GERMANS IN THE TEXAS WILDERNESS

A group of German noblemen known as the Adelsverein, promoted the huge wave of German immigrants that began landing on Matagorda Bay in 1844. Some of the early arrivals remained on that barren strip of shell beach and established a port that became Indianola.

Fisher-Miller Grant

Most of the emigrants moved inland and created settlements such as New Braunfels and then Fredericksburg.

Dr. Ferdinand Ludwig von Herff, 1820-1912

Germans continued to arrive by the shiploads and in early 1847, Dr. Ferdinand von Herff and Hermann Spiess organized a group of idealistic young university students calling themselves Die Vierziger––“The Forty,” who dreamed of a utopian community, a socialistic colony. When one of the founders of the Verein heard of the Forty, he offered $12,000 in cash, tools, livestock, wagons and provision for one year if they agreed to be the first settlers in the remote Fisher-Miller grant north of Fredericksburg.

By the time the cultured and wealthy young men reached Galveston, their numbers had dwindled to thirty-one, plus a young woman named Julie Herf (unrelated to Dr. Herff) whom they hired for her housekeeping skills and her fluent English. When the exuberant party reached Indian Point (it had not yet been named Indianola), they had so much baggage and freight, that they had to wait for additional wagons to carry such things as machinery for constructing a mill, a kennel full of dogs, and many barrels of whiskey. One of the young men wrote that they “lived like gods on Olympus. . .sang, drank, and enjoyed themselves” all the way to New Braunfels. Their trip further north to a site near to a site near present Castell, took longer than expected because they were trying for the first time in their lives to drive a herd of cattle to their new home on the north side of the Llano River.

Immediately they set about transforming the wilderness into Bettina, the idealistic community named for Bettina von Arnim, the writer and muse to the Prussian socialist movement.

Bettina von Arnim, muse to the Prussian socialists movement.

They erected white tents and a barracks made of posts and beams covered with grass. Julie Herf had a lean-to kitchen on the side of the barracks where she provided steaming pots of food to sound of the “vigorous songs of hearty workers.”

Among the happy throng of eager laborers were seven lawyers, two architects, a musical instrument maker, a hotel keeper, a brewer, and a theologian. There was also the necessary miller, blacksmith, butcher and a few mechanics and carpenters.

Dr. Herff began learning the dialect of their Comanche and Apache neighbors who had recently made a lasting peace treaty with the residents of Fredericksburg. He had been treating the Comanches who showed up at Bettina for various ailments for a short time when one of the natives arrived with advanced cataracts. Although Herff had performed cataract surgeries in Germany, operating on eyes in the wilderness was another proposition. Fearful the Comanches would not understand his refusal, he decided to meet the challenge. He had brought the latest in ophthalmologic instruments, but he needed good lighting for the delicate surgery. Ether was the only anesthetic available, but it was highly flammable, which ruled out using candles or kerosene lamps because the flames had to be held close to use his magnifying lenses. Herff solved the problem by performing the surgery outdoors under bright sunshine. He was not concerned about infection because infection was unknown at the time. However, he was a very clean man and he insisted the area be dust free, no wind, and free of bugs. On the prescribed sunny day, a dozen members of the Forty stood around the operating table and kept away insects by waving palm leaf fans.

Aware that free flowing tears kept the eye clean, Herff reasoned that irrigating the eyes with water would serve that purpose. He later wrote that he used his 160-power microscope to view the cistern water and realized it was “infested with numerous small moving bodies which I called animalcules, [so] I decided to clear the substance by boiling it.”

The surgery was a success and the Comanche thanked the doctor profusely, promising to bring him a gift––a woman. Sure enough, three months later, the Indian brought Herff a teenage Mexican girl.  The cook/housekeeper Julie Herf took the girl, named Lena, under her

Hermann and Lena Spiess

wing, and apparently life turned out well, for Lena eventually married Hermann Spiess, one of the founders of the Forty, and they had ten children.

Bettina, however, didn’t fare so well. Herff and another of the leaders, returned to Germany to marry. In their absence, the communal spirit that trusted everyone to work when he felt like it, resulted in most of the Forty not working. The heavy dominance of professional men who saw themselves as directors of others instead of workers, led to the laborers feeling the injustice and refusing to carry the load. By the summer of 1848, the settlement was abandoned.

Some of the young men moved to other German freethinker communities such as Sisterdale and Comfort; other spread out across the Hill Country to establish careers as lawyers, ranchers, merchants, and writers.

Ferdinand Herff returned to San Antonio with his German bride, and because he believed that professional satisfaction was its own reward, he served mostly indigent patients. He continued to perform remarkable medical surgeries such as removal of two large bladder stones from a Texas Ranger. This was Herff”s first time to use chloroform and he operated before a large crowd, including William (Big Foot) Wallace. He continued to perform cataract removals; corrected a depressed skull fracture to alleviate traumatic epilepsy; and opened a young man’s stomach who had swallowed lye. At the age of eighty-four, he operated at a remote ranch on his daughter-in-law for an ectopic (fetus outside the uterus) pregnancy.

He worked to achieve high standards of medical practice, helped organize medical societies and boards across Texas and founded Santa Rosa, San Antonio’s first hospital.

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“Don’t Sell A Woman Short”

Birdie Harwood, ready for a parade.

The Burnet County Historical Commission tells a tale that’s worth repeating. Ophelia Geraldine Crosby Harwood won the election for mayor of Marble Falls on April 2, 1917, three years before women received the right to vote. The all-male electorate gave her seventy-nine votes to defeat a popular local rancher’s thirty-three votes.

When she was born in 1872, the family claims a servant said she looked like a “pretty little blackbird.” From then on, Ophelia was called “Birdie.”

From her early days, she forged her own path. Known for her horseback riding skills, she claimed that she learned to ride before she could walk. And because she was sickly, the family believed she needed more sunshine. So, they tied her on a horse, gave her a bottle of water and a bag of food and she rode about for hours. With that start, it doesn’t seem surprising that while still in her teens she broke wild broncos.

In May 1892, Birdie married county doctor George A. Harwood and began her family. She said, “A woman’s first duty is to her home and children.” By the age of forty-five, Birdie had raised six children and decided she had a duty to public service. She mounted her horse and began her campaign for mayor of Marble Falls. She said she “ran for the office because wealthier citizens do not want the job, and a poor man cannot afford it. It is work that demands undivided attention and this is where a woman just fits. The men of Marble Falls have not been doing the job.”

She claimed her town had fallen ten years behind where it had been ten years before. “…it does look to me about time somebody was getting busy.” Like all politicians, she made promises to hold the line on the tax rate, but said she intended to make “two nickels grow where only one grew before.” She also pledged “to work for everything progressive, moral, spiritual and just. Don’t sell a woman short in the political arena.” Apparently, President Woodrow Wilson did not sell Birdie short because he endorsed her for mayor.

When Birdie took office, she declared “Clean-Up Day.” She said the books of the city would be open for inspection. Since her two-year term occurred during WWI, Birdie organized a chapter of the Red Cross and sponsored a fund-raising drive to provide clothing for European Jewish war refugees.

By August 1920, when the 19th amendment became law, many women had already served as mayors.

In 1934, Birdie’s husband Dr. George Harwood died. Two years later, she became the first woman to be named to the bench of the Marble Falls Municipal Court.

Possibly because she was known as the first woman to be elected mayor in Texas, Birdie began riding her coal black horse in parades around the state. She dressed in a flowing black riding habit and top hat and used a three-horn side saddle.

In 1938, Birdie rode her horse about 300 miles from Austin to Crosbyton. She broke up the trip in segments of thirty-five miles-a-day and won the title of Champion One-Way Rider at the West Texas Old Settler’s Convention. At times, Birdie traveled to parades by bus, carrying her sidesaddle with her. It is unclear how her horse got there.

Birdie married her childhood sweetheart, Robert Beverly, when they were both seventy-nine. She died in 1954 at the age of eighty-two.

On July 30, 1987, Paul Harvey featured Birdie in The Rest of the Story.

 

 

Mary, A Texas Maverick

She came to Texas as the young wife of a powerful man, and the diary she kept of her travels and her life in the growing republic has captured historians and lovers of Texas history. Mary Ann Adams Maverick (1818-1898) was born on a plantation in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. She attended a nearby boarding school and when she was eighteen, she met thirty-three-year-old Samuel Maverick––a Yale-educated lawyer who had just returned from the Texas war for independence. His plans to sell some of his property in Alabama and hurry back to land speculation in Texas got delayed when he met Mary. They married within three months.

Samuel A. Maverick

Mary and Samuel Maverick did not get to San Antonio until June 1838 and by then Mary had given birth to the first of their ten children. Samuel knew San Antonio well, for he had gone there in the fall of 1835 with plans to start building a land empire. Instead, he was thrust into the developing Texas Revolution. Mexican officials placed him under house arrest for a time and when he was released he went to the Texan force gathered south of the city and urged them to continue their siege of San Antonio de Bexar. He kept a detailed diary of the events as the Texans defeated the Mexican garrison and took over the town. He stayed in San Antonio and after Santa Anna’s army arrived on February 23, Maverick was elected as a delegate to the Texas Independence Convention in Washington-on-the Brazos. He made it through the Mexican Army lines on March 2 and reached the convention in time to be one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.  By the time the convention ended, the Alamo had fallen and Texans were fleeing east ahead of Santa Anna’s advancing army. Suffering from chills and fever, Maverick made it to Nacogdoches where he remained until after Texas won independence at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.

Soon after the Mavericks reached San Antonio, Mary gave birth to their second son. That same year, she also used ink and watercolors on paper to produce the oldest known image of the church, which we know today as the Alamo and the Convento, which had served as

Alamo and Convento, ink and watercolor drawing of Mary Maverick.

the quarters used by the priests when the old structure was a mission. And Samuel set the pattern that he kept for the rest of his life. He made forty-one land purchases, moved the family into a house on the northeast corner of

Maverick home on the northeast corner of the Main Plaza.

the Main Plaza, and entered politics as mayor of San Antonio.

The following year, Mary wrote in her diary that March 19, 1840, was “a day of horrors.” Comanches had come to San Antonio seeking a treaty to draw boundaries that would halt western settlement into Comancheria. Texan authorities had demanded that the Indians bring in all their white prisoners. When they arrived with only Matilda Lockhart, a sixteen-year-old girl who had been a captive for over eighteen months, the Texans announced that the Indians would be held as prisoners until all the captives were returned.

Mary Maverick and a neighbor who lived nearby heard the gunfire and watched from behind a fence the battle that spilled into the plaza. When the terror ended, thirty-three Comanches lay dead and thirty-three were taken prisoner. Six Texans and one Mexican also perished.

Mary’s memoir, published in 1895, offers an account of the Council House Fight that historians reported for years. She claimed that the Texans were horrified to discover that Matilda Lockhart had been raped, had burns all over her body, and her nose had been burned away. However, later research revealed that Matilda Lockhart’s sister-in-law who was in San Antonio at the time wrote a letter to her mother and did not mention any injuries. In Col. Hugh McLeon’s report of March 20, 1840, he commented about Matilda’s intelligence but said nothing about a missing nose. Since the memoir was not published until many years later, it may have been an effort to justify the Texans rage.

Within two days of the Council House Fight, Samuel Maverick left for South Carolina and Alabama where he sold some of his property and purchased two-year’s worth of provisions. He had the supplies shipped to Linville, the seaport on Lavaca Bay.

Meantime, the Comanches who had been taken prisoner in San Antonio escaped, returned to Comancheria to grieve their losses and plot revenge. The following August, a party of about 1,000 warriors and their families swept across Texas in what became known as the Great Raid of 1840. They attacked Victoria, stole several hundred horses, and sacked the seaport village of Linnville. While terrified residents sat in boats in the shallow bay, they watched the town burn and all the warehouses destroyed. Among the losses, were Samuel Maverick’s supplies waiting to be shipped on to San Antonio.

Mexico had never accepted Texas independence and had made several forays across the border. In 1842, while Samuel Maverick served as San Antonio treasurer, word arrived that Mexican forces were headed toward the city. The Mavericks joined families fleeing the advancing troops in what was known as the “Runaway of ’42.” They stayed for a time in an abandoned house near Gonzales and then Maverick moved the family to LaGrange to get them farther away from the Indian threat. He had returned to San Antonio to argue a case before the district court when the Mexicans captured the city and marched many prisoners, including Maverick, to Perot Prison in the Mexican state of Vera Cruz.

When Mary heard of her husband’s capture, she gave money to one of her slaves to use for ransom and sent him with her Uncle John Bradley and another company to free her husband.  Mexicans surprised the little group, the slave was killed, and her uncle was taken to the prison with Maverick. They were not released until April 1843.

While he was in prison, Samuel Maverick was elected senator in the Congress of the Republic of Texas. He served in the last session and was a strong advocate for Texas annexation to the United States. During the time he served in the Texas Senate, Mary and the children lived in a log cabin near LaGrange on the Colorado River.  Believing the site caused some of their illnesses, in late 1844 Maverick moved his growing family to Decrows Point on Matagorda Peninsula. During that time, a farmer repaid his debt to Maverick with 400 head of cattle. Samuel had no interest in ranching and turned the management over to some of his slaves who did not bother to brand the calves. Finally, Maverick moved the cattle and the slaves to a ranch south of San Antonio. Still, the cattle roamed unbranded and neighbors began referring to the unmarked beeves as Maverick’s. Over time, that moniker stuck, and by the end of the Civil War when so many unbranded cattle roamed the Texas countryside, they were called “Mavericks.”

Mary Maverick and five of her children.

Violence was not the only hardship faced by those early Texas settlers. When they finally moved into a new home across from the Alamo, their seven-year-old daughter Agatha died from a fever. Over the next two years, cholera took

Maverick home on Alamo Plaza.

both Augusta then John Hays. Ironically, the child named for their friend the legendary Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays died the year that his father traveled with Coffee on an expedition to chart a route from San Antonio to El Paso. Maverick’s task was to document the trip. Finally, their youngest a girl of about eighteen months died in 1857.

After the Mavericks returned to San Antonio, Samuel expanded his West Texas landholdings from almost 140,000 acres in 1851 to over 300,000 acres at the time of his death in 1870. He served in the state legislatures from 1851-1863, where he worked for equal opportunity for his Mexican and German constituents. He fought for liberal land acquisition laws and for a fair and efficient judicial system.

He opposed secession, but when the conflict became inevitable, he supported the Confederacy. Four of their sons served in the Confederacy and Mary worked in the relief effort in San Antonio. A devout Episcopalian, she helped establish St. Mark’s Church and served for over twenty years as president of the Ladies’ Parish Aid Society.

With the help of her son George Madison Maverick, Mary shaped her diaries into her memoir and published a few copies in 1895.  She served as a member of the San Antonio Historical Society and of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. As president for many years of the Alamo Monument Association, she kept the public aware of the need to restore the decaying site, even writing a brief account of the fall of the Alamo. Mary Maverick and her many descendants have worked to preserve San Antonio and the memory of the pioneer men and women who shaped the future of Texas.

Picture File
Maverick Family
Mary Adams Maverick
CN96.153

THE BLIND MAN’S TOWN

In 1854 Adam Rankin Johnson, a twenty-year-old from Kentucky settled in Burnet County on the edge of the western frontier. He fought Indians, which could be expected since he worked as a surveyor and Indians believed the surveyor’s compass was the instrument that

Adam Rankin Johnson (1834-1922)

was pushing them off the land. In 1854, Johnson stood on the banks of the Colorado River and a dream took shape as he viewed a waterfall cascading down fifty feet over a series of three limestone formations. He had found the spot for building an industrial city.

“Quaker Guns” made with a charred log and a stovepipe set between wagon wheels.

During the Civil War, Johnson went back to Kentucky to enlist as a scout. He rose in the ranks as his Rangers fought behind enemy lines, harassing Union supply centers. In July 1862, Johnson’s men were outnumbered by federal troops guarding supplies at Newburgh, Indiana. He had his men construct two “Quaker Guns,” using a stovepipe and a charred log which they anchored between wagon wheels. Placing the assemblage on a hillside, the Union troops believed they were looking down the barrel of two cannons. Johnson led his band of about thirty-five guerillas across the Ohio River and captured the Union supplies without firing a shot. From then on, his men called him “Stovepipe Johnson.”

His exploits during the war eventually earned him the rank of brigadier general by June 1864. However, two months later, in a battle in Kentucky, Johnson was accidentally shot by his own men, permanently blinded, captured by the federals, and imprisoned until the end of the war.

General Adam Johnson came home to his wife and family and set about fulfilling his dream. Although he could no longer see, he had not lost his vision. Some accounts say he directed from memory one his sons to drive his carriage about the county as he made land purchases.

In 1881, General Johnson’s land ownership suddenly took on new importance when the Texas state capitol burned. In the rush to rebuild, the planners discovered that the intended limestone for the capitol’s exterior was inferior. It so happened that Johnson’s land lay within a mile of Granite Mountain, and the owners of the 180-acre batholith that rose above the landscape offered to give the granite for the capitol if the state constructed a railroad from Austin. General Johnson immediately set about getting the land donated for the right of way.

Granite Mountain provided for Galveston’s seawall and many state buildings.

When the railroad arrived to begin hauling what was eventually 4,000 flatcars of granite for construction of the Texas capitol, General Johnson and his partners were ready to lay out their town. Within a week Johnson held a public sale of lots from a grandstand in the center the new town. Although many people called it “The Blind Man’s Town,” the official name of Marble Falls finally took root.

The Old Mill overlooking the limestone series of falls

Johnson’s dream of harnessing the Colorado River kept meeting setbacks until 1893 when The Ice, Light and Water Company provided power for the city and the nearby textile plant. But it was 1951 before The Blind Man’s Dream was fulfilled in a different form. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) completed a series of six dams beginning at a site on the river that General Johnson had marked in 1854 as the perfect site for industrial development. Buchanan Dam is the first in the chain of dams that create the Highland Lakes, known not for industry, but for hydroelectric power, flood control, and recreation.

Max Starcke Dam, the fourth in the chain, created Lake Marble Falls, which covers the old limestone outcropping that General Johnson gazed upon in 1854. The city he dreamed of building has become the center of a vast recreational region.

General Adam Johnson’s other legacies include one son, Rankin Johnson, Sr. who became a Major League pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.  General Johnson died in 1922 and is buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin next to his wife Josephine and near his grandson, Judge George Christian Sr., and a great-grandson George Christian Jr., White House Press Secretary for President Lyndon Johnson.

Adam Johnson standing before the old mill.

Immigrants Built a San Antonio Icon

The 159-year-old Menger Hotel is the grand dame of San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza, thanks to the hard work of two young immigrants William and Mary Menger. William was one of those younger sons in Germany who didn’t inherit so he became a cooper, making casks and

William Menger
Courtesy Menger Hotel

barrels for beer and wine. The twenty-year-old sailed for the United States in 1847 and arrived in San Antonio about 1850. He took a room in a boardinghouse run by Mary Guenther because the young widow spoke German and she was a fine cook and housekeeper.

Mary and her mother emigrated from Hanover in 1846. Soon after they reached San Antonio, her mother died, and Mary was robbed of all her money. She worked for an American family until she married Emil Guenther in 1848. Together, they operated a boarding house, but within the first year of marriage, Emil and their infant baby died, leaving Mary alone again.

Mary’s new border, William Menger found that his cooperage skills served him well because barrels were in demand for shipping and storing everything from coffee to crackers, molasses to bacon and flour. The following year, although she was eleven years his senior, William and Mary decided to marry.

William was Lutheran, but in deference to Mary’s Catholic faith, he hired a horse to go thirty miles west to Castroville to bring his friend Rev. Claude Dubuis (future Bishop of the Galveston Diocese) to perform the nuptials. When the priest arrived, William apologized for the horse that was obviously a broken-down old nag. The priest said, “I’m glad you didn’t send a better horse or Indians along the way would have killed me to get my horse.”

William helped with the boardinghouse, continued with his cooperage business, and over the next nine years, they had four children, three of whom lived to adulthood. In 1855, William decided to stop making the barrels and concentrate on filling them. He hired a German master brewer and constructed the Western Brewery east of Alamo Plaza. He selected the site for two reasons: its access to the spring waters of the Alamo Madre Acequia or irrigation ditch. The waters cooled his thick-walled underground cellar and chilled the lager beers. And the locale sat next door to the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Depot, providing a clientele of officers and soldiers.

The Mengers also built a larger boardinghouse nearby. They solved the problem of it being across the San Antonio River from the primary commercial centers of the Main and the Military plazas by offering carriage rides for boarders and diners in the boardinghouse restaurant. Of course, the guests enjoyed the brewery.

1859 Menger Hotel

Apparently, the high-quality beer and fine restaurant grew the business, because within two years the Mengers hired a Prussian born builder J.H. Kampmann to construct a two-story limestone (from the quarry that created the current Sunken Gardens) hotel on the boardinghouse site. The Menger Hotel opened on February 1, 1859, with tours of the rooms, a reception, and positive reviews even in the national press. By the third night, the hotel was fully booked with army officers, their families, and traveling merchants.

Menger Gallery, historic wing.

Almost immediately, plans began to add a forty-room annex with a tunnel connecting to the brewery. Since the railroad would not arrive until 1877, the Menger offered fine stables for the convenience of their guests.

The Menger family and many of their employees who were German immigrants lived in the hotel, along with about twenty-four hotel guests. The restaurant under the direction of Mary took advantage of German farmers for fresh fruits and vegetables that were not common to Anglo-Americans. She broadened the meat selection to include venison, wild turkey, quail, bear meat, buffalo, and turtles from the San Antonio River. William raised and butchered his own hogs for bacon, ham, and sausage. They imported specialty items such as tea, cod fish, seasonal cranberries, sultana raisins, English currents, and stuffed olives. Eager to make the hotel more than a local attraction, Menger brought in champagne, wine, claret, sherry, and whiskey. The hostelry was famous for its ice shipped from Boston through the port at Indianola and hauled to San Antonio on special wagons. It cost extra if a guest wanted ice in their whiskey.

Menger Hotel prospers

The Menger served as a center for social and civic organizations. In the approach to and during the Civil War, the hotel accommodated political groups where speeches were held and parades gathered in front of the building. Despite the Union blockade of the Gulf ports, Confederate officers stayed at the hotel, and Menger acquired food through his connections in the West and South for shipments from the neutral Mexican ports.

By 1867, the city was still ten years away from getting a railroad that would connect with Texas ports, and the Army was looking for a better location. Menger quickly built facilities following Army specifications, which included a large warehouse and two cisterns, next to the hotel. He then leased the buildings to the federal government at a low rate. The Army used the facilities until Fort Sam Houston was opened in 1877.

The Mengers traveled to Germany and Paris in 1867 to purchase furniture for the hotel. Upon their return, William saw a Silsby Rotary Engine used for firefighting in New York. He had founded and led the Alamo Fire Association Number Two before the war. He immediately paid $4,000 for the equipment and had it shipped at a cost of $900 to Indianola and then by ox wagon to San Antonio, giving his city the first steam engine in Texas.

William Menger died unexpectedly at the age of forty-five in 1871, leaving Mary and their eldest son Louis to successfully maintain the high standards of the hotel. Mary bought more land to expand the hotel and added modern gaslights. Illustrious guests continued to frequent the hotel. When President Ulysses Grant visited in 1880 the menu for his reception was printed in French.

With the arrival of the railroad in 1877, national beer companies moved in to compete with the Western Brewery. Mary and Louis Menger closed the brewery the following year and used its space to build a three-story, L-shaped addition, which added one hundred rooms. In 1881 Mary and Louis Menger sold the hotel and property for $228,500 and the furniture for $8,500 (about $2.8 million today) to the original builder, J.H. Kampmann.

The Menger continued to prosper, underwent several major restorations and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It is a member of the Historic Hotels of America.

The Menger Hotel today

TRAINS LOADED WITH ORPHANS

A 1910 Victorian dollhouse is on display at the Heritage Village in Seguin. It belonged to five-year-old Alice O’Brien who arrived in Texas on an orphan train from New York City. She lived only nine months with her new family before the mother died and German immigrants

Dietz Doll House

Dietz and his sister, Miss Mollie, asked the parish priest to allow them to raise Alice in their home. Louis Dietz, a local cabinetmaker, immediately built the ornate child-size playhouse complete with a handmade wardrobe and dresser for Alice and her new playmates.

Alice grew up in the Dietz home and her little house eventually became the property of the Seguin Conservation Society where it is displayed as a reminder of approximately 200,000 unwanted, abandoned, neglected, and orphaned children from the slums of New York City who were shipped to small towns and farms in forty-seven states between 1854 and 1929.

Destination sites of orphans.

The program began when Charles Loring Brace, a Congregationalist minister from Hartford, Connecticut, moved in 1848 to New York to study theology and was horrified to discover thousands of vagrant children on the streets—begging, selling flowers, boot blacking, stealing, joining gangs, and prostituting themselves to survive.  Civil authorities, overcome by the shear numbers, treated the children like criminals placing them in adult prisons and almshouses. Brace believed the children were not criminals, but victims of terrible financial and social conditions.

Although poverty had always existed, the economic recession in the mid-nineteenth century, the onset of the industrial revolution that resulted in many job losses, and the arrival of European immigrant families without the skills to find work, created intolerable big city slums. Many of the children were orphans, some were on the street to help support their families, and others were abandoned because parents could no longer care for them.

In March 1853, Brace organized the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) with plans to give the children religious, vocational, and academic instructions. His group soon established the Newsboys’ Lodging House, the nation’s first runaway shelter where boys found inexpensive room, board, and some education. Brace and his organization tried to find jobs and homes for the children, but they were soon overwhelmed with more children than they could handle and not enough money to expand their services. That’s when Brace hit on the idea of sending groups of children to small towns and farms. His plan called for families to raise the children as their own—feeding, clothing, educating, and giving each child $100 upon his or her twenty-first birthday. Brace and his colleagues believed that offering the children as “helpers” on the farms and in the homes would be an incentive for families to open their doors.

The first trainload of forty-five children arrived in Dowagiac, Michigan, at three in the morning on October 1, 1854. They waited on the station platform until dawn and then moved to a meetinghouse that served that Sunday as the Presbyterian church.  Notices placed in the newspapers and posted at the general store, a tavern, and at the railroad station, advised residents that homeless children would be available for them to take and rear as their own. The plan called for each family to be recommended by their local pastor, a doctor, or

Newspaper Ad for Orphan Train Children

another worthy public servant. However, beginning with the first trip, children were handed out along the route simply because the society’s agent accompanying the group believed the prospective “parent” looked worthy.

After the crowd examined the children—some actually felt their muscles or looked into their mouths—the selections began the next morning. By the following Friday, eight children—mostly those too young to work—had not been selected. They were placed on another train for Chicago, where the society’s agent left them and headed back to New York. The group continued another day and a half to Iowa City where a pastor who ran an orphanage tried to place the children with local families.

Although the plan called for representatives of the CAS to check on the welfare of the children, most of the letters of inquiry were ignored and the fate of the children remained in the hands of the families who took them. Some thrived in their new surroundings. For instance, on August 2, 1859, twenty-seven children left New York on a weeklong train ride bound for Indiana. Two boys about ten years old sat next to each other —John Green Brady, who later claimed he had been rescued off the streets of New York by Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., father of the future president and Andrew H. Burke.  Brady became a Presbyterian minister, moved to Alaska and served as governor of the territory from 1897 to 1906. Burke became a drummer boy during the Civil War, finished his education, and moved to North Dakota where he served as governor from 1891 to 1892. A listing in 1917 of “Noteworthy Careers” of CAS children named 180 who served in impressive positions such as U.S. congressmen, clergymen, bankers, physicians, and teachers.

Critics of the program, which was copied by up to 100 private “child welfare” charities in the large eastern cities, say that these groups actually “bound out” children into indentured servitude to western states. Many of the children told stories of being

Dressed to meet prospective “parents.”

taken by farm families who had lost their slaves after the Civil War and saw an opportunity to acquire a free labor force. Some of the farmers sent the children to other farmers or tried to send them back to New York, complaining that the children were awkward and did not know the first thing about farm work. Many of the children ran away from their new homes.

Galveston became the end of the train line for many of the children who were taken in by the Island City Protestant Orphans Home that had moved into a grand Gothic Revival building.

1895 home of Island City Protestant Orphans Home

During the 1900 storm that killed over 6,000 people, the orphans survived huddled in the massive, crumbling building. After two years in Dallas, the children returned to a rebuilt facility, which continued to operate until 1984.

Crumbled remains of Orphans home where all survived.

Today, the old Galveston Orphans Home has been reborn as the Bryan Museum, a renowned collection of Southwest art and artifacts. The building restoration uncovered a few toys on the children’s ground floor play area and names carved on the wall of a hideaway under the stairs.

Children’s hideaway under the stairs. Display at Bryan Museum.

Although some children continued to be “placed out,” the last official shipment of orphans left New York headed to Sulphur Springs, Texas, on May 31, 1929.

Stephen O’Connor’s Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed offers a detailed account of the program.