All posts by Dorris Keeven-Franke

Public Historian, Author, Archivist and Curator.

Warning against further frivolous Emigration

“I, the author of that much-read Travel Report, now step before the public as a penitent sinner and confess aloud my gross error, that I had not dared to presume so much misunderstanding among my neighbors as I have experienced and continue to experience from the impact of that publication.”***

So wrote Gottfried Duden, in his 1837 Self-Confession about his Report on a Journey to the Western Sates of North America, but I’m not really certain who he was talking to, those who had come already, and there were thousands, or those that were still home at Germany. After all, we’ve all been there haven’t we? You try to do something nice, help your fellow man, share something you think will help, and someone just has to go out there and try to ruin it!  They aren’t happy so you’re not going to be either.

Instead of looking at Duden’s Self-Confession from the viewpoint of ‘See I’m right – he’s confessing his errors’ as his naysayers would like to do, I like to think it only reinforces the reason he wrote his Report in the first place. For example, “How often I have thought of the poor people of Germany. What abundance and success would the industry of a few hands bring to whole families, whose condition in their own country an American-born farmer cannot imagine to be possible. There is still room for millions of fine farms along the Missouri River, not to mention the other rivers.

What could they possibly not understand? A lot. Because even though the speed of the message has greatly increased, and today we can reach around the world with our words, it all depends on the recipient receiving exactly what the sender intended. Is that truly possible? What a great communicator that would be. After all, Duden was expecting his Travel Report to be well received by not only one person, but hundreds (1500 to be exact). So then why should he have felt this way? Because he didn’t have a way of knowing what really became of his Travel Report. If only he would have returned to the U.S. and not listened to those naysayers, would he have been surprised.

In my opinion, he failed to think through the first question a writer should ask of their self, as a teacher once said “Who is your audience?” know who are you writing for. Duden wrote for the middle class and wealthy, he himself said, but his message was also taken up by the poor. He didn’t know his audience. And today’s reader, skips over that part of the message, about what “success the industry of a few hands could bring to whole families“. But today’s emigrants to the United States do know this.  And what does “whose condition in their own country an American-born farmer cannot imagine to be possible” tell us? That we cannot possibly understand what the conditions those emigrants from a foreign country have lived in. Until we have walked in another’s shoes, perhaps we shouldn’t profess to know.

And when we look back, at those thousands of German emigrants that did emigrate because of Duden’s book, and authors like him, we should keep in mind, where they were coming from. They came from all over Europe, not only from  Germany, but also from Switzerland, from Poland, from Italy and France. One small book! So when you send out your next tweet, or post on Facebook, about how great your life is, keep in mind who might be reading it. Most of us have it pretty good compared to some places even now.

Today’s immigrants would no more take a “Warning against further frivolous Emigration” than they did in 1837! And when we look at what that life here is today, compared to what those first followers of Duden encountered, we now know what the “success the industry of a few hands could bring to whole families” because hindsight is always great. But that’s another blog.

***Gottfried Duden Duden’s Confession on Account of his American Travel Report of 1837, (Translated by Steven Rowan, © 2010 The Society for German-American Studies, ISSN 0741-2827).


The Power of a Forgotten Utopia

This weekend, the power of a Forgotten Utopia has the ability to bring people together on two continents.  In Bremen, Germany, Oliver Behnecke and Peter Roloff will present at  Knowledge at 11, a Saturday morning matinee in Olbers Hall, a discussion of what became of the 1834 German emigration group, the Giessen Society.

Or Sunday, at 1 pm, on Feb. 27, in the St. Vincent de Paul,in Dutzow, Missouri, USA, you can see what they found that still exists today of that Utopian dream.

Power of Utopia – the Giessen Emigration Society in 1834
Lecture by Oliver Behnecke and Peter Roloff  “to know 11” at

Saturday, 26 Februar 2011 at 11:00 am  – Olbers Hall
House of Science
Sand Street 4 / 5
28195 Bremen

In 1834, 250 American pioneers camp on the then uninhabited island Harriersand in the Weser River. They waited four endless weeks for  a ship leaving the country. Then, in Bremerhaven,  they finally climb aboard their ship and approach their dream: the creation of a German republic on American soil. What became of this utopia?

With a little cinematic assistance, Behnecke and  Roloff  will take the morning’s audience on a trip from Germany, to build a colony in the Missouri River valley. The 1834 Utopian trip is the end result of another project of a cultural group called Reisende Sommer-Republik.

“Knowledge at 11, ” the  Bremen matinee, presents the most interesting and current topics every Saturday at 11 clock in thirty minutes.

Admission is free.

Kraft der Utopie – Die Gießener Auswanderungsgesellschaft 1834Vortrag von Oliver Behnecke und Peter Roloff bei „Wissen um 11“
Samstag, 26. Februar 2011 – 11 Uhr – Olbers-SaalHaus der WissenschaftSandstraße 4/528195 Bremen Im Jahre 1834 biwakieren 250 Amerika-Auswanderer auf der damals unbewohnten Weserinsel Harriersand. Sie warten vier endlose Wochen auf ein Schiff zur Ausreise. Dann endlich besteigen sie in Bremerhaven ihr Schiff und nähern sich ihrem Traum: der Gründung einer deutschen Musterrepublik auf amerikanischem Boden. Was wurde aus dieser Utopie? Behnecke und Roloff nehmen die morgendlichen Zuhörer mit filmischer Unterstützung auf eine kurze Reise von Deutschland im Vormärz bis zum Aufbau einer Kolonie am Missouri. Und sie machen einen Ausflug in die Projekte der auf diese Utopisten von 1834 sich berufenden Gruppe von Kultur schaffenden namens Reisende Sommer-Republik.
“Wissen um 11”, die Wissenschaftsmatinee in Bremen, in der spannende und aktuelle Themen aus der Wissenschaft jeden Samstag um 11 Uhr in dreißig Minuten vorgestellt werden.
Der Eintritt ist frei.



Lost and Found

A Trip to a Forgotten Utopia

My youngest daughter loves to tell me when I am looking for something “its always the last place you look”  I laugh, and say “but that’s because you found it, so you’ve quit looking!” But for some of us – historians, photographers, genealogists, filmmakers  – the search is the best part.  Even when others would say we’ve found it, we know that’s when the real fun begins, we love to follow the trail. The search is just the beginning of the journey, and in that quest we sometimes find what we thought were perhaps long lost and forgotten.

In 2009, I received an email from Germany, from someone on such a quest, on a journey through time, in search of what was thought to be forgotten, wondering what remained today. . .

Subject: Giessen Emigration Society – research journey October. 6 – 11

Date: Monday, August 3, 2009

From: Peter Roloff

To: Dorris Keeven-Franke

Conversation: Giessen Emigration Society – research journey October. 6 – 11

Dear Mrs. Dorris Keeven-Franke,

Let me introduce to you. We are a group of joint artists and persons engaged in the cultural sector (filmmakers, performers, photographers, writers, designers, city planners, etc.) named Reisende Sommer-Republik (Travelling Summer Republic) primariliy based in the city of Bremen, Germany. The activities of the Travelling Summer-Republic are inspired by the Giessen Emigration Society, lead by Friedrich Münch and Paul Follen. The 2nd division – lead by Friedrich Münch – had to stay for about 5 weeks on the small river island Harriersand located in the Weser river between Bremen and Bremerhaven. Finally, the Society chartered the ship Medora and sailed to America.

I was very familiar with the story of Friedrich Münch and the Giessen Emigration Society, but had never really considered that their story may have inspired those in Germany as much as it had us who lived here in Missouri.

We are fascinated by the utopian aim of the Giessen Emigration Society: the Emigration Society planned the foundation of a democratic German state in America, an ideal German republic. But before the Giessen Migration Society could fulfill their dreams in America, 250 members of the Society had to cope with their everyday life problems on the small, boring and uninhabited island in Germany. They had to “rehearse” the foundation of a state on the island on a small scale. If they fail on the small island how could they build a new state?

Suddenly I was fascinated, caught up by their quest! I knew that Muench’s group had been delayed, but was not familiar with this story of life on an uninhabited island. There were nearly 250 men, women and children in that group, on their way to be United States immigrants, on their way to America in 1834. My thoughts swirled to consider what they must have endured to follow their dream.

Based on this true story we ask for utopian thoughts today. What are our dreams and visions for a better and peaceful society today? Since 2005 the Travelling Summer-Republic stages conferences, film screenings, theatre plays, readings, debates, etc. on the Harriersand island, in the Weser region and in Berlin. Further informations: <; (sorry, in German only).

They were in search of our thoughts of today, our dreams and visions. How things may have changed? My thoughts raced back to life here in 1834, vs life here today. How much could still be found? I wondered myself.

Why do we would like to get in touch with you? Since 2004 we did a lot of research on the Giessen Emigration Society. Now it is time to go to the original places in Missouri! We would like to get a broader and more detailed picture about the Giessen Emigration Society and their leaders Friedrich Münch and Paul Follen. We want to visit the original places, the museums, historical societies, and archives. We ask: are there any descendants of families of the Giessen Emigration Society living in Missouri, in Augusta, Dutzow, etc. today? Simply everything is inspiring for us: landscapes, buildings, objects, maps, drawings, photographies… and of course meeting the people of the region.

What remained of an immigrant’s journey begun 175 years ago, I wondered. Before the Civil War, before factories and cell phones?

We have just started preparation and research for this “Missouri expedition“ which will take place October 6 – 11. We are a group of 4: writer and novelist Rolf Schmidt, filmmaker Peter Roloff, photographer Folker Winkelmann, and travel/research assistant Monika Kiesewetter. We will keep record of our journey with video and photo cameras. Just to give an example what could be the result: In 2008 Rolf Schmidt has written and published a novel about the Giessen Emigration Society on the Harriersand island: „Warten auf die Flut“ (Waiting for the Flood). Maybe the research journey will inspire Rolf Schmidt to continue his writings on the Giessen Emigration Society. We would like to meet you in Washington, Missouri…

And so began a quest, a journey, and a friendship through time that has grown and grown. Each of us discovering that there still remains much to be found in the culture, the traditions, the places and stories from that early group of immigrants, in each other and ourselves!

The Reisende Sommer-Republik’s visit  A Trip to a Forgotten Utopia, revealed that there is a lot to still be found of those early German emigrants to Missouri, even things we who live here had forgotten. The journey continues…..