What Did They Know?
A Miniseries on Prospective Baden Migrants and Their Knowledge of America in the 1870s and 1880sWith contributions by Martin Bemmann, Marie Nella Hoffmann, Hannah Laubrock, and Luca Leitz-Schwoerer
As the Migrant Knowledge blog where this contribution is posted attests, approaches to history that explore the intersection of the history of migration and the history of knowledge have enhanced our understanding of the role migrants have played in the production, transformation, and communication of knowledge. On one hand, they transport knowledge from their country of origin to their new home, and, on the other, they communicate knowledge back home. In the wake of mass migration over the course of the nineteenth century, this individual knowledge transfer to the homeland occurred primarily by means of private letters.1 This was largely made possible by a significant rise in literacy rates among all societal classes and the quickly improving means of postal transport across the Atlantic.
Andreas Rübelmann and His Emigration
One emigrant letter writer was Andreas Rübelmann, who emigrated from the Grand Duchy of Baden, Germany, to the United States in 1848. Rübelmann perfectly fits the typology of most emigrant correspondents, who were usually not academics or intellectuals nor came from the higher classes.2 Raised in a middle-class family, he attended the compulsory Volksschule, where he learned to read and write, and was later trained as a rope maker.3 Therefore, his letters to his family constitute a typical example of a correspondence across the Atlantic. Reading them helps us to explore what the Badeners learned about America from such mostly private accounts. Even though, as the other contributions to this miniseries reveal, there was a wide and diverse supply of printed information on the United States in Baden, letters like those of Rübelmann were crucial in shaping how average Badeners perceived this possible emigration destination.4
Rübelmann’s emigration experience began in 1848 and does not seem to have been entirely voluntary. In June of that year, he left his hometown of Denzlingen in the Grand Duchy of Baden and boarded a ship heading for New York City after participating in a revolutionary assembly in the city of Freiburg that had devolved into a street fight between demonstrators and the military. He then made his way to the United States without a governmental exit permit.5 This suggests that he had not been planning this trip for a long time but had emigrated to escape possible prosecution in his home state. In Ohio, he met the woman who would become his wife, who was herself the daughter of another German emigrant from Denzlingen. They soon established a family as his wife bore him a daughter, Dana, in 1850 and a son, Louis, six years later. In 1856, the family moved to Johnson County, Iowa, where they purchased a farm and became valued members of the local community.6
The Collection of Letters
Rübelmann wrote letters home over a period of more than 43 years. There are 32 complete letters and some text fragments Rübelmann sent to his family in Baden. The letters that members of his family might have written back to him are not part of this collection. The earliest letter is dated 13 May 1851 and the latest one is dated 21 August 1894. The letters vary in their state of preservation as well as their readability. In these letters, he mainly reported about the problems in his everyday life as a farmer, which presumably was of significant interest for the readers in rural Baden. Information about his family constituted the second aspect which Rübelmann addressed in almost every letter. Apart from these more private things, however, the letters also contained information on the character of Americans, on the often problematic experiences of immigrants in the US, on the geography and politics of the US, and on “American” phenomena that he found to be of particular interest. We do not know who actually read his lines. Generally, however, we can assume that the letters were meant not only for the specified recipients but also for the greater community back home. Researchers suppose that the contents of most letters like these circulated as part of a town’s gossip.7
In letters addressed specifically to his family, Rübelmann focused on information about his immediate family in the US and workday life. This is not surprising as emigrant letters were foremost a medium of everyday communication. In most of his letters he reported sicknesses and health struggles that he or members of his family in the United States had experienced. Furthermore, he dedicated substantial parts of his letters to his work on the farm. Rübelmann meticulously listed crop yields, numbers of his livestock, as well as market prices. This information provided his family in rural Baden with an important benchmark to compare farming styles, prices, and income. If Rübelmann had described a substantially better situation for farming, it might have been an incentive for other Badeners to migrate to the United States.
Rübelmann’s Observations and Remarks
In one letter, Rübelmann described a journey he took to the world exhibition in Chicago in 1893. One may expect that such an international event might have been interesting for his family in Baden, but instead of giving information about it, he simply mentioned that it was too much to tell of it:
In this same letter, he swiftly moved on to an extensive account of a visit to a slaughterhouse in Chicago. The expansion of the railroad system in the nineteenth century had made Chicago an important junction between the West and the East of the country, allowing it to become an important marketplace.9 This was especially true for the stockyards, which many perceived as “the pinnacle of Chicago’s social and economic achievement.”10 Such information about the economic organization of the United States was of interest to the Badeners. They were able to compare Rübelmann’s impressions with the slaughterhouses and meat markets at home. Presumably, this practical information was more important to them than a recount of the world exhibition. In any case, it was what Rübelmann chose to include.
Rübelmann also wrote about his two children. He recounted that he sent them both to school and that they only spoke English outside of the house. He also proudly described his children helping around the farm. When they left the farm to venture off on their own, Rübelmann felt left behind. He remarked that this was, in part, due to the culture of his new home:
Here, Rübelmann highlighted cultural differences between Baden and the United States, pointing out the greater feeling of freedom in the new world, which he felt had not only had positive effects. It is interesting that he communicated this feeling of being left behind to the people he had left many years before. It is also relevant to note that this passage illustrated the role immigrants’ children played for them in their new countries. They often spoke the language of the new country fluently due to their school attendance. Consequently, their parents often used them as mediators and relied heavily on their help as translators of knowledge.12 Rübelmann seemed to have been communicating this heightened dependence on his children to his family in Germany.
Rübelmann also commented on the overall experience of immigrants as well as personal accounts in his letters. More than once he thanked God for bringing him safely to the United States, remarking that he would have not been as successful had he stayed in Germany. Emphasizing that his success was due to his hard work, he suggested that not everyone could thrive in the United States. While writing about the precarious situation in the cities, he recounted that many went back to Europe because they could not find work. In Rübelmann’s understanding, these outer circumstances were only partly responsible:
This prejudiced comment mirrors his internalized ranking of immigrants in the US based on their country of origin, which probably reproduced stereotypes familiar to his family at home. At the same time, Rübelmann effectively communicated that not every immigration story was as successful as his own. He seemed to seek validation from his family in Germany. At no point did he provide tips or useful information for a potential immigration to the United States, nor did he try to persuade his family in Germany to follow in his footsteps. Nevertheless, hearing about a successful migration story from one of their own could have been a reason to risk the journey across the Atlantic.
Rarely did Rübelmann use his letters to convey knowledge about the political system of the United States. Still, he did note some differences in politics from those of his country of origin:
Rübelmann, who had to leave his home country because he stood up for a more participatory form of government, appreciated the freedom his new home country provided him. For his family in Baden, this was valuable information about the unfamiliar political system and might have prompted them to hold more democratic beliefs.
Rübelmann seldom commented on political events in the United States or Europe. In 1863 he wrote about the horrible times his family and his neighbors were experiencing due to the American Civil War (1861–1865), where thousands lost their lives. In an earlier letter he offered his own opinion on the Civil War, remarking that he believed it to be unjust when one man told another what to do. Nearly ten years later he briefly told his family that he had read about the German French War (1870–1871) in an American newspaper, noting their mention of that war in an earlier letter. Thus, knowledge about bigger political events was communicated through emigrant letters like his, as well, even though both parties in these cases were directly affected by these events.
Rübelmann’s correspondence was the only form of communication with his family on the other side of the Atlantic, just as with most other transatlantic emigrants. The knowledge that he transferred was mostly of a private and emotional nature. Rübelmann provided glimpses into his everyday life with people he once shared a life with. But even information that seemed trivial contained important knowledge of America for his family back home. Listings of crop yields and prices provided a benchmark for comparison, for instance. Through his letters, his family could also learn about the American school system and voting rights. Ultimately, they were also able to learn firsthand of a successful migration story.
Hannah Laubrock is an undergraduate student at the University of Freiburg. She is currently writing her Bachelor’s thesis on the National Socialist population policy in the annexed Polish territories in 1939.
- Ursula Lehmkuhl, “Das Genre der Auswandererbriefe,” in Handbuch Brief. Von der frühen Neuzeit bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Marie Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig, Jörg Schuster, Gesa Steinbrink, and Jochen Strobel (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020), 631. ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Kurt Hochstuhl and Dieter Ohmberger, “Der Denzlinger Seiler Andreas Rübelmann als Auswanderer in den USA (1848–1894),” in Menschen in Bewegung, ed. Juliane Geike and Andreas Haasis-Berner (Heidelberg: Verlag Regionalkultur, 2019), 43. ↩︎
- Lehmkuhl, “Das Genre der Auswandererbriefe,” 635–36. ↩︎
- Hochstuhl and Ohmberger, “Der Denzlinger Seiler,” 43. ↩︎
- Iowa City, History of Johnson County Iowa: Containing History of the Country, and Its Townships, Cities and Villages from 1836 to 1882 (Iowa City, 1883), 911. ↩︎
- Lehmkuhl, “Das Genre der Auswandererbriefe,” 636. ↩︎
- Letter by Andreas Rübelmann, Johnsen County, Iowa, 21 November 1893, Staatsarchiv Freiburg, W 254. ↩︎
- William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, 1991), 92–93. ↩︎
- Ibid., 207. ↩︎
- Letter by Andreas Rübelmann, Johnsen County, Iowa, 1 January 1892, Staatsarchiv Freiburg, W 254. ↩︎
- Simone Lässig, “Knowledge and the Agency of Children in Migration Contexts,” Migrant Knowledge, August 5, 2020. ↩︎
- Letter by Andreas Rübelmann, Johnsen County, Iowa, 21 August 1894, Staatsarchiv Freiburg, W 254. ↩︎
- Letter by Andreas Rübelmann, Johnson County, Iowa, 2 December 1856, Staatsarchiv Freiburg, W 254. ↩︎