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How Two Adventure-Hungry Germans Became the First to Depict the Grand Canyon in the Mid 19th Century and How a Filing Error Came to Haunt One of Them (Part 1)

Adapted from Looking for Humboldt & Searching for German Footprints in New Mexico and Beyond by Erika Schelby

Few Americans are aware of the long-standing fascination Germans have for the American West. Even fewer know that it was two Germans, Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen and Friedrich Wilhelm von Egloffstein who were the first to depict the Grand Canyon in the mid-nineteenth century. Both hungered for the rugged adventures that the unexplored territory could offer. Both traveled on government-funded explorations which included a railroad survey and also difficult investigations of the navigability of the Colorado River. Möllhausen, in particular, would come to embody the daring explorer who was willing to risk his life for the thrill of traversing lands that were new to Europeans as well as to many Americans at the time.

Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen was born near Bonn in the Rhineland on January 25, 1825. He was bitten by Wanderlust and Fernweh (longing to see and explore faraway places) early. He arrived in the U.S. in the fall of 1849 with 600 Thalers. He brought with him some training as a draftsman and a passion and considerable talent for drawing. By the summer of 1851 Möllhausen met Paul Wilhelm, Duke of Württemberg (1797–1860), a traveler-explorer extraordinaire. That same year he persuaded Paul to let him join his westward expedition from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains and Fort Laramie over the Oregon Trail.

They reached their destinations without major mishaps. Unfortunately, the return trip was plagued by serial misfortunes: They had run-ins with various unfriendly Indian bands; the duke’s wagon with all their supplies and specimen collections got stuck in a patch of quicksand in the middle of the swollen Platte River; the fierce winter of the northern prairies overtook them early; they experienced a fire racing across the grasslands; they were frequently wet, cold, and hungry; and finally, more than a hundred miles from the first settlements in Missouri, a blizzard pinned them down.

They were snowed in. Their horses died from hunger, exhaustion, a tomahawk wound, and finally extreme cold. After surviving the storm, one of the stranded Germans had the chance to leave on a stagecoach (apparently the last) that miraculously passed by. They flipped coins. The duke won and left, eager to organize a rescue team at the first opportunity.

Nine grueling days passed slowly. Möllhausen had now reached a trancelike state. He was barely awake when a sudden human voice hit him like lightning. First it greeted him with an Indian phrase, then in English. As it turned out, the visitor’s father had been white, the mother was an Oto woman, and that’s what the half-white man came to prefer: living with the Oto tribe. He saved Möllhausen life.

It is remarkable how news and mail traveled up and down the rivers and across enormous distances in those days, so when spring came and travel became possible once more, Möllhausen and the duke found each other again. A long and joyous letter, written in New Orleans on March 10, 1852, reached the young Prussian in Bethlehem, on the River Missouri. Yes, wrote Paul, he had organized a rescue mission, but the winter was so severe that it couldn’t break through. Grieving, he had given up hope of seeing his companion ever again.

A year later Möllhausen was back in Germany and met Professor Martin Lichtenstein, director of the Berlin zoo. Lichtenstein was pleased, took a liking to the young traveler, and showed much interest in his experiences and his drawings of American landscapes, animals, plants, and inhabitants. He told his good friend Alexander von Humboldt about this new acquaintance, and very soon Möllhausen was introduced to the grand old man.

This was another big stroke of luck. There was much curiosity in both America and Europe about the mostly unknown and so far unseen Western lands. Humboldt was also impressed with his drawings and encouraged the young man to refine his technique during his stay in Berlin. Soon the aspiring artist received private instructions from Eduard Hildebrandt, who was one of the city’s best-known painters at the time.

Humboldt’s mentorship opened doors to Berlin’s scientific community and to the royal household.

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