Universität Erfurt

Projekt von Michael Belding M.A.

Building a Nation: Agriculture, Landscape, and Citizenship in the American Midwest, 1820–1880

During my research stay supported by the Herzog Ernst Fellowship I will consult the Gotha Research Library’s Auswandererbriefe collection.  The correspondence of German emigrants to the American Midwest in the mid-nineteenth century is a core element of my dissertation, “Building a Nation: Agriculture, Landscape, and Citizenship in the American Midwest, 1820–1880.” 

This project seeks to understand the process by which American nationality was given physical form through farmers’ methods of raising crops and livestock, bringing them to market (or not), and building fences, houses, barns, outbuildings, and fields even as a growing agricultural reform movement debated the developing agricultural landscape and its artifacts and invested them with national-cultural meaning.  My hypothesis is that, through both the exchange of ideas and everyday interactions with the environment and ecology of the Midwest, a new strand of American national identity emerged as a cultural construct that was objectified in daily life and its objects.

Emigrant letters contribute the following to my dissertation.  First, they serve as a reference point, to judge the reach of English-speaking agricultural reformers’ written and rhetorical efforts into the general rural population.  Second, they lend it a comparative and transnational element, since discourses on landscapes and the rural built environment were used to create a national German culture in the nineteenth century.  Third, since emigrants frequently wrote to friends and relatives in Europe about the advantages of settling in the United States, emigrant letters evaluated the land, environment, agriculture, and political culture.


Michael Belding is a doctoral candidate in Rural, Agricultural, Technological, and Environmental History at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.  His dissertation research area is the formation of political and agroenvironmental ideals in terms of one another in the mid-nineteenth century American Midwest, including among the immigrant population.  His preliminary examination fields included United States history to 1877, United States history since 1877, American and global environmental history, and modern European history.  He completed his master’s degree in history in 2014 with a thesis entitled, “The Farmers’ Millennium: The Ideology of Agricultural Improvement in Iowa, 1855 to 1865,” and graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in history and political science.



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