Gottfried Duden


Saint Charles County is one of the most predominantly German in its ethnic heritage in the State of Missouri. Missouri being one the most German in the U.S. as well, makes us one of the largest in the country. Ever wonder why that is? Some historians cite a small self-published book, published in 1829 by a German named Gottfried Duden, “A Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America“.

Born May 19, 1789 in the city of Remscheid, the middle child in a family of five children of Leonhard and Maria Duden. His father, owner of a large pharmaceutical company, died when he was only six. He grew up and took on the profession of law, in a time when Germany was in a lot of turmoil. Following the Napoleonic wars, the huge population was suffering with famine, and huge taxes imposed by the rulers in response to a rising revolution. After seeing the successful rebellions, in America and France, many Germans felt that a united country would be stronger and able to defend itself, thus ending the years of wars it had seen. Young Duden listened to their problems and saw the young far western U.S., filling with the friends and family of the world famous Daniel Boone, as the place to be.

Emigration books, as they were called, were not a new thing at that time. Hundreds were being published at that time, suggesting emigration to Russia, England, and South America. Many written by authors that had never even been to the places they were writing about. How could their advice be trusted Duden wondered, and so he began planning a journey for himself. He bought land, in what was yet to be, the State of Missouri. He hired a professional farmer, named Ludwig Eversmann, and brought him and his cook Gertrude, and headed for his farm on Lake Creek, in the Missouri River valley west of Saint Charles. He stayed here from 1824 till 1827, writing a series of letters describing life that was first published in Germany in 1829, a best seller in its day.

For many, Duden’s book was the right words at the right time. Some were critical! They said everything was not the same in 1830s as he had described in his 1824 letter. Duden responded that they didn’t understand or get the point. He was accused of painting a picture in words, of a Utopia or Garden of Eden. Many Germans, such as Friedrich Steines, defended him saying

“while all is not exactly as he (Duden) described, in some ways it was better.”

To the Germans that needed to get government permission to move, marry, or even cut firewood, American’s freedoms were enviable. Where your family ate more meat in a week, than they did in a year back home. Where estate law ruled the rights of inheritance to the eldest child, the right to own as many acres of land as you could afford, and leave it to all of your children was unbelievable. The right to vote and chose your rulers and the freedom to say whatever you thought of them, without fear, was amazing. You decided what church you wanted to attend, what kind of school your children would have, and yes they would receive a free education. You decided your own profession and your own future. What was there to not like?

There will always be some anxious to criticize though. The language and the customs were foreign. They had slaves in some states, allowing a profit and making some wealthy aristocrats. The weather was not like Duden had described. (Who has seen more than two identical Missouri winters or summers?) Sometimes, we have to find something or someone to blame for our failure. Duden tried to defend himself, as further editions of his book were published, and thousands continued to immigrate.

The decision to emigrate is a personal one, and there were as many reasons as there were Germans. Historians estimate over 20,000 came to Missouri during the 1830s. Many of those wrote letters home to family and friends, urging them to come, in what is known as chain migration. Today those letters could be compared to tweets and You Tube gone viral! Apparently it is sometimes easier to trust your friends, than a wealthy attorney.

Duden died on October 29, 1856, in Germany, without ever returning to his beautiful Missouri farm with its cows, as he had originally planned. His book “A Report on a Journey” lived on, with many attempting to follow his suggestions. And come they did! Today, many Saint Charles County residents and family historians trace their ancestors back to Germany. As Missouri became a gateway to the west for American pioneers, it became home to generations of Germans, with towns like Hamburg, Melle, and Cappeln. Many of us still today think Duden definitely got it right!

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