UNL expertise helps power Wied project

Sep 18th, 2008 | By | Category: Research, September 18, 2008

Robert Kaul
BIO SCIENCES ADVISER – Robert Kaul, curator of botany with the University of Nebraska State Museum, flips through the first volume of the translation of Prince Maximilian of Wied’s journal

Robert Kaul is following in the footsteps of Prince Maximilian of Wied, a German explorer and naturalist.

Kaul, curator of botany for the University of Nebraska State Museum and emeritus professor, is the biological sciences adviser on a Joslyn Museum-led project that is publishing a three-volume translation of Wied’s journals.

Wied was a wealthy count interested in natural history and anthropology. Between 1832 and 1834, Wied traveled from Boston, down the Ohio River, up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, through Nebraska to central Montana.

“Wied recorded everything he saw, in vastly greater detail then Lewis and Clark did 30 years earlier,” said Kaul. “This is a major historical document, the first detailed descriptions of what was west of the Missouri.

“Lewis and Clark brought back a lot of information. But, Maximilian recorded more.”

The Joslyn obtained the Wied journals in the early 1960s. The collection includes Wied’s journals and more than 400 drawings and watercolors by Karl Bodmer, a Swiss painter hired by Wied to record images of the trip.

“The Bodmer images are beautiful and glorious,” said Marsha Gallagher, director of the Maximilian journals for the Joslyn. “But, the are becoming more historically important with the translation of Max’s journals.”

The actual translation from German was completed by two UNL emeritus professors of Modern Languages and Literatures – Paul Schach (deceased) and Dieter Karch. Karch has worked on the project for almost five years, building upon the translation completed by Schach.

Maximilian journal
WIED JOURNAL – A photo of a page in one of Wied’s field journals featuring Sauk and Meskwaki Indians he met in St. Louis.

For his part, Kaul is working through those translations, trying to identify the flora and fauna Wied described.

“Wied provided some images of what he saw,” Kaul said. “But, for the most part, I have to go by what he wrote. And, he often used European names for birds that looked alike. It’s up to me to try and figure out the modern names.”

A career botanist, Kaul has had to expand his zoology knowledge to assist with the translation. He has also turned to other museum employees – including Tom Labedz and Mary Jameson – to help identify Wied’s descriptions.

“It’s been fun tracking down information on the animals and birds Wied described,” Kaul said. “He saw so many things. It’s amazing to be sitting here reading and realize that he is talking about an extinct species, like the passenger pigeon or the Carolina parakeet.

“He really was meticulous and took the time to record everything.”

Maximilian art
PRINCE MAX – This painting of Prince Maximilian of Wied and Karl Bodmer is featured on the inside cover of “The North America Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied, Volume 1: May 1832-April 1833.”

That included the weather.

“Wied really liked to complain about the heat,” Kaul said. “What we think is pleasant, Europeans think is a scorcher. When it was in the 90s, Wied though he was going to die.”

Gallagher said those personal entries are what make the translation interesting.

“This project is important from historical and biological standpoints, but it’s also something for people who enjoy reading first hand accounts of another time, another place,” said Gallagher. “He can be dry, but he was an unbiased observer who made some really interesting observations.”

The first of three volumes, “The North America Journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied, Volume 1: May 1832-April 1833” was published earlier this year. And, in total, 13 individuals with direct ties to UNL have helped with the project to date.

“It’s been a blessing for us to have this core of expertise right here in Nebraska,” said Gallagher. “Everyone has been great to work with.”

In particular, Gallagher praised Kaul’s work – which has carried on to the second volume, with the third on the horizon.

“Bob has been a joy to work with,” Gallagher said. “He has probably had the most work to do for us, simply because of the vast number of species observations Max recorded.

“It’s been almost 200 years since the expedition, but Bob has been able to track down each species of plant or animal described.”

For Kaul, the work has been an adventure.

“I like to say I got on the boat with Max when he left Holland for the United States,” said Kaul. “It has been a wonderful experience walking with Max.”

— Story and photos by Troy Fedderson, University Communications

cover of book

Tracing the footfalls of Prince Max

These individuals with ties to UNL have helped with the translation of the Prince Maximilian of Wied journals:
• Stephen Witte (editor) 1997 graduate, lecturer in history 2001-2004
• Dieter Karch (translator), emeritus Modern Languages and Literatures (deceased)
• Paul Schach (translator), emeritus Modern Languages and Literatures
• Gary Moulton (senior adviser), professor of history
• Robert Kaul (biological sciences adviser), botany curator University of Nebraska State Museum
• Hugh Genoways, emeritus, University of Nebraska State Museum
• Mary Jameson, research associate professor, University of Nebraska State Museum
• Thomas Labedz, collections manager, University of Nebraska State Museum
• Marie-Chantal Kalisa, assistant professor, Modern Languages and Literatures
• Kenneth Winkle, chair of history
• Victoria A.O. Smith, assistant professor of history
• Nathan Sanderson, graduate student, history

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  1. I am currently reading The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley. I love reading naturalist accounts probably thanks to Jacques Cousteau movies seen as a child. Eiseley’s work is actually giving me a better handle on how our world changes and our existence in it. The only reality is change. The Loren Eiseley Society website led me to your site. I had not heard anything about Prince Wied until now. You’ve given me another avenue to pursue. Thank you.

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