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A Brief History of Texas' German Heritage

The first concerted effort to bring German settlers to Texas came in 1831, when Johann Friedrich Ernst (aka Friedrich Dirks), from the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg, received a grant of more than 4,000 acres in Stephen F. Austin’s colony. He and his family were on a ship from New York to New Orleans and planned to move to Missouri, but changed their destination when they learned of favorable conditions in Texas.

Within a generation, a wide swath of the state from the coastal plain to the Hill Country included dozens of German-settled towns; later generations of Germans also settled in North Texas. Many of these place names, including New Ulm, Frelsburg, Bleiblerville, Oldenburg, Weimar, Schulenburg, Gruene, New Braunfels, Boerne, Fredericksburg, and Luckenbach, still dot the map today.

German immigrants were a significant ethnic group in 19th century Texas, and were generally accepted into mainstream society while preserving many traditional customs of the Old World. Dillenburg-born John Meusebach founded the town of Fredericksburg and made a peace treaty with the Comanches in 1847; he was later elected to the Texas Senate. Gustave Schleicher was born in Darmstadt, Hesse, and became an American citizen in 1852. He served as a state legislator and senator before the Civil War and as a U.S. Congressman postwar; Schleicher County in west-central Texas is named in his honor.

There are many examples of German heritage still visible on the Texas landscape, from dance halls and shooting clubs to churches and schools. Thirteen rural schoolhouses in and around Fredericksburg are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Friends of Gillespie County Country Schools offer a driving trail, open houses and fundraisers to help preserve these unique resources and reminders of a vanishing part of our past.

The Westphalia Rural Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, includes about 5,500 acres in western Falls County. The historic district includes the 1894 Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin, along with its 1896 and 1921 schoolhouses and St. Mary’s Cemetery, historic frame commercial buildings, a cotton gin complex, and three dozen historic farmsteads. The village of Westphalia, one of the most intact rural landscapes in Texas, can be found along SH 320 east of Temple and southwest of Marlin.

The Texas Historical Commission hopes you will take this opportunity to celebrate the generations of German immigrants who have helped shape the great state of Texas.

Suggested Reading

  • Rudolph L. Biesele. The History of the German Settlements in Texas, 1831-1861. (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1930; reprinted 1964).
  • Victor Bracht. Texas in 1848. (translated by Charles Frank Schmidt, Austin: German-Texan Heritage Society reprint 1991).
  • Glenn G. Gilbert. Linguistic Atlas of Texas German, 1972.
  • Regina Beckmann Hurst and Walter D. Kamphoefner, trans. An Immigrant Miller Picks Texas: The Letters of Carl Hilmar Guenther, 2001.
  • Gilbert J. Jordan. Yesterday in the Texas Hill Country. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1979).
  • Terry Jordan. The German Element in Texas: An Overview, (in Rice University Studies, 1977).
  • Terry G. Jordan. German Seed in Texas Soil: Immigrant Farmers in Nineteenth-Century Texas. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966).
  • Terry L. Jordan. A Geographical Appraisal of the Significance of German Settlement in Nineteenth-Century Texas Agriculture. (dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1965).
  • Glen E. Lich, The German Texans. (San Antonio: University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, 1981).
  • George R. Nielsen. In Search of a Home: Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration, 1989.
  • Walter Struve. Germans & Texans: Commerce, Migration, and Culture, 1996.
  • Wendy Watriss, Lawrence Goodwyn, and Fred Baldwin. Coming to Terms: The German Hill Country of Texas, 1991.

Additional Resources

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