Soon a little Germania will arise in this state,” prophesied Detlef Jordt in his 1834 travel journal cum guidebook Reise nach Texas, the first but far from the last German book devoted entirely to Texas. Finally available in English translation, Jordt’s Journey to Texas, 1833 (University of Texas Press), written under the pseudonym Detlef Dunt, marks the birth of a German literary subgenre that inspired a historic migration of people and ideas. Whipped into “Texas fever” by a steady stream of accounts like Jordt’s, German immigrants became the dominant European-born population in nineteenth-century Texas, with a cultural impact disproportionate even to their considerable numbers. Although their scientific rationalism and sometimes radical egalitarianism would likely outrage most twenty-first-century Texans, Jordt and his compatriots provided much of the intellectual firepower that tamed a raw frontier. Generations before Texas became a “state of mind,” we were a uniquely German state of mind. And in ways we no longer recognize, that surprisingly progressive outlook endures in Texas even today.
“The present author . . . belongs to that class of people for whom overpopulation made advancement in his fatherland too difficult,” Jordt writes by way of introduction, although he reveals nothing specific about his occupation or evidently middle-class circumstances. At the time Jordt was writing his guide, German immigrants were coming to America by the tens of thousands annually, but often they found as little opportunity in the northern states as back home. Many had moved on to the Missouri Valley, yet even there the supply of cheap acreage had been quickly exhausted. But in 1832 a letter from a former postal clerk named Johann Friedrich Ernst, touting the Mexican state of Texas as the next Missouri Valley, went viral back home and was printed in German newspapers. Jordt, who reprises the entire letter before beginning his own narrative, frames his journey as a quest for Ernst’s seemingly mythical realm, where, Ernst claimed, for $160 in surveying fees the Mexican government would deed over a league of land, which unlike the depleted German soils never needed fertilizer; the climate resembled southern Italy; the livestock found their own feed; and immigrants paid little to no tax yet benefited from a Mexican constitution that guaranteed freedom of speech and religion.
After a wrenching farewell from his wife and four children, Jordt departed the northern German city of Bremen in late 1832 aboard a cramped sailing ship that was pokey even by pre-steam standards. He recovered from his nine-week Atlantic crossing with a layover in New York, then sailed on to New Orleans, where he caught a schooner bound for Texas. Arriving at the mouth of the Brazos River, Jordt observed the “wide, green expanse” with the same breathless Romanticism—the tradition of Goethe and the painter Caspar David Friedrich—that would soon characterize so much German thinking and writing about Texas. “The color of the bushes and woods and grass is so delicate this time of year that I had never seen the like,” Jordt wrote. “The clear, Italic sky, of which we can form no idea in our part of the world, also increased my pleasure.”
Jordt’s slog up the flooded, mosquito-infested Brazos to San Felipe, the unofficial capital of Stephen F. Austin’s colony, reads more like Heart of Darkness. But on finally reaching Ernst’s settlement near the future town of Industry (roughly halfway between Austin and Houston), Jordt was rewarded with a vista of “high woodlands, brush, the most beautiful flowers, shining herds of cattle, and also flocks of deer.” Texas, he went on to write, “is a country where conditions are made as easy for the immigrant who wants to pursue agriculture as they are anywhere else in the world. . . . It is a land that puts riches in his lap . . . a country just waiting for people so that our European industry can raise and elevate it to the most blessed country in all the known world.”
Records indicate that Jordt returned to Germany, collected his two sons, and in 1836, arrived back in a newly independent Texas. The change in government did not seem to deter Jordt’s long-term plans; his wife and one of his daughters eventually joined him in Texas, and he became a landowner, though not on nearly the scale of prerevolutionary settlers like Ernst. Jordt was present at his daughter’s wedding, presided over by Ernst, in 1847; he died the same year and, according to the book’s introduction, “is believed to be buried near Columbia.”
Until this translation by the late Anders Saustrup, Jordt’s literary legacy had remained as obscure as his life. Although Jordt claimed “no wish to distinguish himself as a writer,” he was clearly well-educated; his prose is elegant, lucid, and at times psychologically piercing: “Generally speaking, Americans only cherish whatever produces money.” But putting aside his impeccable old-world syntax, his narrative often seems breezily modern, a bloglike mash-up of first-person travelogue, what-to-pack lists, tips on farming and fence-building, and a lengthy exposition of the legal statutes affecting immigrant landowners. Jordt’s compendium was hardly random, however; he intended for his readers to follow his instructions step-by-step.
Journey to Texas also blazed the trail for a significant body of German writing that similarly romanticized Texas, conjuring a land of improbable natural benevolence, where human aspirations could be as limitless as the horizon. Rhapsodic Texas guidebooks like Jordt’s quickly became a staple of German publishing, with more than four dozen major titles issued in the decades before the Civil War. Covering the same ground from a fictional point of view, Karl Postl’s perennially reprinted 1841 novel, Das Kajütenbuch (“The Cabin Book”), introduced a Texas “where you sow nails at night, and find horsehoes in the morning”—a magical thinking that characterizes the Texas state of mind to the present day. Twentieth-century Texas historians are usually credited with (or discredited for) inventing the “Texas myth,” but that frontier myth springs from a much earlier—and more literate—Teutonic tradition.
The many thousands of Germans who bought into this unabashedly boosterish Tex-lit transformed the Texas frontier. Readers included the German noblemen who founded the Adelsverein, a for-profit philanthropy devoted to settling German immigrants in Texas. Mismanaged and short-lived, the Adelsverein nevertheless brought more than five thousand German immigrants to Texas in just one 6-month period between 1845 and 1846, establishing the towns of Fredericksburg and New Braunfels and several smaller settlements. Germany’s long tradition of public education meant that these new farming communities often included scientists, physicians, educators, and political freethinkers. Bettina, founded by the Adelsverein in 1847, was a failed attempt to establish a commune under the same utopian socialist principles that influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto, published a year later. Yet such radicalism was far more easily assimilated on the actual frontier than it could ever be in the fantasy frontier inhabited by so many of today’s Texans. Most of the Bettina principals went on to important statewide roles: surveyor Jacob Kuechler became the state land commissioner; Gustav Schleicher, a civil engineer, helped build Texas’s railroad system and in the 1870’s was twice elected to the U.S. Congress; Ferdinand Ludwig von Herff, a pioneering Texas surgeon, was instrumental in founding the Texas Medical Association.
Successive waves of German immigrants created a climate of intellectual curiosity and scientific inquiry that seems increasingly remote from the narrowing mind of twenty-first-century Texas. Refugees from the failed German revolution of 1848 established the Latin Settlements, a term alluding to the classical education of many residents. The tiny Hill Country town Sisterdale could boast a meteorologist-naturalist who had been a colleague of the famed Alexander von Humboldt; Karl Marx’s brother-in-law; and Adolph Douai, an avowed atheist who started the kindergarten movement in the United States. Like Jordt, who wrote about the New Orleans slave markets with angry indignation, most German immigrants didn’t own slaves, and many German communities voted overwhelmingly against secession. After the Civil War, many Germans supported Reconstruction and became stalwarts of the then-liberal Texas Republican party. Another Sisterdale settler, August Siemering, founded the San Antonio Freie Presse für Texas, one of the South’s leading Republican newspapers; had Siemering’s prolific output of articles, editorials, and novels been written in English rather than German, he might have been hailed as a pioneer of Texas letters.
Where language wasn’t a barrier, the German cultural contribution was more visible. Germany’s art academies, which trained the Texas painters Hermann Lungkwitz and Richard Petri and the sculptor Elisabet Ney, remained by proxy the dominant influence in Texas art throughout the nineteenth century. German immigrants imported their operas and symphonies, along with a popular tradition of dance halls and the annual Saengerfest, which evolved into concert-scale choral and orchestral performances. Among the ubiquitous German music teachers was Julius Weiss, who mentored pro bono a young Texarkana prodigy named Scott Joplin.
The world wars cast a shadow over German culture at the same time that its nineteenth-century preeminence in the state was eclipsed by the rise of a distinctly Texan movement in the arts and literature. However, by then what was regarded as indigenous often had German roots; the first regional modern architecture in Texas drew direct inspiration from the simple utilitarian forms and humble materials of German nineteenth-century homes and churches. Conjunto, a marriage of Mexican and German popular music, broke out commercially in the thirties and remains an ongoing force. The slavery-eschewing yeoman farmer representative of so many German immigrants became a morally acceptable frontier icon for twentieth-century Texas historians, while the plantation owner, usually an English-speaking transplant from other Southern states, was conveniently swept under the rug.
Today Jordt’s Germania persists in more subtle ways. Enthusiastic visitors to Austin—not to mention “Keep Austin Weird” locals—rarely fail to observe the city’s baffling dissonance with mainstream Texas culture, a tiny blue island of liberalism in a vast red sea. But perhaps we should instead visualize Austin as the buckle on the progressive “German Belt,” a demographic swath that once extended from Galveston to Kerrville. From that perspective, Austin’s freethinking ways aren’t a twenty-first-century anomaly in a bred-in-the-bone conservative state, but rather a revival of a nineteenth-century Texas that was far more forward-looking than we dare to remember.