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History of a mid 1850s slave plantation created by German immigrants in south central Texas

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Germans and Slavery in 19th Century Texas

  • May 20, 2013

Let us now consider together Texas historian James C. Kearney's 2010 NASSAU PLANTATION: THE EVOLUTION OF A TEXAS GERMAN SLAVE PLANTATION.

Its narrative is 232 pages long. Its appendixes, endnotes, bibliography and index take up another 121 pages -- and that despite the publisher's unforgiveable omission of the 74 footnotes to Chapter 13, which focuses on Slavery, Germans and the American Civil War in Texas.  By the wildest stretch of the imagination, no more than half this book's words, and by strict construction as few as a quarter, are narrowly about Nassau Plantation. That German-conceived and slave farmed land holding within the Jack League -- 4, 428 acres of northern Fayette County in South Central Texas -- is framed within a more ambitious, broader, deeper narrative (Introduction, p. 9).


I grit my teeth when a nearly perfect, targeted, well thought out, well expressed book like this one cannot be rated FIVE STARS. I blame the publisher, North Texas State University Press, for the goof that left out 74 endnotes for Chapter 13, on slavery and the Civil War, arguably the most vital chapter of NASSAU PLANTATION. 


I also fault the author Dr. Kearney for having only one map --  a tiny one heading Chapter 2, "Joseph Count of Boos-Waldeck" (p. 25). It shows Nassau Plantation and nearby neighbors such as Round Top, Winedale and Jack's Creek. Also needed are maps
(1) of the last days of the Republic of Texas (1836 - 1846) which included parts of today's Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico

and (2) of the truncated Texas that became a State.

In each of the two (or also in a third centered on South Central Texas and the Texas Hill Country), major settlements, especially of Germans from the 1820s into the 1850s should also be clearly laid out.


What does Nassau Plantation do for readers? Where does it take us?


Author James C. Kearney tells us that he is retelling the story of German immigration to the USA and especially Texas from roughly the 1820s until (in decreasing detail) World War I. It is an often told tale and Kearney is at pains to highlight or showcase elements that, he says, to which others have paid inadequate attention. I take him to be essentially  filling in gaps in earlier narratives -- including the widely unnoticed relevance of Nassau slave Plantation to the financial underpinning of the Emigration Society back in Germany.


Much has been written about German immigration to Texas, both organized and also supported by the so called Mainzer Adelsverein as well as unorganized in small groups and by individual men. Much also we can read elsewhere about slavery in Texas and general German distaste for this distinctly Southern economic institution. Ink has furthermore been been spilled by others on Texas agriculture and Germans in the American Civil War.


In each of the  areas just mentioned -- and in others as well-- author Kearney allegedly probes into areas less noticed by previous writers. Some examples:


-- (1) German and Anglo immigration to Texas.


Kearney contrasts the mentalities of Anglos and Germans in Texas. Most Anglo immigrants were Southern North American agriculturalists following traditions first developed on or near the Atlantic seaboard, either slaveowners or small, single family freeholders of land. Germans brought with them a love of living in villages, rather than on isolated farmsteads, a passion for reading and for German culture and loyalty to disciplined Christian religions (primarily Lutheran and Roman Catholic). They were not puritans but happy devotees of "cakes and ale."


-- (2) Aristocracy at work in Texas.


Kearney's broader focus is on the organized colonization effort which began in the spring of 1842 at the Rhine river residence in Germany of Adolph Duke of Nassau. There 20 German higher noblemen and one such noblewoman met to create a Verein (Association) to contrive Texas-based partial solutions to German overcrowding and poverty on the one hand and on the other hand to the post-Napoleonic eclipse of status and power of many German nobles. 


Four of the 21 original members of the so-called Mainzer Verein were ruling sovereigns in 1842, two were princes from ruling houses but fully 16 belonged to a post-Napoleonic dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire group called Standesherren (perhaps reasonably well described as "former ruling houses"). Standesherren and their families "had lost much of their real power, but retained the prestige and late-feudal privileges associated with ruling sovereigns" (p.17). 


Supporting German colonies in the then Republic of Texas (population only 70,000 in the 1840 census), Kearney speculates, would give the Standesherren a new role within Germany and justify their ancient privileges. His narrative ably argues that the mind-set of these high German nobles displayed itself in their management of German settlements in Texas and clashed with the views of the vast majority of immigrants from Germany who were NOT noble.


And in the case of the Verein's most venerated to this day on the spot man in New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, Freiherr Johann Otto von Meusebach (of treaty with Comanches fame), being nothing but a mere member of "lesser" German nobility meant that the Standesherren back in Germany tended to treat him as something between hired help and a poor and distant relative.


Kearney believes that the Standesherren in the majority of original Verein partners accepted slavery naturally, almost instinctively: i. e., the rule of inferior common people/bondsmen by hereditary aristocrats with feudal powers of life and death. Texan Anglos rejected such a posture and so did most of the German peasant immigrants to Texas.


-- (3)   German farming and ranching.


General German culture venerated the well-trained craftsman and perfectionist, a man who cultivated the soil, tended forests and raised animals with an eye to his family remaining on one piece of land for generations, tending it well and farming it by himself and his family. By contrast, Southern Anglo farmers, especially of soil-depleting crops such as corn, cotton and tobacco, were migratory by nature. They would ruin one area, then pull up stakes and go elsewhere.


Germans imported seeds and farming practices from Europe. Germans grew small grain crops: barley, wheat and rye for their beer and their bread. They also grafted European vines onto the native Texas grapes. Germans farmed and ranched for eternity. 


-- (4)  Slavery, the Union: loyalists and secessionists, Germans.


James C. Kearney points out that while 70% of Texans voted in an 1861 popular rerendum to secede from the Union, 30% voted not to secede -- including most Germans. This was a notably large, indigestible fraction among the Confederate States. Most Germans were both pro-Union and anti-Slavery, though many were either drafted or served voluntarily in Confederate or Texas State units during the Civil War. 


Kearney notes that unlike colonial powers such as the UK, France, Spain and Portugal, the fragmented petty states of Germany had no tradition of owning, buying and selling slaves. They had therefore to approach the subject in Texas without pre-conceptions.


Paradoxically, the important German slave plantation Nassau served to moderate popular anti-German activities (though there were plenty and some deadly) among secessionist Anglos. That controversial plantation also served as desperately needed collateral for loans to keep the always woefully undefunded organized German emigration venture lasting for two or three years longer than it deserved to before bankruptcy. 


There are many other strikingly good features about the book NASSAU PLANTATION. It is lucidly conceived and written. It is minutely researched. The author showcases what he thinks are his more or less original slants on facts as previously recorded. And much more.


Germans in Texas are presented as a part of a larger German effort to relieve population pressure at home. A surprisingly large number of German painters and writers visited Texas both while it was still Mexican, then a Republic, then a State. And they wrote novels and poems  about Texas of great popularity in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Russia. German writers and scientists such as Alexander von Humboldt probed variously slavery, Indians, geography, plants, animals. They did so, furthermore, during the heyday of the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper who was doing something of the same in a few of his novels, such as THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. 


Finally, NASSAU PLANTATION inspires in 2013 and later follow-on research. One example: James Fenimore Cooper is nowhere mentioned in my copy of James Kearney's study of German Texas. Yet it is inconceivable that an author like Cooper whom the greatest German writer, Goethe, admired, would be unread by lesser German authors. How did Cooper impact novelists in German about Texas before and during the Civil War?


This is an extraordinarily good book, carelessly marred by its publisher and needing more maps. It is for you, of course, to decide if you wish to read it. It is after all pretty narrowly focused on mid-19th Century Texas.



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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #94
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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Slavery, New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Schubbert Friedrich Armand Strubberg, Texas Agriculture And German Contributions, Llano River, Comanches, Society For The Protection Of German Emigrants Adelsverein, Count Joseph Booswaldeck, Johann Otto Freiherr Von Meusebach, Prince Carl Solmsbraunfels, German Emigration To Texas, Nassau Plantation


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