An unknown epic of the Texas frontier - the founding of the German settlements in the Texas Hill Country!
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Celia Hayes Books And More
Thanks to a hundred years of melodrama and myth, Texas is a place that Americans think they know, a place which has cast a glamor over popular culture down to this very day.
But there is another story of Texas and it's dramatic frontier days - the story of those pioneers who also came in search of land and better opportunities for their children, for homes of their own, for freedom from rule by aristocrats and princes. These immigrants arrived all at once, straight from the Old World to the New: farmers and craftsmen, the educated and middle-class, a tide of German immigrants. They brought a distinctive culture with them, a love of learning, of music and literature, and a strong work ethic. They came to the wooded limestone hills of central Texas, on the very edge of Comancheria, where brutal Indian wars had raged, and would go on raging for another thirty years. After a rocky start, the German immigrants built a dozen towns and settlements, planted orchards and gardens. They built fine stone houses and fences, and set to work raising families, for they meant to stay. And they did, for in certain districts and within living memory, German was the common language.
The Adelsverein story begins early in the 1840s, when a group of high-born and socially conscious German noblemen conceived the notion of establishing a colony in Texas. Under-funded and over-confident, the association dispatched more than thirty-six chartered ships carrying over 7,000 immigrants to the ports of Galveston and Indianola, in the short space of five years. The gently-rolling limestone and oak-forested hill country of south-central Texas was transformed utterly... a world apart, becoming even more so with the Civil War, when its’ residents held out against secession and for the Union.
Prelude – Palm Sunday 1836
Presidio La Bahia, Goliad, Texas
The Mexican soldiers came to march them away from the old citadel on the seventh day after Colonel Fannin had surrendered under a white flag. His little command of volunteers and militia had fought doggedly and hopelessly for a day and a night, pinned down in the open just short of Coleto Creek, tormented beyond endurance by gunfire, thirst and grapeshot. It was the grapeshot that did it finally and Carl Becker, all of sixteen and a bit had stood in the ragged ranks of the Texas Volunteers, the Greys, Shackelford’s Red Rovers and the rest, next to his older brother Rudolph. They silently watched Colonel Fannin march out of the ragged square under a tattered white banner
made from someone’s shirt. It was just sunrise, that hour when everything looks bleak and grey.
“What will happen to us now, Rudi?” he asked at last. He spoke in German, the language they spoke at home among the family but one of the other German boys, Conrad Eigener, who stood next to the Becker brothers laughed curtly and answered:
“With luck, take away our weapons and send us packing. To New Orleans, I think. They mean to break up all the Anglo settlements and throw the Yankees out of Texas. General Santa Anna means business.”
“They said General Cos brought eight hundred sets of shackles with him last year, to drag us back to Mexico City in chains,” Rudi answered with smoldering resentment.
Conrad spat, saying, “Well, that worked out real well for him. We kicked him in the nuts at Bexar and he went running home to Mexico City, squealing like a girl.”
“That’s why Santa Anna came back, breathing fire and swearing vengeance,” Rudi answered, “He took it personal, Cos being his brother in law.”
“What will they do to us, then?” Carl asked again. From the Mexican lines came the sound of a bugle call, and Carl could just make out another white flag, and the brilliantly colored uniforms of the men under it, advancing to meet Colonel Fannin and Major Chadwick.
“Nothing like what the Comanche would do, little brother,”
Rudi answered. Carl would remember always how he smiled, a flash of teeth in a face blackened with powder smoke. “They’re real soldiers; they have rules they have to follow. We lost, fair and square, but they have to remember it could be them next time, and treat with us as they might wish to be treated then.”
“All right, then,” Carl answered, reassured. Rudolph was five years older, and he was almost always right.
And at first it did seem like his brother and the other men were
right. The men and boys who were still fit were ordered by their surviving officers to stack their weapons and form up. Carl let his old flintlock rifle go with a pang, but it was what Rudi said to do, and Captain Pettus and Colonel Fannin. Rudi had been telling Carl what to do for all of his life, Captain Pettus for most of the last year of it. As far as Carl knew, they were always right. Well, Rudi was always right and the captain was mostly right, but Carl had reservations about their commander, even before the fight at Coleto Creek.
Rudi gave up his own musket in a good temper, but scowled so fiercely at the Mexican soldier who took away his great long pigsticker of a knife that another soldier menaced him with a bayonet.
Both the soldiers laughed, as Carl pulled his brother away. Rudi cursed under his breath, “Damn them! What’s a man supposed to do without a knife?”
“I still have mine,” Carl whispered to him, very low, “I saw what they were doing, and I slipped it into my boot-top without anyone noticing.”
“Quick thinking, little brother!” Rudi murmured, his good humor restored as they followed after their discouraged comrades in Captain Pettus’s Company, First Regiment Texas Volunteers. “We’ll
make a real soldier of you, yet!”
‘If this is real soldiering,’ thought Carl rebelliously, ‘I’m not
sure I think all that much of it.’
At sixteen and not quite grown to his height, Carl appeared at first glance to be amiable and not terribly quick on the uptake. He and his brother had same broad, fair Saxon features, but Carl’s heavy eyelids always made him look a bit sleepy, and so many people were deceived into thinking he was a dunce. He didn’t mind letting them
think so mostly, for he had found considerable advantage in that. He
and Rudi had grown up, hunting together and otherwise running wild
in the untamed country near the Becker homestead in a little settlement far up on the Colorado River. Rudi and Carl had spent many hours sitting quietly concealed in a thicket watching for deer or doves. It seemed quite natural for them to go off soldiering together in the fall of 1835 even before the harvest was done, for the situation with the Mexican government had come to a head and the American colonists had run clear out of patience. That was Rudi’s idea, his little brother just followed along as he always had.
Carl liked to sit still and watch the sun dappling through the ever-moving leaves, the flash of a white-wing dove starting up from the ground, and he liked to watch people and sort out what they were thinking. He spoke two languages well, understood a third and even knew some of the Indian signing talk, but he was a quiet youth and
not much given to putting himself forward. He knew how it rankled with some of the older men that Colonel Fannin hung back against all urging and advice. Colonel Bowie and all them were besieged in the Alamo fortress up-river in Bexar, still waiting for help after they sent messengers pleading for reinforcements three times.
The Mexicans marched their prisoners back to Goliad; they did not mistreat them particularly, but they shut them up in the old garrison chapel building, the wounded and the fit all crammed together and left them to sleep all crowded on piles of straw which became more soiled and bug-infested by the day. It was also very dim inside the tall stone chapel, for the shutters were fastened down over
the few windows. Sometimes the prisoners were let out into the little
yard during the day, but always strictly guarded. The two doctors in
Fannin’s command, Doctor Morgan and Doctor Shackleford, were taken away to tend the Mexican wounded in another part of the presidio. After a week of this, Carl was thoroughly bored. He had
never before in his life had to spend a week inside walls, crowded in
with three hundred other men.
“Did you hear? They’ve brought Colonel Fannin back from Copano,” said Ben Hughes, excitedly. He was Captain Horton’s orderly and possibly the only one of the prisoners younger than Carl.
Carl was leaning against a sun-warmed wall in the chapel yard, trying to amuse himself playing cat’s cradle with a long piece of stout string
and he was glad of the interruption.
“What was he doing there?” he asked, as he wadded up the string and put it in his trouser pocket.
Ben answered, “Arranging for safe passage, I expect.” He sighed a small and wistful sigh, “Say, I might be glad to see ol’ Kaintuck again. I reckon we’ll all have to make our way home again, if we’re paroled. Where will you an’ your brother go home to?”
“I dunno.” Carl thought carefully. “Our Pa took a grant, near
Waterloo on the Colorado. We’ve always lived there, since Pa was friends with the Baron an’ came out from Pennsylvania. I don’t rightly know where we’d go, if the Mexicans kick us out of Texas.”
“There’s always someplace,” Ben said, cheerfully, and Carl thought about that. No, there wasn’t; not if you had labored over a place the way that Pa and the family had. It was in your blood, your place, and no one had the right to take it from you, especially not a pack of fancy-dressed soldiers without so much as a by-your-leave, or
a bunch of foreigners who only wanted to squeeze out of the settlers what they could in taxes and such. Carl knew about taxes and working the land, about Indians raiding and following a plow with a rifle on
your shoulder. He knew about faraway governments and having to
scrape for the favor of men with gold braid on their coats who could
take away everything a man had worked a lifetime for with a wave of
the hand. No. Such like that wasn’t right, and it had no place in Texas.
It saddened Carl to think that Colonel Fannin and Colonel Bowie and
them had tried their best but looked to have failed to keep that from
In the early morning, the word was passed to the able-bodied prisoners; gather up those few things they had left to them and prepare to march. “Hurrah for home!” said they, in jubilation at seeing an end to dank and filthy imprisonment. The Becker brothers stuffed what little had not been lost in the fight, or looted from them into their pockets. Rudi had been saving bits of bread and hard-tack and they had both been able to hold on to their water bottles. Only Rudy’s was
a real, regular Army water canteen. Carl made do with a dried gourd, a length of rawhide strap around the narrow neck.
“After Coleto,” said Rudi determinedly, “I don’t ever want to be
without a full canteen near me, ever again.” His little brother had his
knife, still secreted in his boot-top, a long coil of string and a lump of
flint and steel tucked into one of the pockets of his roundabout jacket.
“Leastways, we can build ourselves a fire, tonight,” he observed, “They’re making us travel pretty light, aren’t they, Rudi?”
“So’s we can move all the faster,” Rudi answered, cheerfully. To Carl, it made perfect sense. Rudi was always right.
Their spirits rose as they filed out onto the familiar parade ground of the old fort, into fresh air and seeming freedom. There was sunshine just breaking through the morning fog, a bell ringing from the chapel tower and a great company of Mexican soldiers in their fine parade-ground uniforms forming the prisoners up, into three
groups of about a hundred men each.
“What day is this?” asked one of the others in same column as the Becker brothers and young Ben. Rudi smiled and answered,
“Sunday, I think - Palm Sunday.” He looked at Carl and Ben, marching alongside towards the fortress gate, and began to sing.
“All glory, laud and honor
To thee, Redeemer King!
To whom the lips of children
Made sweet hosannas ring!
Thou art the King of Israel
Thou David’s royal son…”
Carl joined his treble voice to his brothers’ tenor, until someone
farther back said, “Is this a funeral, or something, boys? We’re going home!” and launched into “Come to the Bower!” The men around them laughed and joined in. Rudi set his arm around his brothers’ shoulder, saying, “As long as we are together, we’ll be all right, little brother.”
Carl saw there were people at the gate, watching them march
past; two well-dressed women and a little girl, with an officer and a
sergeant attending them. The officer had more gold braid on his fine
coat than any of the others, so Carl reckoned that he was one of their
high officers. The younger woman looked very sad and distraught. She turned and spoke to the older woman and the officer and seemed to point at Carl and Ben. She looked as if she would weep and Carl wondered why. The gold-braid officer spoke to the sergeant, who bawled for the column to halt, and the officer came right up to the Becker brothers and Ben Hughes.
“You two… you are just boys, too young for this. Senora Alavez would have you stay. She insists.”
At a nod from the officer, the Mexican sergeant took Ben by the arm and pulled him away from the column and would have taken Carl, but that Carl resisted, saying, “He is my brother, Pa told us we should stay together.” And Rudi set his arm around Carl’s shoulders and glowered at the officer. He looked at them for a long moment,
seeming to chew on his mustache, before he said again, “It would be
better for you to go with Senora Alavez, boy.”
“I’ll stay with my brother,” Carl said firmly.
The officer looked sad and answered, “If that is your choice. Go
with your brother, boy. Go with God.” He nodded curtly at the sergeant who bawled at the column to move again. The last sight Carl had of Ben was of him standing between the two women, watching after the marching column with a bewildered look on his young face. The officer looked as if he too were about to weep like the younger
woman, and Carl wondered why.
They went out of the gate, and turned left, a ragged column, two or three abreast, with a single file of guards on either side. It seemed like a lot of guards; there had not been so many when they were marched back from Coleto Creek into the old citadel. The American volunteers and the Texians were jubilant, the guards grim and
unsmiling. They would not look directly at the men they escorted, or
meet their eyes. When he was not very much older Carl would know how that could be, but the boy that he still was on that Palm Sunday morning only noticed without wondering why.
“This is the road towards Victoria,” Rudi noted with satisfaction. “I recognize that brush fence, you can see the river though that gap. I guess they’re going to march us all to…”
There was a quick rattle of shouted Spanish, a command so quick that Carl didn’t comprehend it, and suddenly the file of Mexican soldiers on their left faced right and shouldered through the
prisoners, falling into line with their fellows on the column’s right,
who had faced about themselves, and raised their muskets.
To the end of his life, Carl remembered how very long the next
moments seemed, as if time slowed to an eternity and suddenly every sight, smell and sensation was vivid and pure, etched in the crystal of
memory. The smell of sweat and dirty clothing, of damp wool and wood smoke, the clear green odor of new leaves and turned earth, the clean scent of running water wafting up from the river. Cheerful voices and song, abruptly dying away… shock and sudden
comprehension, musket-fire in a sudden cloud of black-powder smoke; Carl knew in a blinding flash why the pretty woman at the gate and the gold-braid officer with her looked so sad, why the
Mexican soldiers wouldn’t look them in the eye. Rudi turned towards him in that instant of comprehension, spun
the gawky, sixteen year old Carl around, pulling him away from the
Mexican soldiers, shoving him towards the gap in the brush fence. For just that moment, Rudi stood between the black eyes of the musketbarrels and his little brother, just as the world erupted in a hell of point-blank fire and a cloud of powder-smoke and shouting.
He shouted, “Run, Carl! Make for the river, they’re…” And at that moment, Rudi’s head exploded in a shower of blood and white bone, and his body fell lifeless as a sack of old clothes,
falling as men screamed and groaned. A voice that Carl barely knew as his own was screaming too, screaming his brother’s name, but he was already moving as Rudi commanded in his last breath, plunging through the gap in the brush fence and pelting across the meadow beyond, towards the line of green trees that marked the river.
The fence and the cloud of black-powder smoke screened him just long enough from the executioners. He fell down the steep and muddy river bank and lay gasping for a second, before scrabbling on hands and knees towards the water. He struggled to his feet in water that rose deeper and deeper around his legs until he flung himself into the current and let it take him, diving under and holding his breath
until it felt as if his lungs would burst. He came to the surface and
floated on his back, looking up at the sky, the blue Texas sky that Ma had always said was the exact color of his eyes.
He held very still, while the current drifted him around a bend and fetched him up by a thicket of rushes on the farther side. The river bank was steep there, impossible to climb, and a tree overhung it. He rolled over in the water and cautiously lifted his head.
There was no one in sight, but there were Mexican soldiers shouting in Spanish, in the direction from which he had run. No luck climbing the bank
without being seen, or swimming father down the river. The soldiers’ voices sounded mocking and harsh like the crows wheeling and calling in the sky. He wished now that he had thought to smooth over the marks he had made on the bank, opposite. Anyone following witha bit of woodcraft in them would know at once that someone had come down the river bank and gone into the water. Carl crawled deep into the thicket, taking care to pull the rushes straight after himself, so no one would be able to see from across the river, or look down from the bank above and know that he had taken refuge there. He curled himself into as tight a ball as possible, knees to chin, soaking wet and covered in mire, sheltering in a hollow of black river-mud and rotting drift timber deep in the heart of the thicket. From there he could hear the regular crackle of musket-fire in the distance. No, not from where he had run from, but farther away towards the north and the road to Bexar.
The horror of realization chilled him, striking deeper in his bones than the chill of spring-cold river muck; three columns of Fannin’s men, three roads away from the citadel, and three
executions. With a clarity that struck him numb, Carl remembered also the wounded, the orderlies who attended them and the doctors, all left behind in the old citadel. Yet another execution, so they were all dead for sure; his mind could get no farther than that. His brother was dead and the other German boys, Captain Pettus and Lieutenant Grace and Sergeant James and all of them, shot down in a storm of shot and black-powder smoke by men who wouldn’t look them in the eyes as hey led them away. Dead and dead and dead again, three hundred
and some times over.
For all that pretty young Senora Alavez and the high officer with gold braid knew of it and protested it or were appalled… it was happening, happening even as he huddled in the reeds and listened. At that moment Carl Becker knew two things with absolute clarity. He would never put any of his faith in a man who wore a fancy uniform.
And he would never, ever again go into a fight where he did not absolutely trust the man who led him there not to surrender.
For the very first time in all of his sixteen years, there was no one there to tell him what to do. Carl huddled in that thicket of rushes for an entire day, as women came down to the bank opposite to wash clothes from which the water ran red, while dragoons and footsoldiers searched up and down both sides of the river, thrashing the thickets and prodding into the thick bushes with their lances, looking for him. He nerved himself to hold still, to stay as quiet as a deer fawn in the fragile fortress of the thicket, all the hours of that interminable Sunday. Towards the end of that day, he dozed and woke with a start, afraid that he had cried out, living again that awful moment when the Mexican muskets spat a storm of lead and black-powder smoke at
Fannin’s men. By the end of that day, he had thought over very carefully what he might do next. He took his time, for Carl had very little experience of making decisions for himself. Rudi, Captain Pettus, his father – all those people had always told him what to do. But now he was entirely alone.
When it became full dark, Carl moved as stealthily as he could, from the thicket, on limbs that were clumsy and cramped from staying still for so long. He stood in the shallows, wet and cold, listening to the quiet ripple of water, the sounds of night-birds and the faraway howling of those shy little prairie wolves. He smelled smoke on the air, mixed with the smell of something like bacon burning. But he
could not hear the voices of the Mexican soldiers, or the noises made
by something large and clumsy moving through the brush by the riverbank. He was safe for now and almost for the first time in his life, completely alone. Never mind, Carl reminded himself; he had a knife in his shoe-top and string to make a snare. He had the flint and steel in his coat pocket, the river and the stars to guide him north. North. North to home, if home was even still there, if he could elude the Mexican soldiers and raiding Indian parties, the Comanche and the Karankawa. If he could keep himself alive, all alone. Well, Carl
Becker told himself, as he set off wading along the river’s shallow margin - I might yet do better at that than anyone else had done so far. Sure as hell couldn’t do any worse.