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Hard Times on the Medina

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

A week before Christmas in 1854, a young German newly arrived in Texas sat down to write his family back home.

But what he wrote was no bubbly “Christmas letter,” the annual “what our family’s been up to since last year’s letter” that became a fairly common holiday practice before email made those sort of letters, not to mention Christmas cards, almost obsolete. In the letter 15-year-old John Fritz Rothe penned “On the Medina” that winter day 160 years ago, he did not even use the word Christmas.

Still, he labored over no ordinary letter. A reader, even today, quickly gathers that from its first sentence:

“Do not expect good news from us, because that we cannot give.”

While they had “withstood the trip quick luckily,” he wrote, the family had suffered a terrible loss -- “our dear Mother is no more.”

Mrs. Rothe had become ill as she and her husband and their children, including Fritz, traveled by ox-drawn wagon from Indianola to San Antonio. A doctor there had treated her, and another physician had taken over her care once they arrived in Castroville.

“But in spite of high hopes held by the doctor, she passed away the past Sunday, Dec. 17, without saying anything,” her son wrote.

The next day, they buried her under a grove of pecan trees near the Medina River “in the presence of a neighbor and the evangelical minister from Castroville.” Later that day, Fritz wrote the letter describing these events.

After devoting the first six paragraphs to the death of his mother and the impact on his family (“Our Louis has had no appetite and is now lying in bed”), the youngster went on to chronicle his family’s journey from Europe to Texas. Maybe writing such a detailed letter helped get his mind off his loss. Whatever his motivation, it is a good reminder that people always seem capable of enduring hard times on the way to a better life.

The family had left Germany September 2 that year on the Salucia, “a brand-new, two-masted vessel of 150 tons, thus a rather small one.” Their voyage to Galveston took 66 days, “an unusually long time, and time passed so slowly.” Several times, the ship lay becalmed for as long as four days before the wind picked back up. On top of that, they rode out three storms.

The Salucia may have been fresh off the ways, but life onboard proved decidedly Old World.

“The food was bad and the drinking water—terrible!” he wrote. “It was pumped out of the hold and was black like rinse water or ink, and with a daily ration of one-half pint per person, how should one make out?” Not only did the ship’s water taste bad, he continued, “it was stale and smelled like rotten eggs.”

If the passengers kneeled to kiss the sand when they reached Galveston Fritz didn’t say so, but he and the others in his family must have felt like it after more than two months at sea.

They spent five days on the island before leaving on a steamboat for the lower-coast port of Indianola, a trip that took three days.

At Indianola, Fritz’s uncle – an earlier immigrant to Texas – met the family to escort them to their new home in Medina County. Camping each night “under the open heaven,” it took them 11 days to reach San Antonio. By then, having taken care of one of her children who had fallen ill, Mrs. Rothe “was very weak.”

The family settled on the Medina River, six miles upstream from Castroville. Their cabin stood on a small hill. They had “a large square yard” in front of the house, with a storehouse behind for their chickens, corn and wagon.

“The country here is very beautiful and romantic,” Fritz wrote. “The Medina flows by 400 steps to the right of the house, a fast-flowing, crystal clear stream, larger than the Main by Bayreuth….The banks…are grown up with huge cypress, pecans, sycamore, mulberry, wild grapes and many other kinds of woods.”

That largely untouched habitat supported a robust wildlife population, from “wild doves and field chickens [quail]” to wild turkey and whitetail deer. Of the latter, he wrote, “you don’t shoot at one at less than 125 steps, one must be able to shoot at 150 steps.”

He and his brother had already done a lot of hunting, especially for squirrel since they competed with his family for pecans.

“My letter is getting too long,” the German teenager concluded. “I will write more with the next one. Heartfelt greetings from all of us….”

Three days after his mother’s funeral, Fritz turned 16. The German turned Texan would see 62 more birthdays before dying on March 2, 1916. He is buried in Hondo Cemetery.

If Fritz sent other letters to Germany, they apparently did not survive. Fortunately, this one was preserved, translated into English in the early 1970s and included by the late Annalee Wentworth Burns in her privately published book, “All Around the Canyon.”

The letter Fritz wrote that long-ago December day is more than an interesting travel account. It is a holiday gift for modern readers, an excellent example of a way of thinking that still offers serenity in a vastly different time – accepting what we can’t change while being grateful for what we have.



© Mike Cox December 18, 2014 column
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