Cultural Crossroads
Travel Ideas

Hin’ nach Texas!”   “Off to Texas!”
  By Sheena Oommen

Facing economic turmoil in the 19th century, Germans were lured by letters describing the untapped potential of Texas. They chose to leave Europe amidst growing economic problems and overpopulation, launching a massive migration to the Mexican territory, independent nation, and eventual state of Texas.

Although the Bavarian government discouraged emigration by implementing a complicated application process, and even fining those who left, the desire to travel abroad remained strong. In the early 1800s, at least fifty books circulated in Germany illustrating life in America. Texas accrued fame in Germany largely from the works of Gottfried Duden. Duden’s accounts, first read in 1829, received wide exposure. German newspapers frequently printed stories of German immigrant life in Texas. People who publicized Texas settlement conveyed the beautiful topography, the availability of large plots of fertile land, and the plethora of wild game to hunt. They touted the chance for improved social and economic conditions with Texas’ lower cost of living. Friedrich Ernst earned the title of the “Father of the Texas-German Immigrants” due to his influence in drawing settlers to the new territory. From Germany, he traveled to New York and then made his way to Texas. A native of the Duchy of Oldenburg, Ernst described his experiences in the early 1830s in letters to old friends; and he swayed many to pack their bags and follow his lead. He advertised the land he had settled on, which came to be known as the town of Industry. In 1834, Detluf Dunt encouraged immigration in his book Reise nach Texas, which contained some of Ernst’s writing.

The ‘48ers, a scholarly, wealthy class of Germans, arrived in Texas amidst the German Revolutions of 1848. Some of these settlers, known as the Freethinkers, formed experimental colonies like the communistic town of Bettina. They were commonly atheistic or agnostic. Carl Postl’s glorified Texas in his 1841 novel The Cabin Book, although it is unclear whether Postl ever visited Texas. Frenchman Henri Castro’s pamphlets spread the word about Texas across Europe in the 1840s and aided in the colonization of Castroville. Although most German publications wrote favorably of Texas immigration, some opposition existed. Georg Franz wrote editorials questioning the lack of adequate preparation for the large, expensive endeavor over the Atlantic and into a strange territory.

In 1842, a group of twenty-one German nobles met to deliberate a plan to settle Texas. Two years later they formed the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, also known as the Adelsverein. Counts Ludwig Joseph von Boos-Waldeck and Victor August of Leiningen set out to explore and acquire land in Texas and to determine the necessary provisions for settlement. Boos-Waldeck named the land they bought Nassau Farm, which is presently located in Fayette County. Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels, the first commissioner general, lived in Texas and provided for the immigrants that arrived. The Adelsverein’s goals were commercial. Promoters aimed to open up new trade markets and amass natural resources from the land for Germany. The same year, Henry Francis Fisher and Burchard Miller landed a grant situated inside the Llano and Colorado Rivers. Members of the Adelsverein collaborated with them to colonize the Fisher-Miller Grant. The Adelsverein promised the settlers comfortable and spacious ships, reasonable travel charges, free transportation to the settlement, and ways to find shelter and make a living. The Adelsverein’s visions were idealistic, and organizers were overwhelmingly unprepared for the conditions awaiting their settlers. Lack of financial and administrative foresight haunted the Adelsverein, as immigrants found themselves stranded, often without adequate shelter, in a unfamiliar land.

Solms-Braunfels established Karlshafen, later known as Indianola, as the designated point of entry for the first settlers. They established their first community at Comal Springs, which became the city of New Braunfels.

Solms-Braunfels resigned from his post on February 20, 1845 and Baron Ottfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach took over the reins. He assumed the American name John O. Meusebach. Meusebach confronted dire problems upon taking over. As the number of immigrants swelled, he founded the city of Fredericksburg. New groups of immigrants were arriving, but the society, with its dwindling resources, failed to equip them with promised provisions. A major debt-propelling factor was that the actual cost of housing and transportation turned out to be far higher than what the Adelsverein charged its settlers. Those who arrived at the onset of the Mexican War lost access to horses and wagons, which the government had purchased to fight the war. To make matters worse, the settlers were constant prey to inclement weather and disease. Many struggling immigrants wrote letters home warning of the toil and torment that awaited others who decided to trek across the Atlantic.

Remarkably, the Germans developed civil relations with the Indians. Meusebach arranged a meeting with a group of Comanche chiefs, and they ratified a peace treaty in 1847. They reaped another benefit by starting profitable trade with each other. Meusebach’s long red beard earned him the nickname El Sol Colorado by the Comanches.

Hermann Spiess was the next commissioner general of the Adelsverein, followed by Louis Bene in 1852. In 1853, deeply in debt, the Adelsverein ended its Texas colonization campaign.

The Germans built close-knit communities and held on to their customs. Many settlers envisioned the formation of a separate German state, and Texas’ Republic status made the idea seem more feasible. Even in Philadelphia and New York, societies formed with this ambition in mind. Eventually the idea of a separate state dissolved, but these societies were among many whose common goals unified the German settlers.

German Texans actively participated in politics, and by 1846 a German language version of Texas law was in place. In 1851, Meusebach began a term as a Texas senator. A number of Germans fought in the war for Texas independence. Despite the general desire to remain with the Union, many Germans fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War. During this war there was a break in immigration. As soon as the war ended, immigration renewed explosively.

Their general aversion to slavery distinguished the Germans from their Anglo neighbors. Dr. Carl Adolph Douai, a Freethinker and editor of the San Antonio Zeitung, candidly criticized slavery in the newspaper. Germans also were distinct from their neighbors because of their language and traditions. Careers centered around agriculture, livestock, manufacturing, and trade, making the Germans largely self-sufficient. This precluded the need to travel outside to Anglo communities.

Emphasis always lay on the preservation of German identity. In schools, students learned both English and German. German settlements usually offered free schools. New Braunfels eventually offered all of its young students a completely free primary education. In 1853, the singing society Sangerbund held its first German music festival. It has grown in popularity among not only German Texans, but also out-of-state participants of different ethnicities. While many German activities dissipated during World War I and II due to discrimination, the Boerne Village Band maintained an important presence. It has been applauded by Germany and the Texas Legislature for its preservation of German music. Ludwig von Roemer and Louis and Robert Kleberg, who settled the town of Cat Spring in 1832, are known for introducing Texas to its first piano, which they shipped from Germany. Kleberg’s son eventually became the owner of Texas’ famous King Ranch. Newspapers like the Galveston Zeitung and Der Bettelsades also helped perpetuate German heritage. August Siemering, who became a lieutenant in the Confederate Army, published the newspaper Freie Presse für Texas. Texas continues to celebrate the Texas-German heritage with events such as Octoberfest, Wurstfest, Schützenfeste, and German Culture Month.

The German immigrants’ mark on Texas is found in place names, like Schulenburg and Shiner; it’s heard in the popular cultural influences of Adolf Hofner, and the accordion in Tejano and Zydeco music; and it’s experienced in the easy-going temperament in the face of tremendous obstacles that gave Texas its motto, “the friendly state.”

Stay tuned for more features about the Texas Germans and other Eastern European immigrants.