Turning Germans Into Texans

Turning Germans into Texans

By Evelyn Weinheimer

As the title implies, although some German heritage still survives, immigrants from Germany eventually became full-fledged Texans. But it took some years and now much is lost.

The author discusses the assimilation and submergence of the German culture in Texas from 1900 to 1930. Americans allowed a more tolerant atmosphere in Texas than anywhere else in the United States to where Germans immigrated. The anti-German hysteria was not as pronounced.

Factors protecting the German language and German culture were the Catholic and Lutheran churches, German newspapers and community institutions such as the singing clubs (Saengerfest); shooting clubs (Schuetzenfest) and Sons of Hermann (fraternal organizations).

Fredericksburg being a compact community and isolated from big city influence maintained its ethnicity and culture longer than most German-Texan small towns and community. The instances of violence resulting from anti-German hysteria during the pre- and post-war time were almost none.

The German newspaper, the Fredrichsburger Wochenblatt existed from 1877 until 1946, the year of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Fredericksburg. The editor, Robert Penninger, was more pro-German than the citizens of this small rural town.

Fredericksburg was one of the towns founded by Germany’s Adelsverein to obtain more land as a colonial holding in Texas. The success of the immigrants was not the primary concern of the princes, counts and barons in the 1840s. Consequently, many early Gillespie County citizens did not continue to show much respect of the fatherland.

The 1850 Texas Census Count showed 8,300 people who had been born in Germany. Terry G. Jordan estimated the size of all inhabitants in Texas with parents born in Germany as 11,621 people, or 7.5% of the entire white population. During the Civil War, Germans would not support the Southern cause. Not a single German owned slaves in Gillespie County, where 96 % of the population was against secession.

In 1880s and 1890s, many Texas children were recognized as having difficulty speaking English. Gillespie County Judge J. T. Estill recognized very few English-speaking children in the county. The mandate to teach and use only English in schools arrived in Texas in 1918.

Lutheran Churches were instrumental in preserving the German languages more so than the Catholic Church where Mass was conducted in Latin. Many Lutheran pastors continued to preach their sermons in German. This was against the Texas State Council of Defense. In Gillespie County the council did decree Sunday School classes for children must be in English.

The 1910 Census counted 1,749 people in Gillespie County who had both parents born in Germany – 6.27% of those counted were born in Germany. This was just below the average of the 10 county German average in Texas. The total of both parents born in Germany and those born in Germany was 24.8% in Gillespie County. The 1930 census showed only 2.3% of the population was born in Germany.

As the wars in Germany attracted attention worldwide and the United States entered the war in 1917, so-called “Americanizers” wanted to turn Germans into Texan. In those trying times, many Germans anglicized their surnames, picked up the English language quickly and adopted some Anglo customs. The Germans were accepted as “Anglo” and picked up the English quickly. The hyphenated German-American became lost.

Both English and German language services began to be held in some but not in all Texas Lutheran churches. Pastors and teachers who refused to preach and teach German were asked to give up their jobs.

Johannes Martin Bergner, from Arneckeville between Cuero and Victoria, tried to preach in English even though his proficiency in that language was marginal. When he protested against the hatred and bigotry in the community of Cuero, he was placed in an internment camp “for his own safety.” He spent a year and a half there as a chaplain. When he was released, he spent the rest of his life as a Lutheran minister.

C.W. Feuge was released as a teacher at Sam Houston Normal School. He returned to his home in Fredericksburg and taught mathematics, and eventually became superintendent of schools.

The battlefield was the toughest test for German-Americans. The towns of Fredericksburg and New Braunfels held Loyalty Day Parades in 1917. Young men did not hesitate to go to war when called. Lieutenant Louis J. Jordan from Fredericksburg became the first Texas officer to die in World War I. Voting in state and national elections was the German-Texan sign of American nationalism.

Small compact communities like Fredericksburg developed the reputation of being “clannish” to outsiders. Tippens’ conclusion, today the tendency to hold on to the German language and cultural ethnicity has added a unique and vivid quality to Texas life in Fredericksburg.  

In 1970, 57% of Fredericksburg inhabitants were German-speaking. The cultural clubs and fraternal organizations are still active in many towns and continue to hold singing and shooting festivals along with Oktoberfest.

Weinheimer is an archivist with the Gillespie County Historical Society.

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