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Texas | Columns | "Cannonball's Tales"

The Story of our
Texas' German Pilgrims:



Comal County

By W. T. Block, Jr
In November of each year, American children learn much about the Plymouth Pilgrims of Massachusetts, who fled to New England in 1620 to escape religious persecution, and a year later, they celebrated the first American Thanksgiving. While they indeed had much to be thankful for, 42 people of the original 99 Pilgrims, who had landed at Plymouth Rock, had already died during that first year of extreme cold, disease, and malnutrition. Hence, although the word 'pilgrim' means 'wanderer,' it also comes down to us as one who has suffered. Today, not even our own Texans of German descent realize that the first German Pilgrims to the Lone Star State in 1845 suffered an even worse fate.

Between the Napoleonic Wars and 1840, and long before the unification of Germany in 1871, the lot of the German industrial worker and peasant alike had fallen about as low as it could get - to a level approaching antebellum slavery. The courts of the German princes, too, suffered badly under Napoleon, and in order to reestablish their elegance and extravagance, the rulers levied what was perhaps the heaviest taxation ever known. Between 1815 and 1848, Prince Metternich of Vienna ruled Austria and the German Confederation of 40 independent countries, principalities, margraviates, and free cities with a reactionary iron fist. By the time of the liberal Revolts of 1848, many of the German elite classes - bankers, professors, and noblemen - ended up on the wrong side of the political fences, and among the German "Forty-Niners" who scurried off to Texas in 1849 were enough "grafs" (counts), princes, and barons to stock Buckingham Palace.

On one occasion, the German poet, Heinrich Heine, asked an emigrant boarding ship: "Why are you leaving Germany?" The response to Heine was: "I swear...if France had suffered just one-tenth of what these people in Germany have suffered, it would have caused 36 revolutions in France, and 36 kings would have lost their heads to the guillotine!"

About 1842, twenty-one of the German princes recognized the need to reduce the overpopulation of "the Germanies," and to that end, they organized the "Mainzer Adelsverein," later known in Texas as the "Society For The Protection of German Immigrants In Texas," or simply as German-Texas Immigration Company. The princes, led by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels and Duke Adolf of Nassau, concluded the emigration agreement at Bieberich-am-Rhein in April, 1842, and Prince Braunfels immediately left for Texas, where he purchased the 4,000 square mile Miller-Fisher land grant (between San Angelo and San Saba). He also purchased a coastal site, where he founded Carlshafen, later Indianola, for the "Adelsverein's" seaport, and he founded New Braunfels as the midway rest site between the sea coast and the land grant.

Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels mural Mural depicting Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels and German immigrants
TE photo

Prince Braunfels then returned to Germany to solicit colonists, and he left as commissioner-general of the "Adelsverein" in Texas, his friend, Baron Ottfried von Meusebach (later John Meusebach), who founded Fredericksburg and Castell, and signed a friendship treaty with Santa Anna, the war chief of the Comanche Indian -tribe. Later, Von Meusebach returned to the coast to receive the first contingent of immigrants. As a result, he learned that Prince Braunfels and the other noblemen's preparations were for ships and shipboard supplies only, and the first immigrants of February, 1845, found that Indianola was only an open and undeveloped marshland, no buildings, no tents, no food or supplies—period. A survivor of the succeeding 'death march' wrote the account, published in Galveston Weekly News of November 12, 1877, a part of which follows:
"....When Baron von 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 dug in the ground, without roofs and drinking water, except that which 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 (this was during the beginning of the Mexican War). Their principal food was fish and wild ducks, because none of them brought guns capable of killing larger game. For weeks, the rains came, and for miles around, the marsh prairies were covered with knee-deep water. Immigrants suffered first from malarial fever, and later, from a flux or dysentery, which resembled cholera and began thinning their ranks. Hundreds of corpses were buried (in shallow graves), only to be dug up by the wolves, and their bones were left dotting the prairie..."

"Finally, the trails became passable, and those who were able to 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 those immigrants. The writer recalls coming upon a large, loaded wagon, stuck in the mud. The bones of the oxen were still there, under the (ox) 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 in 1845, no more than 1,500 ever reached New Braunfels, and more than 50% 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...."

By any reckoning, more than half of the Plymouth Pilgrims survived the first year in New England. Of the first German Pilgrims to Texas in 1845, however, only one in four survived the walk from Indianola to New Braunfels, and the reader can still find on microfilm the original account from which this story is based, taken from the memoirs of one of the German Pilgrims, who made that march. The toll of lives on succeeding German immigrant ships also ran high. Of 588 people of Pastor Johan Kilian's Wendish colony that left Prussian Lusatia in September, 1854, aboard the Ben Nevis, seventy-six of them died aboard ship of cholera and were buried at sea. The remaining 512 persons remained in quarantine for three weeks, and then they walked from Galveston to Serbin, near Giddings, in the worst of winter weather. Many survived the dreadful immigrant voyages, only to die ashore in the perennial yellow fever plagues that scourged Galveston and Indianola almost every fall. It was said too that the only thing that stunk worse than a German immigrant ship in Galveston harbor was an African slave ship. But in spite of disease and death, the German immigrants kept on coming - even if hundreds died - and in the 1900 Texas census, 157,000 Texans were enumerated who had been born in Germany. Today, there are 53,000,000 Americans of German descent.

So remember, friend - the next time you enjoy some German sauer kraut and beer at the Brenham "Maifest," or savor the taste of good German sausage at the New Braunfels "Wurstfest," don't forget that the cost of our Texas Germanic heritage came truly high in the lives of our ancestors - those who died at sea of dysentery, cholera or yellow fever; those who starved, or those who died on that first "death march" to Comal County.

W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales"
June 26, 2006 column

Related Articles:

  • Some Notes on Our Texas Germanic Heritage by W. T. Block, Jr

  • New Braunfels, TX: Pearl of the Comal-Guadalupe Valley by W. T. Block, Jr

  • The Meusebach-Comanche Treaty by Jeffery Robenalt

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