Missouri’s rich German American heritage stretches back to early statehood, and the State Historical Society of Missouri has a long tradition of collecting and translating German American manuscripts, publishing research on the topic, and helping support those interested in their Missouri German heritage.
In the early nineteenth century, Missouri played a central role in attracting Germans to the Midwest, perhaps most notably through Gottfried Duden’s widely read A Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America, which painted a romanticized picture of his time living on a Missouri farm in the 1820s. Beginning in that decade and continuing in larger numbers in the 1830s and 1840s, Germans from a variety of backgrounds settled in the state, particularly in St. Louis and the Missouri River valley. They came for many reasons, most often economic, but sometimes political. After a failed revolution across the yet to be unified German states in 1848, many political exiles immigrated to the United States, where some became prominent in politics and the press. By the start of the Civil War, Missouri had a substantial German immigrant population. Most Missouri Germans opposed slavery, and many played significant roles in the fight to keep Missouri in the Union during the war.
After the war, Missouri’s German American culture thrived. Missouri Germans held festivals, established beer gardens and breweries, performed in music clubs, built churches, and participated in politics. With the outbreak of World War I, however, German American heritage suddenly became a target of persecution. With the United States fighting Germany abroad, anti-German propaganda abounded at home. Many Missouri Germans participated in war bond drives or enlisted in the army as they strove to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. During this time, many German American institutions such as newspapers and clubs went extinct or became dormant, and many German-language schools and churches switched to English.
Missouri’s German American culture proved resilient, however, with German American clubs and heritage organizations rebounding in the second half of the twentieth century. St. Louis, Hermann, Westphalia, and other historically German cities and towns retained and eventually celebrated their German heritage into the twenty-first century. The State Historical Society of Missouri’s collections document and preserve the contributions of German immigrants and their descendants to the state’s history.