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Early Encounters

This section introduces you to early encounters between African Americans and German Americans in Texas.

The German version of the Star-Spangled Banner to the right was created in Texas by a German teacher named Hermann Seele in the early 1850s. [1] The two figures at the bottom depict an enslaved African man and a German immigrant. What do you think was the intention of these images below a German translation of the American national anthem during a time in which slavery still existed?

Arriving in Texas

Germans and Slavery

Agriculture, Community, Politics

A Story of Ambivalence

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Arriving in Texas

After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the new Mexican government opened up the Texas borderlands  to Stephen F. Austin's colonial project [2]. Austin and his followers built a colony based on a model of agriculture that relied on slave labor. Black people provided most of the labor on large cotton plantations that were set up along the Brazos, Colorado, and Guadalupe Rivers (marked purple in Map 1). Repeated efforts by the Mexican government to abolish slavery were a major reason for Anglo-Texans to seek independence from Mexico, which they eventually won in 1836.

Germans also took part in the colonization of Texas in the 1830sThere was overpopulation and poverty in Germany, and young people were discontent with the political conditions in German kingdoms and dukedoms. Several revolutions failed, spurring many young radicals to leave in the 1830s and 1840s to seek freedom and opportunity elsewhere. The dark grey spots in Map 1 represent the earliest German settlements in Texas, such as Industry, Cat Springs, and Frelsburg [3, 4].

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Map of the Eastern German Settlements in Texas (Jordan 1966, p.41).

The first Afro-German encounters in Texas took place where the grey settlements and the rivers (in purple) intersect. Many enslaved people were brought from the southern U.S., but others came directly from Africa: East Texas saw illegal slave imports from Africa well into the 19th century [5]. By the 1860s, African descendants made up over half of the population in the river basins. German Texans were by far the majority in the higher farmlands. During and after the 1840s, Germans also founded settlements in the Hill Country to the west (not on the map).

Arriving in Texas
Germans and Slavery

Some aristocratic Germans saw slavery as a chance to maintain the hierarchy that was simultaneously being challenged in Germany. For instance, 'Nassau Plantation' was operated by the aristocratic 'Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. The model of a slave-driven plantation was attractive to some German nobility [6]:

The plantation replaces the castle; the slave-holding plantation owner emerges as the new nobleman... An energetic and grateful class of artisans and tradesmen, motivated by loyalty to their benevolent sponsors and willing to exchange their services for the guidance and protection they receive, takes the place of medieval yeoman bound by feudal ties to the overlord. African slaves, like medieval serfs, occupy the bottom of this pyramid.  (Kearney 2010, S. 36)

 

Enslaved African Americans tried to escape Nassau Plantation on several occasions due to harsh living conditions and abuse. Around 1850, the plantation was partitioned and sold to other Germans. Enslaved people were included in the transactions. By 1860, there were 17 German slave-holders in Fayette County with 75 enslaved African Americans. Several of the slave owners in the county had aristocratic backgrounds.

 

Jordan (1966, p. 101f) sees no remarkable difference between German farmers and Anglo farmers in Southcentral Texas in terms of slave ownership. He claims that 1/10 of all regular German farmers listed human property as early as 1850. Yet, other calculations show that in 1860 the practice of slavery permeated German communities to a lesser degree than the surrounding communities in said region. The 17 German enslavers in Fayette County accounted for only 2.3% of the German population of the county—the other 753 German families did not have slaves. In the same county, 407 of the 1183 Anglos held 3485 African Americans as slaves (34 %). [7] Why was there such a disparity? Part of the answer lies in the way German communities worked.

Germans and Slavery
Agriculture, Community, Politics

Try to guess which of the following pictures is from LaGrange, Texas, and which is from Mannheim, Germany.

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Panorama near Mannheim, Germany (Huenlich, June 2022)

Reveal

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Panorama near LaGrange, Texas (Huenlich, June 2021)

Reveal

Agriculture, Community, Politics

The surprising similarity of the two landscapes is a result of the traditional way of doing agriculture in Central Europe. The farm was usually a self-sustaining family operation (cf. Jordan 1966). Family units cultivated small fields; tree-lines and brushes served as natural borders.  While this family-based farming was labor-intensive, it did not require enslaving people.

This approach to farming stood in stark contrast to that of the Anglo-Texans, which also lead to tensions between the two groups. The travel report A Journey through Texas by Frederick Olmsted [8] , a well-known land architect who visited Texas in 1856/57, describes a conversation he had with Anglo plantation owners about the neighboring German communities:

The conversation ran upon the Germans, through whose settlements one, a Jerseyman, had just passed. The "Dutch" he had seen at the North, he said, were very different from those of this country. There, they were honest and industrious, and minded their business. Here, they didn't appear to have any business. They were thieves and loafers, and nothing better than a "set of regular damn'd agrarians." All joined in these denunciations, which appeared to afford them relief, though founded, so far as they could show us, on mere prejudice. The master of the house was not backward, and intimated that he refused them fire and water as outlaws and barbarians, whenever he had the opportunity. "Agrarianism," a strange charge for such a country and place, we reflected, probably meant free-laborism and abolitionism, but did not push investigations. (Olmsted 1857, p. 132)

A strong orientation towards their own ethnic group also stood in the way of introducing slavery in German communities in Texas. Family-owned businesses, German churches, a multitude of "Vereine" (associations) that pursued cultural activities (e.g., singing, shooting, agriculture, and brewing), along with well-organized festivities and fun held the German community together. It stands to reason that generating a sense of collective belonging in a tight-knit ethnic community is almost impossible if a large number of community members is held captive.

In addition, young educated Germans who had joined the European revolutions in the 1830s and 40s and who were now often leading the Texan communities as politicians, journalists, and teachers fostered a remarkable opposition to slavery. To give two examples: in 1854, a number of notable community leaders attempted to create a political platform in opposition to slavery at the Sängerfest (Singing Festival) in San Antonio [9]. In 1962, during the Civil War, a group of more than 60 German intellectuals attempted to flee Texas to join the Union army. In an ambush and subsequent persecution by Confederate troops, 36 people were killed. The event later became known as the "Battle of the Nueces" or "Nueces Massacre" [10].

A Story of Ambivalence

The relationship between Texans of African and German descent was ambivalent from the very beginning. Survivors of slavery were interviewed in the Texas Slave Narratives in the 1930s, and remembered Germans in various roles: exploiters, escape helpers, opponents, friends, and educators. [11]

Austin Grant, who was born into slavery in Gonzales County, recalled, for instance, that he never received money from his master George Harper: “He never paid you anything, you never got to see none.” But Harper hired out slaves and “[s]ome of the Germans would give the old ones a little piece of money, but the chillen, pshaw! They never got to see nothin.” [11] It is hard to quantify how many Germans made use of the practice of slave-lending. 

Sarah Ford from DeWitt County recounts the days after her father had decided to run away. Although not in danger of being separated from his family because he was an outstanding hide tanner, he decided that there was a better place for him outside the plantation: “I 'lect papa sayin' dere one place special where he hide, some German folks, de name Ebbling, I think. While he hides dere, he tans hides on de sly like and dey feeds him, and lots of mornin's when us open de cabin door on a shelf jus' 'bove is food for mama and me, and sometime store clothes. No one ain't see papa, but dere it is.” The decision to hide with the Germans cost Sarah’s father bitterly. To save his wife from getting whipped, he turned himself in, and hot grease was poured over him.

Few accounts capture the ambivalence in Afro-German relations as well as the war story of Martin Jackson and Augustus Carl Büchel. Jackson was serving as an enslaved medic in the First Texas Cavalry in the Confederate Army. Büchel was a mercenary from Germany who had served in the Ottoman Empire and in Spain and who became a Confederate commander after emigrating to Texas in 1846. Jackson "knew the Yanks were going to win, from the beginning. I wanted them to win and lick us Southerners, but I hoped they was going to do it without wiping out our company." The main reason Jackson hoped his company would be spared was not his position: "I can tell you the life of the average slave was not rosy. They were dealt out plenty of cruel suffering. Even with my good treatment, I spent most of my time planning and thinking of running away." The main reason seems to have been his relation with Büchel, "a full-blooded German and as fine a man and a soldier as you ever saw." The colonel lost his life in the Battle of Marshall, in Louisiana. This is how Jackson described his death:

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Martin Jackson at age 90

Credit: Library of Congress

I was about miles from the front, where I had pitched up a kind of first-aid station. I was all alone there. I watched the whole thing. I could hear the shooting and see the firing. I remember standing there and thinking the South didn't have a chance. All of a sudden I heard someone call. It was a soldier, who was half carrying Col. Buchell in. I didn't do nothing for the Colonel. He was too far gone. I just held him comfortable, and that was the position he was in when he stopped breathing. That was the worst hurt I got when anybody died. He was a friend of mine.

                                                  

                                             - Martin Jackson

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Augustus Carl Büchel as Colonel

Credit: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University

After the Civil War, Carey Davenport became a Methodist minister in Anahuac, Texas. He attributed the beginning of his education to a German teacher: “I was educated since freedom, 'cause they wasn't no schools in slavery days, but after I was freed I went to public schools. Most my learnin' I got from a German man what was principal of a college and he teach me the biggest part of my education.” Tom Mills in Medina County had a similar experience: “What little school I went to was German, at D'Hanis and Castroville. I went to the priest at D'Hanis and to the sisters at Castroville. No education to amount to anything. That was after we were freed.” Some cases of freedpeople attending German schools are reported from the Hill Country. An example is the Meusebach Creek School near Fredericksburg. Try to find the school on our map of historic connections between African and German descendants in Texas!

Exploitation, Escape, Education
Sources:

[1] National anthem in German: You can download a version in color from the Wikimedia Commons. A transcription of the text by Hermann Seele is also provided. The Handbook of Texas Online provides more detail about the life and work of Hermann Seele.

 

[2] Texas borderlands: see Torget, Andrew (2018). Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).

 

[3] First German settlements: The Handbook of Texas Online provides more detail on the founding and founding fathers of Industry,  Cat Spring and Frelsburg.

[4] Map of Southcentral Texas: p. 41 in Jordan, Terry (1966, republished 1994). German Seed in Soil: Immigrant Farmers in Nineteenth-Century Texas.

 

[5] Illegal slave trade: In a letter to UT historian Eugene C. Barker from 1902 a witness describes Africans arriving on the Brazos river in 1837. They were then shipped to Columbus, Colorado County. The Texas Slave Narratives, Part 2, contain the story of Silvia King who was kidnapped from Morocco and through France and New Orleans ended up near La Grange, Fayette County. German newspapers also confirm that the illegal import of enslaved Africans into Texas continued until the Civil War.

[6] German nobility & slavery: see Kearney, James (2010). Nassau Plantation. The Evolution of a Texas German Slave Plantation (Denton: The University of North Texas Press), S. 36. Kearney presents a detailed account of the history of a German slave plantation which helped sustain the early German settlements of New Braunfels and Fredericksburg. Also, see the contribution Nassau Plantation by Jonathan Fairchild (UTSA) on this website.

[7] Slaveholding Germans in Fayette County 1860: p. 443 in Kamphoefner, Walter (1999), 'New Perspectives on Texas Germans and the Confederacy'. In: The Southwestern Historical Quarterly , Vol. 102, No. 4 , pp. 440-455

[8] Germans and "Agrarianism": p. 132 in Olmsted, Frederick (1857), A Journey through Texas. You can find a few other interesting excerpts from this travel account here.

[9] Sängerfest: See the contribution on the Sängerfest in San Antonio by Anna Sutter (UTSA) on this website.

[10] Battle of the Nueces: See the contribution on the Treue der Union Monument by Phoenix Macfarlane (UTSA) on this website.

[11] Slave Narratives: The cited excerpts come from various parts of the Texas Slave Narratives available from the Gutenberg Project. You can find the individual narrators here: Austin Grant, Sarah FordMartin JacksonCarey DavenportTom Mills

Sources
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