German Science and the American West: Organizing the Unknown

Rolf Achilles: Facts
Chicago's Sacred Spaces
German Science and the American West: Organizing the Unknown
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Organizing the Unknown: German Science and the American West

©1989, 2009, and 2022 Rolf Achilles

This text, initially a booklet and guide to an exhibition, Organizing the Unknown: German Science and the American West, was first shown at the Newberry Library, Chicago, 1989, and then toured to high schools and libraries in Illinois, attempts to bring together a great diversity of material on some of the contributions made by German scientists, travelers, explorers, and writers to our understanding of the American West. The sources are all found in the Newberry Library, Chicago.

The subject is so vast that no attempt to be inclusive has been made. Further research would quickly illuminate other fields of activity, engineering for one, not touched on here. At its core, Organizing the Unknown is about local and worldwide travel for scientific purposes. This type of travel developed during the eighteenth century and was fed, in turn, by the new experiences and knowledge gathered. It continues today. 

When Alexander von Humboldt undertook his expedition to South and Central America (1799-1804), travel writing, especially the scientific variety, was defined as a genre with specific rules. En route, the traveler/explorer recorded “Land und Leute” (land and people) in day-to-day experiences, observations, and sketches. Back home, this clutter of facts was organized and published, often in the letter-from-afar form. This format gave the illusion of being personal as it focused on a specific topic or portion of a journey. Adventures were spaced at acceptable intervals, allowing the reader to feel a part of the narrative. Travelers and readers soon learned that culture could be studied through its remains: art, relics, and bones. The collecting expedition was launched. Often scientific in scope, its end was the creation of collections to be viewed by the bourgeois populace in museums, pavilions, zoos, and expositions expressly built for this purpose.

This exhibition was curated, and its guide was written by Rolf Achilles with the assistance of John Aubrey and sponsored by the Newberry Library’s D’Arcy McNickle Center for the History of the American Indian, Frederick E. Hoxie, Director. Robert E. Bieder, Indiana University, served as a Historical Consultant. While many scholars, writers, and explorers, past and present, have made this text and exhibition possible, the project staff is grateful for the assistance of Dr. Walter Breuer, Richard H. Brown, John B. Jentz, Robert Karrow, Max Maldacker, Jay Miller and Leo Schelbert, the synthesis presented here, right or wrong, is the responsibility of the curator.


Most Germans became acquainted with North America through travel literature and guidebooks, which gave detailed information about sites, peoples, and cultures immigrants might encounter. In Germany, the ethnographic novel flourished. And intellectuals such as Wieland, Herder, Lessing, Schiller, and Kant watched American events with sympathetic interest. America’s success with democracy was widely admired in Germany, where the Imperial government vigorously suppressed idealism and the pursuit of democracy. Goethe had some understanding of the significance of the frontier in United States history and believed that, in contrast to Europe, America might develop as a continent dedicated to peace. To many Germans, Washington and Franklin were heroes of liberty. As a result, many well-educated Germans visited North America broadly, while others emigrated to the central and western United States. Their education and idealism served their new home well. In turn, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy appeared in German translation in 1824. All his books were popular in Germany. Books by German authors such as Friedrich Gerstacker helped export an image of America based on facts and personal experiences. Quickly translated, these works were also trendy in England and the United States. 

Besides New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, New Orleans was a significant port of entry to the American West. It had direct trans-Atlantic links to Hamburg and Bremen, Germany’s most important harbors and emigration ports. From New Orleans, the traveler could go to Texas, where there were several German communities, or steam up the Mississippi to St. Louis and then up the Missouri valley into the recently acquired Louisiana Territory.

When Napoleon Bonaparte became ruler of France, he opened negotiations with Spain for the retrocession of Louisiana to France. By the treaty of San Ildefonso (1796), Louisiana again became French territory but remained under Spanish administration until 1803. Despite Spanish control, Louisiana remained French in culture. 

Meanwhile, news of the retrocession of Louisiana reached President Thomas Jefferson. He instructed Robert Livingston, the American Minister to Paris, to attempt the purchase of the Isle de Orleans (that part of Louisiana that lay east of the Mississippi) and sent James Monroe to help. After negotiating, Livingston and Monroe purchased the entire colony, an unknown area more significant than the colonial United States, for $15,000.000. The contract did not specify boundaries. When this was called to the attention of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s Foreign Minister, he replied:”… you have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it.”

More than any other group, German travelers and immigrants entered the American West through St. Louis. Amid the German rush, the need to establish a consulate there arose. 

The first appeal came from Dr. Georg Engelmann (1804-1884), a doctor and naturalist. On a visit to Berlin in 1840, he urged the cause of a Prussian Consulate in St. Louis. Engelmann noted that from 1833 to 1840, the German population had increased from 20 or 30 to 6,000 while the total population had risen from 7,000 to 20,000, and estimated the German population of Missouri and Illinois, with St. Louis as its center, at about 50,000. Engelmann proposed several candidates and cited E.K. Angelrodt (1799-1869) as the most notable German merchant of the community and favored him for the position. Five years of wrangling followed. Finally, on 21 April 1845, the King of Prussia, in a Cabinet decree issued at Potsdam and approved later by President Buchanan in Washington D.C., Angelrodt was commissioned.

Throughout his tenure, Angelrodt supported immigration and helped make the life of German travelers and immigrants easier. He also arranged to ship many of Engelmann’s botanical specimens to Germany. Engelmann's botanical collection in 1857, he bought a 62,000 species plant collection in Europe that became the nucleus of the now world-famous Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis.  The Engelmann Spruce was named in his honor, probably in 1861 or 1862, by his friend Charles Parry who collected Picea engelmannii in Colorado.  It was Engelmann who published Parry's description of this tree in 1863.  In an 1879 publication, Engelmann named and described Picea pungens, another famous tree that Parry discovered, the Colorado blue spruce. 

Johann Friedrich Gustav von Eschscholtz (1793-1831), surgeon, Professor of Anatomy, Director of the Zoological Cabinet, and participant in two scientific trips around the world with the Otto von Kotzebue Expeditions of 1815-1818 and 1823-1826.  On the first trip, the California poppy was collected near present-day San Francisco and named Eschscholzia californica by his friend and fellow onboard scientist, Adelbert von Chamisso (of the genus Chamissonis).  Eschscholtz later returned the favor in the name Lupinus chamissonis.  Several other species were named for Eschscholtz.

The first German to scientifically explore the Americas was Friedrich Wilhelm Alexander von Humboldt, born in Berlin in 1769 and died there in 1859. From 1787 to 1792, he studied at the universities in Frankfurt an der Oder and Göttingen, the Academy of Commerce in Hamburg, and the Academy of Mining in Freiberg. His studies familiarized him with technology, botany, economics, geology, mining science, and antiphlogistic chemistry. In 1790, he traveled to the Netherlands, then to England and Paris with George Foster, the naturalist. The latter had been with Captain James Cook, the English explorer and navigator, on his second round-the-world voyage, 1772-1775. 

In 1792, von Humboldt entered the Prussian mining service. While in this service, he invented several machines, continued his plant experiments, began his lifelong study of geomagnetism, and founded a free mining school with his funds.

Von Humboldt lived in the Age of Romanticism but was a thorough empiricist. For him, facts, measurements, and numbers were the cornerstone of science. He believed in universal harmony and equilibrium in nature. Though a founder of geography as a science, von Humboldt had a comprehensive view of nature to which the earth sciences would contribute significantly as his primary goal. 

In 1796, he became financially independent, left the civil service, and began to plan a “great journey beyond Europe.”

The following year he went to Paris, where he met the French botanist Aimé Jacques Alexandre Bonpland (1773-1858), with whom he traveled to South America in 1799, remaining there until the end of 1804. They traveled by foot, packhorse, canoe, and sailing vessel through every conceivable type of terrain in what is now Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico. Along the way, von Humboldt and Bonpland recorded, sketched, described, measured, and compared what they observed, and they also gathered some 60,000 plant specimens, 6,300 of which were hitherto unknown in Europe. 

Von Humboldt made maps and amassed detailed data on magnetism, meteorology, climatology, geology, mineralogy, oceanography, zoology, plant geography, and physiognomy. He also undertook ethnological, historical, and linguistic investigations, studied Indian monuments, current population figures, social conditions (he found slavery to be the evil of humankind), and economic development. He navigated the Orinoco and Magdalena rivers and set a new mountaineering altitude record with his ascent of Chimborazo in June 1802. Later, others would call this trip “the scientific discovery of America.”

In 1804, before returning to Europe, von Humboldt visited Washington D.C., where he met several times with President Jefferson, who found his information on New Spain (Mexico) of particular interest. In Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society elected him a member. Most of von Humboldt’s later life was spent in Berlin editing his enormous collection of notebooks and writing Kosmos, a scientific account grasping the entire material world from the galaxies to the geography of the various mosses, presented in vivid and pleasing language. It proved very popular. 

Although written in German and French, his works were quickly translated into English and other languages with profound effects, and they lent significant impetus to studying the Americas. His monographs on Cuba and Mexico were the first treatments of geography in science, politics, and economics. They set the standard on which most Europeans, Americans, and all German science and exploration rested for most of the nineteenth century.

Although von Humboldt opened the Americas to scientific study, the systematic scientific exploration of the American West began with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, both United States Army. They crossed the North American continent from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean between May 14, 1804, and September 26, 1806. Their expedition demonstrated the great size of western North America and its potential riches in furs, minerals, fishes, and other natural resources. Preparations for this expedition were thorough. Lewis learned mapmaking from Andrew Ellicott, a cartographer to the United States; Robert Patterson instructed him in using scientific instruments and determining longitude by lunar calculations (Lewis never mastered this). Caspar Wistar trained him in medicine and anatomy, and Albert Gallatin gave lessons in hypothetical geography and Indians. Charles Wilson Peale and Benjamin Smith Barton taught him the art of collecting and preserving specimens.  Their published journal made the West an object of desire. Yet, the almost complete absence of illustrations of the sights on this epic journey seriously diminished its widespread impact and underscored the vital role artists would play in later exploration and creation of the concept of “America.” 


The Lewis and Clark expedition helped foster the emergence of a continental consciousness that quickly led to the extensive scientific reconnaissance of the American West. Mapping the course of rivers, mountains, deserts, high plains, valleys, and the incredible complexities of the canyon country of the Southwest made mapping an art that few were competent at but many admired. The geography, ecology, climate, soil, and vegetation were noted, correlated, and charted. Technical skills and scientific knowledge were significant German contributions to the mapping and understanding the American West. Von Humboldt was the guide throughout. 

Although not German, Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1778-1813) produced a vital record of the American West, which owes much to von Humboldt. Pike left St. Louis on July 15, 1806, for points as far west as the Rocky Mountains and south into New Mexico. In 1810, he published several maps, one of which, A Map of the Internal Provinces of New Mexico… is mostly plagiarism of the northern two-thirds of von Humboldt’s map of New Spain, which was not published until 1811.

Von Humboldt, in his Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent during the Years 1799-1804, initially in French, translated into English by Helen Maria Williams and published in 1815 in Philadelphia, wrote, “Mr. Pike displayed admirable courage is an important undertaking for the investigation of western Louisiana, but un-provided with instruments, and strictly watched on the road from Santa Fe to Natchitoches, he could do nothing towards the progress of geography… The maps of Mexico, which are annexed to the narrative of his journey, are reduced from my larger map of New Spain, of which I left a copy, in 1804, at the secretary of state’s (James Madison) office in Washington.”

Gottfried Duden (1789-1856) was not a scientist by training or avocation. Yet, he was the first German to give his countrymen a fairly comprehensive, reasonably accurate, first-hand account of conditions in the eastern parts of Missouri. The first edition of 1500 copies, published at Duden’s own expense, of this now famous book, Bericht über eine Reise nach den westlichen Staaten Nordamerika’s und einen mehrjährigen Aufenthalt am Missouri (in den Jahren 1824,25,26 und 1827) oder: Das Leben im Inneren der Vereinigten Staaten…, Elberfeld, 1829, was an instant success. A second and third edition and numerous reprints followed. The text was written in diary-letter form, thirty-six personal letters in all that gave a sense of immediacy and credibility. This travel-writing format was extremely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To spur sales, the book was available directly from the publisher at half-price to all emigrants to the United States and limited to twenty copies per emigrant organization. Beginning in the 1830s, many German immigrants, known as “followers of Duden,” settled in the lower Missouri valley. This book has been called “the most important piece of literature in the history of German immigration” and “a masterpiece of promotional literature” because of its effect at the time.  

Born in 1785 in Remscheid, Duden attended the gymnasium in Dortmund and studied law in Düsseldorf, Heidelberg, and Göttingen from 1806 to 1810. His judicial activities gave him insight into the plight of the poor. He convinced himself that most crimes were due to poverty and that poverty was due to suffering, which in turn was an effect of excess population.

In June 1824, Duden and his traveling companion, Ludwig (Lewis) Eversmann (1799-1858), an agriculturalist, arrived in Baltimore and then traveled in a wagon to St. Louis. Duden and Eversmann bought adjoining land in what is now Warren County, near the present-day town of Dutzow, fifty miles west of the Missouri and Mississippi river junction. Here they built cabins. For the next three years, Duden devoted himself to agriculture and carefully studied his surroundings, noting such things as weather, temperature, soils, flora, and fauna. These notes, and much more, became his famous Bericht. In 1827, Duden returned to Germany. Although he remained in Germany, his book induced thousands of Germans to emigrate. Many settled in the area near where Duden had lived, and his farm was long known as “classic ground.” Duden died in Remscheid in 1856. 

Herman Ehrenberg (1816-1866) was among the first Germans to write on Texas and the Southwest. He was born in Thuringia and emigrated to the United States through Canada. In 1835, he was in New Orleans, where he joined the New Orleans Greys to come to the aid of Texas. He returned to Germany and, in 1842, was a teacher of English at the University of Halle.

Sometime after 1845, Ehrenberg returned to the United States, gained wealth and distinction in Arizona, and became an influential citizen there. By 1856, he was a member of the Territorial Convention and later was in charge of the Colorado River Indian Agency. He also engaged in territorial surveying, map-making, railroad building, and mining engineering. Ehrenberg’s Map of the Gadsden Purchase…1858 clearly showed the various routes between El Paso and Fort Yuma and demonstrated his skills as a draftsman and mapmaker. He was also a close observer of life in Texas and accurately compiled his notes into a book, Texas und Seine Revolution, Leipzig, 1843.

It quickly sold out and was republished in 1844, as Der Freiheitskampf in Texas in Jahre 1836, and again in 1845, as Fahrten und schicksale eines Deutschen in Texas. An English edition appeared in 1935. In 1866, his death was variously reported as drowning in the Colorado River or at the hands of Indians near Palm Springs, California, or in the Mojave Desert. Ehrenberg, Arizona, is named in his honor. 

Dr. Heinrich Berghaus (1797-1884) never visited the United States. His Physikalischer Atlas, created between 1838 and 1849 and published in Gotha, was the most ambitious accomplishment of the Geographische Kunstschule Potsdam, founded by Berghaus in 1839, as a training center for cartography and geography. The school continued until 1849.

Based on information culled from leading scientific publications of the time, the two-volume Atlas was the first of its kind to give a comprehensive view of North America. Through state-of-the-art lithography, its colorful maps, statistics, and tables depicted all aspects of the physical world as von Humboldt had defined them. The Atlas made North America logically accessible and set a new standard in publishing. 

Foremost among the German mapmakers was Charles Preuss. George Karl Ludwig Preuss was born in Germany in 1803 and died in Washington, D.C., in 1854. Little is known of his life. Preuss seems to have traveled extensively between 1842 and 1847 and incorporated geographical information he had gathered on several expeditions into the West, including those of John Charles Fremont, with whom he saw Lake Tahoe as they crossed Carson Pass in February 1844, into his maps, which were frequently published by order of the United States Senate. Fremont’s expeditions were mostly secret missions nominally under the direction and control of the War Department and the Topographical Bureau.

His reports and Preuss’s maps initiated the topographical mapping of the Far West based on field reconnaissance. Preuss’s map of Oregon and Upper California conveys the incorrect impression that ranges of mountains encircled the interior basin of present-day Nevada. 

Edward Weber of E. Weber & Co. was the map’s lithographer. Weber, a Bavarian, had studied in Munich with the originator of lithography, Alois Senefelder. In 1843, Weber set up a shop in Baltimore, where his business flourished until 1851. His cousin, August Höhn, anglicized to Hoen (1817-1886), with his brothers, Henry, and Ernest, continued the business as A. Hoen & Co. and became famous mapmakers. The firm continued until 1981.

“Balduin Möllhausen was,” so wrote his biographer, P.A. Barba in 1914, “the most prolific, and at the same time the last great exponent of transatlantic fiction in Germany…. In view of his splendid portrayals of Indian and pioneer life… there is none who deserves so much the title of ‘The German Cooper’.” 

Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen (1825-1905) was born on a small estate near Bonn. In 1849, he sailed for America, where he “led the roving life of a hunter in the region of the Kaskaskia River in Illinois.” On hearing that Duke Paul Wilhelm of Württenberg was preparing to set out on a scientific expedition to the Rocky Mountains, Möllhausen requested and was granted the privilege of joining the party. In the autumn of 1851, Duke Paul and Möllhausen made their way alone to the Missouri and Fort Kearny. En route, the Duke fell ill and was picked up by a United States mail coach, leaving Möllhausen behind to fend for himself. After months of deprivation, Indians rescued him. 

In January 1853, Möllhausen was in Berlin. Here, von Humboldt became his friend and patron. After four months, he again sailed for America, this time with letters of introduction to influential persons in Washington, D.C. His timing could not have been better. 

The United States government was preparing to send out three different expeditions to chart the best course for a railroad to the Pacific. Möllhausen was assigned as topographer under the command of Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple. At the same time, the Smithsonian Institution commissioned him to make physical observations and act as a naturalist on this venture. He trekked from Fort Smith to Pueblo de Los Angeles with this expedition. Möllhausen published his adventures and words in his Diary of a Journey from the Mississippi to the Coast of the Pacific (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts, 1858. Two volumes. [32], 352; [12], 397 p. plus 19 plates (some colored), folding map and many woodcuts in the text).

In August 1854, Möllhausen was again in Berlin, the houseguest of von Humboldt. Accepting an appointment offered by the United States government, Möllhausen returned to America as an assistant to an expedition to explore and survey the Colorado River (1857-1858). Reisen in die Felsengebirge Nord-Americas bis zum Hoch-Plateau von Neu-Mexiko (1861), details his adventures and discoveries as a member of the Colorado-River expedition for which Frederick Wilhelm von Egloffstein (1824-1898) was topographer. 

Von Egloffstein was born in either Aldorf, Bavaria or Prussia. He arrived in the United States sometime before 1853 and traveled in the West until 1858. He served with the 103rd Regiment, New York Volunteers, during the Civil War, attaining the rank of Brigadier General.  He lived in New York City from 1864 to 1873. His drawings and steel engravings of western scenes were reproduced in expedition reports. Egloffstein also developed the first commercial half-tone process of engraving in the United States that he described in his book, New Style of Topographical Drawing, published in 1857.

Möllhausen illustrated his publications. The variety of vegetation in his view of a Colorado River valley, for example, shows the plants at various life stages as they might be seen in the course of one day, but not in one location (throughout the nineteenth century, it was common to place multiple observations into one scene). 

He also noted in his journal that the Saguaro Cactus, Carneglea gigantea, is 36 to 40 feet tall in California and New Mexico. He illustrates the plant’s life cycle in a four-plant composition, beginning as a “mighty ball” and culminating as a tough dried-out stalk used by birds and other desert animals as a home and by man as firewood. Möllhausen cited von Humboldt as the scholarly source on cacti. He also observed and drew many Indians, among them Moquis (Hopi), Navajo, Zuni, and Walpays (Walapi) of northern New Mexico (Arizona), as well as Mohaves, Yuma, Chimehuhuebe (Chemehuevi), and Apaches from the valley of the Colorado River. As in his observations of nature, he composed these groups picturesquely from various sketches made in the field. In 1858, Möllhausen returned to Berlin and spent the next forty-seven years as a writer of adventure stories. Aside from his travel narratives and scientific reports, forty-five works in 157 volumes and eighty shorter novels in twenty-one volumes carry his name. This output places him among the most prominent exponents of both Indian and emigrant fiction. He died in Berlin in 1905.

In the 1840s, the Mexican-United States border lands were considered of strategic importance for the United States government’s expansionist policy towards Mexico; the value of Frederick Adolphus Wislizenus’ Journal of his travels through this region was quickly realized by Senator Thomas H. Benton of Missouri who invited him to Washington D.C. and insisted that the U.S. Senate print 5,000 copies of it, complete with tables and maps. It did this, calling it Memoir of a Tour to Northern Mexico in 1846 and 1847, Washington D.C., 1848. Later, it was published in German.

Frederick Adolphus Wislizenus (1810-89) was born in 1810, in Königsee, in Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt and studied medicine at the University of Jena, and later at Göttingen and Würzburg. As a student, he was politically active and participated in the 1833 Frankfurt am Main disorders. To avoid prosecution in Germany, he fled to Zurich, Switzerland, where he took his doctorate in medicine. In 1835, Wislizenus emigrated to New York. He soon moved to Mascoutah, St. Clair County, Illinois, near St. Louis. Other German university men had already settled here. The group, inexperienced in cultivation, became known as “die Lateiner” (the Latins). Wislizenus practiced medicine in Mascoutah for three years. He used his savings for a trip to the Rocky Mountains. The journal of his 1839 travels along the Oregon Trail with a group of traders was published in St. Louis in 1840 in German. This account covers the rendezvous on the Green River and the return to St. Louis via North Park, Cache la Poudre, Bent’s Fort, and the Santa Fe Trail. 

The narrative, with its references to the various Indian bands encountered, is considered a classic. Later his son translated the journals and, in 1912, published them as A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1839.

Upon his return, he settled in St. Louis and entered into a partnership with Dr. George Engelmann (1809-84), a doctor and naturalist. The joint practice continued until the spring of 1846 when Wislizenus set out from St. Louis to visit the Rocky Mountains and Upper California. His intentions were scientific. He studied geography, natural history, and statistics along the way, guided only by a compass and astrological readings. Wislizenus made extensive collections of hitherto unclassified plants and explored the composition of soils he encountered to determine their makeup and quality for agriculture. He also visited all the mines he found to see inside the earth’s crust. He studied the weather, wind, and barometric pressure to ascertain the living conditions for future farmers. He looked at the immigrants to see how well they had adapted to their new environment. En route, he collected plants, made topographical observations, and kept extensive diaries. He returned to St. Louis, wrote his accounts, continued to practice medicine, collected flora and fauna and after 1852, never took another trip. He died in St. Louis in 1889. 

While others often did the actual field research, Germans usually did the engraving and lithography of maps and charts. The work of such men as Weber, Hoen, Bien, and Siebert quickly became important statements in themselves. So, it was for the Pacific Railroad Surveys.

Since the American West provided one of the world's best laboratories for studying crustal uplift, mountain making, and massive erosion, geology became the most important science of the day. The U.S. Geological Survey soon became one of the largest and most influential federal agencies. Its first publication was The Mining Industry, by James D. Hague and Clarence King, in 1870. Hague, an American, had studied geology in Germany at the Freiberg School of Mines. The Geological Survey’s first major survey was to find the best route for the railroad from the Mississippi to the Pacific. 

In 1853, Congress funded The Pacific Railroad Surveys with an appropriation of $150,000.00 to defray the expenses. All parties were fitted out most comprehensively under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution (founded in 1846). Captain A. A. Humphreys was in charge of the Pacific Railroad Surveys Office. The War Department was very cooperative. The main divisions of the routes were: along the 47th parallel under Gov. I. I. Stevens, 1853-55; the 38th, 39th, and 41st parallel under Lieutenants Gunnison and Beckwith, 1853-54; the 35th parallel under Lieutenant Whipple; California under Lieutenants Williamson and Abbot; the 32nd parallel west under Lieutenant Parker and east under J. Pope.

Among the many Germans that took part in these expeditions was F. Creutzfeldt, botanist under Captain John William Gunnison. Creutzfeldt was the first to identify the Bristlecone pine while participating in the Pacific Railway survey through Colorado. October 26, 1853: Captain Gunnison, F. Creutzfeldt, and others were part of an exploratory team in a camp they had established between the Sevier River and Sevier Lake when Pahvant Indians massacred them; Dr. W. L. Dieffenderfer, zoologist under Pope; Adolphus L. Heermann, naturalist under Parker. Heermann discovered the Kangaroo rat and Heermann’s gull; also extensively explored was the area from the San Francisco Bay to Los Angeles and from the Pima villages on the Gila to the Rio Grande. Möllhausen was topographer and artist under Whipple, while Engelmann served as botanist. 

Hundreds of charts and maps were published as a result of these expeditions. German lithographers of engravers produced many of them. Foremost among the German lithographers working for the U.S. Government was the firm of Sarony, Major & Knapp of New York. Joseph F. Knapp was born in Germany about 1825 and was active as a partner in the firm from 1857 to 1867. He then formed the partnership of Major & Knapp. It existed until 1871.

A. Hoen & Co. was another important German-run lithography company. August Hoen was born in Germany about 1825 and came to the United States as a young man. He settled in Baltimore, where his uncle, Edward Weber, had established a lithography shop. About 1848, Hoen took over this firm. A few years later, his brothers, Ernest and Henry, joined him, and A. Hoen & Co. was born. 

The splendid views of the American West created by F.W. von Egloffstein (1824-1898) were restricted to government publications, mostly. As with other government publications, precision was very important. For example, his “Goshot Passage” shows a 65-mile panorama of the proposed railroad from the desert west of the Great Salt Lake to the Humboldt Mountains, taken May 20th at 2 p.m. from a peak near Antelope Butte.  Another view shows a 50-mile panorama of the valley of the Humboldt River at Lassen’s Meadows. Von Egloffstein drew it on June 9th at 3 p.m. from a peak in the Humboldt River Range. A third view towards the West of the northern slopes of the Sierra Nevada was drawn on June 30th at 9 a.m.

In these examples, the original drawings were by von Egloffstein, their engraving was done by C. Schumann, and the printing was completed by S. Siebert in Washington, D.C. 

F. W. von Egloffstein, a topographical draftsman, was born in Prussia about 1824 and arrived in the United States before 1835. He served as an artist for several western expeditions and surveys, including Fremont’s last expedition to the Rockies (1853-54), Beckwith’s Utah-to-California railroad survey (1854), and Ives’ Colorado River expedition (1857-1859). His drawings accompanied the reports of these expeditions. During the Civil War, von Egloffstein served in the 103rd Regiment, New York Volunteers, and was brevetted out as Brigadier General. Until 1875, he lived in New York City. His influential book, New Style of Topographical Drawing, was published in 1857. He died in London in 1898.

The printer Selmar Siebert was born 1808, in Lehnin, Prussia. Before 1843, he settled in Washington, D.C., where he established a printing shop specializing in fine engraving. His work is documented until about 1860. 

Lithography allowed for the mass production of images and panoramic views of the American West in full color. It became very popular. The finest views of the West were printed by Louis Prang, born in 1824 in Breslau and died in 1909 in Los Angeles. Prang left Germany in 1848. Via Bohemia and Switzerland, he arrived, in 1850, in New York and headed for Boston. Here he began a chromolithography business in about 1856. By 1860, he had seven presses. In 1867, he built a factory of 50 presses, the “printery.” Prang’s fame rests on his superb chromolithographic reproductions, such as fifteen for Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden’s folio book, The Yellowstone National Park, 1876. Each view was a reproduction of a watercolor by Thomas Moran, who had accompanied the geologist F.V. Hayden 1829-1887) on a U.S. Government exploration expedition to the Yellowstone Valley. Hayden warned the reader, “So strange, indeed, are the freaks of color which nature indulges in habitually in this wonderful country, that it will no doubt require strong faith on the part of the reader in the truthfulness of both artists and writer to enable him unhesitatingly to accept the statement made in the present volume by the pen as well as by the brush.” Begun in 1874 and completed in 1876, one thousand sets were printed and sold for $6.00 each.


The first great German naturalist to visit North America after von Humboldt was Alexander Philipp Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied, born 1782 in Neuwied, a tiny principality near Koblenz. He studied natural history with Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) at the University of Göttingen. Blumenbach was then internationally known and had published extensively in the natural sciences and medicine.

The political and military confusion of the Napoleonic Wars prevented Maximilian from visiting the United States in 1803. Instead, he served in the Prussian army against Napoleon and rose to the rank of major general. In 1814, he set out for the United States, but the process of recovery from the War of 1812 proved an obstacle, and Maximilian sailed instead for South America. 

For two years, he journeyed along the coast of Brazil, from Rio de Janeiro to Bahia, observing Indian life and noting the local flora and fauna. After returning home, he arranged his collections and prepared his extensive diaries for publication: Reise nach Brasilien in den Jahren 1815 bis 1817. (2 vol. published in 1820, H. L. Brönner (Frankfurt a. M). This work was soon translated into Dutch, French, and English. It quickly established his reputation as a naturalist and scholar.

In 1832, Maximilian again sailed for the United States. He took his trusted assistant David Dreidoppel and the twenty-three-year-old Swiss artist Karl Bodmer to illustrate his journals. In the spring of 1833, Maximilian received the support of the American Fur Company and took passage on their paddle-wheel steamer, the Yellow Stone. 

At Fort McKenzie, he began his investigation of Indian life, especially languages, by collecting vocabularies from the Arikara, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow, Mandan, and Sioux. En route, he took temperature and barometric readings, made astronomical sightings, and much more. The winter of 1833-1834 was spent at Fort Clark in Missouri, completing an intensive study of the Mandan. These studies and Bodmer’s drawings attempted to portray Indians not as savages but as civilized individuals with acquired skills and more suited for life in their environment. Maximilian’s detailed ethnographic descriptions became necessary after the smallpox epidemic of 1837-1838 destroyed several of the tribes he had visited and substantially reduced the population of others. Many of his collected plants and animal specimens were meticulously described upon his return to Europe in the summer of 1834. Maximilian never returned to the Americas; the Linden Museum, Stuttgart, acquired his zoological collections.

Maximilian’s Verzeichniss der Reptilien (a catalog of some reptiles observed on his trip to North America) was published in 1865. He tells his readers that in the past few years, the study of fauna has taken on new dimensions in the United States because of the planning and construction of the railroad from the Mississippi to the Pacific. Government support has immensely expanded knowledge in all fields of the study of nature. He notes that the reptiles he is discussing and illustrating have been neglected by other scholars and is critical of them for not studying the living animal, whose colors are quite different from those of a preserved dead one. Maximilian urges naturalists to be aware of color and offers his lithographs of drawings made directly from living or fresh animals; Bodmer made most of the pictures. The techniques of famed French explorer Nicolas Baudin and the naturalist Francois Peron served as models. 

Karl Bodmer accompanied Maximilian on his North American expedition as the expedition’s artist. He was born in 1809 in Riesbach, Switzerland, and died in 1893 in Barbizon, France. His drawings, turned into eighty-one lithographs to illustrate Maximilian’s travel account, were the first essential views of the American West to be seen in Europe. First published in France in 1836, then in Germany in 1839-1841, they soon became influential and essential for studying Native Americans and the artistic tradition of reproducing native peoples and landscapes.

Bodmer is known today primarily for his lithographs, sketches, drawings, and watercolors, and to a lesser degree for his paintings of the expedition, which survive in the Newberry Library, Chicago, the Joselyn Art Museum, Omaha, and several other public and private collections. 

Although he depicts the American West as he sees it, his vision is a product of his time. For example, Bodmer renders the vast ranges of white hills, strange natural formations, and uncommon flora and fauna lined by immense rivers with a Romantic palette and sensitivity. He also follows the Romantic’s notion of the exotic in his Blackfoot Indian on Horseback, which results in an image that looks authentic yet is a superb example of European Romantic exoticness. Bodmer also practices the artistic convention of arranging the composition and altering details to suit his vision. His sketches of the Mandan Indian’s dog-pulled toboggans or their dance are fine examples of this practice.

One of the earliest Humboldtian explorers of the American West, was Frederick Paul Wilhelm, Duke of Württemberg, born in 1797 at Bad Carlsruhe, Silesia, and died in 1860 in Württemberg. 

Well-educated by a pupil of the French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) at the Stuttgart Gymnasium and later a student of von Humboldt himself, Duke Paul had traveled extensively in the Near East, Algeria, Russia, the Caribbean, and was a recognized geographer-naturalist before he visited America. He held membership in most of the scientific societies of Europe. On 16 October 1822, he sailed from Hamburg to North America. This trip took him to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi and its various tributaries, including the Red River, the Yazoo, and the Ohio River. From St. Louis began an extensive tour of the fur-trade country, going west to the Platte and the Kansas rivers and up the Missouri past Council Bluffs. Along the way, he made extensive collections of plants, animals, and Indian artifacts, taking great care to identify and classify his flora specimens according to the canons of Linnaeus. This first expedition lasted two years. Its account became the Erste reise nach dem nördlichen Amerika in den Jahren 1822 bis 1824. Stuttgart und Tübingen, J.G. Cotta. 1835. (First English translation, First Journey to North America in the Year 1822 to 1824, by William Beck, Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society, 1938).

In all, Duke Paul made three journeys to the New World. He entered the United States in 1823, two times between 1829 and 1830, and three times between 1849 and 1856. Little is known about these expeditions. During 1829-1830, he traveled up the Missouri River to the Mandan Villages and Fort Clark, then continued to the Rocky Mountains and the Three Forks country, where he studied the Blackfoot and Assiniboine and spent some time in Sioux villages. 

Most of 1831, he spent in Mexico, returning to Germany via New Orleans, Cincinnati, Lake Erie, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and the East Coast. In the fall of 1850, Duke Paul was again in New Orleans. In March 1851, he traveled once more to St. Louis and then visited the Great Lakes, the upper Mississippi, and the Falls of St. Anthony. In February 1853, he left New York for Brazil and Uruguay, returning to North America by October to visit the Mississippi Valley. He was in Europe in July of 1856 and immediately set off for Australia and the Orient. By spring of 1860, he was home again in Bad Mergentheim, where he died in November that year.

During his lifetime of travel, Duke Paul Wilhelm had seen more of the American West than any other foreign explorer, and he had recorded it all. At his death, his papers, diaries, and journals were left unsorted as he had written them, and his enormous collections remained mostly crated. Many of his journals and much of his collection were destroyed during World War II. 

Although he never published his journals and is known only through H. Lichtenstein’s 1838 article, “Beiträge zur ornithologishen Fauna von Californiau,” in the Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, Ferdinand Deppe (1794-1861) traveled along the coast of California, the Baja Peninsula, and Northern Mexico, between 1829 and 1837, as a trader and collector of birds. On one occasion, Deppe followed the flight path of the hummingbird (Trochilus rufus) up the coast of California to Sitka, Alaska. Deppe may have been the first scientific explorer of Lower California, and Lichtenstein’s reference to noting the lack of reptiles and insects in Baja gained wide acceptance. He gave his collection of birds to the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. 

Dr. George Engelmann, born 1809 in Frankfurt am Main, was a physician, meteorologist, and botanist who received a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Würzburg in 1831. He arrived in St. Louis in February 1833. He lived on a farm twenty miles east of the city for the following two years. Here he prospected and studied the region’s botany, minerals, and rocks. After a journey through the Southwest, he returned to St. Louis to practice medicine. He soon became the city’s most noted doctor, introducing the use of obstetrical forceps and quinine to treat malaria. In 1840 he visited Germany and Berlin and argued successfully for a Prussian Consulate in St. Louis. In Kreuznach he married Dorothea Horstmann, a cousin. They settled in St. Louis. 

Engelmann’s scientific contributions were many. He founded the St. Louis Academy of Science in 1865, the first of its kind to be established west of the Allegheny Mountains. He was a member of thirty-six scientific societies. He studied the tapeworm, opossum, and squirrels. He was also the first to scientifically note the adaptation of the Pronuba moth for pollinating the Yucca and discovering the immunity of the American grape to the Phylloxera, a genus of plant lice. In 1836 he began keeping meteorological records, which he continued until the day before his death in 1884. A mountain in Colorado bears his name, as do many plant species and three plant genera. And he helped organize Das Westland, a newspaper whose primary purpose was to unite the pioneer settlers and to give information to those in Germany who contemplated emigration.

The American West provided many hitherto unknown floras to be examined and cataloged, especially for medical purposes, both here and in Germany. By the mid-century, plant collecting had become an important business, and extensive collections were established at several universities, including Harvard and Berlin, among the most noteworthy. 

In Germany, using plants for medicinal purposes had a long tradition and was very common. Dr. Constantin Hering, born in 1800 in Oschatz, Saxony, introduced Homeopathic medicine into the United States. Dr. Hering arrived in Philadelphia in 1832 and, in 1833, founded, with Dr. Wesselhoft, the “Hahnemann Society” and “North American Academy of Homoeopathy Healing Art,” a homeopathic teaching institution in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It soon failed. Hering continued his teaching by writing and translating German texts into English. By 1860 there were homeopathic Colleges in Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, and St. Louis. Dr. Hering died in 1880.

Julius Bien (1826-1909) is now considered the first American cartographer of the nineteenth century, yet his most imposing work is not a map. Bien was born in 1826 in Kassel, studied art in Frankfurt am Main, and emigrated to New York in 1849. Though left unfinished, Bien’s chromolithographic edition of Audubon’s Birds of America defined the craft’s capabilities. Begun in 1858, seven years after Audubon’s death, using Robert Havell Jr.’s aquatints as a guide, Bien worked for years completing one volume of 15 numbers, 105 plates showing 150 species, before abandoning the project. The paper size is 27 x 40 inches, and some images require more than thirty different passes through the press.


Views that showed nature as exotic and pristine appealed to nineteenth-century Europeans. So, the new sights and subjects seen in the American West were usually represented in terms of European artistic conventions resulting in views that were primarily an extension of the manner of Poussin, Lorraine, Delacroix, Turner, Constable, Friedrich, the Barbizon School, numerous painters of the Swiss and Tyrolean Alps and painters of European historical scenes. 

In 1846, Heinrich Berghaus and Alexander von Humboldt published the Ethnographische Karte von Nordamerika. Nach Alb. Gallatin, A. von Humboldt, Clavigero, Hervas Vater, &&&c. bearbeitet von Potsdam, Juni 1845. Gezeichnet in der geogr. Kunstschule zu Potsdam. Gestochen von W. Alt in Ohrdruff. 8te Abtheilung: Ethnographie No 17. Gotha, bei Justus Perthes An ethnographic map in his Atlas shows the distribution of the native population of North America as they had been described by the great scientists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, among them von Humboldt. An insert shows the distribution of Europeans and Africans. The inclusion of Blacks in demographic studies was rare at the time.

Among the objectives of Maximilian’s studies was for Bodmer to portray many Indians. Portraits, such as the one of Mexkemauastan, an Atsina/Gros Ventre chief and medicine man, were trendy in Europe. Today, these portraits are often viewed as accurate representations of Indians and their culture. It is not until the preliminary stages of the finished work are seen together, from the original drawing done in the field to the intermediate study and the final lithograph, that significant changes, based on artistic interpretations, become apparent. 

Some portraitists of Indians have remained almost unknown. Among these is Friedrich August Ferdinand Pettrich, born in 1798 in Dresden; he studied sculpture first with his father and then in Rome. In 1835 he emigrated to the United States, settling in Philadelphia. Here he gained attention through several tombs for Laurel-Hill Cemetery and other Washington D.C. sculptures. In the U.S., Pettrich is known as Friedrich August Pettrich, Ferdinand Frederick August Pettrich, Frederick Augustus Ferdinand Pettrich, Frederick August Pettrich, and Frederick August Ferdinand Pettrich.

President Tyler invited Pettrich to Washington, D.C., and commissioned him to do four sculptures of America’s history for the base of the statue of George Washington. Pettrich completed the maquettes, and an Italian rival attempted to assassinate him while waiting for Congress to allocate the funds for the casting. His patron, President Tyler, had him cared for by his physician. Congress denied the funds, and Pettrich left the United States in 1845 to become the court sculptor to Pedro II (“the Magnanimous”), the emperor of Brazil. By 1855, Pettrich was in Rome, working under the patronage of Pope Pius IX. Here his sculpture for the base of the Washington Monument was realized and cast in bronze. They can now be seen in the Vatican Museums. 

Balduin Möllhausen illustrated many of his books with the subject matter he had seen and studied on his travels. He later reworked, composed, and edited these drawings to make a point in his narrative. His depiction of Mohave Indians from the Valley of the Rio Colorado in entire body ornamentation is an example of this practice of creating a composition that has the appearance of reality through careful placement of elements observed but not found together. Indian body ornamentation was rarely illustrated before the Civil War.

Reading about adventures alone did not satisfy many armchair explorers, adventurers, and the just curious. They demanded artifacts. The result was that governments, learned societies, universities, and men of wealth established museums throughout the nineteenth century. Curiosities from around the world were gathered, ordered, housed, and studied in all the capitals of Europe, including Berlin, and in centers of commerce such as Leipzig, Bremen, Hamburg, and Dresden. Other collections, such as those of von Humboldt and Duke Paul Wilhelm’s, were all-encompassing and private, having not been assembled to create a museum. As noted by a contemporary, Duke Paul Wilhelm’s collections were “in extent a content inferior only to a few large public collections and surpassed most of them.” They encompassed geological, ethnological, botanical, mineralogical, and antiquarian materials, all housed at his residence in Mergentheim. At his death in 1860, Duke Paul Wilhelm’s may have been the most extensive collection of Americana privately held. 

Collecting the works of primitive cultures was spurred by the realization that civilization was rapidly destroying the objects of interest. “Collect now before it’s too late” became the motto.

Of particular interest to German museums was the Northwest coast. This interest was underwritten in the later 1870s and early 1880s by Paul Schulze, a German who, as the president of the Northwest Trading Company, had collected artifacts, through his Alaska agent, for the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin. The Museum also sent Captain Jacob Adrian Jacobsen out in search of ethnological materials. Although Jacobsen, born in 1853, died in 1947, was Norwegian, he carried out expeditions of the American Northwest Coast for Carl Hagenbeck (1844-1913), owner of the famous zoo and circus in Hamburg. In 1879, Hagenbeck and Jacobsen bought a small ship, equipped it for polar voyages, and in 1881 accepted a request from the Berlin Royal Museum to undertake an expedition of several years to the Northwest Coast of America to obtain ethnological specimens. Jacobsen traveled and collected extensively throughout southwestern Alaska. In the summer of 1882, in company with a party of prospectors, he ascended the Yukon as far as the Tanana. He then drifted downriver, collecting specimens and making ethnographic observations.

Several Berlin bankers joined an “Ethnological Aid Committee” to underwrite expenses. Jacobsen returned from this expedition with nearly seven thousand artifacts. He had hoped to bring to Berlin Eskimos for exhibition, but at the last minute lost their confidence, and he returned to Berlin without them. Jacobsen made several more voyages but never published his findings. It was left to Adrian Woldt to convert Jacobsen’s notes, diaries, photographs, and lecture notes into a publication entitled Capitain Jacobsen’s Reise an der Nordwestküste Amerikas 1881-1883. Leipzig, Max Spohr, 1884 (Alaska Voyage, 1881-1883: An Expedition to the Northwest Coast of America, translated by Erma Gunther, University of Chicago Press, 1977). 

Drs. Aurel and Arthur Krause were geographers and instructors in the natural sciences at a Gymnasium in Berlin. They were sent by the Bremer Geographische Gesellschaft (Geographical Society of Bremen), which, as the Verein für die Nordpolarfahrt (a club for polar travel), had established a reputation for the support of polar and sub-polar research expeditions. This was the third arctic expedition undertaken by the Society. It was to follow up on the work done by Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiold (1832-1901) on the Chukchi Peninsula in 1878 and 1879.

In 1881-2, the Drs. Krause visited Haines, near the head of Lynn Canal, now the Klukwan Indian Reservation, Alaska. They collected 178 items, mainly clothing, spoons, knives, bowls, paintbrushes, rattles, and other musical instruments. Their prize items were five Tlingit armor suits and helmets. Many pieces from the Krause collection are still housed in the Bremen Museum, while other items are now in Hamburg and Berlin. 

Aurel worked intensively with the Tlingit, settling in Klukwan, a Native American village in southeastern Alaska.  Because of the date of the writing of Die Tlingit Indianer: Ergebnisse einer Reise nach der Nordwestküste von Amerika und der Beringstraße ausgeführt. Im Auftrag der Bremer Geographischen Gesellschaft in den Jahren 1880-1881. Jena, Hermann Costenoble, 1885. Because of its comprehensive coverage, this book retains its importance in the literature of the Northwest Coast.

The book was written for the membership of the Bremen society in direct, non-technical German but retained its author’s scholarship. Chapter one gives a resume of the history of Alaska concerning the Tlingit, much of it based on documents no longer available, from the earliest Russian exploration to the purchase of the territory by the United States, and pictures the immediate consequences of the change brought about by the changes in administration. 

Drs. Krause also collected some 80 sub-artic birds in the Yukon that contributed significantly to the understanding of ornithology in that region.

Berlin’s Prussian Museum für Völkerkunde was the focal point of all ethnological collecting done in Germany. Its director, Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), a polymath who contributed significantly to the development of ethnography and anthropology as scientific disciplines, was an obsessive collector who traveled frequently, published numerous articles, founded the journal Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, and helped organize the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory. The American west was exciting to Bastian in all its aspects, and he bought extensively. His outstanding achievement was the building, between 1880 and 1886, of the Museum für Völkerkunde, the world’s first major museum dedicated solely to anthropology and ethnology. By the end of the century, this museum contained the most extensive ethnographic collection in the world and possibly a more significant number of specimens than any other two museums combined.

Collecting Indian artifacts was not exclusively German. In North America, a vital collection was assembled and exhibited by Joseph Dorfeuille, born Joseph Dorfel in 1790, in Swabia. He traveled widely in Egypt, Syria, and the Near East, collecting curiosities he brought to New Orleans to exhibit. About 1820, he arrived in Cincinnati and became the Curator of the Western Museum, which public-minded citizens had founded. By 1823 he had become owner and operator of this museum that now specialized in exhibiting archaeological remains and various “curiosities.”

Dorfeuille documented some of his finds in the Ohio River valley as watercolors, now in the Newberry Library’s collections. The most noteworthy is a three-headed vessel dug up within an ancient temple situated on the Cumberland River, Tennessee fork. Two views of this vessel were reproduced in Josiah Priest’s American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West, Albany, 1833. Dorfeuille died in 1840 in Cincinnati.

Anthropology, as we now conceive it, developed in the nineteenth century. The American Indian played a pivotal role in those theories that tried to explain the stages of human progress. Considered savages, American Indians seemed to represent either an early stage of human progress or degeneration from higher civilization. The first representation emphasized progress and natural law or evolution; the second was moral and physical corruption. 

A forerunner of anthropology and the scientific study of the mind was the science of phrenology. From the early 1830s until its peak in the late 1850s, phrenology captured America’s imagination. Invented by Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), a German doctor and brain researcher, and promoted in America by his dynamic student Johann Caspar Spurzheim, born in 1776 in Trier, phrenology acquired tens of thousands of instant followers after Spurzheim first lectured on it in Boston, November 10, 1832. Spurzheim coined the word phrenology to identify this new science which “…will prove itself to be the true science of the mind.”

The study of skulls was essential to phrenology, and its great popularity increased their value. They soon became an important commodity. Collected worldwide, skulls were compared in size and shape to European crania. The latter was ideal since they revealed the “highest moral standards and civilizing characteristics.” Phrenologists endorsed Sun tanning, exercise, and diet, and the followers of phrenology have left their mark on our treatment of insanity, the penal structure, and concepts of criminality, learning disabilities and physical handicaps, education, and health. At its height in the 1850s, America’s leading phrenology journal sold well over 20,000 copies per month.

With the help of phrenology and the new academic interest, both in the United States and in Europe, in the human skull collecting Indian skulls and skeletons was an important and profitable business for much of the nineteenth century.

Burial and religious sites, such as Bodmer’s documentation of a Mandan skull circle, were sought out by skull collectors to meet the demand of scientists for crania to measure and evaluate. 

As late as 1888, Franz Boaz (1858-1942), the German American anthropologist, wrote, “…we found a complete skeleton without a head. I hope to get another one either today or tomorrow…It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use? Someone has to do it…I hope to get a great deal of anthropological material here…I wrote the Museum in Washington asking whether they would consider buying skulls this winter for $600; if they will, I shall collect assiduously.”

Until the end of the nineteenth century, no writer had trained in anthropology. The thorough general knowledge of science and the scientific method of inquiry taught in German universities allowed the educated traveler to interpret, in a readable and accurate fashion, most often in letter/diary format, contacts and observations made of native cultures.

Although he never visited North America, in his Anthropologie der Naturvölker (1860) and Die Indianer Nordamericas, Leipzig, 1865, Theodor Waitz (1821-1864) argued against the then widely held notion that people living in the “wild” were not civilized. He maintained that Indians had the same intellectual capacity as Europeans and that Indians have adapted to their environment in the same way Europeans have to theirs.

Waitz, born 1821 in Gotha, Thuringia studied philology in Jena and philosophy and mathematics in Leipzig. At age twenty, he traveled to Rome and Paris to study Aristotle’s works. A highly regarded critical edition of Organon (1844) resulted in his being appointed Professor of Philology at the University of Marburg at twenty-three. 

Another essential contributor to the new science of anthropology was Dr. Emil Ludwig Schmidt, born in 1837 near Querfurt, who visited the United States in 1869-70 and again in 1876. Here he met with leading anthropologists and visited several museums. Schmidt died in 1906.

For Schmidt, North America was the ideal land to study man’s origins because it was sparsely inhabited and had not yet been altered by civilization. His importance lies in his effort to establish a parallel prehistoric chronology with Europe for North America. Schmidt published several skulls found near Rock Bluff, on the Illinois River, in Die Vorgeschichte Nordamericas im Gebiet der Vereinigten Staaten, Braunschweig, 1894, and argued that both phrenology and the current study of skulls by anthropologists was of little value because so few skulls were dated or had a documented find location and that a systematic separation of natural and deformed skulls needed to be undertaken before the study of American native craniums could be conclusive and valid.

Among the great bone collectors of the nineteenth century was Albert C. Koch, born in 1804 in Roitzsch, Saxony. He suddenly received public attention in January 1836 when he announced in the Missouri-Republican, the opening of a “museum” in St. Louis. There, for only twenty-five cents, the curious could gaze on an Egyptian mummy with sarcophagus, an Indian mummy from a cave in Kentucky, such notable figures as the Siamese Twins, Jim Crow, and Zip Coon, as well as an extensive collection of stuffed birds and animals. Koch was also a passionate amateur paleontologist. On hearing of a deposit of bones in Gasconade County, Missouri, in October 1838, Koch rushed to disinter the remains of an animal the size of an elephant. Six months later, twenty-two miles south of St. Louis, Koch dug up more prehistoric remains. The following spring, he dug in central Missouri and found two skeletons of a super mastodon he named “the Missourium.” Koch wrote, “This gigantic skeleton measured 30 feet in length and 15 feet height…. I found the bones near the shores of La Pomme de Terre, a tributary of the Osage River, in Benton County, in the state of Missouri, latitude 40 and longitude 18.”

Koch followed this with a discussion of the different strata he encountered in the dig and the local Indian traditions: “It is perfectly true that we cannot with any degree of certainty, depend on Indian traditions; but it is equally true that generally these traditions are founded on events which have transpired…and in the absence of any better method of perpetuating them, are transmitted with great care in their legends from generation to generation; but over time, as might reasonably be expected, these traditions lose much in correctness and minuteness of detail….” Associating Indian traditions with physical finds led Koch to conclude that man must have lived simultaneously as a giant creature. His contemporaries flatly rejected this conclusion.

Koch made some errors in assembling his fabulous animals, but in 1843, the British Museum bought his reconstruction of “the Missourium.” It can still be seen in the Museum today as a mastodon. To the Royal Museum in Berlin, he sold the skeleton of a “Zeuglodon,” another of his finds. His work as an amateur paleontologist was a significant contribution to the understanding of prehistoric America. Koch died in 1867 in Golconda, Illinois. 

Others noted the changes brought by the European eagerness to collect artifacts from exotic cultures. In 1884 Adrian Woldt wrote, “Year by year, ethnologists are becoming increasingly aware that European culture is engulfing and destroying the native peoples left in the world. Their customs and habits, legends and memories, weapons and artifacts are rapidly disappearing, and there will soon be new and different developments in a large part of the human race. The oral history of these people will be lost, and scientific knowledge in philosophy, medicine, and natural history will suffer from it. Humanity must therefore make every effort to collect….But instead, we are watching while the essential information is allowed to be destroyed…. The ethnological museums…should send collectors out to…salvage what can still be saved.  As powerful as were the changes of the Stone Age and the Iron Age, they seem minor compared with this period when the carriers of modern culture populate the whole world….”

As the ethnographic areas of the world became absorbed by Eurocentric civilization, the universality of certain myths outlined for Germany by the Brothers Grimm became apparent. 

Among the first to realize the universality of myth was Johann Georg Kohl, born in 1808 in Bremen and died there in 1878. He attended university in Göttingen, Heidelberg, and Munich and then traveled to Latvia and Russia, where he studied the effect of topography on the movements of people and trade. He published his findings in several books, which sold well. In 1849 Kohl wrote, “In the chilling context of the political atmosphere, one hears of a new world, of a distant place, of a country of the future, and always one thinks here of America. ‘The train of world history goes west’ is being proclaimed.”

Kohl arrived in Philadelphia on September 26, 1854, moved to New York City, and quickly arranged a journey to Canada, where he met his first Indians and gathered enough notes to write a two-volume work entitled Reisen in Canada und durch die Staaten von New York und Pennsylvanien, Stuttgart 1856, and as Travel in Canada, and through the States of New York and Pennsylvania, London 1861. Kohl gave talks before the New York Historical Society and the New York Geographical Society in New York. He met Washington Irving and had discussions with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1855 Kohl signed a contract with D. Appleton and Company to write a book on the state of the upper Mississippi. Lacking first-hand knowledge of this part of the country, he planned a three-month trip that stretched to six and took him among the Dakota Indians of Minnesota and the Ojibway Indians of northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Kohl was impressed with what he saw. The recession of 1857 dissolved his plans for its publication. After four years in the United States, Kohl returned to Germany, never to return. 

Settling in Freiburg im Breisgau, Kohl worked over his notes on life among the Ojibway of Lake Superior and published them in German as Kitchi-Gami in 1859. The English edition, much abridged, followed in 1860.

As with other European travelers, Kohl saw and recorded his observations with a European bias that differed sharply from American comments. Kohl wrote in the preface of the German edition, “I only take credit for having endeavored to understand them (the Ojibway stories and ways of life) correctly and to present them “clearly.” In his later years, Kohl served as a librarian in Bremen. 

Kitchi-Gami is Kohl’s account of his stay with various bands of Chippewa or Ojibway Indians (Kohl spelled them Ojibbeway) along the south shore of Lake Superior, the Great Lake, or Kitchi-Gami in the Ojibway language. American sovereignty over the Chippewa was then recent.

In 1822 the United States established a military post and an Indian agency at Sault Ste. Marie. The agent in charge was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, famed for his discovery of the source of the Mississippi River and his writing on the American Indians. Schoolcraft’s two-volume work on the Chippewas was very influential and was one of the sources for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, first published in 1855. 

Kohl’s talent for observation and detail made Kitchi-Gami very popular. It was applauded as a work free of sentimentality and exaggeration. The bibliophile Thomas W. Field announced, “Mr. Kohl had given one of the most exhaustive and valuable treatises on Indian life ever written.” Kohl considered the Ojibway tales comparable to the Arabian Nights and transcribed many of them.

For example, Kohl transcribed several songs (in the form of illustrations) from birch-bark scrolls, as explained by Kitagiguam (The spotted Feather) at the Protestant mission. Among the songs reproduced are images for: “This is a wigwam, and I sing the following words: ‘I enter into the wigwam of the Mides, the temple, and bring, singing, a fine sacrifice.’ I sing the following words: I have come to pray that thou wilt give me this animal, the bear. I will walk on the right path for it, the path of life.” And, “I soon saw, very nearly, the story of Menaboju’s deluge. The earth is called Aki. Menaboju, in his entire military splendor. Menaboju’s wigwam where he lived, sometimes with one squaw, sometimes with two. An anecdote about Menaboju, of how he was once caught between two trees… Menaboju made two islands: a little one which did not bear his weight; and then a larger one, which supported him, and afterward became the new world.” 

Kohl also transcribed “A hunters Dream” by Amongs (The Little Way). “The dreamer, lying on a bed of moss and grass. His guardian spirit, or the person who spoke to him in his dream. The dreamer sees the sky expand above him, full of birds and animals. It is a hunter’s sky. The dreamer fasted for nine days on account of this dream. ‘Me’ with a big heart, ‘courage to endure a nine-day fast.’”

Another collector of myths and stories was Karl Knortz, born in Garbenheim, Rhenish Prussia, in 1841. He was a writer, translator, and educator who arrived in the United States in 1863 after completing his studies in philology, philosophy, and theology at the University of Heidelberg. He first settled in Detroit. Here he taught at the German American seminar; then, from 1868-1871, he was a Professor of Latin at the high school of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. During these years, he collected many stories and myths by North American Indians, which he translated into German. These translations contributed significantly to German interest and scholarship in comparative Indian literature and mythology, leading to a universal myth theory by the end of the century. In 1871 Knortz moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Next, he became the German Independent Protestant Congregation pastor in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In 1881, he moved to New York City. Here he wrote and translated for the next ten years. He then moved to Evansville, Indiana. Knortz died in Tarrytown, New York, in 1918. 

Besides his contributions to the study of mythology, Knortz also wrote books in German and English on American Indians and their customs, insects, reptiles, birds of North America, and popular American folklore. He translated into German works by Longfellow, Thoreau, Whittier, and Whitman, and into English, he translated the Nibelungenlied and works of F. W. Nietzsche. Further, he was instrumental in popularizing German pedagogical ideas to the American public, especially the Kindergarten.

Franz Boas, born in 1858 in Minden, and died in 1942 in New York, was very influential in the reorientation of anthropology in the United States. He contributed to formulating problems and methods of human growth, linguistics, folklore, art, and ethnology of North American Indians. 

After receiving a doctorate in physics, at twenty-three, Boas set out in June 1883 for Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island. This expedition was crucial in turning him to anthropology. He admired the arctic people and realized that mental processes rather than geographic forces were the prime determinants of human behavior. In 1887 he moved to New York. He became the assistant editor of “Science” and met F. W. Putnam and G. Stanley Hall, who invited him to lecture in anthropology at Clark University. Boas lectured there until 1892, when he accepted Putnam’s invitation to become his assistant for anthropology in charge of exhibits at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago. That year he also directed the first American Ph.D. in anthropology, A. F. Chamberlain.

In Chicago, after the World’s Columbian Exposition, Boas assisted Putnam, who had become the Field Museum of Natural History director. The Field Museum housed many of the ethnological exhibits from the Exposition. In 1896, Boas accepted the post of curator of ethnology and somatology at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. This appointment led to a lectureship in physical anthropology at Columbia University, followed, in 1899, by a professorship. In 1937, Boas retired from Columbia. He died in New York in 1942. 

Throughout his long and influential career, he observed and studied the native peoples of North America. Boas’ outstanding contribution was the concept of cultural relativity, that different cultures were neither inferior nor superior and must be considered in terms of their environment. 

His signal contribution to anthropology was his earnest attempt to make the discipline a rigorous and exact science. No one pressed more vigorously for the abandonment of uncritical inferences and comparisons. By 1930 two of his students, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead were learning how cultures stimulate the development of unique personality types. 

Boas was among the first to transcribe native North American songs such as “The Elk Hunter” and show that they, too, had universal meanings.

The study of ethnomusicology was an outgrowth of the German interest in their tradition of songs and singing, which peaked in the “Lied” art song. 

Games were seen as another uniquely human activity that was universal. For Boas, the “Cat’s Cradle” was a narrative form, too.


Industrial Germany had a great appetite for the romance of nature, for the adventure of creatures, human or animal, on fields of life unmediated by civilization. Numerous writers and scientists fed these needs. After their encounter with the American West, many German travelers became writers.

There was something about the enormity of its space; the flood of immigrants and the abundant opportunities for financial success caught their imagination. 

The first German author to carefully portray American life was Charles Sealsfield, a name Karl Anton Postl, born in Police, Moravia, in 1793, and died in 1864, in Solothurn, Switzerland, gave himself when writing on America. Several of his immediate successors identified themselves strictly with America. Gerstacker, Möllhausen, and Strubberg are the important representatives of this group. Their books helped create an image of America based on facts and personal experience and were very popular in Germany. In translations, they sold very well in England and the United States.

Friedrich Armand Strubberg was born in 1806 into a wealthy tobacco merchant family in Kassel. After a quarrel and duel over a love rivalry, he fled Germany. In October 1828, he made sketches of Niagara Falls. Little else is known about this trip to North America. 

He returned to Germany in 1829 to find the family fortune waning - within eight years, it was gone. Strubberg returned to the United States. He traveled slowly by rail and river from New Orleans to New York, arriving in 1840. Here a love affair and duel sent him to Cincinnati, where he adopted the name Mr. Frederick. From Ohio, he went west. Near Louisville, his steamboat sank, and he lost all his possessions. While waiting for replacements, he made the acquaintance of a German professor, identified simply as “der Professor,” who convinced Strubberg to stay in Louisville and study medicine. After two years of study at a local college, Dr. Strubberg continued his unaccompanied travels to Little Rock and across the Red River into the Texas Territory. Starting from Austin, he explored present-day Dallas and San Antonio. When he reached the Leona River, he built a house.

After many more expeditions, including one to the Rocky Mountains, Strubberg returned to Germany in 1854 and published, under the name Armand, his first book, which included twenty-four sketches from his American travels, Amerikanische Jagd-und Reise Abenteuer, 1858. 

In 1854, with the help of von Humboldt, Robert von Schlaginweit, born in Munich, 1833, and died Giessen, 1885, and his brothers, Adolf and Hermann, secured a commission from the Prussian King and the British East Indian Company to undertake a scientific expedition to India. In 1859 the brothers were knighted in England.

In 1868 and again in 1880, Robert traveled through the American Southwest. He documented and published these trips as immigrant guides to the far West. He was also a collector specializing in Southwest Indian artifacts. His collections were housed in Munich and made accessible to the public in 1885. 

Since most post-Civil War immigrants crossed the American continent by rail von Schlaginweit provided them with a guide that gave special mention to the wonders of nature to be seen along the way. He illustrated and described several tunnels immigrants would pass on their way to California. A window into the earth, tunnels, and caves fascinated German scientists, explorers, and travelers.

The early German explorers described the Prairies as an ocean of grass with buffalo as its fish. To the immigrants of the 1870s, the prairie meant farmlands along the railroad’s right of way. Buffalos were an awkward reality, picturesque only as chromolithographs and valuable only as robes on winter outings. 

By 1860 Friedrich Gerstacker, born in 1816 in Hamburg, had replaced Gottfried Duden as the source of authentic information on America. In his 43 novels, he warned the prospective emigrant against American practices and the numerous pitfalls that waited for him there. Gerstacker’s works were based on first-hand observations gathered on sojourns of lengthy duration and under all kinds of circumstances.

His travels in the mid-century gave his audience a comparative picture of conditions in the United States from 1837-1867. He unfolded his narrative against actual events, historical and personal, vast and dangerous landscapes yet suggestive of change. He did not write for the entertainment of the general public. 

The lure of adventure, the West, and the Indians continued unabated in Germany well into the twentieth century. Some stories were abridged. Others were retellings. Some were designed for youth, such as Franz Schneller’s retelling in the adventure story format of Prince Maximilian’s expedition. Others were by famous authors who never left Germany or visited the United States only after achieving fame for their “American exploits,” basing their adventure stories on the experiences of others. Such were Karl May (1842-1912) and his best-known characters, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand.

Painters also profoundly influenced and played an essential role in creating information that helped the scientific community and the interested public understand North America. 

Although Henry Lewis, born in Kent, England, in 1819, immigrated to St. Louis in 1836, was not German or a scientist, he was a cabinetmaker and is included here because of his longtime residence in Düsseldorf where he trained many artists, some of whom became influential in America. Inspired by Bodmer to do a painting of the Mississippi valley, Lewis discussed his plan with three fellow St. Louis artists, who immediately took up the project. A canvas 440 yards long was produced. It was exhibited all over the United States to much acclaim. Two panoramas, 625 and 500 yards in length, respectively, followed. 

Not to be outdone, Lewis began his panorama at Fort Snelling in May 1846. He drifted in a crude houseboat as far as Prairie-du-Chien, sketching along the way. That winter, he worked on the sketches in St. Louis, and the following summer drifted down the river to New Orleans. In May and June of 1848, he spent 48 days on the river and made a continuous sketch of the entire course of the Mississippi. On his return to St. Louis, Lewis began to paint, and when he stopped a year later, he had a two-part canvas, 12 feet high. St. Louis was the divide. The upper river was 825 yards in length - the lower 500 – had a total of 1325 yards. 

The work was exhibited in all the major cities of the United States and was visited by President Tyler. Lewis then took his career to England and Germany. In 1851 he settled in Düsseldorf, Germany, where he became a very influential Professor at the Art Academy. During the 1850s, “Düsseldorf” meant high style and technical competence. Although the Academy’s class fell in disfavor in the later nineteenth century, it produced many first-rate artists. Some of them were German and became closely associated with the American West. Albert Bierstadt was one. 

The fate of the panorama remains unknown. Some of the views of cities along the Mississippi survive as lithographs copied from Lewis’ original sketches. Three of the most broadly distributed and known are the view of New Orleans, a picture of St. Louis, and an artist’s encampment along the Mississippi.

Most German scientists, writers, artists, and explorers who traveled the American West remain almost unknown. A rare commemoration of their efforts is the monument designed by Guta von Freydorf-Stepamnow, depicting Prince Maximilian carrying a rifle, Karl Bodmer with a sketchbook, and the Mandan Chief Mato Tope looking west, erected in 1987 in Neuwied, Germany.

Rolf Achilles, revised and corrected July 2022