This is the eighth in a series dedicated to the upcoming Bicentennial.

Even before the United States became a country more than two hundred years ago, people were traveling across land and sea to make it to the land that is now Missouri. When early European settlers got here, they found trading posts along the rivers and fertile land for pastures and crops beyond.

German and Irish immigrants fleeing feudal systems, a failed revolution, famine, and harsh industrial working conditions set up communities that still see their influence today. In a self-reported survey in 2018, a quarter of Missourians reported that they had German heritage, and about 15 percent claimed Irish heritage, with those two groups far ahead of other ancestry claims. The Germans who immigrated in the 1800s tended to be educated, skilled craftsmen, and farmers, settling in both cities and rural areas, while the Irish settled mainly in larger cities and became part of the labor force that built railroads and worked in factories. Both groups made political impacts.

Take a look at your own family tree, and unless you descend from one or more of the indigenous tribes, you had ancestors who arrived here as immigrants. They might have passed through Ellis Island, eventually finding a place in the Midwest.

Today, Missouri still welcomes refugees fleeing war-torn countries, migrants facing crime and lack of jobs and opportunity, and immigrants who travel to the United States for education in our colleges and universities or for professional or skilled positions.

Ferry crossings like this one on the Missouri River at St. Charles provided a gateway for early European settlers bound for points west of St. Louis.

Onosadavbeji Oghre-Ikanone

Onosadavbeji Oghre-Ikanone’s story begins when he was fourteen years old and arrived in St. Louis from Lagos, Nigeria, in 2004.

It was understood that he and his siblings would leave Africa and go to school in the United States. His parents had attended Southern Illinois University on track scholarships. He came to live with his brothers who were already here to attend Hazelwood East High School.

“Back then America was glorified,” he says. “It was going to a paradise, and when I got here and looked at the sky, it was the same blue sky. I looked at the grass, and it was the same green grass.”

As he began to immerse himself in the culture, he realized that his move had its benefits. He was a disciplined student, and the subjects broadened his outlook.

“I thought, ‘This truly is the land of opportunity.’ We were doing science on a different level with real experiments,” he says.

Onosadavbeji Oghre-Ikanone

With good test scores, he made the decision to continue on to college. He started at Saint Louis University studying pre-medicine but transferred to the University of Missouri–St. Louis, where he felt a bit more comfortable with a more diverse student population. He graduated and then attended Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. He dived into his studies and didn’t partake in many social college aspects.

“I was just there to get the degree,” he says. Most other students there, focusing on receiving their engineering degrees, shared his sentiments.

“Immigration is very close to my heart, and all of my siblings had to go through the naturalization process,” he says. Onosadavbeji went through it, too.

This process can differ depending on the presidential administration and immigration laws and policies at the time.

“It’s amazing the differences one family can experience if they become citizens at different times,” he says. “I was blessed to have a good experience and graduated with an engineering degree.”

Onosadavbeji founded Ikanite Logistics LLC, which has a contract with Amazon to deliver packages around St. Louis. He uses qualitative skills to make sure drivers deliver packages and meet Amazon’s standards, assessing any defects in the quality to make sure problems aren’t repeated.

He has friends who immigrated in recent years with professional degrees who could not find jobs because companies weren’t sponsoring them.

“That happened to quite a few of my friends,” he says. Some returned to Nigeria and some stayed but found different work that didn’t use their talents and skills.

“That is what made me realize how blessed I was,” he says.

OUR EARLY IMMIGRANTS

The story of the human race, in many ways, is a story of migration. Evidence suggests our species has been wandering the globe from the beginning. All these years we’ve been seeking plentiful food sources, favorable climates, and escape from hardship, better places to call home, in other words.

For centuries members of tribes such as Chickasaw, Osage, Quapaw, and others made their homes in the land that eventually became the Missouri Territory and later a state. For these descendants of America’s first inhabitants, our state offered its forests, prairies, rivers, and mountains as a place to hunt, fish, build settlements, and live life.

The French and Spanish explored and settled in some of the state’s regions, arriving from the north and south. European colonists from the coasts also worked their way inward.

Using the Mississippi River for transportation, these new arrivals started trading posts along the water and sold the fur from the animals they found and trapped.

The early French immigrants left French place names in St. Louis: Carondelet, Des Peres, Creve Coeur. Even St. Louis’s name is a reminder from fur traders Pierre Laclède, Gilbert Antoine de St. Maxent, and Auguste Chouteau, who tagged the city for Louis IX of France.

THE GERMAN INFLUX

Then by the early 1800s, about the time Missouri became a state in 1821, word spread through German communities that Missouri could be the place for them. Blame Gottfriend Duden.

In 1829, after traveling in the state for a few years, taking notes, meeting people, and buying land, he made a Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America. He referred to Missouri, then the “Far West,” as a dreamland of inexpensive land that reminded him of the vaterland (homeland). He wrote of beautiful forests and room for millions of farms along the vast, fertile land by the Missouri River. He alluded to the ease of life as opposed to the hardships many of his fellow Germans in Europe were facing.

Immigrants who came to America before the Civil War relied heavily on letters from family and friends who had already immigrated, starting a cycle of chain migration, similar with today’s immigrants. These immigrants risked much, taking long voyages where food could be scarce and disease rampant on-board ships. Some died during the journey. They realized they might never again see family and friends they left behind.

German immigrants kept their culture, including musical entertainment, alive.

Many German immigrants to Missouri were also part of emigration societies that started in Philadelphia and other cities as earlier German immigrants began to realize they were losing their German culture and, in fact, melting into the larger American culture.

They flocked to Missouri because of the promise and hope it offered. Many stopped and settled in St. Louis, but the lure of rich farmland drew others farther west. They set up farms, towns, and communities along both the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers. They planted root vegetables like potatoes and turnips, as well as big kitchen gardens and cabbage crops. They raised livestock. Later came the vineyards that spurred the growth of wineries along the Missouri River Valley.

“One of the first things that the Germans did was establish schools and churches and to establish social groups,” says Dorris Keeven-Franke, executive director of the Missouri German Consortium. Education was important, and so was retaining their culture. These pockets of Germans from Augusta to Hermann, Westphalia, and Jefferson City became well known and were even referred as Rhineland due to their striking resemblance to the Rhine region back home in Germany. German newspapers, especially in St. Louis and Hermann, were read widely, keeping alive the German language and sense of community.

When German immigrants arrived, however, they didn’t always agree amongst themselves on how to define who they were, Arthur Mehrhoff, the author of Explore Missouri’s German Heritage, says. They came from different areas such as Hesse and Westfalia and thought of themselves as Bavarian or Prussian, for example. Germany didn’t even exist as an official state until 1871. It’s the same with many immigrants who come to Missouri today. There is no Latinx state. Rather, there are Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran, and El Salvadoran immigrants.

“We tend to put them all in the same category, but that was not the case then and not the case now,” he says. Religion was another factor when it came to German immigrants; some were Catholic, Lutheran, or Jewish.

The Germans, especially, have had a huge impact on the state, for example, fighting with the North to keep Missouri in the Union during the Civil War. A failed revolution in Germany 1848 prompted many who wanted a more democratic system to come here. Many were politically involved, opposed slavery, and helped President Abraham Lincoln get elected. They were also skilled craftsmen and artisans who were pushed out when new production methods and industrialization took place in Germany.

“Most Germans believed in individual liberty,” writes Robyn Burnett and Ken Luebbering in German Settlement in Missouri—New Land Old Ways. “They opposed slavery and had no sympathy for the Southern cause.” They were alarmed to find this land of freedom had the institution that looked an awful lot like the feudal system they had just escaped, Mehrhoff adds.

The Germans have given Missouri other legacies: their industrious work ethic, their craftsmanship that shaped a lot of our built environment, and the appreciation of fun that spawned breweries, wineries, bandstands, and other treasured aspects of our culture, such as the Christmas tree.

Estrella Carmona

Estrella Carmona

A Ste. Genevieve resident, Estrella Carmona arrived in the United States as a toddler. Her dad was a farm worker on small farms that employed immigrant labor. They lived in between southern Illinois and Florida and moved around according to the season as her dad worked in orchards or groves.

“We would be down in Florida one season, and then we would come back to southern Illinois to work on small farms there,” says Estrella, who is now a county engagement specialist for University of Missouri Extension. She teaches nutrition and health education in two counties and manages outreach to Latinx immigrants through a Facebook page.

Her family lived in a migrant camp with others. Each family had a small apartment in a row of buildings. They would visit family back in Mexico often. When she was in middle school, her parents bought property in southern Illinois and decided to establish a home in the United States.

She, three sisters, and a brother traveled from school to school, but they eventually joined other immigrant children for summer school and learned English through enrichment programs.

“It helped us,” Estrella, who became a US citizen, says. “It was very challenging.”

She says the kids she grew up with are educated and living middle-class lifestyles, and she credits the programs that were in place to help them.

“Even though we were children of immigrants, we didn’t work in the fields ourselves,” she says. “We had educational opportunities, and we all assimilated very well.”

Estrella helps native Spanish speakers now and uses her background and social media to explain health and covid-19-related information, to make sure they make the best decisions for themselves. Many are working in factories or food production places and hold “essential-worker” status in food production.


Top 5 Industries Where Immigrants Work

Self-Employed Immigrants
5% of all self-employed people in Missouri are immigrants. That’s about 15,000 business owners.


Lumona Faustin

Lumona Faustin

Lumona Faustin arrived in Kansas City two years ago after living nearly twenty years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. He fled to Tanzania from the Democratic Republic of Congo when violence escalated there.

“I left my country due to the death of my parents and my brothers,” he says.

Lumona, forty-eight, now has his green card and spends his days working in the production line at a warehouse and as an interpreter and refugee community navigator while helping his young children navigate school during the pandemic.

“It’s challenging with distance learning, and now they are strangers in America,” he says. “There are so many challenges they face, but I have to make sure that they keep studying.”

He speaks Swahili, French, and English and has found that communication has been key for employment.

“Communication can be very difficult so I have to look for help when it comes to getting a job, and that is a big challenge,” he says. “I couldn’t start a life in America without a job.”

IRISH ARRIVALS

The other major group of immigrants in the early days of our state were the Irish. Many Irish immigrants were fleeing crop failures and the Great Famine of 1844–1852, as well as other hardships, such as disease and landlords clearing tenants from property when they were no longer able to pay rent.

The Irish, too, suffered long journeys to get here, taking up to three months. Many suffered from cholera or typhoid fever. Once overseas and in Missouri, they often found factory jobs in cities, while some returned to their agrarian roots, working on farms and eventually owning farms themselves.

Although not as much is written about them as the Germans in Missouri, Irish immigrants played a significant role in shaping Kansas City and St. Louis. Dogtown in St. Louis is still considered the most Irish of St. Louis neighborhoods, and its influence pours out into the city’s nearby pubs, restaurants, and communities.

Across the state in Kansas City, the Irish made up a huge working class that boosted mobster “Boss” Tom Pendergast into the political spotlight. He operated illegal taverns and kept out of trouble through police bribes and using his influence to run city politics. His power was greatest during Prohibition when the speakeasies kept drinking and gambling alive and well. He kept Irish immigrants and others on his side by helping pay their debts and providing those who were poor with charity and food.

One historic Missouri Irish note is the “Irish Settlement,” in southern Missouri. The Rev. John Hogan founded the community in the 1850s. It was for poor Irish Catholics. Another priest, the Reverend James Fox had purchased the land that became home to dozens of families. Residents either fled or were killed during the Civil War, but the trees and overgrowth that remain is still referred to as the Irish Wilderness.

Many Missourians still celebrate a real or adopted-for-the-day Irish heritage. St. Louis’s Dogtown neighborhood and Kansas City host huge St. Patrick’s Day parades no matter the day of the week the holiday falls. Missouri University of Science and Technology and the town of Rolla has hosted popular St. Patrick’s festivities for more than one hundred years, as St. Patrick is known as the patron saint of engineers.

ANTI-IMMIGRANT SENTIMENT

In the mid-1800s, immigrants encountered a mostly free and open immigration system; however, by the late 1800s, the Supreme Court declared that regulating immigration was a federal responsibility, in response to some states passing immigration laws, as northern factories and southern textile mills began encouraging immigration by paying passage in return for contract labor. As wages were driven down, federal laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Alien Contract Labor laws of 1885 and 1887, restricted immigration and jobs for immigrants.

Many immigrants would come and declare that they wanted to become citizens, but had to wait a few years to become a resident, just as many immigrants have to wait today.

As the influence of Germans and their numbers grew, those who had been Americans for more generations began to push back.

“An anti-foreign movement called ‘nativism’ in the mid-1850s arose, and the people who started it formed a secret group called the ‘Know Nothings,’ ” as outlined in German Settlement in Missouri—New Land Old Ways. Originally known as the Native American Party (but not affiliated with American Indian tribes), Know Nothings were given the name because members were supposed to reply “I know nothing” when asked about the group. They were an anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-immigration, populist, and xenophobic political group, although progressive on issues of labor rights, opposition to slavery, and support for women’s rights.

Groups like these supported barriers for immigrants including lengthening the time to become a citizen or keeping immigrants from holding elected offices.

Germans in St. Louis and others were socially ostracized. In one instance a mob, which gathered in Soulard Market in response to a dispute that German Americans had taken control of a polling place in the 1853 city election, threatened the first German-language newspaper in St. Louis, the Anzeiger des Westens. Nativists in the St. Louis government banned public transportation at a certain time to try to stop immigrants from using it.

Lingering resentment from Missouri Confederacy supporters no doubt also fed some anti-German sentiment after the Civil War, as most German immigrants were strong and vocal supporters of the Union.

Arthur Mehrhoff devotes a section in his book, Explore Missouri’s German Heritage, called “Toward a Pure American Culture,” to anti-German sentiment during World War I. German newspapers were required to translate articles, and the St. Louis School Board abolished courses in the German language, he says.

The Irish, too, experienced anti-Irish sentiment, with Irish Need Not Apply signs in windows indicating some business owners’ sentiments. Many Irish encountered negative stereotyping as drunkards or fighters.

But just the same as today, some Missourians rose to defend immigrants. During World War II, when Japanese American immigrants were forced into internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Park University officials in Parkville stepped up. Dr. William Lindsay Young helped to relocate nine Japanese American youth and enrolled them as students at the university.

Today, some legislation also seems intended to restrict immigrants in Missouri.

In 2012, SB 590 would have required schools to report on the documented status of students and their parents, making school administrators part of immigration control. In 2012 and again in 2019, (SB 590 and SJR 18, respectively) would have asked police officers to require papers at routine traffic stops. These proposals did not pass.

Missouri is also one of a handful of states that has made law, passed in 2008, that English is the official state language, a primarily symbolic move.


Missouri Immigrants’ Tax Payments, 2018

$1.9 billion, federal
$790.8 million, state & local

Undocumented Workers’ Tax Payments, 2018*

$107 million, federal
$62.3 million, state & local

*Nearly half of undocumented immigrants file income taxes. Many immigrants pay taxes through an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number available for certain nonresident and resident aliens, spouses, and dependents who cannot get a Social Security number. Immigrants also pay sales taxes on purchases and property and personal property taxes for their homes or when renting.


IMMIGRATION TODAY

Immigration today is more complex than the early 1800s when there were few restrictions on who could enter the country. Violence and job shortages in Latin American countries cause many to move for work, and like the European immigrants of the past, to seek a better life for their families. Refugees from the Middle East and Africa also come from refugee camps after fleeing civil wars.

Ness Sandaval is an associate sociology professor and the co-director of the PhD program in public and social policy at St. Louis University. Part of his recent work was pulling together maps and graphics to illustrate immigration in Missouri in a presentation called, “A Social and Economic Profile of Immigrants and Immigrant Geographies in Missouri.” In the presentation, he provides mapping to where immigrants are living in Missouri.

Sandaval spends much time looking at immigration in the St. Louis area, but says that it is hard to measure statewide immigration because our two largest regions, St. Louis and Kansas City, straddle state lines. The Kansas City metro area has long been a hub for immigrants from Slavic countries, as well as Irish and German.

Mehrhoff suggests we could learn from Germany’s current guest-worker program to see how immigration might be changed to benefit local and national communities. Since the 1950s, one in five Germans living there are not native-born, and this country once noted for horrific intolerance in World War II has reversed itself.

Maria Rodriguez-Alcalá, who works with Extension in Carthage, says immigrants take jobs in small towns as other people leave them.

WHY MISSOURI?

Maria Rodriguez-Alcalá came from Paraguay to Texas for college and now works with University of Missouri Extension in Carthage.

“I was not born Hispanic,” she says. “I became Hispanic. It doesn’t mean I represent all Hispanics, though,” she says.

Hispanics include Mexicans, Guatamalans, and Hondurans, who might even be speaking an indigenous language they brought with them instead of Spanish, Maria says.

“If you look at Hispanic immigrant demographics, it does tend to lean more lower-middle class and is different from Asian immigrants. But we try not to let income and equality define us.”

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Latinx populations came to Missouri, and many worked—and still do—in meat processing plants and other factories in small towns, she says.

“They filled in the holes of people leaving,” she says. Many came from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador by way of California to the Midwest in the hopes of finding better work. Word spread among immigrants about Missouri, much as it did among the German immigrants of the 1800s, of a better life and better opportunity.

Most immigrants start in the southern states and then move north.

“They were running away from big towns and crime in California or Arizona,” she says. “And people are coming from other states like Kansas and Oklahoma, looking for jobs through connections.”

She says that many Hispanics come for jobs like those in the southwestern part of the state, and now there are larger populations in these areas. But they aren’t just working for other people. They own restaurants, landscaping companies, and hair salons. Some farm and have bought land and raise cattle, she says.

“Hispanics are not taking jobs from other residents. There are not enough people to fulfill these jobs,” she says. “People come here to work, and they work, and they take night shifts. They want something for their families. But they come here because the jobs are here first.”

Plus, dynamic and economic situations are influencing the migration.

“A lot of things happening are known to be pushing people northward—drugs, the market,” she says. “A lot of farmers were displaced in Latinx countries when the US started selling agricultural products to Mexico.” She is referring to NAFTA policies beginning from the late 1990s, which increased exports to Mexico and China by an estimated nearly $40 million. Most of Mexico’s food staples, especially corn, come from the US Midwest.

Sompit Vasey

Sompit Vasey

Sompit Vasey came from Thailand, where she worked at an international technology company, to the United States after she met her husband, a US citizen. “It was hard to leave my family,” she says.

She connected with St. Louis MOSAIC, a program organized a decade ago to promote immigrant economic growth, when she started a new business.

She had to start over and went from having a career to staying home. They started a family, and she found her time was spent caring for their baby rather than looking for a job.

“The big thing is the language,” she says. “I keep thinking that if I could speak English as fluently as my own language, then I would have a better chance at success.”

So she took a skill she had that she thought could set her apart and focused on cooking and baking. She took continuing education classes to improve her baking skills, to complement the Thai cooking she did at home.

She opened Ma Yim Bakery in 2016 to feature some of the foods she missed from Thailand. Curry puffs and pastries are her specialties.

She credits English as a Second Language programs for nonnative speakers as a way for immigrants to learn as they settle in.

“The challenge is the language when I went to take business classes,” she says.

She became more comfortable with the language through the classes and then through her children as they started school. Now she is assisting customers, taking online orders, and when the pandemic ends, she hopes to be catering for events once again.

Foreign-Born Immigrants

THE FUTURE

It only takes a short time for a second- or third-generation immigrant to see themselves as “American” rather than solely of Latinx heritage, just as it did with the Germans and Irish.

Carthage, where Maria Rodriguez-Alcalá lives, has bilingual schools where immigrant children focus on both English and Spanish. This method has helped to make immigrant children more welcome and accepted, she says.

“The schools play a critical role,” she says. “The bilingual program raises pride and raises interest in the other students who say, ‘I want to learn Spanish.’ ”

Immigrants in the community

On a weekend evening in the early aughts, the lights dimmed in a room near St. Louis’s Tower Grove Park. Night had fallen as smells rose from a restaurant kitchen. Plates of burek and dolma arrived to be passed around a long table. Before long, a strobe light marked the start of karaoke.

The Bosnian immigrant population made a mark in the south St. Louis neighborhood after fleeing war that brought them to this country beginning in the 1990s. Though later generations have since moved to the county and suburbs, for a decade the Bosnian refugee influx brought a thriving and vibrant cultural twist to the Tower Grove area, much like the nearby Italian influence of St. Louis’s The Hill neighborhood.

Today, in the Westside neighborhood of Kansas City, you don’t have to walk far to feel immersed in the Latinx and Mexican culture reflected in the surrounding blocks. Pop into Los Alamos Market Y Cocina for Mexican provisions or celebrate Dîa de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on November 1–2 at Mattie Rhodes Arts Center, located across from Primativo Garcia, named after the Kansas City Latin American hero.

Among these neighborhoods and throughout the state are examples of immigrants who have carved out a place and purpose. Like those who arrived here before the United States was founded and Missouri named a state, they came looking for better opportunities for making a life, a living. Whether they land in urban neighborhoods with others sharing the immigrant experience or in rural communities where they are an integral part of the local workforce, their influence and families become part of the American cultural and economic fabric.

This is their story.

To view the full presentation of “A Social and Economic Profile of Immigrants and Immigrant Geographies In Missouri,” click here.

Top Countries of Origin For Immigrants to Missouri, 2018


Trends For the Foreign-Born Population For Missouri


Top 10 Counties With Foreign-Born People, 2018

Suzanne Sierra

Suzanne Sierra

Suzanne Sierra’s father was an orthopedic surgeon in Colombia in South America. Seeking better work in 1962, he sent query letters, looking for a job, and landed in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“He and my mom desperately wanted to seek work and a life in the US, and he applied to two hundred hospitals in the US,” she says.

Hospitals and medical practices were recruiting foreign doctors, and her dad knew one person in Chattanooga.

“Back then, doctors simply applied, and if they were invited to interview, they came,” she says. “Tennessee appealed to them for some reason, and he received a residency visa upon acceptance. They flew to Miami, stayed with a friend for a week, and took the Greyhound to Chattanooga. They arrived at 4 am. They knew no one and as luck would have it, there was one nurse at the hospital then who was from Colombia, and she became their guardian angel and helper.”

He took the medical boards in the state using Spanish and English dictionaries.

“My mom tells me she knew no one,” Sierra says. Her mom learned English by watching TV. Sierra is a senior program manager at St. Louis Mosaic Project, a program organized a decade ago to promote immigrant economic growth.

“I always think about that,” she says. “My life today is because of the struggles my parents made. They thought about going back to Colombia.”

For More Reading About Immigrants:

  • Arthur Mehrhoff chronicles German influence in his book Explore Missouri’s German Heritage, which Missouri Life published and is available at MissouriLife.com.
  • See June 2017 Missouri Life for a story on the Hmong community in southwest Missouri or search “Hmong” on MissouriLife.com.
  • See Missouri Life, March 2020, for a story on Bosnian culture in St. Louis, or search “Bosnian” on MissouriLife.com.

Sources for statistics throughout the story: American Immigration Council, Migration Policy Institute, New American Economy, US Census Bureau

Photos // Jacob Moscovitch