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Texas | Columns | "Cannonball's Tales"


By W. T. Block, Jr
We Texans of German descent have for much too long let an unfortunate circumstance dampen our enthusiasm for our Germanic heritage. With two World Wars fought between the United States and Germany in this century, many German-speaking Texans of the older generations experienced a need to suppress their feelings about their origins for fear of hearing unkind accusations hinting upon treason toward their country. And yet, we who are of World War II vintage have at no time felt any antagonisms which would remotely compare with those of 1918. My grandfather came to Port Neches from Prussia at age six in 1846. My father, who was born in Port Neches in 1870 and had never seen Germany, was nonetheless accused by some of his neighbors of spying for the Fatherland. Some Texaco asphalt plant employees of 1918, such as German-born Joe Esch and Joseph Biermortt, were called "Huns," and not being permitted to enter or exit the plant through the main gate, they were humiliated by being forced to crawl through a hole in the fence.

Fortunately, such intense anti-German feelings did not carry over to World War II, a period when in fact Nazi atrocities were much more repulsive. Of course, one cause for that was the profound American hatred targeted against the Japanese and reaped by the 150,000 Japanese-American citizens who were carted away to concentration camps. Many of these people were fourth generation American. Reflect upon that circumstance for a moment. Hence, did German Americans and Italian Americans escape such harsh treatment only because their eyes didn't slant in Oriental fashion, or did the sneak Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor displace all American hatred and agression solely toward the Japanese? At any rate, there were only 150,000 Japanese-American citizens in 1942, whereas there were 35,000,000 Americans of German descent in addition to perhaps 20,000,000 Italian Americans.
Elkins Bros, first-generation German immigrants in Lavaca County Texas
A Braunig Studio photo of the Elkins Bros, first-generation German immigrants in Lavaca County

Photo courtesy Jason Penney
If I were to write a book about the earliest German immigrants to Texas during the 1840's, I would label them as being "the German Pilgrims," because, like the Puritan Pilgrims of Massachusetts, for every German immigrant who succeeded in reaching Texas and establishing himself as a successful farmer, merchant, or mechanic, one other German died along the way, a sacrifice to the success of that mammoth migration effort. Even the Blocks contributed one family member to that effort, my great aunt Elissa and her husband, who in 1848 were killed by the Lipan Indians near Fredericksburg.

I have always been intrigued by the causes that sent thousands of Germans fleeing toward the American shores in search of some type of freedom, especially economic and religious. Generally, persecution of the Anabaptist sects, principally the Mennonites, and of Lutherans in the Rhenish and Bavarian Palatinates (Rheinpfalz and Bayerpfalz) stimulated the earliest German migrations to New York and Pennsylvania, descendents of whom are known to us today as the Amish or "Pennsylvania Dutch." If in these notes I refer to "the Germanies," I mean those 300 plus German provinces, free cities, kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, etc., that existed prior to 1871 and were governed by every variety of nobleman except an Arabian sheik. There were harsh economic circumstances simmering in the Germanic provinces of 1820, all of which were struggling to recover from the Napoleonic Wars. It was the 10-year Conscription Law of Prussia which dispatched the Blocks on the long, 3-months voyage to Texas. Certainly, Gottfried Duden's book, published in Switzerland in 1829, fired the enthusiasms of overpopulated Germany with its prospect of countless acres of free land in the American West, where also there were no taxes to pay. Another volume, "The Cabin Book," published there in 1841, would also induce many Germans to leave. The sixteen years of the Napoleonic Wars had left the Germanies economically prostrate. The industrial workers were wretchedly oppressed in the Ruhr and Saar regions, while the German peasantry, whose survival was still much akin to serfdom, faced the prospect of never owning a single acre of land that they could call their own. In 1820, industrial workers and peasants alike were saddled with the highest taxation ever known, largely to reestablish the elegance and extravagance of the courts of the German princes. Gottfried Duden reminded Germans that their wretched brand of serfdom, in many respects, was worse than the legalized black slavery of the American South. In addition, between 1815 and 1848, Prince Metternich of Vienna, fearing that the guillotines of revolt were once more threatening the monarchies of Central Europe, ruled Austria and the German Confederation of about 40 independent countries with a reactionary iron fist. The Liberal Revolts of 1848 in France, Austria and the Germanies left many of the elite classes, college professors, physicians, bankers, politicians, even noblemen, on the wrong side of the fence, and spurred many of them to hightail it to Texas only one jump ahead of the hangman. In 1850, West Texas had enough German 'Forty-niners,' that is, 'grafs,' princes, dukes, barons, and counts, in it to stock Buckingham Palace.

On one occasion, the German poet, Heinrich Heine, stopped a German emigrant as he prepared to board ship and asked, "Why are you leaving Germany?" His reply was, "I swear by all the gods in heaven and on earth that if France had suffered just one-tenth of what these people in Germany have suffered, it would have caused thirty-six revolutions in France, and thirty-six kings would have lost their heads to the guillotine."

Twenty-one of the ruling German princes also recognized the need to reduce the overpopulation of the Germanies, and to that end, they organized the "Mainzer Adelsverein," later shortened to "Adelsverein." In English, this became the "Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas," and it later became known as the German-Texas Immigration Company.

Even before the Texas Revolution, there had been some negotiation between the German princes and Mexico for the resettlement of German families in Texas, but generally this came to naught before the Texans won their independence. Three German families and some mechanics did resettle in Austin's colony in 1832. Three Germans died for Texas freedom at the Alamo, and seven more were captured and massacred in Colonel James Fannin's ill-fated army. Altogether, 95 German immigrants fought for Texas during its war for independence. One of them, George B. Erath, was a hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, and along with Robert Kleberg, were giant figures in the Texas of their day.

In time, Austin's colony, that region between Galveston Bay and the Colorado River, became known as "Little Germany," its immigrant population being an admixture of Germans who had lived earlier in the United States and others who came direct from the German provinces. The regions lying between the Colorado River and the Rio Grande became known in Europe as "Greater Germany," because all immigrants who came there to settle came direct from the Germanies. All of this, of course, was in addition to the thousands of Anglo-Americans from the United States, who were rapidly resettling the same areas.

The cradle community of German immigration was the town of Industry, in Austin County, founded by Friedrich Ernst, who arrived in Austin's colony in 1831. Some said that the town's name came from the industry and backbreaking labor employed by the settlers in the cultivation of their fields. Industry's dating stemmed from its survey into town lots in 1838, but Germans who came by way of the United States were living there long before that. The second German community was Biegel's Settlement, Fayette County, founded by Joseph Biegel in 1832. Fearing persecution, perhaps because he was a German Protestant in the Catholic province of Texas, Biegel changed the spelling of his name to B-E-A-G-L-E to disguise its Germanic origins. The third German community was Cat Spring, Austin County, founded in 1834 by Ludwig von Roemer and Louis and Robert Kleberg, who later was to own the largest cattle ranch still surviving in Texas. Other German settlements of the late 1830's included Frelsburg, Blumenthal, New Ulm, and Bernardo, then in Colorado County.

If there were numerous causes for leaving Germany in 1840, there were an equal number of reasons for NOT coming to Texas. As of that year, bands of fierce Karankawa, Lipan Apache, Comanches, Kiowas, Tonkawas, Caddoes, and Waco Indians roamed over that Republic, and many German scalps were to be lost to the Lipans and Comanches. Generally speaking, because of German treaties with the Comanches in 1847, that tribe usually spared the German settlers whereas they massacred the Anglo-American setters who lived nearby.

Even before 1850, a secret American political party, called the "Know Nothings" ("I know nothing," was always their stock answer), had as its central theme hatred of immigrants and Roman Catholics, and since the immigration of the 1840's-1850's was made up entirely of Irish Catholics and German Catholics and Lutherans everywhere in the United States (and the Republic of Texas before 1846), the brunt of their wrath locally was concentrated on these Central Texas German settlers.

Unfortunately, an immigrant teacher-newspaperman was soon to heap coals of fire upon that already incendiary situation. Dr. Adolph Douai, an outspoken German of French Huguenot extraction, was a Free Thinker, an atheist, an abolitionist, and an admirer of Karl Marx' communist philosophies. He had already been run out of New Braunfels because of his radical statements and teachings, and immediately he founded the German-language San Antonio "Zeitung," which published abolition editorials and espoused an all-German free state in West Texas in which runaway slaves could take refuge. Needless to say, this was all that the "Know Nothings" of Texas required before transposing and charging that Dr. Douai's philosophies were characteristic thinking of all German immigrants. Although no more than five percent of the Germans were pro-slavery, nearly all of them held steadfast to the premise that others could and should own slaves if they so desired.

Some of the German princes, 'grafs' (counts), dukes and barons who met at Bieberich-am-Rhein in April, 1842, and organized the "Adelsverein" included Duke Adolf of Nassau, Princes Carl, Ferdinand, and Alexander of Solms-Braunfels, Counts Clement, Joseph and Anton of Boos-Waldeck, Prince Victor of Leiningen, Count Carl of Castell, Prince Maurice of Nassau and so on to a total of 21 noblemen. Immediately two of the princes departed to buy land in Texas, but their first attempt ended in failure. Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels was named the commissioner-general for German immigration, and it was he who led the first German contingents to Texas and he who purchased the 5,000-square mile Miller-Fisher land grant located between present-day San Saba and San Angelo. Prince Braunfels also purchased a coastal strip where he founded Carlshafen or Indianola as the 'Adelsverein's' seaport as well as founding New Braunfels, which became the first immigrant rest stop along the 230-mile route to the Miller-Fisher land grant.

In 1845, Prince Braunfels returned to Germany and was replaced as commisioner-general by Baron Ottfried von Meusebach, who became known in Texas only as John Meusebach. He remained commissioner-general for only two years before becoming a farmer and private citizen, but during that time he founded the towns of Fredericksburg and Castell and signed a treaty with Santa Anna, war chief of the Comanches, that was generally successful. In fact, another German nobleman, Baron Kriewicz of Potsdam, lived with the Comanches for many years, and he managed on most occasions to keep the Comanches from raiding into the German settlements. The colony at Castell, Llano County, was as far north into the ten-county Miller-Fisher grant that the Germans ever settled, and eventually most of the huge grant reverted to public school land because the colonization requirements were not met. On his first visit there, Meusebach went straight to New Braunfels and for some time worked to straighten out the sagging financial status of the 'Adelsverein,' which had fallen in to considerble disarray after the departure of Prince Braunfels. At this point, I'm going to quote briefly from a long Galveston "Weekly News" article of November 12, 1877, written by a survivor of that first death march from Indianola to New Braunfels, as follows:
"When Baron Meusebach returned to the coast, he found that ships carrying 6,000 immigrants had unloaded at Indianola, for whose reception and transportation not the slightest preparation had been made. With no other shelter, these unfortunate victims lived in holes they had excavated in the ground, without roofs and without any drinking water except that that fell from heaven. Meusebach had contracted with teamsters to take the immigrants inland to New Braunfels. Instead, the teamsters ran away to earn more money working for the U. S. Army. Their principal food was fish and wild ducks because none of them had brought guns capable of killing larger game. For weeks the rains came, and for miles the marsh prairies were covered with knee-deep water. Immigrants suffered at first from malarial fever, and later, a kind of flux or dysentery which resembled cholera had been thinning their ranks. Hundreds of corpses were buried, only to be dug up by the wolves and their bones were left dotting the prairie."

"Finally the roads became passable, and those who were able started for New Braunfels on foot, leaving behind them not only their weather-beaten household goods, but also their sick relatives. The route from Indianola to New Braunfels was strewn with the bones of these immigrants. The writer recalled coming upon a large, loaded wagon, stuck in the mud. The bones of the oxen were still under the yoke, as were those of the driver and his family, scattered about on all sides of the wagon. Of the 6,000 immigrants who reached Indianola during that period of 1845-1846, no more than 1,500 ever reached New Braunfels, and 50% or more of the victims had died miserable deaths from starvation and disease. Upon reaching New Braunfels, the writer wrote back to Prussia, suggesting that the proud German eagle be removed from the 'Adelsverein's' coat of arms and be replaced with a Texas buzzard."
At this point, I will stop long enough to discuss a single voyage of especial interest, that of the 1,347-ton "Ben Nevis," a clipper ship built in Canada in 1852, and one of the largest of its day, which carried Pastor Johann Kilian and 588 members of his Wendish congregation from the provinces of Saxony and Prussian Lusatia in Germany in September, 1854, to Serbin, Texas... next page

W. T. Block, Jr
"Cannonball's Tales"
March 30, 2007 column

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