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Texas | Columns | "Cannonball's Tales"

SOME NOTES ON OUR
TEXAS GERMANIC HERITAGE
Page 2

TEXAS GERMANIC HERITAGE- Page 1

By W. T. Block, Jr
Page 1

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, now in Lee County but then a part of Bastrop County until 1874. Large or not, the "Ben Nevis" was only 146 feet long, meaning that the 588 people were stuffed into a space not even as long as the city lot your home is built upon. Pastor Kilian and Pastor C. F. W. Walther of Missouri, the founder of our Missouri Synod, had been students together at the University of Leipzig, and indeed, many believe it was Pastor Walther who induced these Wends to migrate to Texas at a time when most of the Wends were migrating to Australia. Of the 588 Wends who left Hamburg on that first voyage in 1854, 76 of them died along the way, mostly of cholera, which they caught in Liverpool, England, but many of them died of diarrhea as well. When the "Ben Nevis" docked at Galveston on December 16th, about 3 months later, only 512 of them were still alive when the plague ship was placed under quarantine by the customs department. Although one of every 8 people died en route, the loss was still below average for immigrant ships from Germany, where usually the loss was one in every six people. One book commented on how clean the immigrants had kept the "Ben Nevis" at a time when the only thing that smelled worse than an immigrant ship at Galveston was a slave ship arriving from West Africa. Indeed, many slave ships that arrived in the New World from West Africa suffered less loss of life than the "Ben Nevis" did.

But the Wendish colony's troubles were not over. When the 512 immigrants arrived in Houston, then a town of 2,300 people, shelter could be found only for the small children, and most people had to sleep on the cold ground during the month of January. Those with money left over bought ox carts and began the 200 mile journey overland to Serbin. Of course, many of them had no money left and had to walk, and it was late in March before the congregation was reassembled at Serbin, having spent the entire winter around camp fires.

Other than Pastor Kilian, the following families aboard the 'Ben Nevis" appear to be the ancestors of many of our Holy Cross and Trinity Lutheran Church members, as follows: the families of Andreas Kieschnick, Johann Kieschnick, Johann Carl Teinert, whose wife Maria died and was buried at sea; -- Wukasch, whose first name is unreadable on the ship's register and whose descendants are enrolled at both Holy Cross and Trinity; Matthaus Domaschk and 4 Noack families, these being well-known Port Arthur surnames, Georg Caspar, Christian Kaspar, Johann Kubitz, Andreas Miertschin, whose descendent Harry Miertschin formerly belonged to this congregation, and whose brother, Rev. Elmo Miertschin, is the LCMS chaplain at Methodist Hospital; Johann Biar, the ancestor of our Louis Biar; Matthaus Wagner, and Johann Knippa, the latter's descendants being related to some of our members. Also, the progenitors of the Fritsche, Moerbe, and Bohot families aboard the "Ben Nevis" have descendants in the Sabine area.

As a matter of curiosity, I went to the census listings of the Texas counties in search of some of these families, and for any of you who may be interested, I found the same families grouped together there just as they had been on the ship's register of the "Ben Nevis." Since Lee County did not become a county until 1874, one must search for the Serbin census in Bastrop County in the 1860 and 1870 census enumerations. However, the Lee County 1880 census reveals that a lot of children that were aboard the "Ben Nevis" had grown up, married, and had children of their own. I found family names as follows: 3 Kieschnick families, 3 Kaspar families, 2 Domasckh families 5 Teinert families, 1 Kubitz family, 1 Noack family, 3 Biar families, 2 Miertschin families, and 5 Wukasch families, all in a matter of a few minutes.

Although there is no evidence that subsequent German contingents suffered quite so badly as the first ones, the risk of death while en route was always great. Occupants of one early German immigrant ship at Galveston died to the last person from yellow fever. In a 25-year span between 1835 and 1860, the yellow fever plague visited New Orleans annually in late summer and early fall, and around 2,000 people died there each year of the plague. About 1830, my great grandmother Schmidt was orphaned as an infant there when both of her parents died of yellow fever, and to this day no one has ever learned what her true birth name was. In a 14-year period beginning in 1846, the Deutsche Gesellschaft of New Orleans redirected 7,600 Germans to Texas, on one shipload of which the Blocks traveled. That ship took refuge in Sabine Lake to escape a hurricane, and it may have been a Godsend that that's as far west as any of them ever got. Otherwise, my great grandparents, their daughter and eight sons might have died on that first death march to New Braunfels.

Whether New Orleans, Galveston or Indianola, always the hardest ones hit by the yellow fever plague were the Irish and German immigrants, who of necessity had to pass through and stay in the harbor and dock areas, where that disease always concentrated. During 1845, 1848, 1853, and 1858, about 500 people died of yellow fever each year at Galveston, and German immigrants suffered badly on each occasion. During those antebellum years, the German population of Galveston was about 40%, and in some parts of the city, German was the prevailing language on the streets. In 1867, over 3,000 people died of yellow fever in the Galveston Bay area, 1,100 of them in Galveston, and 1,900 more in Houston and surrounding towns. In 1858, over 300 Germans died of yellow fever at Indianola. In 1873, a severe epidemic of that plague broke out in Brenham and Calvert, killing hundreds, and fleeing refugees soon carried the disease in all directions. And one doesn't need two guesses to determine what nationality of pioneer Texans bore the brunt of that epidemic.

Even the slow voyages of the immigrant sail boats were an exercise in endurance. Typically, the voyage from Bremen to Galveston or Indianola required from three to 3 1/2 months, with up to 300 people closely cramped into the steerage quarters of sail ships no more than 150 feet long. However, upon checking the passenger lists of a several of those German immigrant ships of the 1845-1850 era, the usual number of Germans aboard was between 100 and 200, these boats being considerably smaller than the "Ben Nevis."The usual sailor and passenger fare was dried beef and hardtack, with no fruit or fresh vegetables aboard, which led to such nutritional diseases as scurvy, pellagra, diarrhea and dysentery. Normally, yellow fever victims had a one in two chance of survival, but I'd wager that newly-arrived German immigrants, after three long months at sea, were left with no bodily resistance with which to fight off that dreadful disease that so severely attacks one's liver functions.

There was one other German emigration scheme, that of 'impresario' Henry Castro, who had obtained a fairly large land grant from Mexico, present-day Medina County on the Medina River west of San Antonio. Early in 1844, Castro began recruiting in the Catholic provinces of Alsace, Swabia, Baden-Wurtemberg, Bavaria, and the Rhineland. Castro's recruitment in Germany must have been quite fraudulent because some people suggested in letters sent home that Castro be barred from returning to Germany because of his extreme neglect of his colonists. Altogether, Castro brought 2,134 families to Texas, founding colonies at Castroville, D'Hanis, Hondo, and Quihi, but he brought them to an area where there was not one stick of timber to be found, only mesquite underbrush and cactus. Hence, the colonists could choose to build their abodes either out of sod or Mexican adobe. Although these towns retained a small number of German settlers over the years, a majority of Castro's colonists eventually moved into San Antonio. In 1850, Medina County's population was about 65% German.

At this time I am going to give you some figures on German immigration and the number of Germans in Texas during the last century. And you will readily note that the peak years of emigration to Texas came long after the Civil War. The figures are estimates for some years and others are taken from census records for those years ending in zero, as follows: for the year 1845--10,000 Germans in Texas; for 1850--28,000; for 1860--35,000; for 1870--41,000; for 1880--86,400; for 1890--125,000; and for 1900---157,000 Germans.

By 1860 Galveston and Harris counties were 30% German. Austin, Colorado, Dewitt, Fayette, Victoria, Calhoun, Washington, Lavaca, and Lee counties were from 20% to 30% German, and San Antonio was 20% German. Comal and Gillispie counties were 90% German and Kendall and Medina counties were 65% German. I might add that some counties that have sizeable German populations today were not organized until after the Civil War.

In earlier days there must have been 250 or 300 German or predominately German settlements, but time will not permit me to name more than just a few of them. Some of the settlements I am going to name may be today no more than a crossroads general store or may be accredited to the wrong county because I had to work with some poor maps. There were two settlements each named Blumenthal and Sisterdale. Generally, these settlements can be described as the coastal and eastern group in Central Texas and the Hill Country group in the west. Of the latter, there were in Kendall County the settlements of Boerne, Comfort, Sisterdale, Jungfrau, Lindendale, Kendalia and Bergheim. In Gillispie County were Doss, Fredericksburg, Cherry Springs, Eckert, Cain City, Kreuzberg, Rheingold, Luchenback, and Blumenthal. In Medina County were Castroville, D'Hanis, Hondo, and Quihi. In Comal County were New Braunfels, Fischer, Solms, Spring Branch, Gruene, Sisterdale, Farmer's Hall, Anhalt, Freiheit, Schoental, and Wenzel.

As an example, Comal County in 1860 had 3,627 Germans, only 94 Anglo-Americans, and 193 slaves. The ten German slaveholders there are said to have owned one female domestic slave each to assist the wife with household chores and rearing children.

Along the coast, settlements in Dewitt County included Yorktown, Weser, Cuero, Nordheim, Westhoff, Fordtran, Meyersville, Arneckville, and Hochheim. In Lavaca County were Yoakum, Henkhaus, Vienna, Shiner, Hallettsville, Breslau, Koerth, Wied, and Sweet Home. Some of these counties also had a sizeable Czech or Bohemian population.

Fayette, one of the eastern counties, enumerated Flatonia, Schulenberg, Engle, Lagrange, High Hill, Waldeck, Round Top, and West Point. In Colorado County were Weimar, Bernardo, Columbus, Frelsburg, New Ulm, and Ellinger. German settlements in Austin County included Cat Spring, Industry, Welcome and Bellville. And in Lee County, where so many members of Holy Cross Lutheran Church have their origins, were Giddings, Serbin (the home of the Texas Wends), Lexington, Lobau and Warda. Although there were many other settlements in other counties, time will not permit me to digress farther. Even Port Neches had 13 immigrant German families in 1880, most of whom I was related to.

There were two other German settlements I need to deal with, even if only briefly, both of them populated by those agnostic, abolitionist, intellectual Free Thinkers who left Germany following the 1848 Liberal Revolutions. Forty men made up the communist, agricultural colony of Bettina during the one year of its life, with the intention of owning in common the land and whatever it produced. Perhaps one key to its failure was the fact that seven men of the forty were lawyers, whereas only one was a farmer. At any rate, during that year, about half of them labored in the sun while the remainder preferred to rest in the shade, yet at year's end, the latter were there, ready to share the harvest with the workers. Needless to say, those forty settlers went their separate ways the following year.

One of those forty was Gustav Schleicher, who later owned a mill in New Braunfels, practiced law in San Antonio, and as a graduate engineer, built the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railroad. During the Civil War, he served as a Confederate Major of Engineers and helped build some of the forts at Sabine Pass. After 1872, he was elected three times as U. S. Congressman from West Texas, and he died in Washington in 1879. Schleicher County, south of San Angelo, is named after him.

Comfort, Texas, was founded in 1854 by Ernst Altgelt, who gathered around him a large nucleus of those agnostic, abolitionist Free Thinkers. So anti-religious was this group that no church was built in Comfort until 1894, forty years later. Nevertheless, some of the finest German American poetry, prose, music, and folk art were to originate in that city, and in 1981 "Newsweek" named Comfort as one of its ten best small American towns in which to reside.

Comfort and Fredericksburg were likewise centers of militant Unionism at the outbreak of the Civil War, which was to give the Confederacy more headaches than it cared to contend with. Hundreds from Kendall and Gillispie counties went north to serve in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Texas Regiments of the United States Army, and of course, many of them were either killed or never returned to Texas. Another group of Comfort men sought to escape military service by fleeing to Mexico, and in 1862, they fought the Confederate Regulars at the Battle of the Nueces River, where all of the Comfort men were either massacred or captured.

The Civil War brought very mixed feelings among the Germans. While Gillispie and Kendall counties voted overwhelmingly against secession, the 3,600 Germans of Comal County voted to secede from the Union. Many Germans also served in the Confederate Army. Captain Charles Welhausen's battery of artillery, composed entirely of Fayette County Germans, served at Fort Manhassett, Sabine Pass, with my grandfather, and four of that battery were killed at the Battle of Calcasieu Pass, fought in May, 1864, at Cameron, Louisiana. An entire book, THE BIG GUNS OF FAYETTE, was written about that battery by Judge Paul Boethel of Hallettsville. About 20 Germans from Jefferson County served in the Confederate Army, including four Block brothers from Port Neches, even though their father was a Unionist who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.

The most illustrious of the Texas Germans in the Confederate Army was Brig. General Augustus Buchel. A soldier of fortune, he fought in wars in Spain and Turkey before arriving at Indianola among those 6,000 ill-fated immigrants of 1845. Immediately he mustered a German company of U. S. Infantry, and as its captain, they fought under Gen. Zachary Taylor at the Battles of Resaca de las Palmas and at Buena Vista during the Mexican War. As a Confederate cavalry colonel, Buchel raised the 1st Texas Cavalry Regiment in 1861, and after the Battle of Sabine Pass, Gen. Magruder of Houston sent Buchel to Sabine Pass to command Confederate troops in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. On April 9, 1864, Gen. Buchel was killed at Mansfield, Louisiana, while leading his brigade at the Battle of Pleasant Hill.

A century in retrospect, what has been the heritage left to us by this hardy band of German souls who, despite the oppression in Germany, left the comforts of home to take up the trail and endure a long voyage at sea, suffer untold hardships and even death in order to establish a better life for themselves and their descendants in Texas? What we descendants call the good life today, those immigrants knew only as raw wilderness, Indian raids, backbreak farm labor, slow transportation, and a harsh scrub board, outdoor plumbing and candlelight environment. Yet these same Germans brought the first educations, the best craftmen, European-style stone architecture, the first brass bands, the best schools and libraries, and the first 'saengerfests' or choral societies to the frontiers of Texas. Everywhere they settled, the Germans set examples of what their own labor could produce on their cotton plantations without the use of slaves. Yes, most of the pianos and musical instruments in antebellum Texas were in the German homes. They brought the best educators and educations in Europe to Texas, for the average Anglo-Americans who lived on the outer fringes of civilization in that day rarely could even read or write. They brought the best physicians, lawyers, teachers, brewers, flour and corn millers, blacksmiths and wagon makers, machinists, brick masons and carpenters to a frontier where those occupations were always in short supply. Perhaps foremost, they brought the first journalists, poets, authors, artists, sculptors, dramatic societies, and musicians to the frontier, which in other words means the Germans brought the fine arts to Texas. For years there were more German-language newspapers in Texas than there were English. Only in 1957 did the 110-year-old New Braunfels "Zeitung," the last and oldest of the Texas German-language newspapers, cease publication.

I'll never forget an experience my wife and I had in Oct., 1951, when we were passing through New Braunfels. We stopped at a small cafe in the center of that city of about 35,000 people, and as we entered, the 10 or 12 people who were seated inside hurriedly quit their German conversations and for 10 minutes you could have heard a pin drop except for my words when I ordered coffee and pie. In a town of that size, they could still discern we were "fremdervolk," that is, strangers in town. After paying, I looked back as we went out the door and already their jawbones once more were going full blast in German.

About 25 years ago, an old German named Otto Figge died here in Nederland. He was a brilliant old man, about age 95, who spoke four languages. He once old me he arrived in New Braunfels in 1885. He liked the town, but the strangest thing he said he found there were black people who spoke German but no English. Apparently these people had grown up as young slaves in the households of German families, and had never had any occasion to learn English.

Perhaps you might be wondering what ever happened to Carlshafen or Indianola, the German seaport of the "Adelsverein" near Port Lavaca. In August, 1875, it was hit by huge hurricane, one so large that it almost destroyed Wallisville, the Trinity River town that was then the county seat of Chambers County. Indianola was totally destroyed, with many Germans drowned, but those hardy folks immediately set about to rebuild it. Eleven years later, in August, 1886, the second of those Gulf whirlwinds razed the town. Even as the winds were ripping apart the timbers, the town also caught fire and it succumbed completely to the flames, the winds and the waves. Over 300 people drowned. The town was never rebuilt and out of its ashes came the present-day city of Corpus Christi, some miles to the southwest. All that is left of Indianola today are a few concrete foundations out in the marsh.

I have only just begun to realize what a great volume of historical literature now exists on Texas German history, a great deal of it being available in Texas in books and journals, but a much larger amount being written here but published in Germany, where generally it is not available to historians here. Biographical writings about a large number of these German immigrant men is available, some of whom some of you may be descended from. Two book I have checked from Lamar Library list several thousands of the Germans who arrived between 1845 and 1861, including what boat they were on, where they came from, etc. Two other books that I have here list the 110 families on the first boat load of Wendish Germans who settled in Serbin, Texas in 1854. Apparently, the book that does not exist is a volume on those pioneer Texas German women who left equally as great a legacy and surely some one needs to write a book about them. Among some of the better known of the pioneer German immigrant women were Johanna Wilhelm, Emma Altgelt, artist Louisa Wueste, artist Edna Bierschwale, Clara von Below, Caroline von Roeder, Rosa Kleberg, historians Caroline von Hinueber and Luisa Stoehr, Vera Flach, author Ottilie Goeth, Caroline Grobe, poet Selma von Metzenthin-Raunick, sculptress Elisabet Ney, Betty Holekamp, and Ida Kapp.

I honestly believe it would take a full day to do justice to this subject, but alas, I would certainly wear out my listeners first. I appreciate your kind attention, and I hope that somewhere among these words, you have become better acquainted with our forebearers who have left us the great legacy we enjoy today. It has been a joy for me to be here and I thank you.

Back to Page 1
W. T. Block, Jr
"Cannonball's Tales"
March 30, 2007 column

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