Tom Dillard: Arkansas Postings

Tom Dillard: German immigrant found America wasn't land of plenty he had hoped

German-speaking immigrants have been coming to Arkansas since the territorial period; not only did most of them make a home here, they often thrived. Today, however, I am writing about one of those Germans who did not succeed and returned to the German state of Baden.

Wilhelm Hubsch came to Arkansas Territory in 1833, part of the first wave of German immigrants to Arkansas. The great bulk of German-speaking immigrants to the state came after the arrival of railroads in the 1870s.

Hubsch was born March 20, 1804, in Weinheim, Germany. His family was financially secure, and young Wilhelm received a good education, including studying law at the University of Heidelberg. Despite his education and social standing, Hubsch had trouble finding a position, and in 1833 he joined an immigration party of people with varied backgrounds.

Shirley S. Schuette, who has written extensively on early German immigration to Arkansas, attributes the exodus from Germany to political repression and economic stagnation. Naively, these immigrants hoped to create a "new Germany" on the western American frontier, a German-speaking American state.

Many of the emigrants had read a popular 1829 book by Gottfried Duden, "Report of A Trip to the Western States," which painted a land of infinite opportunity which was inexpensive to boot. Hubsch would soon rue the day he bought a copy of Duden's book.

His party met in Bremen before departing. Leading the group of 250-300 was Gustav Klingelhoeffer, a Lutheran minister. Boarding the sailing ship Olbers, they headed to New Orleans.

The long voyage, overcrowding, and poor food left the passengers in a bad mood. Hubsch noted in his first letter home that "the people aboard the ship, the common people as well as the educated ... are not peacefully predisposed towards one another ..." Indeed, even before landing, members of the group decided to go their separate ways, with some heading to St. Louis and others joining the already large German population in Cincinnati.

Traveling on two steamboats, 140 immigrants arrived in Little Rock in May 1833. Since the territorial capital had only about 700 people, the immigrants made quite an impression. The Arkansas Gazette editor visited with the newcomers and wrote: "These immigrants are mostly composed of families, appear to be intelligent, and some of them are quite refined and have among them a due proportion of mechanics, farmers ... their minister, physician and school master."

The editor concluded: "All of them appear to be full-handed, and some of them are wealthy."

Hubsch took a considerable amount of money on his journey, enough to buy a farm. He also convinced two people to accompany him with the intention of working on his farm. At first Hubsch and several others farmed on part of the plantation near Little Rock of U.S. Sen. Chester Ashley.

Very few of the immigrants had experience farming, and problems arose constantly. Finding seed corn and potatoes was difficult and very expensive. Hubsch purchased a cow and a calf so as to have milk and convinced local farmers to sell him 34 chickens.

Hubsch bought a plow and rented a horse for 25 cents daily. He had no harness, but he improvised "with strings and belts brought with us." Though it was a bit late in the year, Hubsch managed to plant a large field of corn and another of potatoes.

A keen observer of his new countrymen, Hubsch often commented on local customs and business practices. A repeated theme was the indolent nature of the Americans. In one early letter he included a harsh assessment of his English-speaking neighbors: "The Americans are universally [and] habitually lazy ... a very slovenly people."

Later in the same letter Hubsch wrote of the Americans: "Their guns are rusty and their horses and the things that they use are neglected to the limit."

He was disdainful of the dining habits of his neighbors. "Their whole meal is ready in half an hour and consists of a chunky corn or wheat bread that is worked with water or milk and baked in an iron Dutch oven," he wrote home to his parents. While this was cooking, "the bacon will be cut into slices and fried in another pan. Buttermilk and water will be drunk with this ..."

"This meal," Hubsch wrote, "is prepared in the morning, repeated for lunch, and repeated for dinner." The "richer folks" had coffee and "various kinds of fried meat, even salad and vegetables."

Due to flooding and unhealthy conditions, Hubsch and two other families moved in October 1833 from the Ashley Plantation to the valley of the Little Maumelle River near what is today known as Pinnacle Mountain. "For the inexpensive price of 150 dollars, I have bought a beautifully situated plantation containing seven acres of cleared land and 40 acres of property, and more than 50 peach trees." Enough peach trees to make brandy for sale, he hoped.

Hubsch added to his income by contracting with the federal government to transport Indians being relocated from east of the Mississippi River. Things seemed to be looking up.

He was able to plant large fields of corn and potatoes in the spring of 1834, and hoped to harvest at least 700 bushels of corn. Sickness and drought later in the summer dashed those hopes. Malaria was the main culprit. Suffering his first attack in June, Hubsch was bedridden for two months. Weeds overtook his fields, and drought stunted the corn plants.

As he lay in bed suffering the heat of fever followed by periods of uncontrolled shaking, Hubsch made up his mind to return to Germany and obtain his law license. The decision did not come easily, for he was a proud man.

After a long delay necessitated by the need to sell his property and avoid a winter voyage, Hubsch left Arkansas in April 1836. It took a while for him to secure a legal position. During the 1848 attempted revolution, Hubsch remained loyal to the German government. He died in August 1866.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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