouri: The Land and the History” looked at some of the factors that affected settlement in Missouri. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, St. Louis developed as a major bridgehead to the settlement of western North America by the United States. The 1820 Missouri Compromise made Missouri a slave state, but one evenly split between those with strong ties to the north and industry and those with strong southern ties to a farm economy built on slavery. Into this state tipping between North and South, came first as a trickle and then a flood of foreigners from Germany and Ireland. There was quite a culture clash between the mostly anti-slavery Germans and the existing southern Missourians.

St. Louis Levee Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly, 1852. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections. Thomas Easterly Collection. N17070.

In this period the steamship made it feasible to bring immigrants to the port of New Orleans and straight up the Mississippi to St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, or St. Paul: all cities that would gain large German immigrant populations. They would be closer to the land that was opened up by the Homestead Act of 1862 than had they landed in eastern ports like New York. Some of my German ancestors came through New York, but most came to St. Louis through the port of New Orleans. Burkhard Schlag arrived in St. Louis in 1854 from the German state of Hesse, and by 1861 he was married, had two children, and was the proprietor of a saloon. In a society fracturing between the North and South, what side was he and his fellow Germans on?

Not as devastated by famine as the Irish, the Germans tended to be more middle class and come with their whole family. A short history of the early German immigration to St. Louis reveals the impact made on the population.

– 18 German families in 1833
– 6000 Germans by 1837
– 22,000 out of 78,000 by 1850 were German, with 43% being German or Irish immigrants
– 46% of schoolchildren were German by 1880

Even though the greatest total number of Germans came to the U.S. in the 1880-90s, it was the 1850s when the largest numbers came per capita. Likewise, a similar wave of Irishmen was hitting the shores of the U.S. because of the Irish Potato Famine. The backlash to all the new immigrants was called Nativism, which caused the formation of the Know-Nothing Party, and resulted in riots in St. Louis (Abolitionizing p. 73) and Cincinnati. Because a good portion of the Germans and almost all of the Irish were Catholic, “native” American’s (i.e. descendants of previously arrived European immigrants) fears often coalesced around Catholicism. In St. Louis fears also coalesced around the Germans’ anti-slavery views.

German 48ers

Many of the Germans immigrating in the 1850s were young men who had fought in the German Revolutions of 1848-1849 for voting rights and free speech and had lost (Abolitionizing p. 40). Later called 48ers, these particular Germans immigrated out of sheer disappointment and desired to be in a place with more democracy, and tended to be anti-slavery (Abolitionizing p. 31). They feared if black Americans were denied their rights, that Germans could also be denied rights, such as the right to vote, which was a main reason the 48ers had left Germany. Henry Boernstein, the editor of the St. Louis German-language newspaper, Anzeiger des Westens, and Missouri Senator Carl Schurz were a few of the many prominent German immigrants who were 48ers.

Though some mid-19th century Germans were focused on individual rights, even more, were free-soilers against slavery for personal reasons. They were against slavery primarily because they wanted Kansas and Nebraska to be open to individual farmers (like themselves) and not large plantations with slaves that would hard to compete with (Abolitionizing p.29, 43). The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act and the 1857 Dred Scott case appalled many St. Louis Germans and galvanized them into being vehemently pro-Union.

Temperance Movement

Another factor adding to the friction between Germans and native white Americans was the Temperance Movement. This movement was one of the longest-lasting in American history. The Temperance Movement arose out of women’s frustration with the excessive drinking of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Husbands would drink all of their wages at all-male saloons, wreaking havoc on family life.

Century (Bicycle) Club, Frederick Burkhard Mathis (Burkhard’s grandson), St. Louis, circa 1900, Mathis Archive.

The newly arrived Germans could not have understood that the Temperance movement had a long history and was bound up with the women’s movement and abolition. They only saw that the natives did not want to allow them their Sunday family time, which happened to include beer. Germans arrived with a culture of Sunday picnics (biergartens), where the whole family enjoyed games, dances, and some beer. These were moderate family times, very unlike the male-only culture of American saloons.

In contrast to saloon culture, Germans had a different model for alcohol consumption, the beer garden. Intended for families, they were a direct contrast to the saloon’s male-only space. Carried over from central European traditions, beer gardens were usually set outside, where families could sit and enjoy pleasant weather while listening to popular music and both men and women could drink beer. Couples could dance, young people could flirt, and children could play…

“Sunday laws” were passed all over the country in this period to curtail excessive drinking, but though they had this good purpose, different views of the place of alcohol increased the already high temperature and resentments between the Germans and native Missourians. Next into this already simmering cauldron of nativism and misunderstandings over Temperance entered the battles over slavery that boiled over into the Camp Jackson Affair and the Civil War.

Did the St. Louis Germans stay pro-civil rights as they were anti-slavery during the Civil War? As the end of the Civil War and emancipation dawned, the St. Louis Germans were sadly no more or less likely to be supportive of African Americans’ rights than other white Missourians, which is to say they were indifferent at best and often were opposed. Anderson summed this up, “Once the economic system of slavery and the dangers of war were gone, however, more Germans began to clash with African Americans, who were also working to determine their own destiny. These conflicts drove increasing numbers of Germans to turn against African Americans to protect their own position as white citizens in the United States (Abolitionizing p.142).

Culture Clash

In later years the St. Louis Germans would use the anniversary of the Camp Jackson Affair from the Civil War to celebrate “their” victory. May 10 fell on a Sunday for 1868 commemoration. As mentioned before, Sunday was a sore spot between the Germans and native Missourians. This celebration can’t have endeared them to the rest of St. Louis. The conservative newspaper, Missouri Republican, at the time, remarked “the ill-advised, unfortunate, and we had almost said criminal, collision at Camp Jackson.”

Later when WWI and then Prohibition came along, the Germans were the ones who were under pressure. The peak of anti-German fears resulted in Germans quickly anglicizing their names and ending their German-language schools and newspapers. Unlike many other nationalities, they could disappear into the vast pool of “white” Americans by just ceasing to be German. I think my grandpa grew up with very little sense of German culture. It’s too bad that we as humans have trouble with differences and are prone to tribalism. If there was only a way to keep some cultural differences and yet appreciate those of other people by remembering we are all the same humans.

My grandpa’s (child second from left) entirely German-American family in St. Louis, 1911, Mathis Archive. The seated older woman is Burkahrd’s wife, Christina Röckemann-Schlag.


Kristen Layne Anderson, Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America (Antislavery, Abolition, and the Atlantic World), (LSU Press, 2016).

Source: Family Locket https://familylocket.com

Posted On: April 12, 2021 at 01:10AM