Imagine someone interviews you, your siblings, and your parents about a family trip—you’d all have different versions. But now let’s say your dad’s version—the sunniest of all—prompts a movement.
Printed in his hometown newspaper in Oldenburg, part of the German Confederation, in 1832, Friedrich Ernst’s adulatory letter about moving to Texas was widely read at the time and credited for propelling the German immigration wave to prerevolution Texas, settling the “German Belt” from the Coastal Plain to the Hill Country. Some ten thousand Germans immigrated to the region from 1840 to 1850, and by 1860 that number had more than doubled.
The Texas climate, Ernst wrote in his letter, resembles that of lower Italy! Wild game are everywhere—deer, bears, turkeys! Vegetables and flowers grow in abundance. Cattle feed freely, leaving you with “hardly three months of real work.” The native tribes “are moving about peacefully like Cossacks.” The only downside? Maybe a panther here and there, and a few poisonous snakes—nothing to worry about, though; hunters walk barefoot without a thought.
Best of all, he wrote, his family loved it. “Working regularly in the open has made me healthier and stronger than I ever was in Germany, and my wife is blooming like a rose, as are the children,” gushed Ernst, who settled in what became Industry, Texas, in Austin County. “My son Hermann is growing exceptionally and turning into a genuine Mexican.”
If this sounds more like fiction being told while the family members roll their eyes behind the storyteller, consider the account written years later by Friedrich’s second daughter, Caroline Ernst von Hinueber.
Caroline arrived in Texas when she was eleven or twelve years old, among the earliest German children to arrive in Mexican, prerepublic Texas. In her translated recollection, available in Crystal Sasse Ragsdale’s long-out-of-print book The Golden Free Land, her parents and her four siblings were hardly blooming like roses. Rather, they lived in a doorless, windowless, “miserable little hut, covered with straw and having six sides, which were made out of moss. The roof was by no means water-proof, and we often held an umbrella over our bed when it rained at night, while the cows came and ate the moss.”
Waking to cows munching on the walls was hardly the worst of it. In the wintertime, Caroline wrote, her dad tried to build a chimney, but the family was afraid a blaze would set the hut on fire. They shivered instead. When their shoes wore out, they went barefoot. They had few clothes and didn’t have a spinning wheel or fabric to make more. While her dad marveled at all the animals around them, he was apparently a lousy shot (“My father always was a poor huntsman”), and the family ate cornbread made from boiling the kernels, crushing them in a hollowed-out log, and baking them on the only skillet they had.
Maybe Friedrich just really, really liked the cornbread—after all, in his account, he described the dish as “like the finest rice cakes.” Still, you have to wonder what Friedrich was thinking to ignore his family’s reality. While his wife and kids were hungry, barefoot, and freezing in the winter, he put pen to paper and wrote his countrymen, “Bring your sisters; young girls can very well find their happiness here.” He also added a personal plea: “Next summer I will be building a house for prospective arrivals and will grow some fruit. May I soon have the pleasure of both being used quite shortly by friends; how happy that would make me.”
At least he was a little transparent about his motives, if not the situation. Ernst had been run out of Oldenburg after he was accused of embezzling a large sum from the post office, so anywhere would look better than jail. His glowing report—and a reminder that his countrymen could take advantage of a free league of land (4,428 acres) at a time when acquiring farmland in Germany was increasingly difficult—proved remarkably effective. Texas sounded like a great deal for the men.
Migration was a more difficult sell to the German wives, not that the women had much say. Friedrich’s wife, Louise, had wanted him to buy land in New York, in an area she mistakenly believed later grew into Wall Street (it was probably the Upper West Side German neighborhood of Bloomingdale), and though she was more forgiving than Caroline in her recollections of moving to Texas, you can practically hear Louise’s frustration when you read her interview in Ragsdale’s book: “[If my husband had bought the New York property I suggested] . . . Ernst would have become a multimillionaire, since the stock exchange is on this street today. . . . Although I advised my husband to take this offer, he did not accept my advice; instead, he decided to go to Mexico in February, 1831, in particular to the province of Texas.”
Eventually, the Ernsts became prominent members of Industry, Texas, located about halfway between Houston and Austin, greeting and advising all the new German Texans who came their way. The family moved out of the original grass hut into a large boardinghouse Friedrich established for incoming Germans, Caroline said, and Friedrich tore the hut down despite protests from Louise, who wanted to keep it “as a sort of memento of former days.” Friedrich, now considered the “father of immigrants,” became a justice of the peace, then a mercantile salesman, and it is his account that is referenced in most history books.
This is reasonable, given the pivotal nature of his letter. Yet there are few, if any, more striking examples of the differences between a man’s version, a woman’s version, and a child’s version of these extraordinary early transcontinental experiences. Each of the subjects has a strong voice. Friedrich is the romantic, Louise is the practical one, and Caroline is the skeptic—a little less careful about whom she offends. From all three storytellers here, a picture of household dynamics emerges.
For example, when Stephen F. Austin’s secretary told Friedrich that he must convert to Catholicism to receive the land, Caroline remembered that a priest did come promptly to perform the baptism, but “the people of San Felipe made him drunk and sent him back home.” Friedrich never converted.
Friedrich, the romantic, had fond memories of the boat ride the family took from New York to New Orleans on the way to Texas. He described the trip as if it was a Caribbean cruise: “On the fourth day after our leave the mild air of spring was already wafting toward us, and three days later, between Cuba and Florida, we had veritable summer . . .”
But Caroline focused on the stormy boat ride from New Orleans to Texas, during which a few Kentuckians lost their dogs to the waves. “We were almost as uncomfortable as the dogs,” Caroline wrote. “The boat was jammed with passengers and their luggage so that you could hardly find a place on the floor to lie down at night. I firmly believe that a strong wind would have drowned us all.”
In time, Louise must have gotten over her husband’s contrary decisions with some resilience and satisfaction. After all, she recalled that the family fared far better after the rough start Caroline described. Louise corroborated Friedrich’s account about the wild game (“thousands of buffalo and other wildlife roamed”) and the native people (“they approached us in a friendly manner, and often times brought back our runaway horses and cows in return for a little milk or butter”), until the alliances shifted (“the Catholic missionaries . . . were able to free Mrs. Jurgens from the hands of the Indians, but of the children nothing was heard ever again”).
To be fair to Friedrich, his account preceded the Runaway Scrape of 1835 and 1836, when his family and other Texians had to get out of the way of Mexican general Santa Anna’s oncoming army. Caroline, who would have been sixteen or seventeen during the terrifying episode, recalled that the Ernsts evacuated and escaped the worst of it. Even Louise said that she would never forget “as the Mexicans, fleeing from the battlefield of San Jacinto, butchered our best milk cow,” and she didn’t spare the new government, either, which hadn’t compensated the Ernsts for their lost house—something she expected, apparently—even though her husband had served in the Texan army.
No doubt Friedrich would have been a little less starry-eyed after those events. Still, in 1842, he was the de facto ambassador for a few German princes and a count who wanted to make Texas a German colony under a monarchy—an idea, Louise said, that Friedrich shot down, telling the princes “that such an attempt would never be accepted by the neighboring American republic.”
Caroline recalls the episode with a little more color. Her brother Fritz was the guide for Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels. Not exactly the “when in Rome” type, the prince wore the outfit of a German officer and was accompanied by an architect, a cook, and a professional hunter. “Whenever they came to a good piece of road, the prince would say, ‘Now let us gallop,’ and then the whole party would charge down the prairie,” Caroline wrote. Adding to this comical display was the German company’s ineptitude. The prince ordered his hunter to kill a deer, but the hunter couldn’t do it: Fritz had to shoot the deer to thrill the prince. When they were out in a boat and got stuck in some shallow water, the prince freaked out and told everyone they’d just have to wait for the tide to release them. “My brother took off his clothes, got out, and pushed the boat off the sandbank,” Caroline wrote.
“Telling the story from the woman’s point of view is very important and a correction long overdue,” said James C. Kearney, a University of Texas professor and scholar of Texas Germans. “I probably have in my house a thousand books on Texas, and what percentage of those tell the story of women? One percent? Two percent?”
But for me, the Ernst family recollections aren’t notable just for the female perspective. There are other accounts from female German settlers, some of which are even more interesting. This particular family’s dynamics come alive when the members’ stories are read together. The various witnesses remember the incidents differently, of course, sometimes with awe, sometimes with panic, sometimes with an appreciation for the absurd—a skill that many immigrants must have cultivated under the circumstances. How else to piece together a lifetime filled with strange animals and unfamiliar people and customs and languages and battles, never mind the dramatic transformation of an entire state?