Vol. III, No. 1, Summer 1989


The German Presence in the Ozarks

by Russel Gerlach



To some the suggestion that there might be such a thing as German Ozarks will seem strange. The popular image f the Ozarks is one of a region reflecting a British heritage brought by descendants of early English and Celtic settlers who had slowly trekked west from the Atlantic coast to the hills of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. To be sure, the British heritage of the Ozarks was the dominant cultural force throughout much of the region in past times, and to some extent remains so to this day. Yet, a second tradition is suggested by Ozarks place names such as Frankenstein (Osage County), Rhineland (Montgomery County), Freistatt (Lawrence County) and Altenburg (Perry County). These and other Teutonic place names suggest a German presence in the Ozarks, and it was and continues to be a major presence.

Germans first entered the Ozarks in the 18th century at a time when the Louisiana Territory was under the control of the French and then the Spanish. Some Germans were mixed in with the English, Welsh and Scotch-Irish who moved west from the Alleghenies in the early 18th century. Through intermarriage and separation from ethnic kin they soon lost the trappings of their Old World heritage. These assimilated Germans found their way to most parts of the Ozarks and their descendants remain in the region to this day. Along with descendants of many European nationalities, they form part of what one might call the old-stock American population of the region.

The first distinctly German settlement in the Ozarks occurred in 1798 when a group of German-Swiss from North Carolina located in the Whitewater Creek bottoms of Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties. The Whitewater Dutch, as they were known, remained distinctive for some generations and their farms were said to be the best in that section of the territory. Over the next several decades Germans trickled into Missouri with most locating along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers west and south from St. Louis. By 1818, in anticipation of a large number of foreign immigrants, an Immigrant Aid Society was organized in St. Louis, especially for the Germans and Irish.

A particularly notable early German settler in the Ozarks was one Gottfried Duden, an educated Rhinelander who immigrated to Missouri in 1824 and took a farm near the present location of Dutzow in Warren County. Duden published a book in 1829 entitled Reise nach dern Westlichen Staaten [Travel Through the Western States], in which he described the lands along the Missouri River as geographically similar to southern Germany, but without the social drawbacks -- a region where one could practice hillside horticulture and yet be free of the convention-ridden society of 19th century Germany. In subsequent years thousands of his countrymen emigrated directly to Missouri as a result of his glowing and somewhat exaggerated description of the State. Many of those attracted to Missouri by the writings of Duden were men of means and education. Known as "Latin Farmers" because of their knowledge of Greek and Latin, they came to Missouri seeking a utopian life. Many of them failed. Some returned to Germany; others settled in St. Louis; and a few committed suicide. In addition to the writings of Duden, at least a dozen other travel books in the German language that focused on Missouri were in circulation in Europe by 1830.

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Despite the failure of some of the followers of Duden, Missouri became a center of German settlement in America after 1830. St. Louis evolved as the primary distribution hub for Germans in the middle Mississippi Valley and, as a result, became a major center of German culture and influenced the location of many German communities in the vicinity. German immigration to Missouri proved to be highly organized with many settlers coming directly to St. Louis from Germany by way of New Orleans, and large numbers were associated with organized settlement societies.

Some Germans came to Missouri with the hope of establishing a "Germania in America." The first such effort was organized by the Giezner Gesellschaft which brought 500 settlers recruited from throughout Germany to a location near Duden's farm in Warren County in 1834. Over the next several years other organized German groups settled in the same area, including the Berlin Society in the town of Washington in Franklin County, and the Solingen Society which established a settlement at Tavern Creek in the same county. The largest and most ambitious effort to establish a German state in Missouri occurred only a few years later. In Philadelphia, the cradle of German colonization in America, the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia was formed in the 1820s to establish a German colony somewhere in the "Far West." The society selected a site in northern Gasconade County and thus was begun the colony of Hermann. German settlers continued coming up the Missouri River leading one observer to characterize the route from St. Louis to the west as "a veritable German highway." The Germans continued moving west along the river, buying out Americans as they went, eventually reaching Kansas City.

(Area map)

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In addition to settlements along the Missouri River, other Germans moved south from St. Louis establishing communities along the Mississippi all the way to the Missouri Boot Heel. The majority were Catholic. In Ste. Genevieve County, German Catholic communities were established at New Offenburg, Zell, Coffman and Weingarten in the 1840s, and Germans moved into formerly French settlements such as River aux Vases and even Ste. Genevieve itself. The settlement of Germans continued south into Perry and Cape Girardeau counties where large numbers from Baden located in the 1840s and 1850s.

Some Germans were attracted to the Ozarks seeking religious freedom. Osage County attracted several thousand German Catholics whose principal reason for emigrating from Germany was religious. Their spiritual leader, Father Helias, established a parish in Westphalia in 1834, and in subsequent years seventeen settlements, composed primarily of Rhinelanders, were established in Osage, Cole, Miller and Maries counties. In Perry County, a large settlement of "Old Lutherans" from Saxony was established in 1839. They came to Missouri with the goal of establishing a semi-autonomous theocratic community, and from their original settlements of Altenburg, Wittenberg and Frohna have come to dominate eastern Perry County.

A filling-in process followed the initial phase of German settlement in the Ozarks. As word filtered back to Germany, more Germans came. In most cases they settled in areas already having large German populations. More than most groups, Germans placed great value on land quality. The areas initially occupied by Germans in the Ozarks were, in most cases, those with high quality soils. By the time of the Civil War German settlements were confined to the northern and eastern Ozarks borders where the hills were capped with loess, a rich material deposited by winds during the time of the glaciers. Inland, where the loess was absent and the soils were thin and rocky, Germans established no significant settlements. Even though thousands of Germans continued to enter the Ozarks annually, the areas of German settlement did not expand significantly with the exception of several small settlements associated with the railroads in the 1870s and 1880s.

Ozarks Germans, more than most groups, have remained where they originally located. Locational stability, as Carl Sauer observed, has been a distinguishing characteristic of this particular group. The German areas of the Ozarks are as heavily German today as they were in the mid-19th century if not more so. The core areas of Ozarks German settlements, such as those in Gasconade, Osage and Perry counties, are often 90 percent or more German, and usually unmixed German. As a result, a sense of ethnic group or community has persisted among Ozarks Germans to a remarkable degree. Not only do they share a common historical bond, but they continue their participation in Old World religious denominations. Lutheran, Evangelical and Reformed, and Catholic churches in the rural Ozarks remain for the most part ethnic German churches. The use of spoken German, while in decline in German settlements throughout the United States, has held its own among the Ozarks Germans. In these and other ways, ethnicity is an active part of life for Ozarks Germans rather than being simply an historical legacy put on occasional view in the form of festivals and other commemorative events. (That the Ozarks Germans still have them is evidenced by the annual Maifest at Hermann, and the Erntfest at Freistatt.)

Wine cellar, Hermann, Gasconade County, Mo.
Country stone church, Gasconade County, Mo.

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German cultural landscapes in the Ozarks reflect their Old World heritage in both obvious and subtle ways. They did bring to the Ozarks some distinctly German settlement features. Old World string villages, or Strassendoffer, are found in several Ozarks locales such as Westphalia, Altenburg and Frohna. While most Germans abandoned traditional Old World architectural styles, there are examples of half timbering, combination house barns, and side opening threshing barns in the German settled areas. Their landscapes reflect order, long-term investment and a neatness that appear to be lacking in the region as a whole. Their buildings were large and often constructed of brick or native stone, suggesting a desire for permanence. In fact, many of their original structures remain occupied to this day. They were grain farmers in a region better known for its livestock, and their carefully fenced fields continue to reflect this emphasis. They were known as good and careful farmers who developed land in a region better known for the exploitation of its land.

In these and other ways Ozarks Germans have retained their distinctive character. Their settlements look different whether one is looking at place names, structures, field patterns or churches. They maintain traditions that set them apart from others in the region whether in the churches they attend, the amount of beer they consume, or to whom they will sell their land. However, like most hyphenated Americans, Ozarks German-Americans have experienced enormous pressures to assimilate. Over the last century the emphasis has shifted from German prior to World War I, to German-American up to World War II, then to American in the years that followed. It is likely that we are nearing the end of a living German Ozarks which will soon pass to a relic German landscape. Then, like Ste. Genevieve and the French, we will remember our Ozarks German heritage primarily through the material culture they left behind rather than through the people whose ancestors originally brought it.

Stone Bank Barn, Bay, Gasconade County, Mo.
Streetview, Westphalia, Osage County, Mo.
Russel Gerlach is Professor of Geography and Distinguished Scholar at Southwest Missouri State University.
Suggested Readings

Gerlach, Russel L., Immigrants in the Ozarks (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976)

Settlement Patterns in Missouri (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986)

Marshall, Howard W. and Goodrich, James W., eds., The German-American Experience in Missouri, Publications of the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center, No. 2 (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1986)

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