the years 1845 and 1860, a large contingent of German Freethinkers
immigrated to the Texas Hill Country. Unlike the thousands of Adelsverein-sponsored
German farmers immigrating to the United States and Texas to escape
overpopulation and economic problems, the Freethinkers, being ardent
advocates of democracy and freedom from religion, were fleeing primarily
from political and religious tyranny. They came to the United States
seeking freedom from dictatorial monarchies and clerics.
Freethinkers refused to accept political absolutism and the authority
of a church, religion, or its supposedly inspired scripture. They
insisted on the freedom to form religious opinions on the basis
of intellectual reasoning powers and not on blind, unquestioned
faith. Freethinking became fashionable in the German state of Prussia
during the reign of Frederick the Great, who ruled from 1740-53,
within a period known as the "Age of Reason."
Age of Reason began in the late 1600s and extended into the late
1700s. It was the period in history when philosophers emphasized
the use of reason as the best method of learning truth. Its leaders
included Descartes, Voltaire, Bacon, Locke, and Paine. The period
produced many important advances in such fields as anatomy, astronomy,
chemistry, mathematics, and physics.
of the Age of Reason organized knowledge in encyclopedias and founded
scientific institutes. They believed that the scientific method
could be applied to the study of human nature and thoroughly explored
issues in education, law, philosophy, and politics. These intellectuals
openly attacked tyranny, social injustice, superstition, and ignorance.
Many of their ideas contributed directly to the outbreak of the
American and French revolutions in the late 1700's. They stressed
the importance of education and believed that knowledge is power.
Texas Hill Country Freethinkers numbered an estimated 1,000 individuals
with close to 250 documented surnames. This group came primarily
from the intellectual core of the German states, with many of them
being highly respected nobles, philosophers, scientists, physicians,
Ferdinand von Herff, shortly after obtaining his medical degree
at the age of 22, achieved international acclaim for his brilliant
surgical ability and was well received in the royal circles of Europe.
Dr. Ernst Kapp, a highly regarded scholar and publisher of philosophy,
history, and geography, received his doctorate in classical philology
at the age of twenty. Edward Degener was a highly respected member
of the Frankfurt Parliament. Dr. Carl Adolph Douai was a prominent
journalist. Baron Ottfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach was General
Commissioner of the Adelsverein, government assessor in Pottsdam,
and son of a prominent jurist in Nassau. Baron Ottomar von Behr
was the son of the Anhalt premier. Baron Edgar von Westphal was
the brother of a high ranking Prussian official. Louis von Donop
was a ranking Prussian officer. Julius Dresel was a member of the
German Chambers of Deputies.
their final years in the German states, this Freethinking group
of intellectuals was active in a political action group called the
"Democratic Left." The most prestigious of this group
were those belonging to a fraternity known as the "Society
of Forty," so named from the size of their membership. They
demanded that the dictatorial monarchies be abolished and that constitutional
governments be established. This led to rioting in every major German
city and the Revolution of 1848.
Kapp and Douai were imprisoned for their revolutionary writings,
freedom of speech was suppressed, and universities were closed.
When the monarchy savagely crushed the revolution, the Freethinkers
realized that they no longer had a future in the German states and
felt compelled to leave. Later in Texas, many of them would come
to be known as the "Forty-Eighters," referring to the
year of the revolution.
first collective group to arrive in Texas during early 1847 was
led by Dr. Herff. It was comprised of 33 members of the fraternity,
"Society of Forty." Earlier in Germany, Prince Solms had
addressed this group on the Adelsverein's efforts in building colonies
in Texas at New Braunfels and Fredericksburg since 1844. The prince
presented glowing accounts of how successful these settlements had
become due to the unlimited opportunities in the vast Texas Hill
Country. Dr. Herff and his friends were especially intrigued by
the freedoms available.
Herff's group settled at a juncture where the Elm Creek flows into
the Llano River. This first settlement was named Bettina after Bettina
von Arnim, a renowned German writer and close friend of Goethe.
This was followed by the founding of the original communities of
Castell, Cypress Hill, Tusculum (later Boerne), Sisterdale, and
Luckenbach. Of these communities, only Sisterdale achieved any extended
degree of success.
being well educated, many of the Freethinkers had been quite affluent
while living in the German states. When they immigrated to Texas,
they brought with them not only clothes and guns, but books, linens,
china, paintings, musical instruments, and especially, a new philosophy.
As a matter of survival, these intellectuals rapidly engaged in
the effort to master the art of pioneer farming. For this endeavor,
they drew on the expertise of the Comanches and some local Mormons
who taught them how to raise the crops best suited for the Texas
climate and soil.
quickly learned to clear land; build cabins, cabinets, wagons, and
fences; cut trees; split shingles; shoe horses; distill wine; roll
cigars; hunt and fish; and raise corn, cotton, tobacco and cattle.
However, their time was divided between fields and education. Higher
ideals, classics, and cultural affairs were studied, discussed,
and debated. Their children early on were schooled in these areas.
was of paramount importance to these intellectual immigrants. They
built schools and libraries which also served for defense against
occasional renegade Indian attacks. They educated their children
to be independent and self-reliant, and with minds free from prejudice.
They strongly encouraged a skeptical outlook on the pronouncement
of others in their own study of right and truth. Very important
in their education was the development of a spirit which would sustain
the courage of their convictions without regard to personal consequences.
Girls, as well as boys, were strongly encouraged to pursue their
highest potential level of aptitude.
intellectuals would frequently gather at the schoolhouse or one
of their rustic frontier homes to contemplate the important issues
in philosophy, science, literature, politics, and music. Their meetings
were often conducted in Latin or Greek, mystifying their neighbors
and creating the name "Latin Colonies" for their settlement
areas. Even large numbers of friendly Comanches would observe these
sessions in bewilderment through the open windows and doors.
Paul, brother of the king of the German State of Wuerttemberg, along
with Frederick Law Olmsted, one of America's greatest landscape
architects and noted travel authors, visited and marveled at a level
of culture and sophistication such as not found elsewhere in the
entire South. They remarked that their discussions were worthy of
"golden goblet" conversations conducted at the most luxurious
palaces in Europe. They noted that the rude cabins were stocked
with classical books, fine paintings, and musical instruments.
in Olmsted's wide-ranging travels had he found people so free of
bigotry and so willing to discuss their ideas and beliefs. Along
with the German immigrant-built cities of Fredericksburg and New
Braunfels, the Latin Colony communities were the only ones in the
South where white agricultural laborers were exclusively found.
1853, the Freethinkers petitioned the Texas Congress at Austin for
a charter to operate a German-English college to be built at Sisterdale.
It is unknown whether the Texas Congress ever acted on their petition.
Prior to this time, there were only religious colleges in Texas
such as Southwestern (Methodist) at Georgetown in 1840, Baylor (Baptist)
at Waco in 1845, Mary Hardin-Baylor (Baptist) at Belton in 1845,
Austin (Presbyterian) at Huntsville in 1849, and St. Mary's (Roman
Catholic) at San Antonio in 1852. Had their petition been acted
upon, the Freethinkers' College would have been the first such public
institution in Texas, as Texas A&M at College Station wasn't
founded until 1871 and the University of Texas at Austin until 1883.
influence extended well beyond the Latin Colonies. They authored
many academic and technical publications. Dr. Ferdinand von Herff
was a highly respected surgeon in San Antonio; Dr. Carl Adolph Douai
founded the San Antonio Zeitung (newspaper) in 1853 and later established
the first American kindergarten in the northeast part of the country;
August Siemering founded the San Antonio Express newspaper; and
Gustav Theissen became a financial wizard on Wall Street.
May, 1854, the annual state convention of German singing groups,
called a Saengerfest, was held in San Antonio. This convention,
instigated and dominated by the Freethinkers, drew up numerous resolutions,
some of which demanded:
laws be enacted, so simple and intelligible, that there should be
no need of lawyers,
the abolition of the grand jury,
the abolition of capital punishment,
the abolition of all temperance laws,
that people be taxed on the level of income--the greater the income,
the greater the tax,
that there should be no religious instruction in schools and no
preachers could be teachers,
the abolition of laws respecting Sunday or days of prayer,
the abolition of the oath as a matter of religious sanction, and
that Congress should never be opened by prayer.
The slave-holding and religious communities of San Antonio became
highly incensed that these newcomers to America could propose such
radical ideas. They feared that the German-Americans were forming
secret societies, to unite in a conspiracy with similar Freethinking
societies in the North, in order to destroy their institutions,
laws, and religious ministries.
Carl Adolph Douai's newspaper, the San Antonio Zeitung, was totally
abolitionist. He boldly published all questions of public interest
in the light of social progress and came out strongly against slavery.
In 1855, his newspaper offices were destroyed by irate local citizens
who opposed his views on freedom for all people.
illustration of the progressive attitude that abounded in the Freethinking
Texas Hill Country was the invention of Jacob Brodbeck, schoolmaster
of the Luckenbach community. Between 1846 and 1862, some 50 years
before the Wright brothers' first successful airplane flight, Brodbeck
launched models of his own flying machine. His airplane had wings,
a propeller, a rudder, and was powered by coiled springs. However,
he abandoned this project when he was unable to obtain a patent
after his experimental craft crashed after flying a short distance.
1854, Ernst Hermann Altgelt was commissioned by an absentee Louisiana
landowner to lay out the town of Comfort and sell land parcels.
Many of the Freethinkers in the nearby Latin Colonies relocated
to Comfort, drawn by the abundance of lumber and water. Within two
years, approximately half of the Freethinker population in the Texas
Hill Country was living in the Comfort area. Over the next few years,
the relocation of so many Freethinkers to the town of Comfort resulted
in a rapid decline in the population of the Latin Colony settlements.
Comfort had now become the center of "Freethinking" in
the state. Even as late as the early 1900's, the Comfort newspaper
was published and edited by an ardent Freethinker, Armand Wertheim.
Freethinkers were instrumental in creating the "German-English
School" in San Antonio in 1859. This school, which was dedicated
to the famous l8th-century German historian, Friedrich Schiller,
was designed to educate the children of German-American intellectuals.
The school had two main principles: one was that religious instruction
would be prohibited; the other was that German and English should
be given the same amount of instruction. The school drew students
from throughout Texas and was recognized as one of the outstanding
cultural institutions of 19th-century Texas.
establishment of religious institutions illustrates one of the unique
differences between most other settlements and those of the Freethinkers.
In other settlements, the building of churches was among the first
priorities. Freethinkers viewed established religion with distaste
because it had been forced upon them in Germany. In very few of
the Freethinker homes was there a bible or any religious literature.
There were no public prayers. For the 45-year period, 1847 to 1892,
no church was built in any of the Freethinker communities.
and funeral ceremonies were often conducted by a Germanic lodge
and always with a large attendance with so many relatives near at
hand. The message at the funeral service was "Rest in Peace."
Sentimental German ballads were sung. The life of the deceased was
told and sometimes there was a eulogy read by a person skilled in
public speaking. There was no mention of immortality because no
one believed in it. They lived on in their children. That was their
in the late 1840's and 1850's offered what any liberty-loving immigrant
could ever hope to seek in the way of refuge far away from the oppressions
of Europe. This indeed was the promised land of liberty that attracted
the German Freethinkers to the United States. They strongly admired
the ideals of the great American patriots: Washington, Jefferson,
Paine, Adams, Madison, and Franklin.
brought to the United States the highest ideals of freedom for all,
academic education for children to realize their greatest potential
in building a better future, limited government, and medical and
scientific advancements for the benefit of all humankind. However,
after only a few glorious years, they ended up sacrificing their
homes, fortunes, future, and very lives for these ideals, largely
annihilated by repressive forces of a political, religious, social,
and economic nature.
War broke out on April 12, 1861, after the Southern states had seceded
from the Union. Confederate military authorities in Texas moved
to eliminate any internal threats to the confederacy by issuing
to the young men of the state an ultimatum: take oaths of allegiance
to the Confederacy or leave the state. Martial law was declared
in Texas on May 30, 1862, due primarily to perceived threats in
the Texas Hill Country.
vast majority of German-Americans in the Texas Hill Country, of
which the Freethinkers were undeniably the most vociferous, sided
with Sam Houston in opposing secession and slavery. The Confederacy
considered the Freethinkers of Comfort, Sisterdale, and San Antonio
to be a threat because of their radical political ideas. They were
frank in their declarations that they had immigrated to escape political
and religious oppression.
United States meant freedom for the Texas Freethinkers. They cherished
the ideals upon which the Union was founded and felt they owed it
their loyalty and gratitude. They opposed the cause of the Confederate
secessionists, for it not only threatened the country they treasured,
but it also embraced notions of enslavement and oppression which
these freedom-lovers found abhorrent.
a large number of them were reluctantly conscripted into the Confederate
army, many who refused to take the oath were killed in the Texas
Hill Country. A number of them chose to flee to Mexico in order
to join up with Union forces or wait out the war. However, not all
of them made it to Mexico. The "Treue der Union" memorial
on Monument Hill in Comfort holds the remains of 36 of these Union
patriots who were killed by Confederate troops at the Nueces and
Rio Grande Rivers in August and October of 1862, respectively. The
January 20, 1866 edition of Harper's Weekly reported that the burial
ceremony included a military honor salute without any religious
of the older German-American Freethinkers openly expressed their
loyalty to the Union and incurred the wrath of the new Confederate
governor and his military forces. Dr. Adolph Douai, publisher of
the San Antonio Zeitung newspaper, was imprisoned. August Siemering,
founder of the San Antonio Express, was threatened with the same
if he persisted in slandering the Confederacy. Edward Degener was
placed under personal bond and temporarily imprisoned during the
Civil War. He was constantly threatened with hanging for his refusal
to pledge support to the Confederate cause. Both of his sons, Hugo
and Hilmar, ages 20 and 21, were among those patriots martyred at
the Battle of the Nueces for their convictions.
the war, many of the Texas Hill Country Freethinkers eventually
relocated to large urban are as throughout the state. Edward Degener
was elected to the U.S. Congress. Dr. Ernst Kapp returned to Europe
where political-religious oppression had subsided. His oldest son,
Alfred, who had served in the Confederate army, remained in Texas
where he died a few years later from Civil War wounds.
immigrating to the United States, the Freethinkers had hoped to
escape the four oppressions of a political, religious, social, and
economic nature. Eighty-two years later in 1944, U.S. President
Roosevelt ran for reelection for a fourth term during which he adopted
an identical ideology, except to call them the Four Freedoms for
all humankind--a vision forged in the heat of a great struggle with
despotic forces of tyranny.
Freethinkers of the Texas Hill Country arrived at these fundamental
truths before this country was ready for them, and they, like Socrates
and Galileo, paid a heavy price because of it. Yet, in the face
of persecution, ostracism, impressment and even death, they sacrificed
all rather than renounce their Freethought principles, their secular
values, and their loyalty to the Union which had given them the
freedom to build this noble beacon of enlightenment in the enchanting
hills of Texas.
the tragic consequences suffered during the Civil War, from which
there was no hope of recovery, the Freethinker movement in the Texas
Hill Country eventually began to decline. They had lost their future,
their immortality--their next generation of children. The "Cradle
of Texas Freethinking," with its promising potential for realizing
physical and spiritual freedoms, had been tragically crippled. However,
during the golden years of the 1850's, when the Texas Hill Country
Freethinkers were enjoying relatively unrestrained freedoms, their
contributions to society loom enormous in view of their relatively
small population. Many of their visions, proclamations, and practices
of freedom are still being pursued today, some 140 years later.
writer is a Foundation member who is organizing a drive to erect
an explicitly Freethought Monument to the martyrs in Comfort, Texas.