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.
Braunig Studio photo of the Elkins Bros, first-generation German immigrants
in Lavaca County
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
then in Colorado County.
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
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 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
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
Braunfels on foot, leaving behind them not only their weather-beaten
household goods, but also their sick relatives. The route from Indianola
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
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,
invite the serious reader to try to locate: Yesterday in the Texas
Hill Country by Dr. Gilbert J. Jordan, Texas A & M Press, 1978.
This small, very entertaining book includes the tiniest details of
life in the small German Hill Country communities that no longer appear
on highway maps.
The 160 page book. contains details on well-digging, sausage making,
courtship rituals, old-world customs and lessons in German-English
Yesterday in the Texas Hill Country