The History of Sisterdale, Texas

By Marjorie Hagy  |

The whole thing started with a guy riding along the old Pinta Trail, going from one place to start over in another place, when he saw a whole new place that took his breath away with its beauty. He was supposed to be just passing through this valley between two creeks just north of the Guadalupe River, but all that water, this lush, lovely dale between, made Nicolaus Zink slow his horse, then climb down altogether and drink in the place, get drunk on it and on the visions of a bright future the scene itself inspired. Here was the very place, a veritable Utopia, in which a learned city would grow, a center of culture and art where gentlemen farmers would speak in Latin of music and life and the betterment of man over glasses brimful of wine pressed from the fruit of their own vineyards. Here he would bring forth a community of like-minded scholars living life as it ought to be lived- the embodiment of a socialistic society, free of religion, of slavery; a place where a college would rise and young men would see visions and old men dream their dreams. This, Nicolaus Zink thought, is my destiny in the New World, and I will grow it here in this valley of the twin sister creeks.

He’d begun life in Bavaria, Germany, and had served as an officer in the Bavarian army and as a civil engineer in the Fatherland before he heard the siren song that so many were hearing in Germany in the early 1840s, that seductive music luring them out of the relative safety and comfort of their homeland and across the sea to new lives in wide-open Texas. He and his wife were on board one of the first ships bringing colonists to found a new town in the Texas hill country, under the auspices of the Adelsverein, or Society of Nobles.

The Adelsverein was sponsoring the colonists, and when they arrived in the Texas port city of Indianola – just lately renamed Carlshafen in honor of the first commissioner, general of the Society, Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels – lodging was supposed to have been arranged for them as well as transportation from the coast inland to their destination. But that’s not what happened. Instead, they disembarked in an over-crowded and unprepared port city where there were no rooms nor houses and late arrivals were living in anything they could find, including huts and hovels they built themselves from flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore. Disease and death were raging among the swollen population, and the promised transportation to the interior just didn’t exist. Everything with wheels or hooves had been confiscated and pressed into service in the Mexican-American War, and any contracts the Adelsverein had arranged for the emigres were in shambles. The Zinks were stuck on the Texas shore along with everybody on their ship, homeless, sick, and unable to escape their horrendous conditions.

That’s when Nicolaus Zink first distinguished himself in his new country. He took on the task of organizing his fellow ex-pats and leading them out of Indianola/Carlshafen. For four months, from December 1844 through March 1845, Zink met arriving colonists as they stepped off their ships and led them to the hill country using whatever came to hand. They dragged pushcarts, walked, and loaded the odd wagon whenever chance sent one in their path. On March 21, the Adelsverein colonists arrived at the new townsite on the east bank of Comal Creek, and the first structure they built was a fort for their shelter while more permanent homes were built; this they named Zinkenburg after their hero Nicolaus Zink. The townspeople also named a street after Zink and gave him land in the new township. Zink then proceeded to survey and lay out the new town which of New Braunfels, also named after Prince Carl.

Zink’s personal life wasn’t going quite as well as his public life though. He fell out of favor with Prince Carl, why we don’t know, but we have a pretty good idea what went wrong between he and his wife Louise because it was recorded in court documents. Louise dumped him and took the unusual step (for those days) of divorcing him, claiming adultery, abuse, ill-treatment and abandonment. A New Braunfels jury gave Louise the house, the furniture and the dough, and Nicolaus got out of town. This was in the fall of 1847, when we find Nicolaus on the Pinta Trail, the ancient roadway used by Spanish explorers and missionaries, by settlers and Comanches and other natives alike.

Zink was headed for Fredericksburg, but fell instead under the spell of that valley between East and West Sister Creeks, just north of the Guadalupe. He bought 1280 acres of that lovely land in the swale, and built himself (and his new wife Elizabeth) a two-story log cabin ‘in the sweet spot of the valley, straddling the sister creeks and abutting the Guadalupe’. And thus Zink’s Settlement was born.

In that same year, 1847, a fellow named Ottmar von Behr arrived in Galveston with his wife and family. Behr had been knocking around Texas for a year or two, but now he was here to settle permanently. Ottmar was a couple of years older than Nicolaus Zink, the son of a high official in the government of Anhalt-Cöthen, Germany, and was friends with many well-known people back in the Fatherland. People like Bettina von Armin, that liberal German activist for whom the failed socialist community of Bettina on the banks of the Llano River had been named, and Hermann Spiess, leader of the famous Group of Forty noblemen’s immigration society in Germany.

Ottmar von Behr himself was a naturalist and meteorologist, and had come to Texas with the Adelsverein company. He heard about Zink’s Settlement in the valley of the Sister creeks, and late in the year, just a few months after Zink himself moved in, Ottmar and his family became the second family to settle there, building their home on a bluff on the south bank of the Guadalupe River. Behr was enthusiastic on the subject of Germans emigrating to Texas, and had written a book for would-be colonists, Guter Rath für Auswanderer nach den Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung von Texas (Good Advice for Immigrants to the United States with Special Reference to Texas), which was appearing in Germany around the same time Behr settled in Zink’s Settlement. His name also showed up the following year, on a list of prominent Texans who vouched for just about everything in Texas being good – land prices and the suitability of the land itself for farming, the climate, the friendliness of the Indians and so on. He went on to create a new breed of sheep by crossing German sheep that he’d brought with him from his homeland with a Mexican variety; to become justice of the peace; to open a library in his home- possibly the first lending library in Texas!- and to run the post office in the town of Zink’s Settlement.

Frederick Holekamp, with his wife Bettie and the first of their several children, was the third settler in town in 1848, buying fifty-five acres of land from Nicolaus Zink. He and his family had also been among the first wave of German emigres of the Adelsverein, and had been in New Braunfels and Fredericksburg before joining the tiny colony. After only fourteen months of homesteading there, the Holekamps sold their holdings and moved onto San Antonio before finally settling in Comfort, just about doing a complete circuit of the German colonies in the hill country.

Ernst Kapp was in New Braunfels in 1850 when he heard that the Holekamps were selling their property at Zink’s Settlement, and he snapped it off the market and moved to town. Kapp had also been born in Bavaria, educated at the University of Bonn where he received his doctorate, and had written books of history, geography and philosophy, one of which got him a brief stint in prison in Germany. He was suspected of being mixed up in the political dissent that had led to the thwarted German revolution of 1848, and his book advocating a more liberal government was the last straw.

After his release from prison, he and his family left Germany for Texas. Dr. Kapp, with his wife Ida, now started over again from scratch. Having been a professor of cultural geography in Germany, he now became a farmer, sheep raiser and carpenter. Oh, and he had opened a Hydropathic Clinic at Badenthal (natural spring valley) on his place in the settlement. Dr. Ernest Kapp’s Water-Cure included largely sitting in the cool, healing waters of the Sister Creeks, as well as gymnastic exercise. Ida Kapp said of her husband that he “has shown little desire for physical labor when given a job to do, although for his years he shows a remarkable skill and untiring eagerness in cultivating a small plot in our garden, given him to till all by himself. However, he insists on doing it his own way absolutely, which leads me to believe that republican principles, the love of freedom, have already taken root in him.” Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect and designer of New York’s Central Park, described Kapp as “a professor who divides his time between his farm and his library. The delicious brook water has been turned to account by him for the cure of disease, and his house is thrown open to patients.”

Nor did Dr. Kapp abandon his political involvement with his move to Zink’s Settlement. In 1853, he was elected president of the Freier Verein (the Free Society), a group of German freethinkers who advocated for political, religious and social changes, and whose call for the abolition of slavery caused an uproar in the solid slave state of Texas.

Nicolaus Zink, founder of the settlement in the dale between the creeks, didn’t stay long in his city of light, despite having earned a reputation as a successful farmer who got a good price for the wheat he sold to neighboring army camps, and a good hand in combat with the Indians.  In 1850, he sold his property and headed to Fredericksburg after all, there to run a grist mill on Baron Creek before finally fetching up in Comfort, and then Waring at the end of his life. A fellow Forty-Eighter of Dr. Kapp (a political dissident involved in the failed 1848 revolution), Edward Degener, purchased Zink’s holdings in the settlement. Degener was born in Brunswick, Germany in 1809 and had held a high position in the government there, but was forced to abandon Germany after the attempted coup. He was also an intellectual and a freethinker, and with his arrival the tiny settlement seemed to undergo a seismic shift. Between Behr, Kapp and Degener, the place rose to the status of a true Latin community and a center of the freethinking movement. It also got a new name, courtesy of Ottmar von Behr. The name of the village in the dale between the Sister creeks officially became Sisterdale, Texas.

More Forty-Eighters arrived to settle in Sisterdale, including journalist Dr. Carl Adolph Douai, Julius Dresel, (who planted the first vineyards in town, which flourished for several years until they were destroyed by the Texas red ant, and who would later move to Sonoma Valley, California, where he became a noted winemaker), August Siemering (who would go on to found the San Antonio Express News), Gustav Theissen and Edgar von Westphalen, (the Baron von Westphal, whose sister was married to Karl Marx).  Distinguished intellectual visitors made sojourns to Sisterdale, including John R Bartlett, Duke Paul of Württemberg and Frederick Law Olmstead, writer, journalist, naturalist, abolitionist and landscape architect, who stayed with Edward Degener and quoted him on his sons: Degener “regretted that he could not give them all the advantages of education that he had himself had. But he added that he would much rather educate them to be independent and self-reliant, able and willing to live by their own labor, than to ever have them feel themselves dependent on the favor of others…he should be only thankful to the circumstances that exiled him [from Germany].”

Ottmar von Behr “seems to have been the intellectual anchor of Sisterdale.”  Olmsted saw Behr interrupt his work on a meteorological table to attend to his duties as justice of the peace, deciding the value of a dog that had been shot in his precinct. Said Olmsted, “[Behr’s] house was the very picture of good-nature, science and the backwoods.” Romance and philosophies were piled in heaps in a corner of the logs. A dozen guns and rifles and a Madonna in oil, after Murillo, filled a blank on the wall. Deerskins covered the bed, clothes hung about upon antlers, snakeskins were stretched to dry upon the bedstead, barometer, whisky, powderhorns and specimens of Saxony wool occupied the table.”  He also kept a harpsichord in his log cabin on the Guadalupe. A man writing later in life of his youth in Sisterdale fondly remembered, “Mr. Behr’s place, which was always the center of amusement and hospitality on every occasion.”

Another author, Moritz Tiling, describes the Latin Colony of Sisterdale, “a library of the ancient and modern classics was to be found in almost every house, and the latest products of literature were eagerly read and discussed at the weekly meetings of these gentlemen farmers at the schoolhouse. It sometimes occurred at these meetings that Comanches stood listening gravely at the open door, while one of the Latin farmers was lecturing on the socialistic theories of St Simon or Fourier.’”

The citizens of Sisterdale even, in 1853, petitioned the state congress for permission to found a German-English college to be built in their town, but nothing ever came of that idea. Still, Olmsted wrote of “waltzing to the tones of a fine piano and music of the highest sort, classical and patriotic,” while dining on wild turkey, of midday dinner at the Behr home of ‘Texan cornbread and frijoles, with coffee served in tin cups…and the talk was worthy of golden goblets.”  They farmed by day, these gentlemen farmers of means, highly educated and committed to the basic rights of man, to the radical ideas of religious skepticism and agnosticism, to Darwinian evolution, women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery.

Their Latin colony of intellectualism was often filled with Indians demanding food, appropriating the laundry off the clotheslines, making away with horses and livestock, but they still gathered in the evenings to sing their native songs and to drink their “stuff,” to argue and debate and discuss and to save the world. The man who’d grown up in Sisterdale wrote about the Indians camping in Behr’s yard, of a “squaw” captured in the woods who’d escaped from her makeshift jail on the Zink place,  of all the citizens of Sisterdale huddled together in one cabin in defense against the Indians. But he also wrote of a “spree” at Ottmar Behr’s place, during which a thunderstorm hit and the rainwater rushed into the house, ankle deep, and the same citizens refused to stop singing, climbed onto the table still holding their glasses of “stuff” and belting out, “This is a year of serious drouth/ I crave for drink, it’s dry my mouth/ I would pour the beer in my gulph (sic) at a waste/ The more that I drink, the better the taste.”  He described the men setting out after a group of horse thieves wearing “either fine black broadcloth or white linen suits, which were not well-adapted for fast riding in the woods in pursuit of Indians. Nearly one-half of the men wore spectacles and looked more like a party of Sunday excursionists. Most of the men had not been trained to horseback riding in the old country, hence their appearance in the saddle was not very favorable, and less safe for themselves was their hold on it.”

“As learned as they were, as practically unfit as they proved to be in every operation in husbandry, theoretically they had everything worked out and it showed very nice on paper, their pleasant fictions were not yet sobered down by sad experience,” wrote that boy. And the sad experience would come. The bloody Civil War would come, and Sisterdale, staunchly anti-slavery, became a center of Union sympathy and abolitionism, and the Confederates came down hard on the Latin Colony. Edward Degener was court-martialed and imprisoned by the Confederate Army due to his unstinting devotion to the United States cause, and after his release, he left Sisterdale and went into the wholesale grocery business in San Antonio.

When Texas was re-admitted to congress, Degener was elected as a Republican, and he served on the San Antonio city council from 1872-1878. Degener died and was buried in that city in 1890. Ottmar von Behr, who made regular trips back to Germany, died there in 1856. His widow stayed in Sisterdale with the Behr’s four children, whose descendants were still living nearby until very recently. Dr. Kapp also returned to Germany due to illness, and there he published two more books, Vergleichende allgemeine Erdkunde (General Comparative Geography), which is still available in Germany in modern editions, and Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik (Fundamentals of a Philosophy of Technical Science), which was based on his experience in farming and building in Sisterdale. He died in 1896.

After the Civil War ended and the terrible period (for Kendall County) of Reconstruction was over, Sisterdale had quieted down considerably. New immigrants from Germany arrived, and the descendants of the original settlers, having grown up in America, moved away from the old ideals of the Latin Colony. In 1871, Andreas Langbein bought the old Kapp property and quietly and solidly began to farm his land, still owned by the Langbein family five generations later.

In 1884, the population was about one hundred and fifty people, and there was a store in town (founded by Andreas Langbein), a shingle mill, a cotton gin and a dance hall. Today the population is twenty-five, and Sisterdale, once Zink’s Settlement, once one of the famous Latin Colonies, is a sleepy hamlet of farmers and a handful of newcomers. But in its heyday, oh, in its heyday, the “stuff” flowed freely, the people of the town stood up to the Indians and the rains and the rising creeks, they argued the fate of the world and stood up for the rights of all men, they made hay in the sunshine and grew grapes in their vineyards and stayed up all night talking in Latin and singing in German, in their little harbor of culture and liberalism, in the valley of the twin sister creeks.


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