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The Ten Most Important German-Texans

gmarquardt has an M.A. in history and German from SWTSU and has over 30 years teaching experience at public high schools.

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The ten most influential and important German Texans in history are an eclectic group who were not only a major group of settlers, but were entrepreneurs, artists, politicians and soldiers who worked tirelessly to better their newly adopted country. Large tracks of Americans still consider themselves German Americans, and many large groups of South Americans, Canadians and even some Africans identify more with their German immigrant background rather than the country in which they reside. In the United States, Germans as a group constitute the largest immigrant cohort, but are recently overshadowed by the newer Hispanic immigrants, especially in Texas. Nevertheless, a special group of immigrants are proud to be called German Texans, a group lucky enough to come from Germany, but also live in the great state of Texas.

Friedrich Ernst

Considered the "Father of the Immigrants" Christian Friedrich Diercks was born at Burg Gödens on June 18, 1796. He father died when he was only four years old, and when he turned eighteen he enlisted in the Oldenburg Regiment and trained as a soldier. He achieved the rank of sergeant and participated in the campaign against Napoleon in 1813. After the war, he married, had multiple children and worked in a post office. He was charged with embezzling money and fled Germany, arriving in New York in 1829 under his new name, Johann Friedrich Ernst. Eventually he moved to Missouri to settle the area, but along the journey read about colonies in Texas and decided to move there instead. In March of 1831, he and his family arrived in Texas and became the first official German family to settle in Texas.

By April, Ernst received a grant for over 4000 acres in Austin County for his family. He settled the area and began writing letters to his old friends back in Oldenburg and Westphalia. He composed many different letters, and most were published throughout German territory. These "America Letters" described a land with plenty of game and fish, a moderate climate, fertile and spacious land, and little to no trouble at all to obtain these lands. According to Ernst, all that was needed was good, strong German labor and hard work, and settlement became easy. All of these wonderful descriptions helped promote increasingly more German immigration.

Ernst assisted many of those new immigrants as well, turning his house into a hotel and boardinghouse for travelers and new settlers. Many of those settlers he assisted financially. He sold lots from his original grant to the new settlers, who in turn created a small town. This resulted in the town of Industry becoming the first German town incorporated in Texas. He became a Justice of the Peace in Austin Country and in typical German immigrant fashion, remained busy with a variety of social activities. He grew tobacco, opened a cigar factory, recorded weather data at his ranch, dabbled in political discourse and petitioned the Texas government to officially endorse and encourage German immigration. Although Ernst’s actual date of death is not exactly known, the effect he had on German immigration is very well known.

Ottomar von Behr

Born in Germany in 1810, Ottomar von Behr was the son of a high official of the Duchy of Anhalt Cöthen. With his nobility, he was well educated and became interested in the natural sciences. As a young man he was privileged to meet and become friends with both the famous explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and the influential writer and novelist Bettina von Arnim. Interested in exploring, discovery and travel, he first came to Texas around 1846 and became friends with the Adelsverein’s General Commissioner Hermann Spiess. The two returned together to Germany, where von Behr published his Guter Rath für Auswanderer nach den Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung von Texas, "Good Advice for Immigrants to the United States of America, with Special Attention to Texas," a practical guidebook on successful farming and ranching techniques for German Texan immigrants. The book also spoke favorably of Texas’ climate, land prices, availability of said land and the friendliness of the Native Americans. Although he often traveled back to Germany to collect rent on certain properties he still owned, he nevertheless settled in a small town founded by Nicolaus Zink in 1848. He gave the town it’s name, Sisterdale, located deep in the Hill Country on the Sister creek. It was here on his ranch that he crossbred German sheep with Mexican sheep, and pioneered many successful methods for Hill Country ranching. In fact, today sheep outnumber cattle in this part of Texas, partly due to his successful methods. Together with his book and his social contacts in the Hill Country, he lay the foundations for stable agricultural development among all Texans.

Moreover, he was appointed the first postmaster of Sisterdale on October 23, 1851. Typical of most German settlers, he too was very active socially and politically. Musically inclined, he represented Sisterdale at the first Texas Sängerfest in nearby New Braunfels. The Sängerfest was an annual singing contest and general celebration in which various German participants competed against one another. It is still practiced in New Braunfels to this day. Von Behr started a lending library, (perhaps the very first one in Texas), was a Justice of the Peace, and dabbled often in meteorology and the natural sciences, similar to Friedrick Dierks.

On one return trip to Germany to check on his property and to collect his rents, von Behr died in 1856. His legacy on assisting further immigration as well as fostering Hill Country ranching methods solidifies his importance in German Texan history.

Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels

Many refer to Prince Karl as the most important German Texan, as he lay bare the mistakes of the Adelsverein which tried to encourage settlement in Texas. The Adelsverein was an organization made up of noblemen who encouraged German emigration to Texas, but were often fleeced by both German and Texas con-men. Although Karl himself was ill-prepared for the many social and political problems of the settlements, he quickly removed many of the land dealers and tried his best to support the settlers in Texas.

Born on July 27, 1812 in Neustrelitz, he was born into a royal family. Educated and raised with a noble upbringing, he brought a slight scandal to his family when he married a commoner with whom he had three children. Eventually he had the marriage annulled due to noble pressure. He became a military officer in the cavalry of the Austrian Army and while serving, he read books about the settlements in Texas and became interested in supporting the Adelsverein. In 1844, he was appointed the Commissioner General of the first colony commissioned by the Adelsverein. He sailed to Texas in 1844, surveying the land and exploring the purchases that the Adelsverein had made. He realized that most of the purchases were cons, and he tried as best he could to ease the transition for settlers from Germany to Texas. He purchased additional land of the Guadalupe river north of San Antonio, which he believed to be more suitable for settling.

It was here that Karl laid the cornerstone for Sophie’s Castle, which was to be a large castle for his new love, Maria Josephine Sophie, who he planned on marrying later in the year. However, Sophie refused to leave Germany, so Karl returned to his homeland and married her on December 3, 1845. He rejoined various armies and participated in the Austro-Prussian War. He died in 1875.

As a result of his leadership and dedication to settlers, he named the new settlement on the Guadalupe, New Braunfels, in honor of his homeland. Today, New Braunfels is a thriving town that reflects the diversity of Texas while staying true to its German roots.

Betty Holekamp

Born in Hannover to an accountant of the King Ernest Augustus, Elizabeth (Betty) Wilhelmine Abbethern was raised with the education and formality known mostly to royalty. Classically trained, she was both highly educated and musical. In fact, she met her future husband during a royal function. Georg "Fritz" Holekamp, son of the royal architect, was playing the piano and asked for an vocal accompanist. Betty came forward, and impressed Georg so much, he courted her and eventually they were married.

Though royal contacts, they learned of settling opportunities in Texas. After their wedding in March of 1844, the decided to immigrate to Texas. Led by Prince Solms, over 200 settlers made their way from Germany to New Braunfels. Although not of noble stock, she knew the nobility well which led to many incidences in which she showed her rebellious side.

On the trip to New Braunfels, Prince Solms wished to impress the settlers by riding his horse across the swollen Guadalupe River. Not to be outdone by anyone of noble stock, Betty followed the Prince into the river and became known as the first non native American to cross the river on horseback. The next year, when Texas was admitted to the Union in 1845, Betty sewed a large United States flag that was flown in the town square of New Braunfels. Known as the Texas Lone Star and Stripes flag, this was the first American flag ever flown in New Braunfels, and believed to be the first flown in all of Texas. Illustrating many of the new German’s attitude toward their adopted country, the flag was a bold political statement. German nobility was still politically potent, but the flag was a slap in the face of Prince Solms as it illustrated that Texas was a larger part of the United States and the Germans were free to do as they wish.

The couple moved to Fredericksburg in early 1847, receiving 320 acres of land to settle. After just two years here, they purchased 55 acres in nearby Sisterdale. As settlers, they farmed, hunted, fished, cultivated the land, build homesteads, fought native Americans and colonized the Hill Country. After a few years they again moved, this time to San Antonio, then again in 1854 to Comfort. Here they assisted in laying out and founding Comfort. Indeed, the first house build here was the Holekamp residence. At this time Fritz decided to join the Confederacy. As he had some medical training in Germany he became a surgeon in the army. Most immigrants wished to stay loyal to the Union, and it is subsequently believed that he joined the army in order to save his sons from the Confederate draft. He was killed in battle in 1862.

Widowed, Betty Holekamp opened her house to boarders and opened a sewing and washing business in order to provide for her many children. She remained in Comfort until her death in 1902. And so Betty Holekamp is known as the German woman of firsts. The first immigrant woman to cross the Guadalupe on horse, the first to sew and fly the Union flag and the first female resident of New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Sisterdale and Comfort.

John Meusebach

John Meusebach

John Meusebach

By 1850, more than 20,000 Germans lived in Texas, mostly in the Hill Country area of central Texas, with major settlements in New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Comfort and Boerne. Perhaps the most important settler in the Hill Country was John Meusebach, who help found the city of Fredericksburg. Born in Dillenburg, Germany in 1812, Baron Otfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach became interesting in immigrating to the United States in 1844. His interests in geology and horticulture combined with his prolific reading about Texas led him in his desire to explore the Hill Country area. He soon acquired rights of settlement under the Republic of Texas’ Fisher-Miller Land Grant.

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Before settlement of the area occurred, Meusebach met with the local Indians and signed a peace treaty. Meeting with other German settlers and ten Comanche chiefs, the Germans promised the Indians $3,000 worth of goods in return for the Indians' pledge not to harass the colonists. On May 9, 1847, the Comanche chiefs came to Fredericksburg and signed the Meusebach-Comanche Treaty. This treaty became one of the most important documents of German-Texan history. The treaty never took away any land nor the rights of the Native Americans and stated that the Indians and the settlers were to live in harmony and peace. Unique in American history, this treaty is one of very few treaties ratified with native Americans that was never broken. As a sign of that mutual respect, in Fredericksburg today one can see decorated on the Maibaum (maypole) Indians and German settlers working together to colonize the town. The Indians helped by teaching the Germans the ways of the land, while the settlers helped the Indians by supplying goods and materials with the assistance of nearby Fort Martin Scott.

Treue der Union, Loyal to the Union

Treue der Union, Loyal to the Union

German Unionists Massacred at the Battle of the Neuces

Most Hill Country German immigrants in Texas were pro-Union. Immigrating to the United States and swearing their allegiance to their new country, they found it difficult to suddenly break those oaths and side with the Confederacy. Thousands of German Americans volunteered for military service, the majority for the North, but some did, in fact, fight for the Confederates. As a whole, Germans were the largest immigrant group to participate in the war. Pennsylvania had five all-German regiments in the war, and other states fielded other all-German regiments.

In Texas, most Germans were very community oriented and organized themselves into groups where they could speak their native tongue and practice their own customs and traditions. When the war broke out, German towns and communities linked many of the rural areas together and voiced their opposition to the Confederacy. By 1862 they realized they had little future in Texas, so they decided to emigrate back to the Union. Meeting near modern day Kerrville, Texas, Unionists of all backgrounds joined together and began their trek southwest toward Mexico, where they hoped to sail back to northeastern ports. Confederate soldiers, on orders to intercept these "traitors," went looking for them and caught them at the Nueces river. On August 10, 1862 a large battle ensued whereby the Confederate soldiers massacred some thirty men. Any Germans who surrendered were lined up and summarily shot.

Scattered, the survivors continued south, but were once again caught by the pursuing Confederates as they attempted a crossing of the Rio Grande river. On October 18th, the rebel soldiers opened fire, killing fifteen more men. In both skirmishes, the dead were left unburied, disrespected by the Southerners. After the war, many citizens of Comfort went to the Nueces battle site and gathered any remaining bones of their loved ones. They interred their remains and erected a monument. The monument, a monolith made of native Texas limestone is dedicated to soldiers who remained loyal to the Union. The inscription, written entirely in German, reads Treue der Union. (Loyal to the Union). Engraved on each side are the names of the Germans who died at various places along the trail to Mexico, as well as the names of the nine Unionists who were captured and then murdered.

Rebuilt in 1994, it retains its historical importance. The twenty foot tall obelisk is the only monument in the South where the United States’ flag is allowed to fly in perpetuity at half-staff. Today, this story and monument still incurs emotions from all over the United States. Many people in the small town of Comfort are very proud of their German heritage. In fact, Comfort’s economy is based on tourism and its German roots and history are the main attractions. On the other hand, many citizens of this conservative small town consider these German Unionists to be traitors. A fascinating juxtaposition, pride of heritage versus historical perceptions about the Civil War continues to haunt us to this day. This small battle proves that emotional scars incurred during the Civil War are far from vanquished.