Guide to Immigrant Experience in Missouri

Resources for Immigrant History Research

The history of Missouri reflects the United States’ ongoing experience as a nation of immigrants. The State Historical Society of Missouri holds numerous manuscripts, photograph collections, publications, and other materials on Missouri immigrants and immigration. In addition to the links provided here, please see the Research Guides on the German American Experience in Missouri and the Jewish American Experience in Missouri.


A Brief History

After becoming a state in 1821, Missouri’s first significant wave of immigration consisted of Germans who began arriving in the 1820s and came in larger numbers in the following decades. They joined an existing population of white American settlers, most of whom had come from Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, as well as earlier settlers of French heritage. These earlier groups had brought slavery to Missouri, giving the state an African American presence that would account for 10 percent of the total population by 1860.

The Germans bolstered settlement in areas where Missouri’s population was already concentrated, such as near the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and in St. Louis, the state’s largest city. In the city, and also in smaller towns and rural areas, Germans formed their own communities while they gradually adapted to their new surroundings. They maintained a strong and cohesive ethnic culture throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Suppression of German language and culture during World War I, when their ancestral homeland was at war with the United States, dealt a severe blow to German heritage in Missouri, but appreciation for Missouri Germans has revived in recent decades, with several organizations dedicated to preserving and celebrating their contributions to the state.

As Missouri grew and its economy expanded, numerous other immigrant groups arrived. By the outbreak of the Civil War, a sizable Irish population had developed, especially in St. Louis and in Jackson and Buchanan Counties on the western side of the state. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came in significant numbers. They typically worked in factories, in industries such as mining, or in the construction trades, and often lived in the cities, forming distinctive communities like the Italian American neighborhood in St. Louis known as The Hill. Missouri’s Jewish communities, which had been dominated by German Jews prior to the 1880s, were profoundly changed by the arrival of eastern European Jews.

When the influx of immigrants from Europe was halted during World War I, African Americans filled much of the void left in the workforce. The Great Migration from the South greatly increased the state’s black population. Immigration from outside the United States picked up again after the war, and new populations from places as varied as Mexico, Vietnam, Somalia, and Bosnia came to Missouri over the remainder of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.