When most people think of Texas they think of wide open spaces, cowboys and oil rigs. They do not think of oompah bands. However, that is what you will find in the German Belt of Texas. This is an area of towns founded by the The Mainzer Adelsverein at Beibrich am Rhein or Adelsverein for short. This was a society set up to fund the immigration of Germans to Texas to start a New Germany. Wait, Germans in Texas? How does this work?
Germany in the 19th century was divided into more than thirty independent kingdoms, principalities, and free cities. Adding to this chaos was the birth of the industrial age. The population was growing rapidly while at the same time machines were taking the place of most manual labor jobs. There were scores of people aimlessly wandering around with nothing to do and nowhere to go. They were ripe for unrest.
To find something for these people to do, besides foment revolution, a group of German princes and noblemen met in the town of Biebrich am Rhein. They were hosted by Adolphe, the future Grand Duke of Luxembourg and the current Duke of Nassau, in his castle on the Rhine. During the discussions, Count Carl of Castell-Castell suggested sending people to the new Republic of Texas. Texas had just won its independence from Mexico in 1836 and was actively looking for settlers. Land was supposedly cheap in Texas, and speculators were snapping up huge tracts of land and selling them for a profit. Also, Germany had not yet taken advantage of the colonization boom that had started with Columbus back in the 15th century. They wanted their slice of the New World pie. Raw materials could be shipped back to the German kingdoms and finished goods sold in the new colony. Plus, Texas had won its independence from Mexico. Who was to say New Germany wouldn’t win its independence from Texas? That would leave vast new lands and wealth for the German nobility, who were in the poorhouse after defeating Napoleon.
The company agreed and formed Mainzer Adelsverein or Adelsverein for short. Two agents, Count Joseph of Boos-Waldeck and Count Victor August of Leiningen-Westerburg-Alt-Leiningen, traveled to Texas and purchase land. Leiningen was well connected as he was the older half-brother of Queen Victoria of England. They met with President Sam Houston, however, they refused his first offer of land as it was currently inhabited by hostile Native Americans. In 1843, they purchased 4,428 acres in what is now Fayette County for 75 cents an acre. They named it Nassau Farm, in honor of Duke Adolf. The property was supposed to be a supply station for German settlers, but became a slave plantation and was used as a resort for the nobles in the Society. Leiningen returned in 1843 and told of the temperate climate and fertile land in Texas, but warned it was going to be a lot more expensive than they had originally thought. Boos-Waldeck echoed his concerns, but no one seemed to listen. They both dropped out of Adelsverein as their warnings went unheeded.
To raise money for the colony, Adelsverein was reorganized into a stock company and 200,000 gulden or $80,000 was raised for acquisition of more land. This was roughly the equivalent of two million dollars in today’s money, but was far short of the sum Leiningen and Boos-Waldeck had told the Society was needed. Then Adelsverein was scammed out of their capital by not one but two land speculators. They were sold two land grants: the Bourgeois-Ducos grant and the Fisher-Miller grant. The land existed, but what they were not told was they had to be on the land by a certain date or it became null and void. The expiration date for both grants had expired. To add insult to injury, the architect of these sales- Alexander Bourgeois d’Orvanne and Henry Francis Fisher- were hired to get the settlers supplies. Newspaper ads were placed with the logan Geh Mit Ins Texas, which means Go with Us to Texas. They had promised to only send 150 families. They sent close to 5,000. So between 1844 and 1847, there were settlers coming over to Texas, mostly from provinces including Nassau, Hanover, Hesse and western Thuringia, and found no land and no supplies. Many of these were political dissidents trying to avoid persecution after numerous failed rebellions.
The two swindlers embezzled as much money as they could get their hands on, and Adelsverein’s official representative, Prince Carl of Solm-Braunfels, was honest but incompetent. The prince was used to good manners and high fashion. Texas settlers were neither of those things. He was more worried the settlers would lose their “Germanness” than getting the necessary supplies. Adelsverein didn’t help either. Solm-Braunfels reported the land grants were worthless and in land unsuitable for farming and in smack dab in the center of hostile Native Americans. He recommended they look for better land, and Adelsverein told him to press on.
The settlers arrived after a transatlantic crossing that was treacherous at best. Adelsverein eschewed steamships, which could make the crossing in 18 days, for sailing ships, which took two months. So these families were stuck in the hold of filthy sailing ships without clean water, food or doctors. What they did have was rats, fleas, lice and typhus. When they got to Galveston, many saw there was no place for them and turned back around. The ones who stayed faced a
165 mile journey, where Braunfels had to race ahead to try and find suitable land since the land grants they thought they had expired and were in the middle of Comanche country. They finally founded the town of New Braunfels on the road from Austin to San Antonio near a natural spring called Las Fontanas. Indian Point was established as a way station.
Unfortunately, settlers who got there spent the winter in lean tos or even in the open air. And the settlers kept coming. Braunfels’ successor, Baron Ottfried von Meusebach, had to find away to feed and shelter them all. Unfortunately, the dreams of Adelsverein establishing an independent New Germany were dashed when Texas joined the United States in 1845. So the money dried up. Plus Braunfels did not stay to see how his namesake town did, and high tailed it back to Germany after racking up $34,000 worth of debts. Many died of disease and exposure to the elements before they could hire wagons to take them from the 165 miles from Indian Point to New Braunfels. Then the Mexican American War broke out and all wagons were commandeered by the US government for the war effort. These people couldn’t win for losing. 500 went back to Germany and another 500 of military age enlisted in the US Army. Some decided they’d get to New Braunfels quicker if they walked, but that was also a bad idea and 200 died. Historian Moritz Tiling wrote in his 1913 book, The History of the German Element in Texas:
“This proved disastrous to many, more than 200 perishing on the way from exposure, hunger, and exhaustion. The bleached bones of the dead everywhere marked the road of death the unfortunate people had taken, while those who arrived at New Braunfels and later at Fredericksburg carried with them the germs of disease that soon developed into a frightful epidemic, in which more than 1,000 people died.”
Adelsverein eventually coughed up more money as newspaper reports trickled out of how they left these people to die, but it was too little too late. It went bankrupt not much after this.
However, by 1850, the German Belt of Texas was established with the settlements of Bettina, Castell, Leiningen, Meerholz, Schoenburg, Gruene, Hedwigs Hill, Indianola, Martinsburg, Nassau Plantation, Sisterdale and Loyal Valley. There were 33,000 persons of German birth residing in Texas. However, there were conflicts during the Civil War as most of the German settlers were abolitionists and Texas was a slave state. They were persecuted by the Confederates during the war, and some even tried to escape to Mexico in 1862, which ended in a standoff known as the Nueces Massacre. This persecution made the German communities more insular, and they spoke their own unique dialect of “Texas-German”. Many schools did not have English or English speaking teachers until the early 20th century, when the stigma of being German became strongly felt because of the World Wars. Today there are fewer than 6,000 fluent speakers of Texas-German.