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Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen: German writer, Arizona’s unlikely explorer

TP Heinrich Mollhausen

TP Heinrich Mollhausen

Long before movie cowboys like John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott arrived on the scene, Arizona hosted a different brand of frontiersman. One unlikely adventurer, Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen, was among the first to sketch the Grand Canyon, paint watercolors of the Cocopah, Mojave and Navajo Indian tribes, and recount his observations for a world audience. Möllhausen’s biographer, Preston Barba, referred to him as the James Fenimore Cooper of Germany.

In the 1850s, when Arizona was first being explored for possible railroad and steamboat routes, Möllhausen made three trips to the United States. The son of a military officer/engineer and a baroness, he was born near Bonn, Prussia, in 1825. He preferred to be called by his middle name, Balduin, which was misspelled as Baldwin in the American translation of his diaries.

He sailed for New York in 1849, and probably spent the next three years hunting along the Kaskaskia River in southwestern Illinois. In the spring of 1851, he joined Prince Paul of Württemberg in his Rocky Mountain expedition. After several near-death encounters with the frozen plains and unfriendly Indians, Möllhausen returned to Germany in 1852 with a shipment of western animals for the Berlin zoo. While in Germany, he took the opportunity to hone his drawing skills and was introduced to the renowned historian and geographer Alexander von Humboldt, who was impressed enough to provide Möllhausen with letters of reference to influential Americans.

Through his talents and connections, Möllhausen was employed by Lt. 

Amiel Weeks Whipple as “topographer or draughtsman” for the 35th parallel railroad survey from Fort Arkansas to Los Angeles in 1853-54. 

Co-illustrator Lt. John C. Tidball relates in his memoirs that Möllhausen enjoyed dressing in the buckskin frontier garb of Cooper’s tales, and that he was given to romanticizing his illustrations to the point of adding deer to a western Arizona sketch — an unlikely sight that desperate foragers would have welcomed.

Möllhausen returned to Germany and published his experiences and artwork in Diary of a Journey from the Mississippi to the coasts of the Pacific with a United States Government Expedition in 1858, with a glowing introduction by Humboldt.

Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives also served with the Whipple expedition, and when Ives was commissioned to conduct a survey of the navigability of the Colorado River, he invited Möllhausen to serve as “artist and collector in natural history” for the trip. They arrived at Fort Yuma in January 1858 and assembled a small steamboat called the Explorer.

Two months and 530 miles later, they reached the limits of their navigation and headed over land to the “Big Canyon,” now known as the Grand Canyon. Traveling through the canyon was difficult and some members of the party decided to return to Yuma. Möllhausen and the rest of the party continued and arrived in Albuquerque on June 12, 1858. Then, they took the Santa Fe Trail, a St. Louis riverboat and various trains to Washington D.C. and New York.

Möllhausen returned to Berlin in the summer of 1858. He made watercolor illustrations from his sketchbooks and sent them to Washington D.C. for Ives’ final report. His illustrations in the reports of both expeditions depicted the culture and lifestyle of Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, Shawnee, Delaware, Wichita, Comanche, Kiowa, Zuni and Mojave and included important ethnographic records.

He never returned to America, but for the next four decades until his death in 1905, Möllhausen wrote prodigiously about his western adventures. Enormously popular with Germans of every age and class, he tried to write effective descriptions of nature and Native American cultures. He used Smithsonian Institution reports as his guides, and his works were published in English, German, Dutch and Danish.

Throughout his lifetime, Möllhausen used his talents to present the world with a great deal of information about Arizona. While his romanticism fostered an unrealistic reverence of the Wild West among his countrymen, his contributions remain invaluable in their early depiction of native culture and the Arizona landscape.

— Jim Turner. Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society. Sources: Lawrence Taft, professor, University of Kansas; Handbook of Texas.

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