17 November 2009

Maximilian Journals of 1832-1834 a Treasure of Early American History

When a German prince visited North America to experience a country undergoing many changes, he did not realize that his writings - probably thought to be a tedious chore when done on the frontier - for a time 175 years ago would eventually provide a profound treasure for future scholars.

Pehriska-Ruhpa of the Dog Band of the Hidatsa tribe of Native Americans. Illustration by Karl Bodmer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org.

Prince Maximilian of Wied traveled to experience the land of the United States and its territories, and to interact with its people. His journals written in his native language, contain vivid details of numerous places from Boston, where he arrived, and across the western frontier which was the home for native Americans.

The journey of the prince and his party, including artisan Karl Bodmer and hunter David Dreidoppel, took place during three years - from 1832-1834 - but the authoritative rendition of the journals is now being realized in an effort which has spread across decades of modern time.

When Marsha V. Gallagher started her career at the Joslyn Art Museum in 1981, one of her first duties was to annotate the images prepared by Bodmer. She relied on a "transliteration" of the expedition journals to realize what was shown, and was - as a specialist in ethnology - "pretty impressed" with the Maximilian collection, which had been acquired by the museum in 1964, based on the purchase by the Internorth Corporation, based in Omaha. At the time, "no one really knew what the journals contained," she said in a recent interview, amongst the exquisite collection of original journals and derivative information needed to prepare authoritative works based on historic renditions.

"The current translation of the journals is a balance between art and science" prepared in a that conveys the flavor and intent of the original author, Gallagher said. "It required the help of many, many people" to prepare the interpretations which are easily readable in volume I and soon in two subsequent volumes.

Stephen S. Witte, a primary editor, first learned of the Maximilian material following his efforts to help complete the publication of the Lewis and Clark journals of 1804-1807, including an index to the expansive writings, prepared under the leadership of Gary Moulton.

Moulton happened to be one of the senior advisers for the Maximilian journals project and was tasked with creating an advisory committee.

Witte began his full-time effort in January 2005, basically knowing about the Clark-Maximilian maps, preparing editorial procedures for properly issuing journals written long ago in a manner suitable for modern scholarly efforts. He also had some experience with the German language, which was an obvious help in understanding what was written in the original journals.

Ornithological History

Birds are a predominant subject in the journal. According to the expedition material, this was the result of planning. The scientific journal prepared by the Prince has a list of articles or books relevant to the cultural and natural history in America. His references included Wilson's ornithology, the series of articles by Charles L. Bonaparte about birds of the region.

According to the finely presented details included in the first issue of the journals, time spent at New Harmony, during the winter of 1833, was spent discussing innumerable topics with Thomas Say, and no doubt appreciating the notable library of history.

Both Gallagher and Witte agreed that it "was hard to say" if these reference works were available to Maximilian while traveling along the Missouri River. Steamboat travel did have its limitations for cargo.

Maximilian seemed to be "more actively involved in getting specimens to identify later," Gallagher said, mentioning that he did know bird songs. His familiarity with birds based on experience was also obviously helpful in noting what was present at different times and places.

Numerous zoological specimens were acquired, but the travails of traveling on the frontier had an obvious impact on the material that could be shipped to a safe place for later consideration.

Most of the zoological specimens available for later study were from the Boston to St. Louis portion of the journey of exploration, Gallagher said. There were some cargo manifests with details of specimens being shipped.

When the American Museum of Natural History bought the Maximilian collection two years after his death, there were 12,000 bird specimens, though many of them were from Brazil, she said.

A Team Effort

Maximilian, Bodmer, Dreidoppel and the many others involved with this expedition "were a team," Gallagher said, noting her personal enjoyment of the Bodmer artwork, a subject to which she has contributed her special perspective in numerous previously published books.

The journals convey a "fascinating historical moment" when "massive change" was taking place in the country, Witte notes. When the Prince was traveling through the eastern states in 1832, he observed railroads under construction, and two years later, they were a means of transportation.

"The Industrial Revolution was really taking hold," Witte said.

West of St. Louis, impacts of the country's expansion and the fur trade were apparent.

Maximilian observed the "consequences of the removal of Native people from the east," as they were being displaced further west. The journals are "one of the last major accounts of the Mandan" in northern Dakota - "before they were struck" by a small pox epidemic in 1837.

The journals are "tremendously fascinating" for someone interested in the history of the country in the early 1830s. The prince was "a keen observer of everything but politics," Witte said.

"Prince Maximilian intended for the information to be seen together," Gallagher said. "It is so important to see the journals in print. Dozens and dozens of people have made" the volumes what they are, and as "good as I think they will be."

"We are gratified to make this information available to far more people than before the journals were published," she said. "They are now available to anyone."

"Our task was to make the information available," through our documentary editing, Witte added. It will be up to "scholars at large to make use of what they can. It is not up to us to give the last word."

Looking Ahead

Funding to complete the publication of three volumes of Maximilian's journal is already available. Important contributors include the Hawks Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Further assistance has been provided by the Fort Union Association, Friend of Fort Union, Joslyn Art Museum, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the National Park Service.

The University of Oklahoma Press has been "an absolute pleasure to work with," Gallagher emphasized.

Volume 2 of the translated "tagebuch" will be available in the summer of 2010. The final volume is expected to be issued in the spring of 2012, and will include details from late-autumn 1833 to the end of the visit by the German prince and his worthy accomplices.

There is currently no funding available to issue the natural history journal written by Prince Maximilian, so there are no plans for its publication.

A number of additional illustrations by Bodmer are available online, in a black-and-white rendition.

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