In the 1980s, as I completed work on my first book, A Window Through Time, A Pictorial History of Warren County, I added an editorial comment: “History can never be told exactly right, because we each hold dear to our hearts, our own “remembering”.” I had just collected copies of over 750 photos from the community and beyond, and spent hundreds of hours, conducting over 150 interviews with the community and those who had contributed photographs to be copied. At times, I became extremely frustrated as I was given several different accounts about one photo. I often had newspaper clippings, local history books, (published by contemporaries), censuses, wills, oral histories, or other historical accounts, which often confused me more. Every family historian who has ever worked to compile their family’s story, can relate I am sure.
I am also often reminded, as a historian, that every moment and event in history, is shared with the perspective of the one sharing it. I live in the U.S. midwest, and while my views may differ from someone in California or Boston, they may sometimes differ in the same way in Germany, between Hesse and Mecklenberg for example. And if the one sharing is Catholic or Protestant, wealthy or poor, German or American, this may also bring a fresh perspective of the historical account. My interest in the Giessen Emigration Society, was sometimes different from other members of the Traveling Summer Republic, as we each struggled to learn more. We enjoy sharing and learning, with an open mind, because this is the only way historical scholarship can be advanced. Besides collecting historical documents that give us facts, they need to be addressed with an open mind. Keeping an open mind while we interpret those documents, often leads us to learn new perspectives.
While we each bring our individual perspective allowing us to learn, some may still expect there to be one, and only one version. Using the ship lists of the Medora and the Olbers as a beginning basis of the GES is a good example. While no account, list or journal of those that joined the society has ever been located, we do have hundreds of documents, that share stories and accounts of those on the two ships. And yes, there are conflicting accounts!
The book Utopia, which accompanies the exhibit, has a list of those on the ships the Medora and the Olbers, winding its way through the essays of the book. These lists were taken by the port authorities in Baltimore and New Orleans (respectively) of arriving passengers. And while discussions arise, as to whether every passenger was a member of the society, to eliminate someone could be a mistake. No one knows for instance, if the group allowed members simply on the basis of their occupation, without a cost, because it would have contributed (they felt) to the success of the Society. No one knows if those who joined after being recruited in Coburg, differed in membership from those in Giessen, or in Belecke. There were several people doing the dangerous illegal work, besides Friedrich Muench and Paul Follenius. We do know the original plan, as set out in the Call and Declaration on the subject of mass emigration from Germany to the North American free states. We also know, plans do change, and we should keep an open mind.
For those visiting the exhibition, Utopia – Revisiting a German State in America, in Bremen, Germany or St. Louis, Missouri, you will encounter a unique archives in the center of the exhibition, containing over 600 documents, photographs, paintings, and hundreds of books. Research by the Summer Republic Team conducted over the last ten years, used in the exhibition, and the publication by the same name. And yes, we welcome the discussions that arise. That is how we learn from each other.
We invite everyone to share accounts that relate below: