I’ve just finished a lovely version of this (what I think is a) fascinating story, and alas, when I read it back over I found that it was about as dry as a mouthful of cinnamon and not nearly as exciting. Scholarly tome, I’ve realized, isn’t really my forte, and besides, it read like an ninth grade term paper and had the effect of making an interesting subject a stultifying boring plod-fest.
I’m more akin to an old man who sits on a porch whittling on his wooden leg (do they DO that? I probably would), telling outrageous lies in a colorful way to a captive audience. So I scrapped the whole thing, to try and re-tell it again, my way.
We’ve discussed here before how Boerne got started as a town when a bunch of Germans, fleeing all the rotten conditions in their homeland, hopped on their various ships and crossed the seas to make a new life in the wide-open Hill Country of Texas. But leaving it like that just leaves too much out- it’s like saying the United States got going when some people came over on the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria. There are a million different elements that went into the birth of this country, and there is more to the story about the birth of this little town. The roots under the grass of our Town Plaza, that run beneath the Cibolo Creek and the City Hall, are deep and thick and tangled, and reach a long, long way back – back into misty antiquity in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and to the final days of the Holy Roman Empire, back to the days when Germany didn’t even exist as one country, united. The seed that would become this flourishing little town in the hills was conceived in the chaos and disarray of a tyrannical, poverty-mired Europe, in the minds of men and women who dreamed of a New World where life would be lived in a whole new way, in freedom, in light, in brotherhood. Boerne was born as a dream of Utopia on the other side of the ocean.
Fly with me now back to Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleon Wars, in 1815. There is no Germany- there are German people, and a German language, but instead of a unified country there are thirty-nine separate and independent, autocratic states in that part of the former Holy Roman Empire. Each little kingdom has its own king, or prince or duke, or whatever the guy in charge calls himself, and its own laws, customs and even currencies, and all are under the absolute rule of the big guy. It was as if, say, San Antonio had its own king and small army, its own coinage and own laws, while Kerrville was under the rule of a prince, with its own militia, system of currency and set of rules and punishments, and in between the two were a couple of other little kingdoms and a handful of large landowners to boot, all with their own laws and customs and currencies, records, armies, castles and court. That’s the way it was in Germany back in those early decades of the nineteenth century- chaos, in which poverty was epidemic and individual freedom and democracy were strictly proscribed. It was a fragmented, feudal society, there were conflicts all over the place, and everybody was broke. All of the aristocracy who were running the principalities were in debt up the eyeballs after fighting the Napoleonic Wars, and the working class and the peasants were the ones who were paying the bills not only for that, but for the over-the-top lifestyle of the lord of the manor. They were squeezed until they could scream, but they couldn’t scream, because every facet of their lives was controlled by their particular big-shot, and ‘insulting the monarchy’ could, and often did, get a person bounced into the clink.
The press, needless to say, was tightly controlled, as was religion- not only could you not choose how or whom to worship, you could also win a one-way ticket to the slammer if you didn’t show up when and where you were supposed to, and God forbid if you gave voice to any questions you might entertain about the meaning of the universe. The noblemen in charge of all the little fiefdoms held the reins, dictating if and to whom you could marry, what education you were allowed to have, what profession you were free to pursue, where you could live, how much to fork over in taxes and how often, how to think, when to pray, what you could eat, and even whether you were allowed to keep on living at all- it was all at the sufferance of the guy in charge. And there wasn’t much you could do about it. As a contemporary writer put it, ‘even in those states which nominally had parliaments the governments sometimes just did what they wanted and treated the constitution with utter contempt.’ If you got fed up and said the hell with it, you’d better say it quietly, under your breath, and as far as taking off…well, that wasn’t looked on kindly either. Needless to say, this kind of fragmentation and corruption, and the feudal nature of this kind of society, led to deep unrest, to frequent conflict, and to grinding poverty. It was an awful mess.
To take it back to the analogy, say you’re a peasant living on the estate of the King of Kerrville. The kingdom is about to go to war with San Antonio because the king has decided he wants to annex, say, Brackenridge Park, and so your taxes shoot up about two hundred percent to pay for the fight, and you were stony broke to begin with. Your son is brilliant and had dreams of becoming a lawyer, but the king needs soldiers to fight the Battle of Brackenridge Park so your son is drafted into the army instead. And the king’s son has designs on your good-looking daughter so she’s been ordered up to the castle, ostensibly as a serving maid, but you know what’s up. You question in your heart whether you even believe in the angry, vengeful god you’ve been brought up to fear but there’s nobody else you dare talk to about it and attendance at church is compulsory no matter what you feel anyway. Your heart’s desire is to chuck this whole rotten mess and emigrate to the wide-open spaces of, say, New Mexico, but leaving is forbidden and your every move is monitored- there are spies everywhere to report to the castle that you and your family are packing up and showing signs of sneaking off in the middle of the night, and even your neighbors in the same boat may betray you out of fear or in exchange for any tiny improvement in their own wretched condition- and a slip-up may mean imprisonment or plain old death. This was not happy place.
There were those, of course, who had better dreams for their homeland, and many of those were members of the ruling class- men in government, business and the sciences, doctors, theologians, students, engineers, writers, musicians, philosophers and intellectuals of every stripe, all dissatisfied with the state of their world. They ascribed to the radical reformist writings of people like Ludvig Borne, and they believed in freedom of the press, of speech, of religion; they called for the unification of Germany and for democratic, constitutional government, for improved working and living conditions for the poor and working classes. There were members of the Freethinkers, a group of intellectuals who openly attacked tyranny, social injustice, superstition, and ignorance, and contrary to myth, were NOT all agnostics or atheists, but rather believed in forming their own opinions about religion based on reason, independent of tradition or established belief. There was also an elite society called Die Vierziger, the Darmstadt Society of Forty, named for Darmstadt University and for the size of their membership, consisting of members of all these other groups, and they all shared and promoted this dream of a better, free Germany.
So that was the state of things, then, in Germany in the 1840s: so many fiefdoms, all autocratic, a corrupt, chaotic society in which poverty was widespread and discontent rampant, freedom non-existent and all those who would speak out against all the many wrongs in danger of imprisonment, exile or death.
Another social phenomenon was afoot, too, at the time. In 1842, the Society for the Protection of German Immigration in Texas, better known as the Adelsverein (Nobility Society), was formed in order to ‘establish a new Germany within the borders of Texas.’ Now remember, at about the same time, land was going cheap in Texas as the US was eager to fill up all those wide-open acres with white people and so keep them out of the hands of Mexico, who’d recently owned it and understandably wanted it back. The purpose of the Adelsverein was German colonization, but the intellectuals in the Freethinkers movement and the Forty saw other opportunities closer to their own hearts. What they envisioned was the settlement of communities there based on their dream of brotherhood and unity, freedom and friendship and equality. What they saw was Utopia, a communistic dream on Texas soil.
Yes. Communist. When Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, former commissioner general of the Adelsverein (and the founder of New Braunfels) met with the Group of Forty, in 1847, to try and recruit them for emigration to Texas, it wasn’t a hard sell. These men were chomping at the bit to shake the dust of the fatherland off their boots and set out to try their experimental society across the sea in the Hill Country of Texas.
Among the Forty were some names we here in Boerne might recognize: there was Adam Vogt, one of Boerne’s own founding fathers; Phillip Zoeller, ditto; Gustav Schleicher, engineer and later a US senator from Texas; and a guy named Dr. Ferdinand von Herff, who needs no further introduction around here. Dr. Herff in fact led the group of emigres to Texas, and thirty-three of the original Forty ended up crossing the ocean in 1847, to establish a socialist township on the banks of the Llano River in Llano County. They named their colony Bettina, after Bettina Brentano von Arnim, a German liberal and writer, and one of those whose reformist writings these idealistic young scholars admired and from which they drew inspiration. They were to share the work and the profits equally according to the best socialist traditions, they built some houses and planted and even harvested their first crop, but dissension set in pretty early on, over work duties and trouble over a female cook, a Hispanic captive given to the expedition as a gift. The utopian dream of Bettina lasted a little over a year, and the men returned to Germany when it broke up. Their dream had suffered a setback, but they were far from giving up the effort.
At about the same time in 1847, another group of dreamers and intellectuals were settling their own community in Kendall County. Nicolaus Zinc was another German Freethinker, and had surveyed the town of New Braunfels for Prince Carl before founding the town of Sisterdale in the valley of the Sister Creek. The inevitable revolution in the German states- the March Revolution- finally broke out the following year, 1848, and was quickly crushed by the conservative aristocracy, and in the aftermath the revolutionary writers and supporters found themselves with prices on their heads, imprisoned or exiled, and many of these ‘Forty-Eighters’ joined Zinc in the new village which was organized along the same socialistic lines as Bettina. Among these settlers were Dr. Ernst Kapp and Adolph Douai, who had both been imprisoned for their revolutionary writings after the revolution was put down, and the Baron von Westphal, a brother-in-law of Karl Marx. Sisterdale would open a post office in 1851, and with its foundations in freedom and brotherhood would be a center of German abolitionism and Unionism during the Civil War.
The men who’d left Bettina after that experiment failed, went back to Germany and regrouped. Dr. Herff would return to Texas, having married his childhood sweetheart, and settle in New Braunfels and eventually San Antonio (with a famous, and enormous, country place in Boerne.) But some of the Bettina men- Christian Flach, Jacob Kuechler, Leopold Schulz, Phillip Zoeller and Adam Vogt- came back to Texas in 1849 to found another utopian commune, another dream on the Texas frontier. They called this one Tusculum, after Cicero’s home in ancient Rome. And this one they founded near the place they and three others camped on the Cibolo Creek in 1849, near what is now Johns Road in Boerne. They built their limestone houses there, and sowed their crops and founded their families, sharing the work and the profits, the troubles and the joy. Three years later, in 1852, a fellow named Gustav Theissen- one of the original settlers in Sisterdale- bought 1,100 acres near Tusculum, and with the help of public surveyor John James, laid out and surveyed the town of Boerne, named for that revolutionary writer Ludvig Borne who’d been such an inspiration to the Freethinkers and the Forty and all those dreamers and doers who’d emigrated with the Adelsverein. Tusculum, meanwhile, survived into the twentieth century, its most prominent citizen Dr. Richard Crosky, medical doctor and land surveyor, but the town of Boerne proved more successful and soon eclipsed, then absorbed, the tiny socialistic dream that was Tusculum. Today all that survives of the dreams of those eight men- the Boerne Eight- is a handful of crumbling rock buildings, and a chimera of a perfect world.
There would be five of these utopian, socialistic communities established in Texas in all- the short-lived Bettina, Millheim in Austin County, Latium in Washington County, and the two in Kendall County, Sisterdale and tiny Tusculum. They will forever be known as the Latin Communities, since Latin was the hallmark of a classical European education and the proof of the great intellect of the philosophers and dreamers, political refugees and men of thought and action who came to these raw and wild hills chasing an ideal. Of the five, only Sisterdale survives, and that a sleepy roadside hamlet and merely a dream of what once was. They shouldn’t be forgotten, though, these Latin Colonies, with their roots in the havoc that was the remains of the Holy Roman Empire, their starry-eyed founders men and women of vision and hope. Those tiny towns are a memory of a time when the minds of men and women soared above the plights they faced, and dreamed of a perfect society, a perfect world. Their memory is a testament to the beauty of idealism, the heroism of dreamers, and the courage of those who worked to change the world into a place they believed it could become.