Americans consider this day to be special. It is our country’s birthday, the Fourth of July. Today I would like to share some thoughts about our ancestors’ arrival so many years ago. A large group of Germans not only left their homeland, but left their German states to become Americans.
Germany was not even a united country in 1838 when the Gesellschaft left. It was made up of individual states run by local royalty. These states were loosely united, but by no means a country. Those local civil authorities made decisions about their people’s religion, which, for the most part was Lutheran. However, the Lutheran “brand” was changing, and the changes were not welcomed by those who would eventually participate in the Gesellschaft. They wanted freedom to preach, teach, and practice their religion in a way that was traditionally Lutheran….the way prescribed by Luther based on Holy Scripture. These folks came to the conclusion that they could not be satisfied by staying in their homeland. They decided to leave.
What better place to go for freedom of religion than the United States of America! And that is where they decided to go. Although the leadership of the immigration may have had it in their minds to come to this country to establish their own little “German State”, it was quickly discovered that such an approach was not going to work in this country. I happen to think that these German Lutherans also quickly discovered how wonderfully different it was to live in a country like America where there was not just freedom of religion, but also a plethora of other freedoms as well. I think they liked it.
After the Altenburg Debate in 1841, even their church polity was changed to become more “American”. The clergy kept their influence when it came to matters of spiritual importance, but in matters of handling the finances of the church, the laity had a newfound voice in determining how the church’s money would be spent.
The American flag has been in the news recently. Even the original American flag has been the focus of some news stories. This got me wondering what the American flag looked like in 1839 when the Stephanites arrived in the United States. I discovered that after the state of Michigan entered the Union in 1837, the number of states had reached 26. On July 4, 1837, a new flag design was instituted that illustrated 26 stars. That flag lasted until 1845 when Florida entered the Union. Here is what the U.S. flag looked like when the Gesellschaft arrived in this country. They probably saw this flag as they landed in New Orleans.
I wonder when the first American flag flew in the new German Lutheran settlement in Perry County. I have no answer to that question, and I doubt that there is any documentation available to answer that question. Maybe the first one was on display at a post office.
Another question came to my mind. What did a United States map look like in 1839. I managed to find a map produced in that year that included the United States and Texas (which was not yet a state). It is shown below.
America consisted of 26 states, but also included quite a few territories that would eventually be formed into future states. Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana were the only states west of the Mississippi River. They were formed in the years following the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. Missouri will soon celebrate its bicentennial. It turns 200 years old in 2021. When the Gesellschaft arrived in 1839, Missouri was just 18 years old.
I believe that it did not take long at all before the newly-arrived immigrants in Perry County called themselves Americans. They certainly cherished their German heritage (and still do), but I don’t think much time passed before they no longer considered themselves Germans.
I also think the fact that it did not take long for these American to serve in their country’s military is evidence that they really considered themselves to be proud of their new home. They quickly became responsible citizens of the United States of America. Men from East Perry County would even go fight for their country against their previous homeland of Germany during two World Wars.
In our museum we have a display of flags illustrating the many German states from which local immigrants came. Below you can see that display.
If you look closely, at the far end (which is where you enter this gallery) the first flag displayed is the United States flag. Though we celebrate our history as immigrants from Germany, we want our visitors to know that we more importantly display the fact that we are now Americans. And we are proud to say that.
Happy Birthday, America!