Karl May German novelist popularized Old West

Known throughout Germany, and German-speaking nations, as the most popular American Old West adventure novelist, Karl May (pronounced ‘my’ in English) has indirect ties to Sierra Vista.  May lived most of his life in Radebeul, Sierra Vista’s sister city, where a museum is dedicated to the author. 

Born on February 25, 1842 (died on March 30, 1912), into a poor family of fourteen children, May was one of five who survived. He had a troubled youth, having been in and out of jail and prison for theft and fraud. His incarceration, however, led him down the law-abiding career path of writing, as one of the pleasures he found while imprisoned was reading good stories.

The love that Germans have for the untamed Old West is, by all accounts, attributed to May. While never having traveled to the American Southwest, May’s captivating and thought-provoking novels were born of his imagination and delved into what he believed were the hardships of the American Indian – the Apache. He wrote 70 novels – perhaps the best-known is “Winnetou,” a story about a unique friendship between two culturally different men: Old Shatterhand, an American pioneer of German descent and Winnetou, the noblest of all Apache Chiefs.   

May personalized his characters, integrating the intimate thoughts, beliefs and values of his protagonists. May infused his strong personal philosophy into the first-person writings, advocating for equality of man and peace among nations. The novels were a classic example of good vs. evil, and his heroes lived and died by those principles. 

While these novels were written over 100 years ago, Europeans continue to enjoy reading about and visiting the Wild West. Festivals commemorating May and his hero, Winnetou, are still held in Germany and Austria.

For maps, brochures and information stop by the Sierra Vista Visitor Center in the Oscar Yrun Community Center, 3020 E. Tacoma Street or call 520-417-6960.

Want to learn more about the Native American experience in the surrounding areas? Visit the Cochise County Tourism Council's page on Native American history to learn more about their history in Cochise County and Arizona.