Any story of an emigrant to America is international in scope, having a before and an after. Thousands of Americans work tirelessly to find their German ancestors and make that connection to their roots. Today, over 46 million people still consider German as their ancestry, making it the largest ethnic group in the United States.
Years ago, a German student in East Germany named Henry Schneider came across the Giessen Emigration Society while working on a thesis about 19th century Germans fleeing to the U.S. and could not forget the story. In 2004, he shared his memory and asked his friend Peter Roloff, a Berlin film maker, if he had heard of the large group. After spending four summers gathering friends from across Germany, exploring the history of the emigration group, they decided to investigate what became of them in America. In 2009, they contacted historian and author Dorris Keeven-Franke asking what was left of the emigration society, if anything.
In 1833, fellow students and friends, Friedrich Muench
and Paul Follenius from the University of Giessen, had had enough. They had invited others to join them in 1834 in their plan to create a German state in America, and were surprised when thousands applied, but they could only select 500 to create the original settlement. They came from across Germany and all walks of life and religions. Large families, single men and women, and even orphans made up the group of brave emigrants, all united by a desire for American freedoms and a better life – their Utopia.
On November 1, 2013, the traveling exhibition Utopia – Revisiting a German State in America, by the Traveling Summer Republic, opened in Giessen, Germany, where the group had begun 180 years before. It then followed the route of the original society where it was shown next in Bremen, Germany. In September 2014, it opened at the German American Heritage Museum in Washington, D.C. to a packed house. Utopia arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, as those early German emigrants did, on November 23, 2014. The Missouri History Museum has done a tremendous effort to bring German emigration alive to thousands of visitors. The shipping crates have opened, and the many audios and videos bring the story alive. However, the exhibit will close its doors on Sunday, April 19, 2015 and leave St. Louis forever.
The story of Utopia is more than the story of the Giessen Society, it is the story of the thousands of Germans that settled in Missouri in the 1800s. A troubled Germany was suffering from overpopulation following years of war and political struggles. The decision to emigrate wasn’t an easy one, what with one’s friends and family not wanting you to leave, and the financial aspect just as difficult. The journey was filled with disease, crooked shipping swindlers and shipwrecks, and losses were often high. And as even today’s emigrants know, beginning a new life in a strange new world with a foreign tongue is very difficult and even dangerous. But the desire for what some considered a Utopia, an impossible dream, gave them the courage. Following the Giessen Society over 30,000 Germans came to Missouri by 1837, with over 7,000 of them settling in St. Louis. Utopia is the story of emigration. Don’t miss Utopia.
Thousands have visited Missouri History Museum and the Utopia exhibit. A tour of the Utopia Exhibit by the guest Curator is given every Tuesday at 10:30 am in the Gallery. For more information, or how to arrange tours at other times, for school, church or historical or other groups, contact Missouri History Museum at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (314) 361-9017 soon!