Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Texas, Texas ueber alles: Germans form part of the Lone Star State’s ethnic diversity

The official language of Texas almost wasn’t English. It wasn’t Spanish or even French, either.

It almost was German.

Ja, you read that right. German.

The largest group of Europeans to immigrate to Texas was the Germans.

Back in 1831, Friedrich Diercks—or Johann Friedrich Ernst, as he was known in Texas—wrote a bunch of letters back to folks in Germany about how fabulous Texas was and the opportunities for settlers in this great land. He described Texas as having a winterless climate, lots of game and plenty of fertile land for farming. Texas, Ernst said, was an earthy paradise.

He was right, of course.

Ernst acquired more than 4,000 acres in an area that is now Austin County, and this is where “Manifest Deutschland” began in Texas.

The Germans arrived in the middle of the 19th century from Oldenburg, Westphalia, Holstein, Nassau, Hanover, Brunswick, Hesse, Thuringia and the Alsace. They settled in Houston, Galveston and San Antonio, as well as establishing towns such as Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Gruene, Boerne and little ol’ Walburg just the other side of I-35 from us. Many Germans came of their own volition; others were organized by the Adelsverein, a group of German nobles looking for greater wealth. Of them were Baron Otfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach (John O. Meusebach), founder of Fredericksburg and peacemaker with the Comanche Indians, and Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels, for whom New Braunfels is named.

Prince Karl eventually returned to Europe; Meusebach changed his name, renounced his titles and became a Texan. Back in the mid-1800s, people just didn’t let go of their places in royal line ups for thrones and crowns.

Then again, Meusebach immigrated to Texas. What else needs to be said?

By the 1890s, the Lone Star State was as much Teutonic as it was Texan. And the Germans really liked our Texas Hill Country. Lots of their settlements ended up there.

Two world wars and a lot of anti-German sentiment ended the German influence in Texas. Ethnic Germans rapidly embraced the Anglo-Texan culture, stopped speaking the language and quit many of their cultural practices. Many of the German language newspapers stopped printing by the early 1950s.

But there’s been a revival of sorts. Fredericksburg and New Braunfels use their “Germanity” to draw tourists. New Braunfels hosts Wurstfest: A Salute to Sausage every year for more than 50 years. It runs from the end of October to about the first week of November. If you want to make your travel plans now, visit Fredericksburg is a curious combination of laid-back Texan attitude and industrious German work ethic, with lots of wineries, dude ranches and gardening supply stores.

San Antonio still has a large German population. The King William Street historic district once was home to the most affluent German-Texans. San Antonio residents knew it best as Sauerkraut Bend. The main entry street into the area was given the name King Wilhelm in honor of King Wilhelm I, King of Prussia in the 1870s, and gradually Anglicized to “William.”

A couple of famous Texans were of German descent and had distinguished military careers. One was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, born in Denison. The other was Admiral Chester Nimitz who was from Fredericksburg.

Years ago, I was in New Braunfels, visiting friends. I stopped at a gas station to fuel up on my trip home. It was New Year’s Day and everybody was wishing each other a “schoene neu jahr.” It was then that I realized my year in Germany spent learning the language was not wasted. I had a conversation in German with a fellow Texan at the gas pump and nobody thought it was strange.

The German flag was never among the original six to fly over Texas, but Germans have had an impact on the state. In the last census, about 18 percent of Texans claimed German ancestry, ranking them right behind Hispanics as one of the largest ethnic groups in the state. Even I have a German, my great-great grandmother, amongst the five generations of Texans before me that went into my genetic composition. Martha Meisenheimer’s people came from Waldalgesheim, Rhineland, Germany.

The Texas frontier of the 1850s is the last place you’d think to find communities with a passion for literature, philosophy, music and conversations in Latin. But the communities of Castell, Schoenburg, Bettina and Leiningen were hotbeds for intellectual conversations and revolutionary social experimentation. All sorts of Utopian communes were organized in the Texas Hill Country at this time. Kinda gives you pause to think about the subsequent hippie and artist population in the area now. Maybe it’s the geography that attracts ‘em. Of course, Texas has always held an attraction for free-thinkers. It’s just that the Germans were the first to take advantage of it.

Then again, the move to Texas might have been fueled by something more basic than a need to exercise a liberal arts education. Most Germans I know are tired of the semi-Arctic climate of das Vaterland and they’re born with the traveling bug anyway. I mean, if you go anywhere in the world, you’ll meet about a dozen tourists from Germany every time. When ol’ Ernst wrote about Texas having a climate much like that of Sicily, I imagine there just weren’t enough boats to hold all the Germans ready to escape eternal winter and go on the road trip of a lifetime.

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