Texas History 101

The tiny German settlement of Fredericksburg, which overcame disease and Comanche attacks, blossomed into a thriving community rich in tradition—and it still is today.

June 2003By Comments

IN 1846 BARON OTFRIED HANS von Meusebach (John O. Meusebach), commissioner general of the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, founded a settlement on 10,000 acres with an abundance of water, stone, and wood. He called it Fredericksburg, for Prince Frederick of Prussia, another member of the society. It took a group of 120 German immigrants sixteen days to make the trek from New Braunfels, the society’s first settlement, to the new spot.

The early years in Fredericksburg proved trying. Disease often plagued pioneers, many of whom arrived to the new settlement ill with cholera. About 150 settlers died in the town’s first year. By 1847, however, the population of the town had grown to 966 (hundreds of Germans were immigrating to the Fredericksburg area), sixteen stores had opened, several large cornfields had been planted, and a new road brought wagons from Austin. While the town seemed to be thriving, there was still the challenge of how to deal with the Comanche, who often shot arrows at the new settlers out working on their land. In an attempt to make peace, Meusebach, with forty other men, traveled to the San Saba country of the Comanche, where he formed a treaty with the Comanche chiefs in March 1847. In exchange for $3,000 in gifts, the Comanche agreed not to harm the pioneers. The Comanche apparently adhered to the agreement, making the treaty the only one in Texas that was kept by both Native Americans and white men.

Fredericksburg's German pioneers brought with them many traditions—some are still upheld today—including the Schuetzenfest, or target-shooting festival. Often a highlight of German life, the Schuetzenfest provided recreation and fellowship during difficult years. Though it began as a one-on-one competition, the festival blossomed into a contest between local teams, each competing under their own brightly colored flag. The festival was an all-day event with cakes, cheeses, and sausages prepared and served by local women.

Meusebach's peace-keeping mission sparked one popular tradition, which came to be known as the Fredericksburg Easter Fires. The Comanche set fires to use as signals of a threat, but because the pioneers had come in peace, the fires burned high instead of using them for smoke signals of distress. To ease the fears of the Fredericksburg children, who wondered why the fires were burning in the area, a story was concocted: The Easter rabbit had built the fires to cook and dye his Easter eggs. The settlers vowed to burn the Easter fires every year that the peace treaty was honored. More than 150 years later, the fires still burn every Easter eve.

Walking down Main Street today, visitors will find an abundance of antiques shops, art galleries, and Biergartens serving authentic German cuisine. The town's rich history is still thick here—the Pioneer Museum provides a glimpse of what life was like for the early German settlers; a replica of the Vereins Kirche, one of the town's first buildings, houses archives and a collection of Gillespie County history; and St. Mary's Parish, which dates back to 1846, offers a lasting reminder of Fredericksburg's beginnings.

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