Paper presented at a conference at Harvard University "The German-American Tradition: German-American History and Literature in the context of American multilingualism," Sept. 17-19, 1998 and in a somewhat different form at a conference of the Society for German-American Studies in St. Louis, Missouri, April 17-20, 1997.


In early fall of 1995, I got a phone call from a young woman who asked me whether I would be interested in translating a few old immigrant letters in her father's possession in Germany. What began as a small sheaf of letters from members of the von Weise family to Theodor van Dreveldt dating from the 1870s ballooned into more than 130,000 words. The letters written by the brothers Theodor and Anton van Dreveldt and by Anton's son Bernhard between 1844 and 1866 in particular captured my imagination and the story that emerged from them struck me, and my then client Hans von Gimborn, as a powerful subject for a book, which Hans and I have recently completed. The letters give a rare glimpse into the family and personal dynamics that shape the course of an endeavor such as immigration.

As a translator, I may perhaps be excused for the notion that there is no closer reading than translation. In the process of interpreting and retelling, I soon find myself dropping down to where words are linked together into chains and meaning is created. And, although I can never be certain whether that meaning is my own or that of the original writer, particularly when s/he is no longer around to protest, a very close dialogue and friendship seems to develop. The van Dreveldt book was born of that friendship.

Anton and Theodor van Dreveldt were the illegitimate sons of Johann Anton Goossens, a Catholic priest and last Provost of St. Martin's Church in Emmerich on the lower Rhine in the former Duchy of Cleves. Their mother, Gertruida Brink, was Goossens' housekeeper. Goossens acquired an ancient estate called Voorthuyzen outside Emmerich as the result of Napoleon's secularization of the churches in 1811 and became something of a grand seigneur, remaking himself Goossens tot Voorthuyzen (the Dutch equivalent of "zu Voorthuyzen"). Whenever Gertruida became pregnant (a total of four times), Goossens packed her off to Holland, where the Church delivered her children and provided them with false identities. They were then placed in a Jesuit school in Anholt for the first 8 years of their lives, after which they returned to the family fold in Emmerich, speaking only Dutch. The story they were given was that Goossens and Brink were their uncle and aunt.

Although Anton was the first-born (1804), and therefore the inheritor of his father's lands, Theodor (1811) was his father's favorite. Anton developed into an alcoholic ne'er-do-well, while Theodor, a sunny, intellectually curious young man, became involved in the liberal politics of the 1830s, joining a political fraternity (Burschenschaft) at the university in Bonn in 1831-32, where he studied law.

The fallout from this involvement led directly to Theodor's decision to emigrate in 1844. For belonging to a banned association, he was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment. He got off easy: the leader of the group was sentenced to "aggravated death penalty by means of the wheel from above," (verschärfte Todesstrafe mittelst des Rades von oben herab) and three others got "normal death penalty by means of the axe" (mittelst des Beiles). None of these harsh sentences were actually carried out; they were meant to teach the young men a little Prussian-style respect for authority. In 1837, Theodor threw himself upon the mercy of His Royal Majesty Frederick William III:

The law candidate Theodor van Dreveldt of Emmerich most humbly requests merciful release from the punishment that has been pronounced.
Most serene King, most gracious King and Master. Your Royal Majesty, in Your infinite mercy and gentleness You have already graciously bestowed Your mercy and pardon upon many young people who recently belonged to a banned association, thereby arousing Your justifiable displeasure.

It continues with phrases like:

"The humble undersigned..."
"Trusting in Your Royal Majesty's infinite mercy..."
"Might Your Majesty be moved to extend..."

and the ever-popular,

"I lost my parents during my early childhood..."

Evidently, His Royal Majesty was well pleased by his young subject's ritual act of submission: his sentence was reduced to six months and, once completed, he could reapply for the civil service examination, which had been denied him. But by then the civil service had lost much of its sheen.

By 1844 Theodor had had enough, and he decided to leave authoritarian Prussia behind and make a fresh start, farming in America. He wrote fellow burschenschaft member Gerard Lensing, who had bought a farm on Loutre Island opposite Hermann in about 1837. Lensing had not waited for the authorities to arrest him after the fraternity was broken up, but set off directly for Duden country. His great-grandson Siegfried Carl Lensing, incidentally, still farms in Rhineland, Missouri.

Before leaving, Theodor signed over his inheritance from the Provost to Anton for a total of 46,000 thalers, payable over six years at 4% interest. Anton gave him 2000 thalers for the trip with the promise to send 10,000 more, "as soon as possible." In addition, Theodor retained first mortgage on the property. With these assurances, he felt confident of success. He arrived at Lensing's doorstep with another friend, Wilhelm Noot, in the spring of 1845.

Theodor's first letters, sent serially to various friends and family members, spilled over with details about daily life. We read about mint juleps, which he sipped through a straw. The ice made his teeth hurt. He described river traffic and regional flora, building log cabins, plowing fields, everything that he felt his family would be interested in.

But after a few months the tone of his letters changed. Anton had not written. Where was his money? In addition, Theodor contracted malaria, which was endemic in the Missouri bottom. Unable to work, resources depleted, Theodor became increasingly panicked, his letters to Franz von Weise, a close friend, finally erupting in full-blown accusations:

You know human beings well enough to know that a friendship that has been dissolved cannot become neutral. On my honor, I viewed Anton as my friend and treated him as such. But by his negligence he has tormented me as one can only be tormented by Jesuits. You know that a broken friendship leaves a deep wound and an ugly scar behind. That is how it is between Anton and me. These statements are not feverish rantings...
Anton built a house and two barns and acquired an inventory of animals and implements, and these hardly out of revenues. Therefore, he has in all probability broken the contract with me.
You write, dear friend, that I should come back and that I will always be sick here. I never wanted to remain in Missouri; Anton knew that, and even so he has kept me in this sickly place. I want to go to Wisconsin, about which not a word has come to me concerning illnesses.

In fact, both his sister and von Weise tried to get Theodor to return, his sister with entreaties and von Weise with tidbits like the following:

There's just one thing that I would like to mention, namely that all members of the state Parliament [Reichstände] are infused with such a liberal and good spirit that I really expect the best in the future. At the last session, a majority voted for the emancipation of the Jews. The debates are altogether so interesting that if you haven't read them already in your newspapers, I will send them as soon as they are published.

Theodor never became active in politics over here; perhaps he was too ill or discouraged. But here is his response to the news of revolution in Germany:

I would gladly have been there to add my voice to topple all the thrones of the world, and I would have spoken and written now in Europe as much as my strength would have allowed. For the moment, I am too late to give my physical support to the cause of human rights and against brutal power. My breath stopped for joy when I heard that the Hausvogtei [Berlin prison for political prisoners] had been stormed and the martyrs set free, and that it was my old infantry battalion that was the first to go over to the side of the people. They showed Willy in his palace that the people are not just there for his benefit. Why don't you just lock him up in an iron cage like Knipperdolling [Münster Anabaptist, beheaded 1536]? But, of course, the Devil's black police [i.e., the Catholic Church] won't leave their brother in the lurch. And in your region and Westphalia, in whichever districts come under their religious and political shadow, they will place their poisoned tongues in the service of obscurantism and Prussiandom.

Ironically, Theodor left Prussia just as the monarchy was beginning to make concessions, and he returned in 1849 to the conservative reaction. While he sailed east, failed revolutionaries headed west. He was out of phase.

Theodor's attempts at putting down roots in Missouri might have been successful if he hadn't contracted malaria and if his brother had been dependable. It is also possible that, like the "Latin farmers," to whom he bore some resemblance, he did not have the "right stuff" for such an endeavor. Whatever the case, by the time his money arrived in 1847, he was worn out and lonely. Upon his return in 1849, after travelling around America, he took control of Voorthuyzen. Anton, who had made something of a mess of it, was eased out by his younger more dynamic sib, who, after all, held the first mortgage. We do not know what those negotiations were like. Almost immediately Anton shuffled off to America with his young sons Bernhard and Hubert in tow, after having his wife Naatje Reygers committed to an insane asylum. Anton did not even wait around for his brother's wedding to Franz von Weise's young niece Caroline.

By all rights, that immigration should have ended in complete disaster. And it almost did. Anton managed to drink his way into one failure after another, alienating all of Theodor's old friends in the process. A typical letter to Theodor from an old university friend read:

I expect that you already know that he [Anton] and Noot split up. You are probably in a better position than I to judge who was in the wrong. I have heard that Noot is demanding several hundred dollars from your brother and has even threatened to sue. He has spoken very bitterly about him. I'm sure that you have also learned that your brother has since split up with Westhooven as well. Westhooven and his father-in-law are just as bitter.

And Noot himself wrote:

While in a particularly angry and drunk condition and in the presence of Bernhard and Hubert, Anton tried to paint you as a great egoist. He accused you of having the entire fortune in your hands and sending him here to Siberia, and he cursed you repeatedly. You may be able to cure him of this crazed opinion as you see fit.

There is some evidence in the letters that Theodor may, in fact, have acted vindictively once his brother was in the United States and he had control of the purse. On the other hand, Anton's continuing inability to get either his personal or financial life under control would have been ample reason for Theodor to keep his brother on a tight leash. And so we have a picture of conflict between brothers. This theme runs through their correspondence: the heir and the favorite son, in effect, undermining each other's immigration.

Eventually, Anton sold Voorthuyzen outright to Theodor. With the proceeds from the sale, he was able to buy a farm near Waterloo, Illinois, in 1856. Anton worked this farm with his sons Bernhard and Hubert until 1859, when he suddenly dropped dead in a hotel room in St. Louis. Bernhard was 24 at the time.

Bernhard, Anton's older son, is interesting in that he developed many of his father's traits, which he freely displayed in his copious letters. Arrogant and self-righteous, he was deeply insecure. In 1860 he started a diary; quickly abandoned:

I also want [to use my diary] to think about the past as time and mood allow. The past and my very, very unhappy youth. Should not this past serve as guarantor of a happier future? Have I not earned a holy right to a happy future as a result of suffering and my longing for an education of the intellect which I could not have?...But, what is the point of all this: Man is the creator of his own fate.

Bernhard buried all this in petty ambition and prejudice. He opened a general store in Hecker, Illinois, nine miles from Waterloo and became postmaster there. Every few letters he had a new partner, who was gone within no time. Like Anton, Bernhard could not get along, blamed others for his failures, and was generally clueless. The Civil War provided some great moments. In January 1862 we get the following wallowing:

I have experienced some unpleasant business recently, which is probably why I have had so little desire to write.
For example, with regard to the post office. The friends of Jacob Fricke, the new merchant in Freedom, have succeeded in getting him a position as postmaster, thereby laying me off. Even though this fellow Fricke can barely read and can write even less, that seems to be no reason why in the land of the free, where all men are created equal, he should not be entitled to the highest office in the state rather than a more appropriate drudge job. I wrote you in my last letter that I was asked to raise a company of soldiers in this area to fight for Uncle Sam against the Southern rebels. Maria didn't want to hear of it, and so I rejected the idea. Well, then the Fricke family (a very large German family of day laborers that has gained influence by sheer numbers) took advantage of the situation, and our neighbor Fricke and a bankrupt bar keeper from Freedom set to work raising a company. The one became captain, the other 1st lieutenant. Since very few wanted to participate and I held myself neutral, they managed to gather together an army of 35 men (mainly cripples). With these, they set off and joined the independent Körner regiment that had been organized in Belleville. However, much to the administration's credit, the two of them were sent back home after 6 weeks duty, because of an overabundance of lack of ability.
As you may imagine, they turned all their anger for their lack of success on me, calling me an "aristocrat" (always the first thing people think of) and "secessionist," etc. It was out of this that the movement started to get the post office, and they only succeeded because I didn't think it was worth the effort to remonstrate.

Bernhard simply does not see the implications of his words.

There were other aspects to his attitude that are far less amusing and much more troubling. In September 1864 he wrote Theodor:

If we get peace, then everything will be all right again; there will be a lasting peace, even if the nigger has to be the scapegoat. The white man in America will never again wage a war on his behalf. I don't believe in conditions like in Mexico...Our population was and is very different from the Mexican. Our population is still overwhelmingly healthy European, and not the degenerate mixture that lives in Mexico.

But his shining moment occurred during the draft of January 1865. In a previous letter, Bernhard had made a point of how unjust and corrupt a draft system was that allowed for proxies and the "trade in white flesh."

Hubert and I are out of danger in terms of military duty. Our numbers were both drawn. Hubert was deemed unfit, and I found a proxy for three years, a big, strong escaped nigger, or to express myself more artfully, "a free American citizen of African descent." The whole thing cost me $850; still, cheap enough. Let someone else get shot. Since November, I have been running the store alone again. Once we have sold the farm we will sell the store as quickly as possible. It is very profitable, but I yearn for something bigger.

This letter, in which racism, personal isolation, and petty ambition are intimately linked in one paragraph, was probably the last straw for his uncle, whose sympathies were entirely abolitionist. It's too bad that we only have Bernhard's next reply:

I just don't understand where you get the idea that I am pro-slavery and belong to a party that you would want to see disappear. I don't think you could have gotten it from my statements. If my young brothers-in-law [his wife's 3 brothers had come over] represented this opinion to you, I must tell you that they understand too little of our circumstances to even comprehend my views.
Their politicking, and they love to do it, is to this point just the urge, which they share with many people, to wag their tongues about what they understand least. They like to be in opposition to everything and everyone.
It won't surprise you that this behavior led to quite a few arguments between us, sometimes sharp ones. Actually, our political opinions are the same, and I think this will be proven once they have become familiar with the institutions here, have knocked off a few rough edges, and given up this tendency to oppose.

Again, Bernhard simply does not hear himself.

Bernhard van Dreveldt died a horrible, lingering death (the coroner reported the cause of death as "pyaemia of the liver") in 1866 at the age of 31 after selling the store and farm and moving to St. Louis to pursue "something bigger." Had he lived, the van Dreveldts might well have become established on these shores, but a few years after Bernhard's death, his widow Maria returned to Europe with her two young daughters.

What are we to make of the van Dreveldts? Clearly they did not leave a large mark on American history. The price paid by people who wrenched themselves from their families and homeland in order to remake themselves in a new land is well known. It was not simply the case that immigrants' efforts were inexorably crowned by success, making them sovereigns of a new democratic nation. We know that people died trying and that their best efforts were often crowned by hardship, loneliness, bad luck, and failure. That experience is a crucial component of the American experience.

Apart from the unforgiving wilderness, immigrants had to deal with what they could never leave behind: themselves. Success or failure hinged on personal traits and family ties more often than is generally recognized. At one level, the story of the van Dreveldts is an epic of hope and good intentions colliding with personal flaws and an unforgiving land. Through their eloquent letters, they have opened themselves up and allowed us to witness their struggles as they tried to make their way.

The final words belong to my good friend Theodor: Two days before his death at Voorthuyzen in 1880, Theodor, a life-long opponent of what he saw as the fundamental hypocrisy and irrationality of organized religion, wrote a lengthy letter to an old university friend, a Catholic cleric. To my mind it is a summation of the man he had become. His failed immigration 30 years in the past, they are the words of a man deeply at peace with himself.

I don't think the chances look good for our meeting in the Hereafter. However, I would like to spend a few hours in leisure with you, to look once again into my old friend's honest eyes.
It is a singular but comforting feeling to get together with a friend from my youth after nearly half a century, a friend with whom I do not always agree, but for whom my feelings of friendship have not diminished.
Dear Rütjes, if I could, I would visit you. However, my doctor has prescribed total rest for me. I used to be able to go out for a half an hour each day, but even this much exercise proved damaging. At this point, I am imprisoned indoors, tied to a nice little spot by the door. We could spend a few happy moments there together. Come here and visit your dying friend. You will be well received by my large family, and you will not come to see the day that you performed this service of love as one of the wasted days of your life. Come soon, my dear Hennemann, come and visit your old friend.

© 1997 by Kenneth Kronenberg

Lives and Letters of an Immigrant Family

Lives and Letters of an Immigrant Family: The van Dreveldts' Experiences along the Missouri, 1844-1866 will be published in December 1998 by the University of Nebraska Press. To read advance excerpts from the book, click below:

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