A Steady Onslaught of Immigrants

In 1844, Samuel Addison White saw an opportunity to make some money and develop his barren piece of property that jutted into the waters between Matagorda and Lavaca bays, a protected area along the Central Texas coast. Prince Karl of Solms Braunfels, an aristocratic emissary representing a group of German noblemen, had shown up on the shell beach where

Prince Karl of Solms Braunfels

Prince Karl of Solms Braunfels

White had built his small house.  Prince Karl was desperate.  He had been sent to Texas by noblemen who had created a grand scheme to make a fortune by shipping thousands of farmers, craftsmen, and intellectuals to cheap land in Texas. When Prince Karl reached Galveston in July and discovered that the 9,000 acres his noblemen friends had purchased was unsuitable for settlement, he was overwhelmed by the sudden arrival of a shipload of colonists.  He needed a port for disembarkation and a route that offered easy passage into western Texas.  White agreed to allow the German immigrants to occupy the beach near his home until the prince could make arrangements for their trek inland.

Prince Karl and White were stunned in late November and December as four more brigs carrying 439 immigrants sailed into Matagorda Bay.  Each family had paid the Adelsverein (society of nobility) $240 for transportation to Texas, for 120 acres, and for the necessities for survival until they could bring in their first harvest.  Instead, they huddled on the wet gravel shore with no trees and no buildings or other protection from the howling winds of a “norther.”  Prince Karl had secured the services of the Rev. Louis Ervendberg, a German Protestant minister, who conducted Christmas services and offered communion.  The group continued their traditional Christmas observances with a small tree—

Transportation to the Texas interior

Transportation to the Texas interior

either an oak or a cedar—and the children sang carols.  Soon after the New Year, fifteen ox-drawn wagons and fifteen two-wheeled carts were secured and loaded for their journey into Texas as Prince Karl searched for a suitable settlement.  He moved ahead of the wagon train and had the good fortune to find a tract where a short, spring-fed river (the Comal) offered excellent waterpower.  The weary settlers arrived at their new home on March 21, 1845, one week after the Prince made the purchase.  Despite their disappointment with the Adelsverein and the failure to secure their promised acreage, they named the site New Braunfels in honor of Prince Karl’s home.  In less than a month Prince Karl abandoned the colony even before his replacement had arrived.

Meantime, not all the Germans trusted Prince Karl enough to follow him on the inland search for a new settlement.  Johann Schwartz (Swartz) and his family were among those who chose to stay at Indian Point.  Schwartz purchased property from Samuel Addison White three miles down the bay and built a home on the site that became the center of the port city of Indianola.

Neither Prince Karl’s abandonment, nor the Adelsverein’s failure to adequately fund their grand scheme slowed the shipment of more unsuspecting colonists to Texas.  Between the fall of 1845 and the following spring, thirty-six ships brought 5,247 men, women, and children to the shore at Indian Point.  There were no wagons or carts available to haul their meager supplies to New Braunfels because of Texas and U.S. politics.  The impending war with Mexico over Texas’ annexation to the U.S. meant that the U.S. military troops had swept through the area confiscating all the means of transportation to haul their supplies to the Rio Grande.  Upon hearing from the Adelsverein that more colonists were heading to Texas, Prince Karl’s replacement, Baron Johann Ottfried von Meusebach (who had the good sense to change his name to John before he reached Texas) had barracks and tents constructed along the beach for the new arrivals.  As the extreme cold of that winter set in, people began dying of respiratory diseases.

The tragedy served as a vehicle to create a community.  Dr. Joseph Martin Reuss, who arrived on one of the ships, began his medical practice by caring for the immigrants and opened an apothecary where he prescribed free medicines.  When Henry (Heinrich) Huck, a young German who had settled in New Orleans in 1844, heard about the suffering of those stranded on the Texas coast, he quickly loaded a schooner with lumber and medicine and sailed for Indian Point.  Huck opened a lumberyard, helped Dr. Reuss distribute the free medicine, and gave lumber to families for constructing coffins.

Henry Runge had come to the United States through Baltimore, moved to Indian Point in late 1845, and used a tent to open the area’s first bank.

As the summer heat of 1846 descended on the encampment and a steady flow of new arrivals poured in, the drinking water became polluted, the sanitation facilities proved inadequate, and a plague of mosquitoes, green stinging flies, and house flies descended on the community. Frau Reuss, Frau Huck, Mrs. White, and some of the other women who had become permanent residents prepared broth for the sick and cared for children whose mothers were ill.

The number of dead reached such proportions that they resorted to wrapping victims in blankets and burying them in mass graves.  No one knows how many perished; the estimates ranged from 400 to over 1,200.  Many people panicked and began walking to the inland colonies, spreading diseases as they moved along the route.  Over 200 died along the way.

Samuel Addison White platted a new town on his land in 1846 and began selling lots to many of the German families that decided to remain on the coast and begin their new life at Indian Point—a choice that would give them the prosperity and freedom they had imagined when they listened to the false promises of the Adelsverein.

Map of Indian Point

Map of Indian Point

Indianola: Gateway to the Southwest

Ghost town of Indianola. Diorama created by Jeff Underwood, Philip Thomae photographer, Courtesy of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Ghost town of Indianola. Diorama created by Jeff Underwood, Philip Thomae photographer, Courtesy of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Waves lap the sunbaked shell beach of a ghost town that never should have been.  Despite its locale at near sea level, people built the thriving seaport of Indianola that rivaled Galveston as a major shipping point on the Texas coast.  Its shore became the landing site for thousands of Germans escaping poverty in the old country; its port served as the debarkation point for military personnel headed west to protect settlers from marauding Indians; and its wharves hosted tons of gold and silver from the mines in Northern Mexico destined for the mint in New Orleans.

Long before Indianola sprang up on the flat, treeless shore overlooking Matagorda and Lavaca bays, the future of Texas took shape as the result of events that occurred there.  In 1685 the Frenchman, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, missed the mouth of the Mississippi River where he had planned to establish a colony and sailed another 400 miles to the central Texas coast.  He moved his ships through the treacherous sand bars and shifting currents of Pass Cavallo, the opening from the Gulf of Mexico into Matagorda Bay.  The Spanish Colonial government was so inflamed by LaSalle’s presence that it sent eleven land and sea expeditions in search of the intruders.  When the Spanish found LaSalle’s abandoned Fort St. Louis in 1689, the Frenchman had been dead for two years—murdered by his own men.  Nevertheless, the Spanish began constructing missions and presidios along the eastern border of Texas, intending to convert the Indians and provide a bulwark against French incursions from Louisiana.

One hundred years before Mexico won its independence from Spain, the Spanish padres built a mission and presidio on the site of LaSalle’s Fort Louis.  The Indians were not receptive, which forced the Spanish to move the facilities two more times before finally settling about fifty miles inland at present Goliad.

The calm waters of the inland bays encouraged the dream of protected ports.  John Linn, a Victoria merchant, established a warehouse on Lavaca Bay in 1831 that grew into Linnville a port that served, along with Galveston, as a major point of entry for goods coming into Texas.  Tragedy struck in August 1840 when 1,000 Comanches, including warriors and their families, furious at what they regarded as insulting and cruel treatment by white authorities at the Council House meeting in San Antonio the previous March, swept down across the Texas prairie stealing horses and murdering.  When they reached the shore at Linnville, they killed a few and captured two women and a child before the startled residents escaped into boats and sat helplessly offshore as they watched their town pillaged and burned. The attack, the largest against any U.S. city, became known as the Great Comanche Raid.

The next chapter in the saga of Matagorda and Lavaca bays began in Germany in the 1840s where a group of twenty-one noblemen, seeing an opportunity to ease the political unrest sweeping the country; to reduce the overcrowding of peasant farmers; and to make a fortune for themselves, organized the Adelsverein or Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. The Adelsverein appointed Prince Karl of Solms Braunfels, a fellow aristocrat, as the emissary to lead the settlers to the new land.  When Prince Karl landed in Galveston to complete plans for the colony, he discovered that the 9,000-acre site the noblemen had purchased was too far west of Austin and San Antonio for colonists to get supplies; it occupied land that was too poor for farming; and it lay in the middle of Comanche territory.  Before Prince Karl could make other arrangements, four shiploads of Germans were dumped on the cold shell beach at Indian Point, an empty spit of land jutting into the waters where Matagorda and Lavaca bays converge.

In the coming weeks this blog post will tell the story of the development along the coast of a new port city that welcomed German immigrants, hosted two shipments of camels, and thrived economically as war clouds began to form.

LA SALLE LEGACY

Two years after his death in 1687, explorer, fur trader, Frenchman, and visionary René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle deserves credit for the government of New Spain’s decision to construct missions in East Texas.

The story springs from the massive colonization and exploitation of the New World by powerful European countries.  Although Norse explorers reached the Canadian mainland as early as A.D. 1000, Spain, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492, undertook the most aggressive campaign of colonization, spreading after 1500 from the Caribbean islands to the interior of North, Central, and South America.  Although Portugal acquired what is present Brazil, the Spanish didn’t have serious competition until the 17th century when the English, French, and the Dutch began their incursions into the New World.

The Spanish discovery of rich silver mines in Northern Mexico in the last half of the 16th century, led to settlements in the region.  When dreams of finding riches in present New Mexico and Texas did not materialize, Spanish interest lagged until England began exploring the New World.  The threat of competing empires prompted the Spanish crown to commission Juan de Oñate in 1595 to colonize present New Mexico.  When Oñate reached El Paso, he claimed for Spain all the land drained by the Rio del Norte (present Rio Grande). For almost 100 years as Franciscans established more than twenty missions in New Mexico and travelers made the journey through El Paso, the Spanish government ignored the interior of Texas.

All that changed in 1685 when Spanish officials heard that the Frenchman, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle landed on the Texas coast.

La Salle began his adventures in 1666 at age twenty-two when, with a small allowance from his family, he sailed from his home in Rouen, France to Canada to join his brother Jean, a Sulpician priest.  La Salle worked in the lucrative fur trade, which led to his exploring the river systems connected to the Great Lakes and to his dream of establishing trading posts along the Illinois River and down the Mississippi.

Originally believing the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and offered a western passage to China, he canoed in 1682 to the mouth of the river, named the territory La Louisiane in honor of Louis XIV, and claimed all the lands drained by the river for France.

Upon his return to France in 1683, La Salle obtained the king’s blessing for a voyage to the mouth of the Mississippi to establish a colony, secure French Canada’s access to a warm water port for its fur trade, and challenge the Spanish Empire’s claim to all the land from the coast of Florida to Mexico.

La Salle departed France on July 24, 1684, with four ships and 300 colonists. Plagued from the beginning with misfortune–pirates captured one ship in the West Indies, and recent discoveries of early documents indicate La Salle’s “lack of geographical understanding” caused him to miss the mouth of the Mississippi and sail another 400 miles to Matagorda Bay on the mid-Texas coast.

As the expedition entered the mouth of the bay on February 20, 1685, the rough waters of Pass Caballo sank the storeship Aimable. Her crew and several disenchanted colonists returned to France on the naval vessel Joly.  Before La Salle’s colony moved off Matagorda Island, their numbers dwindled to 180.  Malnutrition, Indian attack, and overwork reduced their numbers even more after they moved inland and constructed Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek in present Victoria County.

The following October La Salle left Fort St. Louis to explore the region and determine his exact location.  Upon his return in March 1686 La Salle learned a winter storm wrecked La Belle, the colonists only remaining ship. Finally realizing the bay they entered lay west of the Mississippi, La Salle made two marches back toward East Texas into Hasinai, or Tejas Indian territory hoping to find the Mississippi and reach the fort he had established on the Illinois River.  On March 19, 1687, during his second march on which he took seventeen colonists with him, a dispute in a hunting camp resulted in the death of seven of his followers. Then one of La Salle’s own men asassinated La Salle.  Six of the survivors finally reached Canada and eventually returned to France to tell their story.

About twenty women, children, handicapped, and those out of favor with La Salle remained at Fort St. Louis. One of the children later recounted the story of all the adults being killed in a Karankawa attack around Christmas 1688.  Karankawa women saved the children whom the Spanish eventually rescued and sent as servants to Mexico.

When Spaniards learned of La Salle’s intrusion into Spanish Texas, they began the search–five sea voyages and six land marches–in pursuit of the French intruders.  They found the wrecked Belle and parts of Aimable on April 4, 1687, but it took another two years before Alonso De León discovered the destroyed settlement.

The French arrival in Spanish Texas, coupled with concern over French intrusion into East Texas from Louisiana, prompted Spanish officials to establish six missions in East Texas to Christianize the Indians, turn them into good Spanish citizens, and establish the region as a buffer against French Louisiana.  The first, Mission San Francisco de los Tejas opened in 1690 and lasted only three years before the padres fled.  The endeavor taught the Spanish about the land, the Indian culture, and convinced them future missions must be accompanied by presidios and civilian settlements.  The East Texas missions by 1772 moved permanently to San Antonio.

Today a statue of La Salle looks out into Matagorda Bay near the ghost town of Indianola and streets, cities, counties, hotels, causeways, and schools bear the explorer’s name from Texas to the Canadian provinces.

In 1995 the Texas Historical Commission led an archeological excavation in the muck of Matagorda Bay to raise La BelleHer artifacts, which the commission holds in trust for France, are displayed in nine Texas museums.  The wreckage of L’Aimable has not been found.