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Frank Lecouvreur, From East Prussia to the Golden Gate, 1851–1871

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 Suggested Sequencing


In 1851, Frank Lecouvreur, a 21-year-old native of East Prussia (present-day Germany), left his friends and family behind and immigrated to San Francisco. Lecouvreur spent three months crossing the Atlantic in a passenger ship. After spending some time in Valparaiso, Chile, he had to endure another two-month voyage before finally arriving at his destination. Having arrived in California not long after the start of the Gold Rush, Lecouvreur headed to the countryside and took up a career as a gold miner before he ultimately found success as a county surveyor in Los Angeles. All the while, he sent detailed letters to his parents, in which he reflected on his nearly year-long voyage; the drastic cultural, social, economic, and geographic differences between Prussia and California; his fascination with the American work ethic and freedom of the press; and the hardships he faced as a miner. Five years after Lecouvreur passed away in 1901, his widow, Josephine, whom he had married in 1877, edited nearly 300 pages of his letters and had them translated from German to English by Julius Behnke, a professor of modern languages at Occidental College.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who did Lecouvreur intend to be the audience for these letters?
  2. Who became the intended audience for these letters after Lecouvreur died?

Vocabulary Text
*Here the translator of these letters included the following note:
*And this from a youth of twenty! What a lesson for the multitudes of foreigners who land on these shores and, having found the individual liberty which was denied them in their own native principality, abuse the government which protects them from personal harm, be it of a religious or political nature.—Translator
LETTER NO. VII, San Francisco, Jan. 29th, 1852
… the long piers grow shorter in places, as the so-called water front extends further and further into the bay. When one considers that the wage scale at the time of the construction of these enormous wharves demanded no less than six or eight dollars for the common day laborer, while carpenters, for instance, received from ten to twelve dollars a day, a faint estimate of the original cost may be obtained. It is well indeed to marvel at the great spirit which conceived and executed the plans for this unique American undertaking; it fills one with a degree of respect, which no other nation in the wide world can command.*
May 6th to 15th, 1852
The mines are not any longer what they have been, even as late as a year ago, and with all my heart do I pity those poor fellows who come here with the illusion that they can make a fortune in a short time, and that with little work, too. They look exceedingly blue when they see the daily increasing pile of rocks, and us at work about them, with the perspiration streaming down under a burning sun, and that to make only poor wages, which often stand in no comparison with the amount of work done. . . .

Notwithstanding all this, I am satisfied, more than satisfied, with my lot. This free life, so full of charm because free, and without the slightest restraint, the surrounding country a perfect paradise, the work heavy, but in a manner voluntary—as one day’s labor gives me enough to satisfy my wants for a whole week—this same free life refreshes me physically and mentally! Day by day I feel more vigorous, more easy and more cheerful, and if this is to continue I shall within a year be as healthy a man as there is in God’s world!
*Here the translator of these letters included the following note:
*And, bless his soul, he succeeded!—Translator
January 24th, 1853
When I left Hamburg, I had made up my mind to devote five years of my life towards accomplishing the purpose which led me to the New World, and which consists in: Making money enough so that at the expiration of the time set I should be enabled to found my own home with a good and thrifty wife at my side, and that, with such an occupation as would suit me, I might live in ease and some comfort. *One year has gone by and I have reason to hope that it was the worst of the five, and, while it has not brought me nearer to the goal, it has made me familiar with the field of operations. I have learned to distinguish my friends from my enemies and it has taught me hundreds of other things which were necessary for me to learn; and thus it has benefited me, and, best of all, I am convinced that I have deceived myself in my hopes and expectations.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Why might Behnke have found it necessary to comment on Lecouvreur’s patriotism toward his new country?
  2. What is Lecouvreur’s opinion about the wharves constructed along San Francisco’s waterfront?
  3. What sorts of hardships did Lecouvreur and the other gold miners face? Why did he remain optimistic despite those hardships?
  4. Why might the translator have decided to comment on Lecouvreur’s success?
  5. Having spent a year in California, was Lecouvreur optimistic about his future?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Why might Josephine Lecouvreur, Julius Behnke, and others have found it necessary to share Frank Lecouvreur’s letters with the public half a century after he had penned them?
  2. By occasionally commenting on Lecouvreur’s letters, is Behnke rewriting Lecouvreur’s narrative to articulate a different set of ideals? For instance, would Lecouvreur necessarily have agreed with Behnke’s assertion about the immigrants who “abuse our government?”

From East Prussia to the Golden Gate

From East Prussia to the Golden Gate, by Frank Lecouvreur; letters and diary of the California pioneer, edited in memory of her noble husband, by Mrs. Josephine Rosana Lecouvreur; translated and compiled by Julius C. Behnke

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