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Controversial letters to Germany

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

A letter written on May 2, 1845, two months after the first settlers arrived in New Braunfels, gives us details of those first two months in NB. The letter was written by Lt. Oscar von Claren to his sister in Germany. The end of von Claren’s life overshadows the optimism conveyed by him, as you will see.

When Prince Carl left to go back to Germany, amid festivities and cannon fire at the site of the Sophienburg, he offered to take 69 letters back to Germany. Mail at that time took three months or longer. According to author Everett Fey, writer of “First Founders”, there are 14 letters preserved and transcribed “and it is uncertain whether the rest of the letters were delivered to families. There is a good possibility that these 14 letters were used as advertising by the Adelsverein to promote their immigration project.”

The preserved letters are mostly positive about the project, so what happened to the other letters that were perhaps not so positive? Were only the letters of satisfied customers published?

Letters alleging that the Adelsverein was irresponsible in caring for the immigrants were also published in the newspapers. The Adelsverein fought back with replies by one of their own, Count Carl of Castell. He demanded publication of letters giving the “voice of truth” or the positive view.

One of those 14 letters was Oscar von Claren’s sent to his sister, Augusta, and she, in turn sent it to the Adelsverein. It was, no doubt, of value to them.

Oscar von Claren from Hanover arrived on the ship Apollo and came inland with the first group of emigrants. As a young single man, von Claren was chosen by Prince Carl for the responsible position of being in charge of artillery in Prince Carl’s Militia. He organized them to protect the emigrants, both on the way and in the settlement.

In his letter to his sister, von Claren described his arrival in New Braunfels in April 1845 and then of the celebration that took place in early May when Prince Carl was getting ready to leave for Germany. He said that at the Sophienburg (fortress), festive speeches were made and the cannons fired.

At the time of year of his arrival, it was too late to put in a garden on the lot that had been given to him. He put in a cow pen out of logs where the calves stayed while the cows roamed freely. It was not necessary to feed them. In the evening, the cows would automatically roam back to their calves in the pen. Even people that had no houses had pens with cows. Anyone who had more than 25 cows had to pay a fee to the state of Texas. Von Claren was waiting to get chickens; “four hens for $1.00 and a rooster for a third of a dollar”. “He who has cattle, chickens and a livable house has everything” he told his sister. Milk, eggs and butter were the main diet.

Von Claren was aware of unfamiliar noises, like the cutting of trees, plowing and the building of huts. He arose at five in the morning, lit a fire, dressed, cooked tea, baked bread and ate breakfast. After 11 o’clock in the morning the heat was unbearable so everyone stopped working. At this time he cooked dinner and then at three o’clock went to work again. After working, the evening meal was prepared and took a long time because corn meal bread had to be baked every day. It tasted bad when it was not fresh. It got dark around seven o’clock. Twilight, like in Germany, was not known in Texas and it got much darker. Von Claren told his sister that what he needed more than anything was tools, carpenter tools and tools for gardening. Also he needed seeds, fruit seeds of all kinds, lentils, and grape vines. He wished he had brought more with him. An immigrant only paid for the transportation from Bremen and the Adelsverein provided everything else to the colony.

He told his sister that during the land trip in from the coast, many of his clothes and part of his weapons were damaged due to not having them packed in boxes encased in tin. He now sleeps on animal hides and covers with a woolen cover instead of the linens he is used to.

About 300 Tonkawa Indians visit the settlement daily. They are at peace with the Germans and come into town to trade. Von Claren traded animal skins, hides and leopard fur. He traded gun powder, colorful chinz and calico, red and white beads, but not yellow or green (curious), and all kinds of toys made of tin or German nickel silver. Turtles and snakes demand high prices and he intended to sell them.

Their clothing was very thick and long boots were indispensable, but very expensive. He praised the beauty of the area, pretty forests next to the Guadalupe River, hills and prairies covered with wild flowers. Wood like cypress and cedar trees emit a magnificent odor and remind him of pencils. The beautiful blooms of the cactus would be greatly admired in Germany. At night, the air is filled with lightning bugs.

(Here’s the catch:) One must become accustomed to the great heat and large unpleasant animals that inflict deadly wounds, and the numerous rattlesnakes, some ten feet long and probably 15 years old. There are also a large number of alligators, so bathing in rivers is dangerous. He shot a 14 foot alligator. Tarantulas, large spiders that “runs around with the snakes and scorpions” in the woods, have a disagreeable stinger. Finally there is a caterpillar that crawls over the skin.

In May of 1845, there are 400 people living in the settlement. He would like to have friends and family with him “with whom he could cultivate a companionable relationship”.

By the time his sister received his letter, von Claren had been brutally killed and scalped near Live Oak Springs. He and two companions were returning to NB from Austin and while camping, a band of natives attacked the three. Wessle got away and led the Rangers to the site of the massacre. Von Claren and von Wrede were buried there.

Count Carl of Castell as a young man.  As a member of the Adelsverein, he was responsible for promoting immigration.

Count Carl of Castell as a young man. As a member of the Adelsverein, he was responsible for promoting immigration.