Migrant Connections

Explore the Long History of American Dreams—or Nightmares

October 31, 2023

Numerous people from Baden and Württemberg embarked on a journey to the United States. They were escaping poverty or persecution, hoping to preserve their lives, or seeking success and adventure. Each of them had their unique American Dream(s) such as Charles Haase, who immigrated to the United States in the 1850s and by 1867 had established himself in the fur trade in Richmond, Virginia. By collecting, digitizing, transcribing, and sharing letters and postcards sent to and from German immigrants such as Haase and his family and friends, our project “Migrant Connections: Mobile Lifeworlds in German-American Letters” seeks to trace the everyday lives of these “ordinary” people and how they experienced migration. Were there cultural or language barriers that affected how migrants communicated their new life in the United States to their family and friends abroad? How did the quality and frequency of communication change over time as migrants settled into their new lives? Did the content of the letters change significantly during significant historical events, like the American Civil War? How did the exchange of letters impact the migrants’ sense of belonging and integration in their new communities in the United States?

The German Historical Institute Washington is not the only institution that is convinced that the everyday lives, struggles, and successes of these people require further attention. An upcoming exhibition by the Haus der Geschichte Baden Württemberg in Stuttgart, Germany, titled “American Dreams – Ein neues Leben in den USA” (“American Dreams – A New Life in the U.S.A.”) will explore the histories of 40 individuals who all departed from the German Southwest in pursuit of a fresh start in America. By showing 200 original objects, ranging from a Gold Rush nugget to a wooden pillow, the objective is to demonstrate the complex dimension of the American Dream. The exhibition promises to expand notions of the American Dream by emphasizing that one traveler's dream can turn into a nightmare for others. Besides emphasizing transnational success stories such as the story of the communist Anna Nill, who found wealth in the U.S. and used her fortune to help needy children in her hometown of Mössingen, the exhibition also underscores that the European immigrants did not settle in an “untouched land” but rather displaced and harmed Native Americans: a silver souvenir spoon serves as a reminder of the public execution of 38 Dakota individuals, symbolizing the immense brutality of land acquisition during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The exhibition also features three objects from our cooperation partner the German Society of Pennsylvania, founded in Philadelphia in 1764. These include a portrait of Henry Keppele (figure 1), who migrated in 1738 and became the first President of the Society, and a family record book kept by Keppele (figure 2), which details information about his family, his marriage, and his children's lives. The third item, the Agentur (figure 3), is a collection of handwritten ledgers, indexes, logs, reports, and letter books, recording the efforts of the Society’s “agency” to help newly arrived German immigrants in Philadelphia, as well as established residents of German origin, from 1847 to 1947. The Agentur offers insight into daily recording of individuals who applied for help, recording biographical information, including address and place of origin, how long they had been in the country, their occupation, and the reason for the application such as, for instance, sickness, unemployment, or poverty.

Join Das Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg in redefining the American Dream, unearthing its complexities, and acknowledging the rich tapestry of stories that have contributed to its ever-evolving narrative. This special exhibition is a powerful testament to the multifaceted nature of the American Dream, offering a fresh perspective on its impact on individuals, communities, and the nation as a whole. It will run from November 17, 2023, to July 28, 2024. For more information, visit the Haus der Geschichte website.