Ok, so not to get all political right on you long-suffering readers right outta the starting gate, but there is a small chance that some of you savvier folks might’ve sensed and I should preface this by stipulating that this really only applies to those of you who’ve had occasion to inhale oxygen or experience conscious thought over the course of the past couple of years- a trace amount of strife in the atmosphere here in the good ol’ USA- just a tad, mind you, but it sometimes almost feels to this reporter as if some of us Americans aren’t seeing eye to eye with some of us other Americans. Now you guys, this troubles your Auntie Marj- it won’t do I tell you, it simply will not do!
That said, my patient ones, I am prepared to do my small part toward harmony today as I share with you the brand-new scholarly yet riveting, hip and dryly witty histoire tour de force I know you’ve all come to expect from me- I shall aim for unity by steering altogether clear of any subjects that might tend to give any rise to differences of opinion between us friends. Now without further delay amigas y amigos, let us proceed to our discussion of this month’s totally neutral topic upon which there can be no possibility of disagreement.
Ready guys? Let’s talk about the Civil War.
All of us think in pictures- like when you hear a song on the radio and it evokes an image, all sepia and pastel tints and gossamer edges like the hem of a fairy’s skirt. There, I happen to have this example in my holster- this is a real thing that actually happened today, it’s not just a case of poetic license, although I do make stuff up a lot and tell people it’s ok because I’m a writer: I happened across on the old intraweb social media box one of those prom pictures taken under a plastic arch in front of a navy blue curtain, circa 1979, in which the dude component of the young couple is decked out in a baby blue tuxedo complete with ruffled Prince Valiant shirt and enormous velvet bow tie.
For the sake of space and staying on the subject I’ll skip right on past my observation about how these two kids dressed to the teeth must’ve been about as finely furbished as they had ever been in their lives up til that point, and you KNOW they thought they were lookin’ good, and I’m gonna leave out the whole part about how I theorized that something must’ve gone horribly wrong in whatever part of the country’s collective brain that controls fashion dos and don’ts, and I won’t even MENTION how I got to musing on how it used to be perfectly acceptable for guys in high school to sport full and flourishing mustaches and say things like “Hey foxy lady” and how, in spite of the sheer overwhelming level of grossness, high school girls apparently still wanted to date them- no, I won’t touch on any of that right now, because I simply don’t have the space, but I’ll just mention how it was the weirdest thing, as soon as I saw that hunka burning love in the Dumb & Dumber tux I INSTANTLY got a picture of myself dancing across the gym with my own high school sweetheart in his maroon-and-silver raiment, and heard in my mind- I’m being utterly serious right now- the opening lilt of Babe I’m Leaving by Styx. There are moments when it just smacks you between the eyes how old and feeble you’ve somehow become.
What I started out to say was, I believe a whole lot of people- including scads of us who really should know better, like me- when we think of the Civil War we involuntarily conjure up some sun-dappled hallucination involving long green lawns stretching down to lazy rivers and white-haired Colonel Sanders types sipping juleps on porches and girls in crinolines sweeping down the staircase and all the rest- it’s that damn Gone With the Wind stuff that does it, Scarlett looking drop-dead gorgeous and not at all as if she reeked of BO even while birthin’ Miz Melly’s baby with Atlanta falling the hell apart just outside the parlor window. I dunno though, maybe that’s just my own private delusion because I remember the first time I ever saw that movie, being six years old and I wore those little white gloves with lace at the cuffs, being flanked by my mother and great-grandmother in the vastness of the Broadway Theatre and how we went to Scrivener’s Tea Room afterwards and just the pretty perfectness of that day.
The bleaker side of that whole dream sequence is, of course, that our imaginations shrink from panning out beyond all the romantic magnolia paradise window-dressing and on to where we might be forced to take a good hard look at the slave cabins and the human beings living out their lives inside, and come face to face with this country’s most bitter shame, founded on the principles of liberty and the backs of people of color. All the soft-hued tableaux, hazy and lace-like around the edges, urge us so insistently to believe that those human women, men, little babies and children who were owned as property, worked like machinery and traded as though they were bales of cotton, to believe that they were all happy and docile and clean and content, overflowing with the cloying sweet tea of gratitude to the white people whose pets they were.
At any rate, the Texas Hill Country at the brink of the American Civil War didn’t look a lot like that at all- not even a little, in fact. There’s so much stuff to talk about, to really understand what was going on around here leading up to 1861, all the history of Spain in Mexico, and Mexico in Texas and just heaps of things all mixed up together and each contributing factor hinging on another, that we could sit here and talk for dayshell, for weeks and months, just to get an idea of what life was like in our part of the world as this Category 10 supercell hurricane barreled down towards us and finally made catastrophic landfall. And it’d make my whole life if anybody actually wanted to hash it all out for weeks and months- message me- you’d be surprised at how very few people actually get excited at the prospect of a voice-raising, table-pounding history rave…or maybe surprised isn’t the word I’m looking for. But you see, nothing ever happens in a vacuum, independently of anything else happening in the world, and the cataclysm didn’t just fall upon us because the Confederates hauled off on a whim and bombarded the Union soldiers at Fort Sumter one fine day in April.
That’s not how any of this works. Consider this: New Braunfels, in 1845, and Fredericksburg, a year later, were founded in a whole different way from Boerne- let’s start with that. What happened with New Braunfels and Fredericksburg- I mean just to hit the high points, we’re gonna hafta Reader’s Digest all this down to a fun-size portion – anyway, back in Germany, some people got together and formed an emigration company for the purpose of, well, emigrating, to Texas. A lot of these people were liberal, radical, well-educated activists who’d been up to their eyeballs in a lot of the social and political and economic upheaval in the Fatherland that would later on blow up into the Revolution of 1848 . And then some others of the people were plain old working-class stiffs- also progressive-minded but mostly just ready to trade in some pretty restrictive, dead-end stuff in the old country for a fresh start in the new one, but ALL of the people were very much like-minded and shared most of the same ideals. So then, these first settlers all lit out from Germany more or less at the same time in order to establish a new town here in Texas, which they did in March of 1845- like nine months before Texas was even a state and they named the new place after the German home of the prince who was in charge of the emigration company, who ended up getting himself into a real hot mess later on, but that’s a whole nother story for another day. The name of this Prince Solms’s estate back home was Braunfels, so this was the New Braunfels, see?
This emigration company had other fish to fry, too, in addition to relocating all those Germans to Texas to start new lives and maybe a whole new mini-Germany. The company (which answered to like ten different names but that we’ll call the easiest of ‘em, the Adelsverein) wasn’t set up as a charity or a non-profit kinda thing- no way. Nope, the Adelsverein was all about making that scratch, and they had big plans to establish a bunch of new colonies in Texas, all the way from the coast on up past the Llano River.
So about a year after New Braunfels was founded, when bonnie old Prince Solms of Braunfels had already managed to get himself all sideways and had been politely (or not so much) asked by the Adelsverein to beat it, a new guy from Germany arrived in Texas to take over for Solms for the emigration company and in taking charge of New Braunfels, and to get started planting all those other new German towns they’d talked about. The man who was about to get all this schluffed over onto his shoulders was known back in Germany as Baron Otfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach, but being one of those liberals I told you about and holding socialist ideals about equality and all that, he shed his plethora of titles and became plain old John O’Meusebach, and would go on to be a really awesome leader who worked like mad to take care of his people through some truly awful times, and who negotiated- and actually honored- a treaty with the
Comanche people that turned out to be one of the most important things that ever happened in the lives of the pioneer Germans. Oh yeah, and he went on ahead and founded Fredericksburg, and a couple other towns to boot. The Adelsverein soon fell apart in spectacular fashion- which led to those awful times I just mentioned- and Meusebach turned out to be by far the best man in the whole bunch.
Ok- so there are New Braunfels and Fredericksburg sorted, founded as actual colonies by pioneer settlers straight outta Germany, who were if not all of them then pretty damn near all, liberal thinkers who believed in principles like human equality, in taking care of the poor and raising them up, stuff like that. A lot of them were
Freethinkers, and there were Freemasons, and there were atheists (not to be confused with Freethinkers- it’s a whole other thing) as well as people hoping to practice their faith as they chose and not according to whatever their particular prince or duke or whatever got up to.
There were other places sprouting up around the Hill Country too, where more of the same kind of progressive thinkers and idealists late out of Germany were coming to live. Sisterdale was one such, settled in 1847 by a fella named Nickolaus Zink, a Freethinker himself who’d been the surveyor up in New Braunfels for the hapless Prince. Sisterdale was one of what they called the Latin colonies and, like the other German towns, a hotbed of radical ideas, especially after the ‘48ers’ came to join Zink up there after the failed 1848 Revolution In the Fatherland. One of the gentleman farmers and ‘Latiners’ who moved in was actually a brother-in-law of Karl Marx, and if that’s liberal enough for ya well I don’t know how on earth to please you anymore. The town site of Comfort wasn’t surveyed and laid out formally til 1854, but the place had been settled for a couple of years, since 1852, by the time Ernst Altgelt made it official. Comfort was born when some of the German immigrants who’d first come over with the Adelsverein to settle in New Braunfels, built the first houses near the site of an old Native village. The Comfort pioneers were, like just about all of the Germans pouring into the Hill Country after the 48 Revolution, the same kinds of activists and political refugees who’d been very involved back in the Fatherland in agitating for change. The folks who settled in Comfort tended to be more middle-class and less of the Prince/baron/assorted fancy lad types who’d come over in the first wave- in fact, the people who came to build Comfort mostly moved from the earlier-established colonies, from New Braunfels and Fredericksburg and from the Latin Colonies of Bettina and Sisterdale. And these guys were really serious about their principles- their town was to be run as a co-op, period, and there wouldn’t be any of this formal town government folderol for them – and I’m pretty sure there still isn’t any of that, up til right now. One other thing- Comfort really DID do what a lot of local history revisionists now wrongly claim for Boerne- the people of Comfort absolutely refused to have a church built in the place. It wasn’t til fifty years after the first settlers moved there- in 1892- that they finally let someone build a church there.
The Latin Colony of Bettina up on the Llano River opened and closed all in the space of a year or so- Bettina was actually Dr. Ferdinand Herff’s maiden venture in Texas, as a young man, and when Bettina ultimately folded up like a cheap card table, Dr Herff went back to Germany to marry his sweetheart real quick before turning right around and heading back, finally to settle in San Antonio where he became crazy famous and beloved, and to spend lots of his down time in Boerne, one of our founding fathers. And there was one more of those Latin colonies in the neighborhood, a little commune on the banks of the crystal-clear Cibolo Creek founded by eight wild-eyed radicals by the names of Adam Vogt, Rudolph Carstanjen, Fritz Kramer, Phillip Zoeller, Christian Flach, J Kuchler, Leopold Schultz and Wilhelm Friedrich. These fresh new German immigrants- a couple of whom had tried their hand at pioneering before at the short-lived Bettina- called their socialist village Tusculum, and Tusculum was a bit of a going concern for a while in there. The same people who say a lot of specious nonsense about Boerne being violently anti-church have also twisted the facts about Tusculum and Boerne, claiming the one became the other, but the fact is that a whole different guy, one John James from Nova Scotia, surveyed and platted the townsite of Boerne on a whole different piece of land a mile or so down the Cibolo from Tusculum, and when Tusculum finally ceased to be quite some time later, Boerne merely co-opted it’s founding date.
And that’s as neat a segue as any into the topic of Boerne itself. Now here’s that pop quiz I warned you kids about: Has anybody noticed any pattern so far among all these German towns we’ve talked about? Anything they have in common? Let me help, since I mean, the deck’s seriously stacked against you since you really don’t have any means of answering me here. Most of the towns in this part of the German Texas Hill Country were founded and settled by immigrants straight off the boat, people who came here as a group of like-minded folks with the same plans and aims and ideals. And Comfort sprouted up organically, when a handful of the original settlers branched out on their own. So that’s what’s up with those places. And then there’s Boerne- and as we used to sing along with Sesame Street back in the 70s when it was awesome before that little twerp Elmo wrecked everything: One of these things is not like the other. Remember what I said about Tusculum and Boerne and John James from Nova
Scotia? I mean seriously y’all, it was like three sentences ago, there’s just no excuse for forgetting it already. So here’s this little hippie Latin colony commune thing of
Tusculum just going along doing their own thing, gentleman farming and reading learned tomes and joshing around with each other in Latin, or at least that’s how I’ve always pictured what was going on in those places- when a couple of fellas show up in the woods down a piece with their surveying stuff and some official-looking deeds and titles and all that, and it turns out that this John James and his buddy whose name was Gustav Theissen, they’re a couple of developers laying out this whole thing with the idea of selling lots and banking some dough. And that’s what happens- eventually.
Whenever James and Theissen did whatever the 1852 version was of cutting the ribbon to their new town with a pair of comically big cardboard scissors and then stood back to avoid being crushed under the stampede of buyers, they were instead greeted by a deafening chorus of crickets, and even the crickets seemed unimpressed. The pair of them, James and Theissen, had actually hatched a pretty great idea of putting a town right here, for several reasons, among them this primo location on the military road from San Antonio to points west- the thinking went, see, that buyers would be snapping up the lots in order to peddle stuff to all the people who used the military road all the time, and eventually it worked out just like they’d planned. A handful of buyers actually did show up in those first years- maybe ten families in the first eight or ten years- but that projected growth dear to developer’s hearts didn’t really get off the ground until old Dr Herff- who’d been one of the very first people to buy land in the new town- started talking Boerne up as the healthiest spot this side of Baden Baden, and started sending his bad-off TB patients up thisaway to die in all this fresh mountain ozone. That story goes off into how Boerne became this world-famous health spa-resort and then business dried up and blew away and everyone in town forgot it ever happened- but that’s not what we’re talking about right now.
What the hell ARE we talking about? Simply this: whereas New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Sisterdale and Bettina and Tusculum had been settled all at one time by a united group of settlers with similar values, and where Comfort just sprang up on the river bank when some of the earlier immigrants just decided that’s where they wanted to live, Boerne is a horse of a whole…nother…stripe? I may have that wrong. See, Boerne was what you might call a PLANNED community, and a commercial venture by a couple of American dudes who didn’t have a dog in the whole German Texas fight and who didn’t really care who moved into their new town nor whether they were all like-minded or whether they disagreed so violently that nobody could pass anybody else in the street without getting into some serious fisticuffs or at the very least a round of Three Stooge-esque slapping and poking and verbal humiliation- as long as you could fork over the necessary dough, James and Theissen would fork back the requisite deed and you could move in that same afternoon, or at least as soon as you got a house built right quick.
So the upshot of this thing is that Boerne wasn’t really settled by German immigrants in the same way that all those other towns were. I mean, certainly a lot of
German immigrants DID move to town, that’s not what I mean- but they didn’t all load up the station wagons back in the old hood and head over together in a convoy in order to build a town from the bottom up. The way Boerne was populated was like this: a guy who came over from Germany with the New Braunfels, say, hears about this new place on the military road and he thinks Heeey, what if I get ahold of one of those lots and build a store and I can sell tack and supplies and wagon wheels and blue jeans and those little license plates for your bicycles with your name on them unless your name is Marjorie? I bet I could make some sweet moola! and he packs up his family and heads on over from New Braunfels and there he is. There was a whole lotta that going on, naturally, but there was this whole other piece that gets forgotten when Some People spin tales about Boerne as this radical German town, which it most certainly wasn’t- so see, quite a few of the people who came to buy lots and settle in Boerne weren’t of German ancestry at all.
This is what I mean by how all these things are interconnected: in those days- now remember, Texas is brand-new, it was part of Mexico and then for a bit it was a republic in name, but not that much governing and law and order and all that was going on. The truth is that the Texians and those guys, they didn’t actually want Texas independence so they could run it as a permanent republic- no, at the time of the Revolution they were actually already fixing it up with the United States government to come into the Union once they shook free of Mexico. So what does that have to do with anything in the world, Marj?? is that during that time, people from the rest of the US were pouring into Texas, this brand-new state with just scads of land and land and land, and where they were mostly coming from was the southern mountain states, like Missouri and Kentucky and Arkansas. The people in those states tended to be poorer and were therefore more likely to go off pioneering in search of a new life than people who were already, in the words of Daffy Duck, comfortably well-off. Also, the Ozark and Appalachian states- they are breathtakingly beautiful, to be sure, but all those hollers and ridges and mountains and things don’t make for the best farmland- the thought was that you’d get GTT- Gone To Texas- snag yourself a piece of farmland and start making that bank. And one other thing- and here’s the part where some of y’all harrumph and slap the ol’ Explore down on the table in a huff, but this is the actual historical truth and all: in the years leading up to the Civil War, you guys’ve probably read about the frenzied contest to see who could gain the most ground, the slave states or the free states, and when Texas got shed of Mexico some factions in the US government were hoping to bring it into the Union not as one big ol’ state, but as five separate slave states, which would go a considerable distance toward tipping the balance to the slave side.
So a whole lotta Southern pro-slavery people who would vote for and support- in a fight, if push came to shove, which it surely did- were encouraged to move on in to Texas. And a lot of those folks ended up in Boerne.
You might not know this but while a smattering of slave-owners had managed to insinuate themselves into the German colony towns despite the staunchly anti-slavery principles of the German ex-pats- in Boerne, the number of slave owners was proportionately much higher, and that’s because we here had fewer direct German immigrants and a lot more Americans.
So here we are now in the German Hill Country, poised on the brink of the worst war in the history of the United States, and this is the way it stands: the original settlements of the Adelsverein and their spiritual offshoots, unwavering and outspoken in their opposition to slavery and in their loyalty to the United States on the one side, and on the other, this commercial venture of Boerne, whose population has no shared vision or ethos, a mixed bag of various pros and cons, and whose non-German citizens feel pretty strongly about hanging on like grim death to the human lives they insist are their own personal property. In the very near future Texas will have to vote on whether to stay true to the United States or to go to war against it, there will be a drive to create a new county out of several old ones, and the people of Comfort don’t want any part of any county that includes the Boerne slavers, but the slavers in Boerne want Comfort bad, in order to silence their abolitionist voice with the power of their vote to secede.
The Hill Country, then, was like a forest that hasn’t felt rain for months, that’s been baking in the heat of the Texas summer, and poised there on the edge of the wildfire zone, they all seemed to hold their breath against the terrible spark, which would surely come.
And that fire came.
More to come next month…