The Discovery of Germany in America: Hans Staden, Ulrich Schmidel, and the Construction of a German Identity

Gene Rhea Tucker


Sixteenth century soldiers of fortune Ulrich Schmidel of Bavaria and Hans Staden of Hesse published popular accounts of their respective American travels. As with all travel literature, these works describe not only the observed, but the observers themselves. Schmidel and Staden, like German scholars and authors of their day, attempted to explain the exotic western hemisphere in the familiar European terms they knew, but their accounts also demonstrate that the encounter between these German-speakers and a medley of Amerindian and European peoples fostered the construction of a German “national” identity. Historians Christine Johnson and Hannah C. Wojciehowski have noted that German encounters with the wider world, the Americas, Africa, and Asia, fostered a distinct German identity, but they have failed to recognize that encounters between European groups in the Americas also helped to create a nascent idea of Germanness. Adventurers like Staden and Schmidel operated with a distinct set of biases, preconceptions, and knowledge—a constructed “German” identity in its infancy—and their writings propagated these ideas in their homeland.

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