Freethinkers Of the Early Texas Hill Country by Edwin E. Scharf (April 1998)

Between 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.

The 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.”

The 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.

Philosophers 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.

The 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, and engineers.

Dr. 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.

During 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.

Drs. 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.

The 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.

Dr. 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.

Besides 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.

They 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.

Education 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.

These 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.

Duke 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.

Nowhere 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.

In 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.

Their 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.

In 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:

that 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.

Dr. 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.

An 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Marriage 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 immortality.

Texas 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.

They 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.

Civil 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Although 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 fanfare.

Some 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.

After 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.

By 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.

The 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.

With 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.

The writer is a Foundation member who is organizing a drive to erect an explicitly freethought monument to the martyrs in Comfort, Texas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation