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Steinbeck Studies 15.1 (2004) 46-72

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John Steinbeck's Roots in Nineteenth-Century Palestine

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Figure 1
Keller House Archive, Haifa, Israel.
[End Page 46]

In the mid-nineteenth century, Johann Adolf Grosssteinbeck (1832-1913), the grandfather of John Ernst Steinbeck (1902-1968), arrived in the Holy Land. He wished to establish an agricultural settlement in which he would train the Jews of Palestine to engage in farming and thereby hasten the advent of the Christian Messiah. A few years later the settlement was totally wiped out in a single night of terror during which the brother of John Steinbeck's grandfather was killed, his grandmother's sister and mother were raped, and all the belongings of the settlers were pillaged.

This vile act reverberated throughout the country and caused those of foreign nationality a sense of insecurity and fateful apprehension. A handful of faithful Protestant believers had been lured to the area by their millenarian expectations of the imminent arrival of the End of Days, the Second Coming of the Christian Messiah, and the beginning of his thousand-year reign. The return of the Jews to Palestine and their conversion to Christianity was thought to be a prior condition for the realization of the millennium. Anticipating the return of Jesus Christ, the settlers saw the establishment of agricultural settlements and the involvement of Jews in farming work as a shortcut to His return.

The Christian attempts to settle Palestine under Ottoman rule were made possible by reforms introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century. These reforms accelerated the process by which foreign powers began penetrating the country, until Christian agricultural settlements gradually became [End Page 47] a matter of routine. However, the Grosssteinbeck farm was the first of its kind and therefore deserves special mention; this defiantly Christian Protestant group from Germany was joined by another group from the United States, both having set out for Palestine toward the end of 1849 without prior coordination or any previous acquaintance with each other. Both groups had initially resided at the same sites and eventually set up a settlement of agricultural farmsteads northeast of the city of Jaffa. In the center of this area stood a hill that the Americans chose to call Mount Hope, where today there stands an educational institution that is now within the municipal boundaries of Tel Aviv.


The group of Germans immigrated to Palestine from Elberfeld near Barmen-Wuppertal (now in the western part of Germany) and included Johann Grosssteinbeck, his brother, Friedrich Wilhelm Grosssteinbeck (1821-1858), their sister, Maria Katharina (1826-1862) and her husband, Gustav Thiel (1825-1907) as well as two other families.

In a letter written on 28 November 1850, Friedrich describes the circumstances surrounding their departure and the voyage to the Holy Land:

We came to this country nearly a year ago [1849], from the Rhine province in Prussia, where there are many brethren holding the same faith with us, about the restoration of Israel, and the coming of the Lord....We came to the conclusion, to raise some funds, and to send first two deputies to Palestine, in order to ascertain if it were possible for us to dwell there with our families. Unfortunately most of the brethren who felt interested were farmers and mechanics, who had suffered much the last few years, from the failure of the produce of the fields, war, etc., so that money was scarce. Now in order that the cause might not suffer by delay, and in order to find out soon, if it were practicable to live in peace among the Arabs, and gain bread sufficient for our families, we concluded [End Page 48] at once to go there with our families. Our beloved father gave each of us, several hundred dollars, and after many blessings from our people, we left them on Nov[ember] 29, [18]49 by railroad from Barmen. When we left, we numbered ten persons, five men, two women, and three children, the least of whom was two and a half years old.


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