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Immigrants and Nativists in St. Louis: From the Desk of William Greenleaf Eliot

Before the outbreak of the Civil War, St. Louis’s population ebbed and flowed as various groups of immigrants and travelers arrived from east and south. Some were pioneers, who stopped in the city only temporarily before continuing their journey west towards the Pacific Ocean. Others, mostly German and Irish immigrants, settled in St. Louis, seeking out employment in the railroad or shipping industries. Additionally, runaway slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad stopped through St. Louis before heading to Illinois, often during the dead of night. This topic was one of many addressed by Eliot.

St. Louis’ Reaction

However, many St. Louisans did not welcome newcomers, who were often denied food, accommodations, or short-term employment. Reporters and religious leaders decried their presence, and the whole social phenomenon attracted the attention of politicians. For instance, Whig politicians used immigration fears as a device to win elections, arguing that surely the city would become a Catholic, Democratic haven if the current migration trend were to continue. Nativism ran rampant, and critics of immigration were especially worried that Germans, with their distinct form of dress, language, and culture, would turn St. Louis into a “Deutchtown,” just as a neighborhood on the city’s southern periphery already gained the nickname of Dutchtown.

By 1860, German-speakers helped to shape civic identity, and had a part to play in the Civil War. Their Republican, anti-slavery leanings pitted them against Southern-sympathizers, who gathered around the St. Louis Arsenal shouting anti-German remarks when General Nathaniel Lyon ordered his troops to fire into the crowd, killing dozens of civilians.

Eliot’s Reaction

Having heard about the Mullanphy Bequest, a former mayor’s donation of a half-million dollars to create a house for immigrants, Eliot drafted the following letter in his diary, addressed to the presiding mayor, giving instructions on how to best support immigrant communities. In his letter, he was very careful to discern between those worthy of financial aid and those who were not. Funding for travelers just passing through would be available for only six months to discourage paupers from settling in the city. On the other hand, city officials should hire migrants from foreign lands to construct public works, paying wages rather than giving charity. These recommendations demonstrate that Eliot’s attitude towards immigration resembled his outlook towards sanitation, temperance, and abolition. Just as in these realms, Eliot desired to improve the social conditions of immigrants through indirect institutional reform, rather than by promoting radical laws. In June 1860, Eliot composed,

Honorable O. D. Filley. Mayor of S Louis. Sir. —

In reply to your letter ^received to-day, asking suggestions concerning the best mode of applying the Mullanphy Bequest “to furnish relief to all poor emigrants & travelers coming to St. Louis on their way boná fide to settle in the West,”

I take the liberty of suggesting that these principles should be strictly adhered to:

1. That relief should be given from this fund to the proper recipients for a term of not more than six months; interpreting the words, “on their way,” literally, and relieving the traveler or emigrant only while getting settled in the city, or in removal there from. Otherwise the bequest will fill the city with permanent paupers.

2. That preference be given, according to what I regard the spirit of the bequest, to Foreigners, direct emigrants from Europe.

3. That the relief should be chiefly in giving Employment at good wages, and never as a gratuity, except to the sick or helpless. (The children of those assisted should be kept at school, to learn English.) Under this rule, the bequest can be made to improve the city in prosecution of public works, etc.; and special exceptions to application of Rule 1st or above could be made, in favor of good and faithful workmen, or for special reasons.

4. The children of those assisted or employed should be required to be kept at an School, to learn reading & writing in English,- if between 6 and 14 years of age. Wge_nbk05_056

I think that these Rules should be established by the City Government, as a sort of Constitution-al Law, under which the charity shall be ad-ministered, subject to alteration or amendment only by a two thirds vote of the Council ^with approval of Mayor. The details of expenditure & arrangement should be intrusted [sic] to a Board of Seven Commissioners, composed as follows: 1. The Mayor of the City. or the Judge of some other prominent court, or some public officer not elected by the people. 2. One of the Judges of the U. S. District Court,- to be designated by themselves. 3. Two Members of the Council, to be nominated & selected by themselves, annually. 4. Three Citizens,- American, (^or fully naturalized,]) House-holders & Tax Payers,- to be nominated by the Mayor & elected by the Council, for a term of Three years, one retiring each year.

William Greenleaf Eliot Personal Papers, Series 01, Notebook 5, pages 55-56.

You can read more of Eliot’s collection by perusing his materials available online at Missouri Digital Heritage.

To find out more about Eliot, please consult the online research guide to the William Greenleaf Eliot Personal Papers housed at University Archives


  • Adam Arenson, The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War;
  • William C. Winter, The Civil War in St. Louis: A Guided Tour;
  • James Neal Primm, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, Second Edition.