Skip to main content


July 2024
1min read

Shortly before the Civil War, an observant Austrian Franz-of-all-trades roamed half the continent, drawing as he went. In his “Sketches from Northwestern America and Canada” we glimpse the Eden of the pioneers

Wandering is a painter’s joy! Where does he get his pictures? From wandering! Then on through town, through woods and sylvan glade It drives him on, year in, year out, Wandering!

Our knowledge of the American past owes much to ordinary people like Franz Hölzlhuber—people who didn’t find their way into the history books but who were alert to the world about them and recorded what they saw. In 1856, Hölzlhuber, an enterprising young Austrian from the vicinity of Linz, started for America. He had very little money but was equipped with a zither, a sketchbook, some education in the law and in draftsmanship, and the promise of employment in Milwaukee as conductor of an orchestra. Somewhere between New York and Wisconsin, he lost both his luggage and the letter confirming his job, which, it turned out, was no longer available. Nothing daunted, he went to work as a baker—introducing (so he said) the Linzer Torte to America—and later directed a chorus, acted, taught Indians and Negroes, played the organ in both cathedral and synagogue, painted signs, and did newspaper illustrations. In spite of all this, he had some spare time, and used it to wander through the wilderness and travel by riverboat down the Mississippi to Louisiana and Texas. And everywhere he went, he sketched and made notes on the wonders he saw.

After four years he seems to have become homesick, and he departed for Linz. A German-language newspaper in Milwaukee marked his departure with a long and effusive farewell: “Mr. Franz Hölzlhuber has been working in our midst for four years and in this time has so conducted himself through his talents, his manysided knowledge, his zeal, and his untiring energy in everything he undertook that only to a few anywhere in the city or in the surrounding countryside can the name of Hölzlhuber be unknown.… We see him depart with sorrow. “The young man’s own remarks about himself, jotted on the back of one of his sketches, show that in addition to Teutonic industry he had a large measure of Austrian charm: “From childhood on I was ever cheerful, pleasant, and had a happy nature; this enabled me to make friends easily in all walks of life and amongst different kinds of people.”

Hölzlhuber returned to Austria by way of the same ship that had brought him, and travelled little more after that—although we hear of a trip to London, in some official capacity, during the Exposition of 1862. From his sketchbooks he made a series of oil paintings that have become collectors’ items. He also made 144 water colors which he fitted together and exhibited as a panorama of the New World. In later life he became director of the National Railroad Museum and Library, was decorated with the Gold Merit Cross, and died in 1898, a respected citizen, full of years and happy memories of his youthful wanderings.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.