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The Mason County "Hoo Doo" War, 1874â"1902
By David Johnson
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2006 David Johnson
All rights reserved.
"Murderous Passions Unleashed"
Arriving in Texas during the 1840s, German immigrants left behind them a land composed of a patchwork of kingdoms, duchies, and principalities steeped in feudal tradition and dominated by Austria and Prussia. Following Napoleon's defeat of the German states, social reform had come with the abolition of hereditary serfdom and the establishment of municipal rights for cities for the first time. A system of elementary and secondary education was created, and citizens could now stand for civil offices. The impact of these reforms was apparent to the German colonists. Older members of the families could recall serfdom or knew of it from their parents. Most were the first generation to receive a public education. All of them knew how disunity in Germany had led to defeat and humiliation by the French.
Social reforms notwithstanding, the living conditions in Germany were harsh. Lich writes that "Jobs were scarce, and laborers were poorly paid. Taxes were oppressive, and few people had more money than was required to buy the most essential necessities." Compulsory military service prevailed at that time providing fodder for seemingly endless wars. In overpopulated areas, farms were fragmented to a critical level. Inheritance laws in northeastern Germany prohibited division of farms, and younger sons had to find what work they could in a job-poor market that paid only minimum wages. Farmers were poorly paid for their produce, and barter became an accepted practice due to the general lack of money. Women could only marry, but there was nowhere for them to start a home once they were wed. Industrialization posed a direct threat to the cottage industries that provided farmers with their supplementary income. Moreover, with Napoleon's defeat, the German rulers began a program of vigorous repression to stamp out the sparks of freedom and reform.
Against this backdrop of misery a group of nobles organized the Verein zum Schutze deutscher Einwanderer in Texas (the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas) commonly known as the Adelsverein (League of the Nobility) in April 1842 with the view of settling Germans in Texas. After considering the 4000-acre Nassau farm as a colony, the site was rejected because it was "too close to existing American towns for the Germans to be able to preserve their identity." In its place the Adelsverein chose the Fisher-Miller Grant for colonization. It was a poor decision that cost dozens of lives. Testifying in 1893, John O. Meusebach stated:
With the buying of that grant the doom of the company was sealed. They did not know what they bought. They undertook to fulfill what was impossible to fulfill. They did not have the means nor the time to fulfill it. Neither of the contracting parties nor their agents had ever seen a particle of the land in question. The territory set aside for settlement was more than three hundred miles from the coast, more than one hundred and fifty miles outside of all settlements, and in the undisturbed possession of hostile Indians.
The group's first commissioner, Prince Karl von Solms-Braunfels arrived in Texas in 1844. Concerned with maintaining ethnic purity, he decided against using Galveston to disembark the settlers. Instead, he purchased a tract on Matagorda Bay initially christened Karlshafn (Karl's Bay) and later renamed Indianola. Aside from its isolation there was little to recommend it. German colonist Carl Blumberg wrote that the area, infested by mosquitoes and rattlesnakes, was the "cemetery of the poor German" where families rested "under the open sky, subjected to the bad influences of an unhealthy climate, putrid drinking water, and frequent rain showers." Summers were particularly bad "when dysentery, typhus, chills [malaria?], dropsy and other serious illnesses "plagued the area taking "such a heavy toll that often families of eight to ten persons are wiped out in a few days."
Frederick Law Olmsted, following a trip through Texas in 1856, also noted the deplorable conditions at Karlshafn. "The country had been stripped of provisions, and the means of transportation, by the army. Neither food nor shelter had been provided by the association. The consequences may be imagined. The detail is too horrible. The mass remained for months encamped in sand-holes, huts or tents: the only food procurable was beef. The summer heat bred pestilences." Into this gulag poured the families that would form the Mason County mob.
Believed by some to be one of the mob's organizers, Ernst Jordan arrived in Texas shortly before Christmas 1845 with his wife Wilhelmine (Minchen) and daughter Johanne Ernestine Wilhelmine. Accompanying them were Jordan's half-sister, Hannchen, her husband Johann Heinrich Kuchuck and their daughter Johanne. The abnormally rainy winter of 1845–1846 proved a bitter one. Dirt roads were impassable in areas, trapping the colonists in the pest hold that was Karlshafn. During the first months Jordan's wife and sister died. In despair, Kuchuck gave his daughter to a family named Olkers that he had known in Germany and left. Spring brought better conditions, but with the outbreak of the Mexican War in May 1846, transportation became unavailable as teamsters were pressed into government service. Writing in 1931, Gilbert Jordan reflected his grandfather's bitterness. "The United States Government hired all available teamsters to haul supplies for the soldiers, paying such high wages that the Society could not afford to hire teamsters to transport the immigrants." Jordan added further that the teamsters hired by the Adelsverein to transport them to New Braunfels "repudiated their contract." The Kothmann family also recalled that the army requisitioned wagons noting that later in the year the "Torry" [sic: Torrey] brothers were hired to perform the transport but soon entered government service.
Heinrich Conrad Kothmann arrived in Texas during the winter of 1845–1846 with his wife and five children. Like Jordan, the Kothmann family had good reason for bitterness over the "betrayal" by the American teamsters due to the death of their daughter Caroline. As with Jordan, there are reasons to believe that the family had links to the Mason mob. When Jordan purchased a wagon and oxen with his limited funds and headed for the grant lands, it appears probable that he was accompanied by the Kothmanns. By 1847 both families had reached Fredericksburg, the final staging area for departure to the Fisher-Miller grant. Here they became acquainted with another man who has been linked to the mob, Prussian-born Johann Heinrich Hoerster.
Conditions at Fredericksburg proved little better than at Karlshafn. Food was in short supply, and when the U. S. Army established Fort Martin Scott in 1849, impoverished German children often went there for food. Fritz Kothmann recalled that he and his brother, Dietrich, would walk eleven miles from Fredericksburg to the fort where they gathered "corn that was wasted in feeding the army horses" that they took home to make bread. This is confirmed by Heinrich Julius Behrens. Interviewed around 1920, Behrens stated, "Some days [we] didn't have anything to eat and very little to wear." He and other boys would each take a stocking and walk to the fort where they picked up grains of corn that the oxen and horses had scattered while they were eating. The kindly soldiers "would finish filling our pockets and stockings with corn." The situation was so bad that seven men, including Ernst Jordan, Gottfried Bader, and Ernst Dannheim, once walked from Fredericksburg to New Braunfels armed with clubs and demanded supplies. Fritz Kothmann never forgot his childhood poverty and spent the rest of his life in pursuit of wealth.
Famine was not the only unwelcome companion that accompanied the German settlers to Fredericksburg. With it came Karlshafn's epidemics. At New Braunfels one of the first public buildings erected was an orphanage to house children who had lost their parents. It was here that Jordan's daughter Mina died on November 5, 1846. During the winter of 1846–1847 a mob led by Rudolph Iwonski demanded Meusebach's removal and a replacement named to head the colony. The revolt failed, as did a similar mob action at Fredericksburg. At Fredericksburg, Meusebach was presented with a petition dated January 17, 1847, urging him not to resign for the good of the colony. It was signed by ninety-five settlers including some whose families are known to have been involved in the Hoo Doo War such as Gottfried Bader, Johann Adam Keller, Johann Keller, and Conrad Pluenneke. Notably absent are the signatures of Ernst Jordan, Heinrich Hoerster, and Heinrich Kothmann. Meusebach did resign on July 20, 1847. His efforts had saved the colony, but resentment against him lingered. In time the mob moved against him, and only his stature in the community saved his life.
It was not until the 1850s that the German colonists began moving into the Fisher-Miller grant due to the protection offered by Fort Mason in what is now Mason County. Jordan, Kothmann, and Hoerster arrived at Oberwillow (Upper Willow) Creek in 1856. They were soon joined by Ernst Dannheim, Heinrich Hasse, Otto von Donop, Fritz and Christoph Leifeste, Julius Lehmberg, Melchoir Bauer, and Conrad Pluenneke. Across the Llano-Mason line to the east Gottfried Bader settled near what is now Castell. By this time the Adelsverein had collapsed in financial ruin. The venture had failed to settle a single colonist in the grant lands and left its promises unfulfilled. The Germans were not ignored, however. The state provided a land grant to each settler.
From the beginning, neither Mason nor Llano was a purely German settlement. American settlers, lured by the opportunity to provide a better life for themselves and their children, had preceded them into the area. William S. "Uncle Billy" Cox is credited with being the first settler in the Mason area, arriving around 1846. When Fort Mason was established he worked as a blacksmith during the construction. Another early settler was a bachelor named Blaylock who had settled along Willow Creek prior to the arrival of the Germans. Soon after their arrival in the area he moved on due to "crowded conditions." Other settlers in the area included Isaac Jones, who had family ties to combatant John Ringo, William Gamel, Matthew Doyal, Jim Bolt and members of the extensive Caveness clan: Jerry, Ed, and Bob.
The presence of Americans on lands promised them by the Adelsverein was a sore point for some of the German settlers. The "betrayal" by American teamsters and the subsequent settlement of them in lands promised to the colonists created resentment and bitterness. Many of the Germans were left with a lingering suspicion and animosity toward their American neighbors. This is reflected by several writers who blamed the feud's origins on the jealousy of American latecomers. A. L. Lang reported:
A shrewd old German, seeing the potentialities of this [Mason] county, sent for a number of his relatives and friends in the Fatherland. They came over and the Germans established a colony on the fine grasslands of Mason County. Within a few years most of them were prosperous stock raisers. There was a native element in Mason County, too, and soon an ill feeling arose between it and the Teutonic population. As the county developed many of the natives began to feel that the Germans had no right there, and that they should go back to the land from which they came.
Another author adds: "Their [the German's] frugality allowed them to build bigger and better homes as they prospered, particularly after the war ended. The Americans scratched out a living on a small dry land farm, living usually in an undersized house with little prospect of their life improving."
Neither of these statements is supported by contemporary evidence. What they do reflect is ethnic prejudice between the Germans and Americans from the German point of view. More visionary men such as John Meusebach "recognized that the future welfare of the settlers depended upon their becoming 'Americans'." Many of the colonists were not as visionary. Lich notes:
[T]he German newcomers were generally better educated and more widely read than their American counterparts; they were tradition-bound and preferred their old ways to the new. To them, Americans were friendly, but also rambunctious and often vulgar. The Germans tended therefore to remain silent and apart from their new countrymen, without meaning to give offense....
Max Krueger, a peripheral figure in the feud, noted that "The Germans living in their respective settlements generally confined their intercourse to their own compatriots and did not take part in any except local politics. They kept true to their native virtues and faults." Emma Altgelt, another German pioneer, wrote that "The inhabitants intermingle little with Americans," adding "The Germans are not so enterprising as the latter, but they are steady and industrious." Jordan speaks of "occasional opposition to these 'damn Dutch immigrants'." This clannishness was recognized and resented by the American settlers. George Bernard Erath, an early immigrant from Wurtemberg, alluded to this in his memoirs, recalling that "Americans have been surprised at my association here with Americans alone, and regarding the German not as a fellow-countryman, but simply according to his behavior as a citizen of the United States or of Texas...."
Despite the underlying prejudice, Mason County's organization in 1858 reflected a cross-section of the ethnic community. John McSween was elected chief justice and George W. Todd county clerk. L. Burgdorf was assessor and collector, H. R. Biberstein surveyor, and B. T. Weatherby treasurer. Mason's county commissioners were Heinrich Hoerster, Stephen Peters, H. F. Keyser and J. M. Allen. Thomas R. Cox, W. C. Lewis, and Otto Donop were elected justices of the peace. Thomas S. Milligan was the first elected sheriff, succeeding Fritz Kothmann who had been appointed acting sheriff prior to the election.
Whatever resentment the settlers had for one another was eclipsed by the necessities of maintaining the community and survival itself. The area was the hunting grounds for the Comanches, horse lords of the plains. Calling themselves the Nauni (first alive or alive people), they had conquered this land decades earlier. For a time the land remained firmly in their hands, and from them the Hill Country took its original name: Comancheria. Meusebach had negotiated a peace treaty with them that, combined with the presence of Fort Mason, proved successful in maintaining peace for some time. By 1859 peace ended and attacks on the settlements began in force. The same year Wilhelm Hoerster, Heinrich's fifth son, was captured by Kiowa raiders while herding horses. Hoerster was lucky, for he was ransomed in the infamous Valley of Tears in New Mexico for a mule and returned to his family. The same year, Jonas Dancer was killed in Llano County. Sheriff Thomas W. Milligan was killed within two hundred yards of his house by raiders on February 19, 1860. In August 1860, rancher John Bolt, possibly a brother of William James Bolt, accompanied by five men, went in pursuit of raiders who had stolen some horses. Bolt was killed in the fight. At the same time, another band struck Willow Creek and drove off nearly all of the horses, including those of the Hoersters, Jordans, and Kothmanns.
These raids served to unite the community as evidenced by the San Antonio Daily Express of July 14, 1872, when prominent citizens offered $500 in gold "for the first hostile Indian captured within the limits of Mason county, Texas, by any person or persons from any county or place, without regard to age, sex, color or previous condition of servitude, and delivered dead or alive at the Courthouse in Mason." Thirty-six individuals pledged funds including Tom Gamel, Daniel Hoerster and his brothers, Tim Williamson, John Gamel, Franz Kettner, John Meusebach, William Gamel, George W. Todd, and David Doole. Absent from the list were Ernst Jordan and the Kothmanns.
Even as Comanche raids increased in ferocity, war loomed to the east. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Texas voted to secede from the Union on February 23, 1861. Mason County was among the minority of counties that voted against secession. The garrison at Fort Mason pulled out in March 1861, taking with it the protection they had provided the community. Herman Biberstein gathered a force of Minute Men to provide some security. Among the recruits were Karl Lehmberg, Dietrich Kothmann, Frederick and Wilhelm Hoerster, Thomas Johnson, and Ernst Jordan. All of these men would later be involved in the feud.
Excerpted from The Mason County "Hoo Doo" War, 1874â"1902 by David Johnson. Copyright © 2006 David Johnson. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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