GERMAN HISTORY IN ILLINOIS
Curriculum: American History with a focus on ethnic history and the social and political contexts of immigration, using the German history of Illinois as an example, with case studies
Lecture: see PPT and also see introductory essay by Tom Emery on this website- https://mythicmississippi.illinois.edu/german-il/
(1) Introduce students to the anthropological concept of heritage, in contrast to history
(2) To understand the causes of the large-scale German immigration to the U.S. and specifically to Illinois in the mid-19th century and how the “push” factor(s) affected their goals once here
(3) To analyze the historical role of German immigrant communities in downstate Illinois and their contributions across downstate Illinois
(4) To learn about the lynching of German immigrant Robert Prager
(5) To identify the legacies of the German immigrant presence
(6) To evaluate how legacies of immigration are remembered and narrated
(7) To consider potential similarities/differences to contemporary immigration in Illinois and in the United States today
1. Introduction to the topic
The core German immigrant groups arrived in Illinois in the 1820-30s. They were followed by large groups of German immigrants who arrived after the failure of the German Revolutions of 1848 as many fled their homeland (see summary in https://www.britannica.com/place/Germany/The-revolutions-of-1848-49).
The attempted revolution in Germany was part of the revolutionary wave across Europe. It was inspired by opposition between monarchical forms of power and the newer nationalistic, liberal revolutionaries. As conflict worsened and the revolts were suppressed, many revolutionaries were sent into exile or fled abroad. Large numbers of these Europeans settled in the United States. The Germans were a notable group in the mid-19th century as the largest immigrant group in Illinois.
Arriving in St Louis, Missouri, these German immigrants were so horrified by that state’s slavery that they crossed back across the Mississippi River to establish themselves in Illinois’ St. Clair County, as Illinois was a free state (though laws allowed slavery and indentured servitude to continue under a wide range of circumstances). Notably, the German immigrants were fervent abolitionists and protected freed (and, presumably, escaped) slaves in an area outside Belleville known as Shiloh Valley and Turkey Hill.
Prior to the Civil War the German population numbered 38,000. By 1850 it had grown to 131,000 within 10 years.
New settlers sought to purchase land for cultivation. One of the initial struggles they had was clearing the tough Illinois prairie grasses so that they could farm. A blacksmith named John Deere, who moved to Illinois from Vermont in 1837, invented a new plow that made the task exponentially more efficient. He was not German but his invention revolutionized farming for the immigrants and all who worked the land.
Over the ensuing decades generations of German immigrant communities left enduring legacies across parts of downstate Illinois, several of which are discussed in this lesson.
2. Case study: Belleville
Belleville was the center of the first important German settlement in Illinois. Most of Belleville’s early German immigrants had graduated from German universities. They were nicknamed or called themselves “Latin Farmers” because of their education. They established one of the first kindergartens in the country. One German immigrant, Gustav Koerner, helped establish Belleville’s public library. The German settlers also founded choral groups, drama groups and literary societies.
Notwithstanding its German history, the city of Belleville has a French name: beautiful city. It was named by George Blair in 1814 who thought the name would attract new residents. Most of the early residents that Belleville attracted were Germans. One of them was Gustav Koerner who had been wounded in a failed revolution in Germany and escaped to the US, where he became a confidant of Abraham Lincoln (he actually met Mary Todd in Kentucky before she moved to Springfield and met Lincoln). Koerner was a fervent abolitionist and part of the group creating the Republican Party in 1856. Koerner helped write the 1860 Republican platform and he managed Lincoln’s campaign to get the presidential nomination. He was the only pall bearer for Lincoln not from Springfield. The Koerner House on Mascoutah & Abend, in Belleville, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The restoration of his Belleville house is ongoing (see: https://gustavekoerner.org/ )
The first style of houses in Belleville were simple brick cottages, known locally as “German street houses” or “row houses.” Many other architectural styles flourished. Luckily, a lot of architecture has survived and 73 properties were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. They form the Belleville Historic District. The streets off Main Street have a number of great antebellum homes, many connected to early families.
By 1870, an estimated 90% of the city’s population was either German-born or of German descent. After the Civil War, Belleville became a manufacturing center producing nails, printing presses, gray iron castings, agricultural equipment, and stoves. Belleville became known as “The Stove Capital of the World.”
The first brewery in Illinois was established in Belleville, with the Germans having brought with them this tradition.
And in 1868, Gustav Goelitz founded the candy company that is known today as Jelly Belly.
The Belleville Public Library is the state’s oldest library, predating the Illinois State Library by three years. The public library has a big ‘founders collection’ of German language books and newspapers. Most of Belleville’s European-American population today is of German ancestry. Belleville has a distinct sense of its history and identity that embraces its German heritage. Here is an interesting article in the Belleville News-Democrat (April 8, 2015, see: https://www.bnd.com/living/article18977931.html )
3. Case study. Maeystown
Founded in 1852 by Jacob Maeys, a German immigrant, Maeystown today is a village with a unique streetscape of limestone-walled buildings that integrate beautifully into the hilly landscape. Its notable stone church was built in 1866-67 and it held services in German until 1943. A total of sixty significant buildings still exist – such as Zeitinger’s Mill, outbuildings, barns and smokehouses – as well as Maeystown’s iconic stone bridge. All of Maeystown was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Its population is under 200 but Maeystown fills with tourists for its many festivals and events such as its annual Oktoberfest (part of its German tradition) and the Apple Butter festival.
Maeystown has an excellent history museum.
4. Case study: Mascoutah
Mascoutah began as a pioneer town of settlers from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. At the time, ca. 1810, this was land available through sale by the U.S. government at $1.25/acre.
The German heritage of Mascoutah began with families who settled in the area in the 1830s. A 3-story brick grain mill from that time still survives. The German settlers were attracted by the area’s rich farmland, which they worked with great effort. These German settlers came with skills and knowledge and a keen dedication to education and community.
Local folkore suggests that the name “Mascoutah” was derived from a Native American word meaning “prairie people.” This folklore suggests that the German immigrants liked the name for its similarity to the German phrase “machs gut da” or “good luck.” There were enough German residents in Mascoutah to support a German-language newspaper, the Mascoutah Anzeiger (Mascoutah Gazette).
The Mascoutah Historical Society owns and operates the Mascoutah Heritage Museum and the Berger-Kiel Log House. The Society collects, preservers and displays historical artifacts. The Museum was founded in 2003 and has both permanent and changing exhibitions. The log house is one-and-a-half stories with a log and frame structure. It was built in 1863-64 and expanded in 1868-1872. Its form is known as “salt box.” The house was continuously occupied for almost 130 years. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
An interesting fact unrelated to the German heritage of Mascoutah is that between 1970-1980 Mascoutah was marked as the United States center of population, for which a marker still stands in town.
5. Case study: Quincy
The city of Quincy also has strong roots in the history of German immigration during the same periods. The city’s first German immigrant arrived in 1829 and the Anton Delabar family is said to be the first German family to settle there in 1833. Delabar was a cabinet maker who also created a sawmill and established a brewery on Kentucky Street between Fourth and Fifth streets. As elsewhere, the period between 1840-1870 saw substantial arrivals of German immigrants. By 1870, Germans in Quincy had established churches, schools, three German newspapers, many businesses and cultural organizations. According to census figures, 43 percent of Quincy’s total population in 1872 (24,052) was comprised of people with German ancestry.
Around the time of World War I, anti-German sentiment ran high in Quincy as it did in many other towns with growing German influence. Many in Quincy stopped speaking in or teaching their native German language and generally masked aspects of their German heritage. Nevertheless, the South Side German Historic District preserves much of the rich heritage of German architecture and ancestry. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
6. Case study: Waterloo
The first Europeans to settle in Waterloo were the French during the 18th century. They named the site Bellefontaine, or “Beautiful Spring.” This was a stopping point for travelers moving between places on the Mississippi River such as Kaskaskia and St. Louis. By the 1840s Waterloo’s population was growing, spurred further by a major increase in German immigrants calling the town home. It received its charter as the town of Waterloo in 1859 and continues to reflect the German heritage fostered by the German immigrant community during the 19th century. Its historic district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
7. Case study: Lynching of Robert Prager
This is was a tragedy that occurred at the height of anti-German sentiment in Illinois. Robert Prager, a German immigrant, was lynched in Collinsville on April 5, 1918. See discussion on this web page: https://mythicmississippi.illinois.edu/german-il/experiences/
REFLECTION QUESTIONS FOR IN-CLASS DISCUSSION
Q1. What is the role of historic and heritage preservation and celebrations as these shape public perception of history and identification with a collective heritage ?
Q2. What cultural aspects of immigrant groups often endure in their communities even generations after their first arrival?
Q3. In what ways do you think the experience of German immigrants during the mid-19th century was similar to and different from that of other ethnic groups at that time and those of today?
Q4. What were the legal and social repercussions of the Prager case?
Q5. In what ways is the state of Illinois a product of diverse ethnic identities, including Native communities, peoples of African descent, Euro-American settlers, and later immigrants?
Q6. If you have German heritage, please tell the class the stories preserved in your family.
Students will research other towns in Illinois with strong legacies of German heritage or other ethnic heritage. Students should either visit or research the places, including their history museums, and describe what aspects of that heritage are featured by the towns. Why do they think these aspects were chosen? What “message” is being conveyed to the viewing public?