Father of German Immigrants

Many early Texas settlers escaped a past that they preferred forgetting.  Johann Friedrich Ernst not only turned his back on his past, he changed his name and became such an outstanding German Texan that he earned the title of “Father of the Immigrants.”

Born in 1796 as Christian Friedrich Dirks (or Dierks), the future Texan began a five-year service in 1814 in the Duke of Oldenburg’s regiment, rising to the rank of quartermaster sergeant and earning a medallion for participating in the campaign against Napoleon. After five years of military service, the duke made Dirks clerk at the post office. (Some accounts claim he served as head gardener for the Duke of Oldenburg.)  In September 1829, apparently aware he was about to be charged by the duke with embezzling a large sum of money from the post office, Dirks took the name Ernst and fled Germany with his wife and five children.

The family settled first in New York where they operated a boarding house and became friends with Charles Fordtran a tanner from Westphalia, Germany.  Fordtran and the Ernst family made plans to settle in Missouri but as they sailed up the Mississippi River they heard of the free land available in Texas and changed their destination.  Arriving in Galveston on March 9, 1831, Ernst applied as a family man for a league of land (4,428 acres) from the Mexican government in the fertile rolling hills between present Houston and Austin.  Fordtran, as a single man received an adjoining quarter league.

Ernst did not reach Texas prepared for a pioneer life.  He did not know how to build a cabin, hated guns, and owned so little farming equipment that he was forced to use a hoe to break the soil for planting.  Still, he was so pleased with his new life of political freedom, good climate, and limitless opportunities that he wrote a glowing letter to his friend in Oldenburg describing the wonderful life that Texas offered.  The account received wide publicity throughout Germany, prompting many Germans to follow him to the new land.  Ernst and family welcomed the newcomers to their home, even loaning money to help many of the immigrants get started.

Apparently overwhelmed by the size of his land holdings, Ernst traded 1,000 acres for a dozen milk cows.  As Germans settled in the area around Ernst, they followed his lead and began growing corn, a crop and diet source totally unfamiliar to the immigrants.  Ernst also introduced tobacco growing and made cigars, which he marketed in Houston, Galveston, and nearby San Felipe.  He even kept records of the rainfall and temperature at his farm.

He sold pieces of his land as town-size lots to establish in 1838 the community of Industry, the first German town in Texas.  The source of the town’s name came from either the industriousness of its citizens or Ernst’s cigar industry.

Despite efforts of German noblemen in the mid-1840s that brought thousands of German settlers to Texas, Industry still carries the title of “Cradle of German Settlement in Texas.”  The 2010 census lists a population of 304.


12 thoughts on “Father of German Immigrants

  1. As the great grandson of two German speaking immigrants to Texas, Albert Meyer (Helena) and Jon Jacob Speary (Halletsville), I enjoyed your story about John Friedich Ernst. P.S. The last names were as Americanized. Speary was originally Sporri and Meyer was originally Meier. Jon Jacob served in the Confederate Army. Both were saloon keepers. A picture of Albert and some of his patrons taken in front of his saloon in 1884 appears on the website for Helena, which became a ghost town when the railroad went through Runge and bypassed Helena. I have a copy of Barry Harrin’s book “Helena Texas The Toughest Town on Earth.” The picture taken of my great grandfather’s saloon is reproduced on page 148 of Barry’s book. I have the original print. William A. Speary, Jr.


    • Fascinating. I think I found the photo of Albert Meyer and his patrons. Thanks for sharing.
      I haven’t been to Helena in years, but the last time I was there the courthouse was still standing and rusted jail cells sat nearby.


  2. Myra, if nothing else your blog will educate readers to the rich history of Texas and the many peoples who came here to settle 200 years ago. I’m afraid this history is not taught even in many Texas schools anymore and certainly not in the schools of the “Yankees” that have moved here in recent years.


    • Thanks, Tom. I agree that this is one way to spread the history of Texas. A publisher in Santa Fe is putting together a book of my Texas history blogs. It will be out this year and I hope it will be an interesting read for those who want to know more about this state.


  3. a 1000 acres for a dozen cows??? They must’ve been cow poor. I had no idea there was a German setltlement in TX. (Although my people were from German and they settle Oklahoma.) Another great piece.


    • Germans came to Texas by the thousands. My last two books are about the Germans settling on the coast and developing Indianola, a major port that rivaled Galveston until a final hurricane in 1886 left behind a ghost town.
      Thanks for continuing to read.


  4. Good story. My maternal great grandfather immigrated directly to Galveston from Bremen in 1854. He quickly built a shipping and transfer business in Lavaca and Galveston.. Served in the first Texas cavalry and is most famous for trying to run the blockade into Texas. After the War he moved his business to Abilene and became a prominent citizen, banker,


  5. I just re-read this, and everything came to a screeching halt while I started searching through photos I took at the Broadway cemetery complex in Galveston over the Memorial Day weekend.

    Oldenburg rang a bell, and I finally found what I was looking for: a photo of the grave of Rebecka C. Behrman, who was born in Oldenburg on 9-11-1797, and who died in Galveston in March, 1886.

    Her husband, Ludwig Georg August Behrman, was a pharmacist in Galveston. They came to this country in 1843, which makes it possible to imagine that they might (might!) have heard something of Ernst’s letter.

    One of their daughters, Theresa, married Henry Aschoff, whom I believe to be the son of Heinrich Christian Ludwig Aschoff. According to postings on message boards, he came to Texas in 1846, landing in Indianola with the Fisher Miller German immigrants. It’s an interesting connection that HCL Aschoff was a pharmacist, as well.

    Here’s a link to the Find-a-Grave site for Rebecka, and my photo of her grave today.


    • I love all these connections. I can’t remember if we have discussed Branson Malsch’s award-winning INDIANOLA: THE MOTHER OF WESTERN TEXAS, Shoal Creek Publishers 1977. If you haven’t already enjoyed Malsch’s book, I can recommend it. I have used it for my timeline for both of my last two books on Indianola. I checked to see if he mentions the Behrmans or Aschoff and he does not.

      I would not be surprised at the Behrman’s reading Ernst’s letter. Biesele in THE HISTORY OF THE GERMAN SETTLEMENTS IN TEXAS 1831-1861, pg. 43- discusses Ernst’s influence.

      Thanks for the interesting info.


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