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Unusual Genealogy project

The Giessen Emigration Society Genealogy Project

Imagine yourself trying to locate the descendants of 500 German emigrants.  They’re not the same family, religion, nor do they come from the same village or province. The only thing in common is that they immigrated to the United States from Bremen in 1834, as members of the Giessen Emigration Society. Some of them left in March and arrived in New Orleans in June on board the ship the Olbers. The rest left in June and arrived in Baltimore in July aboard the Medora.   There are passenger arrival lists, newspaper accounts, written accounts, diaries, journals, and histories written about the group. Add to the problem, they didn’t settle together in Arkansas as originally planned. Some of them even returned to Germany after arrival or within a few years. Known as the Giessen Emigration Society, no one is certain if all passengers on each ship lists were members.

Where to start

Fortunately, the Passenger lists exist for both ships so the first step is to create a database of all names. Written accounts state that membership in the Giessen Emigration Society was closed at 500, even though thousands had applied to join. The first ship, the Olbers, had a female passenger become ill with Typhoid before it had even passed the British Isles. The second group, which came on the Medora, became stalled near Bremen when the ship they had chartered did not arrive. Stranded, and living on the island Harriersand in the Weser River, some gave up hope and abandoned the group, or may have have taken another ship. Journals and diaries of members tell us about many who died, married and were born on the island and on each ship. Even though no account book or journal listing the members has been found yet, we chose not to eliminate any passengers listed, without definitive answers, we won’t eliminate any possibilities for information. Next, we map out their pathways.

Meet us in St. Louis

When Giessen Society founders Friedrich Muench and Paul Follenius issued The Call in Giessen, Germany, published in July 1833, it was considered an illegal act by their government. They didn’t follow Duden’s recommendation of sending a scout or “agent” until their organizational meeting in September 1833, when Müeller and Schmidt headed to the Territory of Arkansas, to report back on the location. When they returned to Bremen in time to tell Paul Follenius, leader of the first group about to board the Olbers, not to go to Arkansas, there was a sudden change in plans. Needing to leave, Follenius sent word to Friedrich Muench, to meet him in St. Louis, and departed for the U.S.  Within the first few days, Typhoid broke out on the Olbers, but that was not the worst problem. As they were about to enter port, June 4, 1834, they learned from departing ships, that Cholera was epidemic in New Orleans. Getting through port as quickly as possible, they headed by steamboat up the Mississippi towards St. Louis. Many members did fall ill, were lost, only to be buried along the route. When they reached St. Louis, they waited for a bit, hoping for the rest of the group, before heading west on the Boone’s Lick Road. The road, running west from St. Charles, was a common pathway for thousands heading to the far west.  Some members aboard the Olbers settled first in New Orleans and Cape Girardeau, but most came on and purchased land in Illinois and Missouri.

Given up for Lost 

As the second group of the Society arrived in Bremen, they learn that the ship they had chartered had not arrived yet. Not knowing when a ship that had room would arrive, they were desperate, not wanting to use up funds destined for land purchase in the U.S. At that time, Bremerhaven was new, and lodging establishments had not been built. Trying to save funds, many took refuge in a hausbarn as cattle were pastured on the Weser River, across from Brake, on the Harriersand Island. Finally, weeks later, the group was able to charter the Medora and head for America.

Baltimore was in the midst of a heat wave. One died from sunstroke, and one actually returned to Germany, according to some accounts. The group then followed the suggested route of Gottfried Duden, to Cincinnati, then down river and up, to St. Louis. Yes, some stopped, deciding to establish homes, along the way. Even though they found St. Louis embroiled in Cholera, some would stop and make their home, as the best place to earn a living if you were not “farmer” material was the big city. Those that could not tolerate the practice of slavery chose Illinois, with many settling in St. Clair County there.

Where to go from here

By now you have gathered that the Giessen Emigration Society Genealogy Project is searching for German emigrants, with the only thing in common, is that they either came in on the Olbers to New Orleans around June 4, 1834 or the Medora to Baltimore where they arrived mid-July.  Descendants of many families have already been located.

Families that have visited the exhibition in Germany, learning their family had members, have contacted the exhibition’s organizers, and have been re-united with families in the United States. Others, who know their family were GES members, assist with clues found in their family history.

If you have ancestors that you suspect were members of the Giessen Emigration Society we would like to hear from you!  Please contact us using the form below. For more information about the Society visit the exhibition Utopia – Revisiting a German State in America or read the companion volume Utopia.







New Years Day

On a frigid New Years day in 1861, in St. Louis, Missouri, a slave auction was halted when heated Germans crowded the sale block. Outraged, they kept the auction from going forward.  A slave named Jim was sold that day. But this was not the last slave sale by far. In fact, Jim’s former owners sold other slaves on a much warmer day, the fourth of May 1861.

In 1861, Missouri’s Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson, a secessionist, was determined to take the state out of the Union. He also wanted the muskets stored in the Federal Arsenal at St. Louis.  But when he attempted to gain those muskets by force he found a force that included  thousands of Germans, gathered from St. Louis, St. Charles and counties to the west.  Emigrants who had drilled in secret, with sawdust on the floors and windows covered for secrecy. Germans who had come to America, where “the sun of freedom” shone. Germans who had made America home and could not go back. Germans who understood the deprivations and hated slavery. They also knew that as long the slave holders held power over Missouri politics, their freedom from Nativism and other oppression, the lives they envisioned for their families was endangered.

When Jackson had attempted secession he failed. Germans had begun emigrating to Missouri in the early 1830s, settling along the Missouri River valley.  They had reached a position, small but respected in Missouri politics by the 1860s. The Convention had to recognize the German voice of Friedrich Muench and it failed in its attempt to secede. Jackson fled, exiled and powerless. But the Germans stayed and Missouri became a border State divided.

Two years later, on another New Years day in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”  These applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the border state of Missouri.  It also announced that black men would be accepted into the Union Army. The proclamation changed the Civil War from a states rights issue, to the real issue of slavery vs. freedom. These were issues the Germans understood and took to heart. They would fight, in the field and in the Statehouse.

A trip to Nieder-Gemünden


What a beautiful day! In Giessen, the weather is not all that different from Missouri. I have seen rain and sunshine all in one. The landscape is not all that different from here either, with its gentle rolling hillsides, some fields, and some with grapevines. At times I could think I was in Missouri, as we left Giessen this morning.
But the day was special, as we joined Carol Muench, great great granddaughter of Friedrich Muench, co-founder of the Giessen Emigration Society, on her way to Nieder-Gemünden. We were with Simone Jung, from hr-Fernsehen television from Frankfurt. She and crew, Tom,Rico, and Michael were there to capture the day on film. It is etched in my memory forever.




We visited Muench’s home built in 1560, and discussed the Muench portraits one can find at the Missouri History Museum, which are reproduced, and hang in the church. Pastor Thomas Schill’s sermon shared the history of Muench, and the Society, and the role they played in history, especially Missouri. Two young men did a memorial tribute to Muench and his life. The church is beautiful and has been restored within the last ten years. The congregation has collected funds and donated it to the Missouri History Museum, for restoration of these beautiful portraits.



Afterwards we completed our day back at the Cultural Hall, where the exhibit is, to a German Kaffeeklatsch! So many came to talk and discuss. We talked about how different, or not so different from the U.S. Germany is today. We built many bridges with the similarities. I think there are as many Germans, who are interested in what became of the members of their families, as there are in the US who are interested in their ancestors history here in Germany. Friedrich Muench would be so happy to see all of this.