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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LINDHEIMER: FATHER OF TEXAS BOTANY

If you have heard of the Texas prickly pear cactus, the Texas yellow star daisy, milkweed and loco weed, or the Texas rat snake, you may be surprised to know all five derive their scientific name from Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer—a botanist who scoured the wilds of Texas in the 1830s and 40s to discover several hundred new plant species.  His imprint on Texas history goes far beyond botany.

Raised in a wealthy German family and university educated, Lindheimer taught at Frankfurt’s Bunsen Institute where he became affiliated with a group seeking government reforms.  Finding himself at risk for his political associations, which alienated him from his family, he fled to the United States. Lindheimer settled first in Illinois where he joined some of his former German colleagues.  From there he joined another German group on a plantation near Vera Cruz, Mexico, where he began his lifelong fascination with collecting plants and insects.

Excited by reports of the Texas Revolution in 1836, Lindheimer joined a company of volunteers heading to Texas.  They missed the action, however, arriving the day after the final battle at San Jacinto.  For the next year Lindheimer served in the Texas army.

At the invitation of George Engelmann, a botanist and friend from Frankfurt, Lindheimer traveled to St. Louis where he agreed to collect plant specimens in Texas for Engelmann and Asa Gray, a Harvard botanist. Lindheimer roamed the Texas coast and hill country for nine years with his botanical cart and his dogs collecting plants, which he identified, dried, and shipped to Englemann at the Missouri Botanic Gardens and Asa Gray at Harvard.

When a group of German noblemen organized the Adelsverein in 1844 to settle immigrants in Texas, Lindheimer helped their leader Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels find the settlement site, which became New Braunfels, at the confluence of the Comal and Guadalupe rivers.  Prince Carl awarded Lindheimer a piece of property on the Comal River where Lindheimer built his home.

Lindheimer collected his first specimen of the nonvenomous Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) in New Braunfels.  Reaching lengths of more than six feet, the Texas rat snake consumes large quantities of rodents, birds, frogs and lizards.

Because of his years roaming through Texas, Lindheimer held the respect of area Indians and occasionally hosted Santana, war chief of the Comanche, in his home.

Married and raising a family of four children, Lindheimer gave up his travels in 1852 and for the next twenty years served as editor and then publisher of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. He also ran a private school for gifted children and served as the first justice of the peace for Comal County.

Believing a lack of bees needed to pollinate the fruit in the area accounted for the low fruit production, Lindheimer convinced Wilhelm Brückisch, a scientific beekeeper from Silesia (Prussia) to come to Texas.

Brückisch arrived with his wife, three sons, two daughters, and several hives of Italian black bees and settled across the Guadalupe River from New Braunfels.  Credited as the first person in Texas to begin the commercialization of bees, Brückisch established an apiary on the river and published numerous books and articles on beekeeping.

As rumblings of secession from the United States grew in intensity, Lindheimer is credited with keeping down much of the discontent felt in other German communities with his editorials admonishing his German readers opposing the Civil War to support the Confederacy as a means of maintaining regional stability. Historians say his postwar writings indicate his true loyalty lay with the Union.

Not all his readers agreed with Lindheimer’s views, among them the “Freethinkers” such as the three Brückisch sons, young intellectuals who came to Texas to get away from political and religious tyranny.  The family tells the story of how, while visiting a neighbor, the three brothers escaped detection when Confederate troops came looking for Union sympathizers.  The boys crawled in the cellar under the front porch.  The neighbor placed her rocking chair over the trap door, sat down, and began shucking corn, letting the shucks fall over the door.

The Brückisch sons joined other young men from around the Comfort area who headed to Mexico in 1862 (See True to the Union) to avoid conscription.  Confederates attacked them on the banks of the Nueces River about fifty miles from the Mexican border. Two Brückisch sons were killed; the third escaped, only to be caught and executed later.

At least twenty institutions hold Lindheimer’s plant collections, including the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the British Museum, the Durand Herbarium and Museum of Natural History in Paris, and the Komarov Botanic Institute in St. Petersburg.

Lindheimer died in 1879 and is buried in New Braunfels.  Today, the Lindheimer home on the banks of the Comal River serves as a museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Visitors see framed botanical specimens, the sword given to Lindheimer by Prince Carl, the family Bible published in 1701, Lindheimer’s desk and several pieces of furniture made by some of the New Braunfels cabinet makers.  

TRUE TO THE UNION

One of the few Union monuments south of the Mason-Dixon Line stands in Comfort, Texas, honoring a group of Union sympathizers killed by Confederate troops.  Most of the Unionists, young German immigrants recently arrived in the United States to escape oppression in their native country, saw themselves as freethinkers, intellectuals who did not believe in slavery.  They did not own land of sufficient size to need slave labor, and they did not want to separate from the country that recently welcomed them to its shores.

The young freethinkers established Comfort and several communities on the western edge of the Texas frontier.  Their mercantile businesses supplied the United States army outposts, and they opposed secession because of the disruption to their lucrative trade.

The Germans were not alone in opposition to secession.  Many prominent Texans, including Governor Sam Houston, were Unionist who fought a losing battle to convince Texans and the legislature of the dire consequences of secession.

After Texas seceded from the Union, all the federal troops manning the posts along the western frontier were called back to the United States, leaving the western communities exposed to Indian and outlaw attack.  A group of young men formed a militia claiming as their intent to protect the western counties.

The Confederates, suspecting the group posed a serious threat to the government, declared martial law. When Confederates demanded that all men 16 years and above join the army, about 68 young intellectuals under Major Fritz Tegener headed to Mexico, which remained neutral during the Civil War.

Failing to select a defensive position or even post a guard, the young Germans camped along the west bank of the Nueces River about 50 miles from the Mexican border.  Lt. C.D. McRae and his Confederate force of 94 followed the retreating Unionists and attacked before dawn on August 10, 1862.   After holding off three charges, the Unionists realized the impossibility of their position.  The survivors crawled through the Confederate line, leaving behind 19 dead and nine wounded.  Lt. McRae’s men executed the wounded a few hours after the battle.

Two Confederates were killed and 18 wounded, including McRae.  Of the Unionists who escaped, Confederates later killed seven, and six more drowned as they tried crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico.  Eleven returned home, and most of the others made it to Mexico and California.

In 1865 a group of German Texans traveled to the battle site, gathered the bones of the dead in tow sacks, and carried them back to Comfort for burial in a common grave.  The following year the community erected a monument at the gravesite titled “Treue der Union” (Loyalty to the Union).