Friedrichsburg Revisited

The German novel, penned in 1867 and set in the just-settled Hill Country hamlet, gets a modern translation.

Thanks to the sturdy scholarship and translation skills of James C. Kearney, we have a new addition to the Texas literary map, a kind of redistricting as it were, whereby the modern-day tourist town of Fredericksburg has acquired a historical radiance emanating from Friedrich Armand Strubberg’s novel Friedrichsburg ( UT Press, $30).

Strubberg, a German national who moved to Texas in his late thirties and changed his name to Schubbert (he had a messy past), based his novel on his experiences serving as the director of the Hill Country colony from 1846 to 1847. Strubberg does a splendid job of recording material culture, such as the reliance on bear fat for lamps and cooking, the creation of a communal cornfield, and the commitment to German dances, music, and celebrations brought over from the Old World.

Surprises abound, such as Fredericksburg’s reliance on the industry and friendliness of the Mormons at Zodiac, a nearby community that produced prized lumber products and corn. Strubberg also brings originality to the oft-told tale of conflicts between Native Americans and European Americans. He calls Indians “the wild ones” instead of the racially charged “savages,” which was common among Anglo-Celtic settlers. And he effectively dramatizes the clash between the hard-liner Comanche and the peace-loving Delaware.

The narrative voice captures the Europeans’ skeptical view of the native population perfectly: “Had this part of the world been created for the sole purpose that a small number of original inhabitants could wander over the countryside hunting in perpetuity?” The solution to this “problem,” and a key to Fredericksburg’s survival, is the 1847 peace treaty with the Penateka Comanche, the only peace treaty with the Comanche that was never broken. In real life it was brokered by John Meusebach, the director of the New Braunfels German settlement, but Strubberg, a bitter enemy of Meusebach’s, relocates the action to Fredericksburg and erases Meusebach from the entire story.

The novel has other flaws—most glaringly the romance between an unbelievably beautiful German girl and her nearly flawless young fiancé—but one moves past them quickly enough.

Kearney, who received a Ph.D. in German from the University of Texas and taught at Katy High School for many years, grew interested in Strubberg’s literary career while writing Nassau Plantation: The Evolution of a Texas German Slave Plantation , which was published last year. He learned that Strubberg eventually returned to Germany, where he wrote 21 novels, 10 of them set in Texas. Friedrichsburg is the first to be translated into English.

Much as the novel was long unknown on these shores, so too have Schubbert’s contributions to Fredericksburg’s founding long been ignored. (This may have something to do with the fact that he was, in fact, dismissed from his position as the town’s director after little more than a year in office.) In a town obsessed with its colorful history, there is no plaque, stone, marker, or any other sort of memorial to acknowledge his existence. That needs to be corrected.

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