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German Immigrants Set Out To Build A Utopia in Missouri

In 1833, two men from Giessen, Germany, decided to immigrate to the United States where they hoped to create their own utopia with the freedoms and democracy they desired but did not have under an aristocracy. They recruited hundreds of others and formed the Giessen Emigration Society.

“It was the year 1834 when 500 Germans came over here to Missouri with the big idea of creating a German state as a new state within the United States of America,” Peter Roloff told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Tuesday.

Roloff directed “Utopia: Revisiting a German State in America,” which debuts Sunday as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival in conjunction with a Missouri History Museum exhibit. The documentary follows the leaders of the Giessen Emigration Society, Friedrich Muench and Paul Follenius.

The story of the Giessen Emigration Society is largely unknown in the U.S. and Germany, even in Giessen, Germany, where it started.

“There was, at that time, a conflict between the intellectuals,” Roloff said. “Others said if the best people go, the most skillful people go, then how can we make a change in Germany itself? They still decided for their option. They decided against violence, against violence against the government and said let’s do it peaceful. Let’s create a new state.”

In all, 500 Germans made the trip — sometimes entire German villages were emptied. The immigrants ended up in Missouri, in an area that looked similar to their homeland. The Missouri Rhineland extends west of St. Louis to just east of Jefferson City, mostly along the Missouri River valley and is named for its similarities to the Rhineland region of central Europe and the Rhine River.

“They almost felt like at home,” Roloff said of the immigrants’ impression of Missouri. “They were somehow the second phase of pioneers at that time.”

But the group was not able to create a German state in the United States, which some deemed a failure.

“The fact that they couldn’t create a state politically, that was becoming almost not important because the fact of the matter was there (were) so many Germans, we were a state that still was very German,” said historian Dorris Keevan-Franke, executive director of the Missouri German Consortium.

By the time they arrived, “there was no thinking about creating a state,” Roloff said. “They just wanted to survive.” At least 70 people died on the ships between Germany and Missouri.

While many Germans settled in and around St. Louis, others followed the Missouri River farther west.

“Between 1834 and 1837, 30,000 Germans immigrated just in that short time period and 7,000 of those settled in St. Louis,” Keeven-Franke said. “But since Missouri was becoming the new opening, the gateway to the west and was a young state, these all pushed westward. A lot of them settled in St. Charles County, Warren County, Montgomery (County) — farther along the river because it did remind them of home.”

Cultures began to merge, but many of the German immigrants continued to fight for freedom and democracy that was the basis of their utopia.

“While the Americans had a very calm Sunday with the Bible, the Germans had beer and dancing and guns,” Roloff said. “This was indeed a different culture.

“They made a living out of farming especially, then they turned their interest into the politics, into society,” Roloff said. “In the beginning they thought ‘Oh, we (will) keep our German traditions. We (will) keep quite like a German community.’ Then they found that it doesn’t work, of course. You must merge into society with the existing society. And then they found out there are liberties missing, especially for the slaves. That was a humanitarian catastrophe from the point of view of the Germans coming, and then they said that must be changed.”

Related Events

"Utopia: Revisiting a German State in America"

  • When: Nov. 22, 2014, through April 19, 2015
  • Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd. in Forest Park, St. Louis
  • More information

"Utopia: Revisiting a German State in America" activities

  • When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014. Several events, including lectures and performances, are scheduled throughout the day.
  • Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd. in Forest Park, St. Louis
  • More information

Peter Roloff's "Utopia: Revisiting a German State in America"

  • Part of the St. Louis International Film Festival
  • When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014
  • Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd. in Forest Park, St. Louis
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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