Finding Bettina: The Story of a Forgotten German Commune in Texas by: Devdeep Rajpal and Norah Rami; Teacher: Herr Rustin Buck; School: Clements High School; City: Sugar Land, Texas
The mid-19th century was characterized by massive German emigration to Texas, searching for the promised paradise. While early Germans settled in the North and the Midwest, the land had been exhausted by the early 1800s, leaving the open fields of Texas as the perfect alternative (Ennis). German accounts of immigration, such as the 1834 travel journal Reise nach Texas idealized the landscapes of Texas as a land of endless possibilities (Ennis). Amongst those was Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, who spurred interest in immigration with his description of “Texas as a land of milk and honey, […] where roamed myriads of deer and buffalo, while the primeval forests abounded in wildfowl of every kind” (Reinhardt 34). With the help of 3 the Adelsverein, a group of German noblemen, Solms-Braunfels encouraged and sponsored further German immigration to Texas (Lich and Moltmann).
The promises of Texas were especially enticing to estranged political freethinkers, disenchanted with the possibility of social change in Germany due to the growing power of the aristocracy in the 1840s (Hill 3-15). They envisioned Texas as a land of freedom and new beginnings where they could escape the political turmoil of Germany and begin society anew (Holley 2). A number of settlements, typically consisting of German university students and theorists, were founded in pursuit of political freedom (“Texas One and All: The German Texans” 1). Known as Latin settlements, due to their well-educated members, the communities, though academically strong, lacked basic agricultural and homesteading skills (Reinhardt 39).
One of the five German Latin settlements established in the 19th century was Bettina, composed of forty idealistic free-thinking Germans who called themselves the Vierziger in reference to both their numbers and the troubled 40s they hoped to escape (“Texas One and All:
The German Texans” 3). Bettina would become the last venture funded by the Adelsverein and the last Latin settlement (Brister). Politically alienated in Germany and enticed by Solms-Braunfels’ promises, the group aimed to create a liberal commune in Texas (Reinhardt
39). Armed with dreams and supplies, they turned to Texas for a new beginning.
On July 17, 1847, the Vierziger landed in Texas, hoping it would be all Solms-Braunfels promised (“Texas One and All: The German Texans” 1; Reinhardt 33). The group consisted of an assortment of characters from a brewer and theologian, to a lieutenant of artillery and an instrument maker, of whom only two spoke English. They had prepared themselves for the new world that awaited them, bringing a plethora of supplies: machinery for a mill, several dogs, and a chest of musical instruments (Reinhardt 37). Louis Reinhardt, one of the settlers, looking excitedly towards the future, exclaimed, “We came prepared to conquer the world” (Reinhardt 36).
Upon settling on the bank of the Llano River, the party rejoiced at their fertile surroundings, a perceived sign of a fruitful future (Reinhardt 36-37; Lich). Utilizing the chest of instruments they had brought with them, they began singing “Lebe Hoch United States! Lebe Hoch Texas!” (Reinhardt 37).
The commune was named after Bettina von Armin, a leading German feminist, thus making Bettina one of the few cities in the history of Texas named after a woman (Reichstein 24,49; Holley 3). They organized themselves under anarcho-collectivist ideals without any central government, principles that would later influence Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto (Ennis) . Bettina was, in the words of a one of its settlers, “A communistic society […] organized of which friendship, freedom, and equality were the watchwords. It had no regular scheme of government, so far as I know” (Reinhardt 34).
Early on, Bettina thrived as her settlers embraced plentiful resources and the mild climate (Reichstein 39). They built two notable structures, a storage shed and an adobe house, and harvested a corn crop (Reichstein 50; “Texas One and All: The German Texans” 3). Bettina’s
physician even performed the first successful eye surgery in Texas, a cataract removal on a nearby Native American chief (Reichstein 51). The land exceeded their hopes, with one settler citing that “there is no population in any land that feels itself freer, more independent, and happier than the Texan farmer” (Reichstein 51). However, as winter approached, their success
The downfall of Bettina came from within. The settlers, theorists by training, lacked vital agricultural skills, producing only 200 bushels of corn for the year with more time spent philosophizing rather than working (“Texas One and All: The German Texans” 3; Reichstein 51). This was accentuated by disagreements over communistic principles and frustration with the slow development. This led to many settlers leaving Bettina, reducing what had already been a small population (Reinhardt 39).
Their utopian principles only worsened the problem. Without any central leadership, there was no accountability for labor, and “Since everybody was to work if he pleased and when he pleased, the result was that less and less work was done as time progressed” (Reinhardt 39). With their lack of labor and agricultural capabilities, the settlement was far from sustainable.
By late summer of 1848, only a year after Bettina’s founding, the internal strife reached its peak and the settlement disbanded. Its members left for other Texan cities such as San Antonio, Meyersville, and Houston (Reinhardt 39-40; Ennis).
While Bettina did not last, its settlers’ legacy continued. Many of the settlers stayed in Texas, becoming prominent German-Texans in nearby communities. One of the prominent leaders of Bettina, Dr. Ferdinand Ludwig Herff, became an eminent San Antonio physician and published a political treatise outlining Bettina’s ideals titled “The Regulated Emigration of the German Proletariat with Special Reference to Texas”, advertising for further German immigration to Texas (Herff 1). Gustav Schleicher became an influential politician, serving at both the local and national levels (Ennis). Jacob Kuechler, a naturalist, also enjoyed political success, earning a position as the state land commissioner and pioneering the science of dendrochronology (tree rings) to date natural events (Ennis; Holley 3). The stories of Bettina were immortalized by settlers Louis Reinhardt and Friedrich Schenck, who wrote extensively
about their experiences (Holley 3). Some even ventured to form new communes, with Christoph Flach and Johannes Hoerner founding large Hill Country settlements that remained vestiges of freethinking liberalism and ethics for the four to five generations that they lasted (Holley 3).
Though Bettina struggled to develop a functioning society, eventually its settlers found prosperity elsewhere. The journey of Bettina’s settlers is symbolic of all German immigrants, regardless of ideology, who turned to Texas with the promise of a new beginning.
Herff, Ferdinand von. Die geregelte Auswanderung des deutschen Proletariats mit besonderer Beziehung auf Texas. Frankfurt, Varrentrapp, 1850.
Herff, Ferdinand von. The Regulated Emigration of the German Proletariat with Special Reference to Texas, being also a Guide for German Emigrants . Translated by Arthur L. Finck Jr., Trinity University Press, San Antonio, 1978.
Reinhardt, Louis. “The Communistic Colony of Bettina (1846-8).” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association , Vol. 3, No 1, 1899, pp. 33-40.
Brister, Louis E. “Adelsverein”. Handbook of Texas, Texas State Historical Association. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/adelsverein.
Hill, Jonathan Richard. The Revolutions of 1848 in Germany, Italy, and France . 2005. East Michigan University, Senior Honors Theses. Holley, Joe. “Colony’s philosophy led to its downfall”. Houston Chronicle, 28 December 2020. Ennis, Michael. “Ich Bin ein Texan”, Texas Monthly , June 2015. https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/ich-bin-ein-texan/.
Lich, Glen E. “Bettina, TX”, Handbook of Texas, Texas State Historical Association. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/bettina-tx.
Lich, Glen E, and Moltmann, Günter. “Solms-Braunfels, Prince Carl Of”, Handbook of Texas, Texas State Historical Association. https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/solms-braunfels-prince-carl-of.
Reichstein, Andreas V. German Pioneers on the American Frontier: The Wagners in Texas and Illinois. Denton, Texas, University of North Texas Press, 2001.
“Texas One and All: The German Texans” Institute of Texan Cultures, Texas Tech University, 2014.