A Preservation Plan for St. Louis
Part I:  Historic Contexts

9 - Peopling St. Louis: the Immigration Experience

Previous Page         Next Page

Knowing who came from where, when they came, and what happened to them once they were here is central to understanding the history of St. Louis. These waves of immigrants have had their impact on the direction and growth of the city. They have influenced politics, growth patterns, and industrial growth through their views, heritage and skills brought to St. Louis.

First Arrivals

Earliest inhabitants far predate European contact with the western hemisphere. Some 40,000 people lived here, centered at prehistoric Cahokia. That culture died out for unknown reasons, but they left behind remnants of their society in Illinois, and some two dozen mounds in present-day north St. Louis-so many that the city was often called "Mound City." Later in the nineteenth century, city fathers had them razed for new streets and city developments.

Subsequent Native Americans moved to the area. Some were already here, others forced out of original homes in eastern United States by Europeans and, later, Americans. This general area was home for the Osage, Missouri, Kansas, Oto, Iowa, and Omaha tribes.

Earliest French visitors considered the region ripe for harvesting raw materials for the mother country. Earliest French explorers sought furs and military alliances, not places for Europeans to settle down and live. French colonies were, then, forts and trading posts more than new communities. When President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, the nation gained access to the furs, ores, timber, and other products of the west.

The Burgeoning Town

Growing trade meant growing opportunity for entrepreneurial activity. People came to start and run new mercantile activities based in the west, or to serve the growing number of people living here. The town burgeoned into a full-blown city in the first half of the nineteenth century. The population of St. Louis increased 228 percent between 1810 and 1820. It doubled between 1835 and 1840, and again by 1845; in ten years St. Louis went from half to twice the size of Pittsburgh. Earliest arrivals were from farther east or England, followed by Irish and, soon after, Germans. They joined large numbers of transplants from other parts of the country. Some seventy percent of American-born St. Louisans in 1850 were from Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, or Virginia. On the eve of the Civil War, St. Louis led the United States in percentage of its population not born in the United States.

When rule of Louisiana passed from Napoleon to Jefferson in 1803, St. Louis was largely comprised of French colonists. Streets and people alike had French names familiar to their native tongue. For them, the first two groups immigrating to St. Louis were both foreign (American and English), although only one was technically an outsider. Those arriving from abroad in the early decades of the nineteenth century were English.

The other group of earliest arrivals were Americans moving west. St. Louis was the converging point for southerners from the Carolinas and Tennessee and Yankees from New England, Ohio, and Indiana. Naturally, both groups brought their value systems with them, which became a point of division. Those from New England and Ohio brought views of the reformer on abolition, women's rights, and temperance. Many joined the new Republican Party after its inception in 1854. Southerners came from rural backgrounds where people owned slaves, lived in smaller communities, and favored state supremacy over federal control. Slavery was the greatest point of difference. Senator Thomas Hart Benton was typical. Born in North Carolina and arriving via Tennessee, Benton supported slavery during his three decades in the Senate (Benton changed his view in the 1850 election, which led to his defeat for a sixth term). The northerners who came here, on the other hand, came from New England traditions and generally opposed the peculiar institution.

From the Old Sod

By 1850, 43 percent of all St. Louisans were born in either Ireland or Germany. Irish immigrants often brought limited skill levels, putting them into direct competition with free blacks in cities for lower level jobs. In this case, economics drove politics; Irish immigrants in cities tended to be strongly pro-slavery, out of fear that liberating African-American slaves would create a glut of unskilled labor, driving wages even lower.

Irish immigrants in St. Louis congregated in two areas. Some lived in the "Kerry Patch" area on the near north side-a violent, dangerous, and impoverished neighborhood. Others lived around Cheltenham, centered around the intersection of present-day Hampton and Manchester. After rail connections to St. Louis opened in 1852, the clay and fire brick industry grew quickly. Irish immigrants worked in local clay mines. The first priests at St. James the Greater Parish, in today's Dogtown neighborhood, were Irish when it was founded in 1861. Later in the decade, the Archdiocese commissioned St. Alphonsus Liguori Church (the "Rock" Church on North Grand) for the growing number of Irish immigrants.

German Immigration

The first wave of Germans came in the mid-1830s. Only eighteen German families lived in St. Louis in 1833, but some 6,000 German souls lived here four years later. Most came looking for land to escape crowding, lured to Missouri by romanticized descriptions of the state through the Giessen Emigration Society which described it as the American Rhineland. Within two years, Saxony Germans started stepping off riverboats too. These Saxons brought with them their conservative brand of Lutheranism. Within ten years they established Trinity Lutheran Church and the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. The denomination moved Concordia Seminary here in 1849, making it the first college in Missouri to accept both men and women.

Germans established their own neighborhoods and towns as well. Between the river and Broadway from Buchanan to Salisbury on the near north side, German immigrant Emil Mallinckrodt established the town of Bremen in 1844. The promise of a friendly environment where German was spoken attracted many new and recent arrivals. Omnibus connections between St. Louis and the ferry landing at Bissell's Point started in 1845, linking the hamlet to St. Louis. It became part of the incorporated city ten years later. Now the Hyde Park neighborhood, it retained its German character well into the twentieth century.

Germans arriving after 1850 were usually ardent abolitionists and nationalists. Their political activism made them instrumental in keeping Missouri in the Union during the Civil War. Friedrich Hecker is an example. Fleeing Germany in 1848, Hecker found his way to St. Louis. He became an avid abolitionist, and a colonel in the Union Army. Such was his post-war leadership in the German community that it unveiled a statue of him in 1882, still standing in Benton Park.

Germans were a cohesive group into the twentieth century. Some one St. Louisan in four claimed some ethnicity by 1880; Germans accounted for slightly more than half. Some 46 percent of public school children were German and, a year later, 20,000 of the young scholars in St. Louis still received their lessons in German every day. Even at the turn of the century, one St. Louisan in five had immigrated here, and another 41 percent had foreign-born parents. Not until World War I, when anti-German sentiment ran high and immigration slowed to a trickle, did this trend change appreciably.

Turnvereins sprang up as places that mixed social consciousness and gymnastics in neighborhood centers. Turnvereins combined components of athletic clubs and community centers within German immigrant communities. When the North St. Louis Turnverein opened at Salisbury and North 20th Street in 1870, it joined two others in town. A new building nine years later, an addition in 1893, and a gymnasium in 1898 made it a major part of the lives of German youth in the area.

The same was true of every other Turnverein in the city. These organizations joined forces in the 1880s to successfully push St. Louis Public Schools to introduce physical education into its curriculum.

Class divisions existed within the local German community. Southside German working class citizens tended to vote as a block by the late nineteenth century. South-enders saw a city run by wealthy businessmen and professionals for the benefit of themselves and their friends-which they dubbed the "Big Cinch." They managed to elect their own candidate as mayor in 1897, Henry Ziegenhein. They persuaded city government to erect a toll-free bridge across the Mississippi by holding the Kingshighway Plan bond issue hostage in 1905 and 1906, but saw political influence decline rapidly during World War I.

The Great Migration

A rising demand for factory workers and increased dissatisfaction at home attracted a great migration of Southeastern Europeans starting in the mid-1870s. They lived in crowded tenements, worked long hours in factories or sweatshops, and clustered in large cities such as St. Louis. Tenements on the near south side of St. Louis were filled with German and Czech immigrants who had jobs in nearby foundries, cotton factories, and breweries. One Slav said of an industrial city "My people do not live in America. They live underneath it."

Some ethnic groups formed mutual benefit organizations to help one another adjust. At first many of these groups offered life and burial insurance to members, but expanded to fill a social and benefit function. Some, such as the Supreme Lodge Bohemian Slovenian Benevolent Association in St. Louis, offered death and disability benefits much like those union workers received from their dues.

A large influx of Italians came to St. Louis in the 1890s to work in clay mines in the Fairmount area. Factory expansion nationally increased demand for fire brick, including that made in St. Louis. Many of these Italians came to St. Louis via the Illinois coal fields, replacing German and African-American clay miners. By the turn of the century, they were living on what we now call "The Hill." The neighborhood grew most during the first two decades of this century.

A cohesive neighborhood, The Hill created an Improvement Association in the 1960s to fight not only City Hall, but the federal government as well. It kept a drive-in theater from opening in the area, and stopped a lead company from dumping waste in abandoned mine shafts. It convinced the United States government to route its planned Interstate 44 around the area rather than dissect a strong and viable neighborhood, and constructed a street viaduct over the expressway for further connection. Its Improvement Association was one of the models for other similar neighborhood groups in St. Louis.

Recent Arrivals

Immigration did not stop after World War II, but drew people from different parts of the world. The International Institute identifies some 100 ethnic groups in the St. Louis area; most have come since the second world war. The International Institute is a sort of point of entry for many. Founded in 1919 to help refugees from World War I, the Institute still offers needed help with English classes, job search skills, and transition services. It sponsored its first International Folk Festival in 1920.

Since the 1960s, more immigrants are refugees than ever before in our history. Changes in laws governing immigration and refugee status, along with a changing role of the United States on the world stage, have changed the nature of the immigration experience. Most today come from southeastern Asia, Haiti and the Caribbean, and Latin America.

Unlike nineteenth century immigrants, most of those coming from southeast Asia are political refugees. Some come here via the International Institute, which has contracts with the State Department to resettle refugees. Many fled Laos and Thailand in the 1970s under threatened communist oppression. Others came from China and African nations to attend college, and remained in the United States. Like their predecessors from other countries, these recent arrivals have mutual aid societies, clusters of neighborhoods, churches, and businesses. Southeastern Asians center around South Grand between Arsenal and Gravois. Restaurants, groceries, bakeries, and other businesses opened there since the late 1980s which are owned by Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, and Philippine entrepreneurs. 

Previous Page         Next Page

Was this page helpful?      


Comments are helpful!
500 character limit

Feedback is anonymous.