The Ten Most Important German Texans
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Edward was born in Barmen, Germany on December 14, 1829. Little is known about his life in Germany, but he did, in fact, immigrate into Texas in 1849 through Galveston. Originally settling in New Braunfels, he married and purchased 160 acres of government land near Comfort and raised his three children on this typical Hill Country ranch. He was more a business man than rancher though, and moved to San Antonio where he started a lumber business. He was known throughout the area for his excellent lumber, imported from Louisiana and Florida. With the arrival of the railroad in San Antonio in 1877, his business exploded as his merchandise was no longer moved overland by ship, then oxcart, but rather now by rail. He located his lumberyard directly next to the rail depot which further helped increase his business, and he had sales throughout Texas and even into Mexico. He also worked in real estate and became a very successful businessman. Before his death, he owned a casino, horse track and was a member of various German social clubs, He retired from his lumber business and became an alderman, volunteer firefighter, and served on various business venues. Through these ventures he worked diligently in improving San Antonio. His new home was built in the King William district, which symbolized the success and prowess of German immigrants.
Named after König Wilhelm I, King of Prussia, the name quickly went out of fashion during World War One. Although known in San Antonio during 1800s as Sauerkraut Bend, during the war the name was changed to Pershing Avenue. After the war, a compromise was made and the Anglicized version was chosen, King William.
With Steves’ help combined with typical German gardening skills, this idyllic neighborhood became the place in San Antonio to build expensive, cosmopolitan homes. Soon, Steves built his own home here; a four bedroom house featuring a mansard roof and thirteen inch thick exterior walls. Modern in both design and function, it was one of the first homes to have a telephone, electricity and running water. It was completed in 1877. By 1920, most of the original German settlers had died and the area started to fall apart. However, in 1967, the King William District became the first neighborhood in Texas to received the Historic Neighborhood District designation.
Steves contributed to the beautification of San Antonio through his various contacts and membership in business clubs. His suggestions to remove overhead cables and have them buried were years ahead of its time. He personally paid for and gave the city a fountain in Military Plaza and vocally opposed closing water routes that helped San Antonio homes water their personal gardens. Although a businessman, his first thought was to the beauty of his surroundings, and in helping make San Antonio better for all to enjoy. He died on April 20, 1890
Born in Germany to Fredrick and Wilhelmine Gebhardt on 16 March 1875, William Fredrick Gebhardt immigrated to the United States in 1883. His parents settled in the German enclave of New Braunfels in 1885 where young Willie grew up speaking German but quickly learned to read and write English. Soon he became a citizen by means of his father's naturalization. Willie loved to cook and in 1892 he opened his first café at the back of the Ludwig Saloon in New Braunfels.
One of the most requested dishes that Willie served was chili, but he could only serve it during late spring through summer, as the chilies were grown in Mexico and he forced to import this most important ingredient. Willie experimented and cooked with a variety of chilies and he soon gained a solid reputation as an excellent chili cook. Although the dish was quite popular and many home cooks served it as well, there were two problems in cooking chili in the late 1800s. First, as stated earlier, chili was only a seasonal food and second, no known method for keeping chilies fresh existed at the time. Although dried chilies were known, they were mostly reconstituted with hot water and then diced and served in the chili. Unfortunately, their texture was tough and they lost much of their flavor. Fresh chilies were preferred. However, Willie discovered that if he dried his chili peppers and ground them into a flavoring powder, he could keep the concoction fresh for months at a time. He spent years experimenting with various spice mixtures and eventually patented his spice blend and drying technique. Adding chilies, garlic, cumin, oregano and pepper, he saturated the ingredients with a solution of water and alcohol for twenty-four hours. He learned to drain the water and to then grind his chili mixture in a meat grinder, then form it into a paste. With this paste, he rolled it out into sheets and dried them with radiated heat. Then he dried his paste for another twenty-four hours and then immediately ground the dried strips with a large coffee grinder. His result was a pungent powder-like substance known throughout the world today as chili powder.
He packed the dried powder into small, airtight glass bottles and sold what he could. In the beginning, he produced approximately five cases of chili powder a week by hand. By 1896 he changed the name to Gebhardt's Eagle Brand Chili Powder. He drove all over San Antonio selling his powder, and eventually opened a factory in San Antonio. Success as an entrepreneur only motivated Gebhardt to invent and patent thirty-seven machines for his factory. In 1911 his company expanded and he rolled out the first canned chili as well as canned tamales soon thereafter. By 1915, the Gebhardt Chili Powder Company was one of the fastest growing manufacturing plants in Texas and operated out of two plants. Not only was his factory the largest spice manufacturing plant in the world, but Gebhardt chili powder was sold throughout the United States and as far away as London, South Africa and Canada. His profits before World War One reached almost one million dollars. At the time, of all the chilies imported into the United States, Gebhardt’s company purchased approximately 90 percent. By the beginning of the war, he was producing 18,000 bottles of chili powder a day. Willie Gebhardt started with the desire to allow everyone to be able to enjoy chili any time they wanted. His chili powder became such an important ingredient in home cooking that some cookbooks only printed Gephardt powder for certain recipes.
Today, more than a hundred years after he founded his company, seventy-eight (78) products bear his name. Joining other famous German-Americans, William Gebhardt left a lasting legacy. The Gebhardt name is sold in all 50 States as well in 19 other countries worldwide. After Willie’s death at the age of 81 on 11 June 1956, the company was bought out by Beatrice Foods, which is now owned by ConAgra Food, Incorporated. The company states that the blend today is unchanged and is still one of the most popular brands available.
Austin Daily Statesman: "It was the woman, quite as much as the artist, that enamored herself to hundreds of warm friends and admirers...."
A renowned sculptur born and raised in Germany, Elisabet Ney’s contribution to the arts in Texas is unmatched. Born Franzisca Bernadina Wilhelmina Elisabeth Ney in Münster on 26 January 1833, Ney’s talent in sculpting came from her father, who was a stonecutter, working mainly on tombstones. Interesting enough, her parents were initially against her becoming a sculptor.
She grew up assisting her father in his stone cutting work. She was fiercely independent and by 1850 she wanted to be on her own and in 1852 she became the first female sculpture student at the all-male Munich Academy of Art. She was graduated on July 29, 1854 and soon thereafter moved to Berlin to further her studies. While in Berlin, she opened her first studio in 1857. She quickly became famous and sculpted busts of the great philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the author Jacob Grimm, composer Richard Wagner, and the great German leaders Otto von Bismarck, King George V of Hanover and "mad" Ludwig II of Bavaria.
When the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 began, Ney, being an outspoken critic of, well, everything conventional, fell out of favor with the political elite of Prussia and Bavaria. Coincidentally, Ney and her husband, a Scottish physician named Edmund Duncan Montgomery, received a letter from a young German friend who had recently immigrated to Georgia, describing the natural, untouched surroundings as "Earth’s paradise." Fleeing the turbulent political scene and escaping to the freedom of the United States, Ney and her husband sailed for America.
"To my creditors: Please don't bother to send me any bills. I have no money." Elisabet Ney
"Women are fools to be bothered with housework. Look at me; I sleep in a hammock which requires no making up. I break an egg and sip it raw. I make lemonade in a glass, and then rinse it, and my housework is done for the day." Elisabet Ney
However, they landed in conservative Georgia, rife with traditional Southern societal norms of social behavior, Ney never quite fit in. Looking for a better place to live, they traveled throughout the country, but generally, the south was preferred for its climate which was better for Montgomery’s recently contracted lung condition. Texas was going to be a good fit, for both of them. Ney traveled alone at first, taking a train in 1873. The German Consul assisted her in finding a home, and when Mongomeray arrived a few weeks later, they purchased the historic Liendo Plantation with over 1000 acres near the town of Hempstead. They stayed here for over 20 years, striving to live a life full of nature. Ney had willingly given up her sculpting to life close to nature. However, it was quite difficult, and their financial woes continued to accrue.
The couple eventually moved to Austin, where the government appropriated $32,000 for Ney to sculpt portraits of notable Texans Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston for the Texas exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair. Ney purchased a modest two and one half acres near Waller Creek, and left it in its natural state. She did, however, build a studio which would eventually become the Ney Museum. She named her studio "Formosa," Portuguese for beautiful. This almost European looking castle shows Ney’s desire to live in nature with an emphasis on the power of art to exemplify the human spirit. She remained in Austin for fifteen years until her death in 1907 at the age of 74.
One fascinating side note concerning her life centers around a love story. Frederick Schnerr, a nobleman from Germany married a German commoner after fleeing together to Texas. They loved each other dearly and remained married for more than fifty years. When Emma died in 1903, her grave remained unmarked, as no tombstone was adequate enough to show the love they shared. No tombstone that is, until Ney heard of their story and created the only tombstone she ever sculpted, which is coincidentally believed to be her last piece of work.
Throughout her life, Ney remained outspoken about women's roles. She retained her last name, often refusing to use her husband's name and was known to even deny that she was married. Against conventional norms, she wore slacks and boots while riding her many horses astride. She was known as a strong woman, an excellent artist, and a true Texan.
In 1961, the city of Lake Jackson, Texas, honored Elisabet Ney by naming an elementary school in her name.
Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
Born on 24 February 1885 to Anna Josephine, nee Henke and Chester Bernhard Nimitz in Fredericksburg, Chester Nimitz grew up speaking both English and German. As his father had died a few months earlier, his grandfather, German-born Charles Henry Nimitz, became the foremost male figure in his life. Charles was a hotelier and Chester grew up in the hotel, regarding his grandfather as "the most important man" in his life. During his school years, he attended both Fredericksburg and Kerrville schools. Originally he applied to West Point, but there were no appointments available. He did, however, take the last appointment for the United States Naval Academy in 1901 at the age of fifteen. He was graduated from the Academy with distinction in 1905, seventh in his class of over one hundred.
During his storied career, he served on battleships, cruisers, a gunboat and a destroyer. Before World War One, he studied diesel engines in Germany, and eventually he worked his way up through the years and became an aide to Rear Admiral Robison working with submarines. Staying in the Navy, he commanded the battleship U.S.S. South Carolina as well as the cruiser U.S.S. Chicago. He rose in rank until he received his rank of Admiral in December of 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and became the Commander in Chief of the Pacific fleet.
Taking command of the Navy, he immediately went on the offensive whenever possible. He was again promoted to the newly established position Fleet Admiral of the United States Navy, which became the highest grade in the Navy. On 2 September 1945 the Japanese signed their formal surrender, witnessed by Admiral Nimitz aboard the U.S.S. Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay. Admiral Nimitz's mission in World War Two ended with his signature on the surrender documents.
After his death in 1966, Fredericksburg transformed his childhood home, his grandfather’s hotel into the official National Museum of the Pacific War. In addition, an elementary school is named in his honor in Kerrville.
Although many other German Texans are worthy of selection, these ten had the most influence and effect on both the settling of Texas or the modern world. Ferdinand von Roemer is often included in German Texas history, and is very important indeed, but as he only lived in Texas for two years during his observations, it was decided to not include him in this history. From settlers who founded towns and cultivated land, to those who served their country at times of war, these ten German Texans exemplify the bond with their German background to modern Texas culture.