By Myra Lee Adams Goff
Called by some, “a catastrophic failure of dreamers”, the organization of about 40 intellectuals, university fraternity members and freethinkers banded together with a common cause. They were called “Darmstadters”, or the “Society of the 40” and their plan in 1847 was to organize a communistic utopian settlement in Texas.
The group of about 40 young men organized in the town of Darmstadt, Germany. Why 40s? Because there were roughly 40 of them in the 1840s.
Why freethinkers? Because their liberal ideas were very much against the norm in the small principalities that would later become united Germany. The freethinker movement claimed to be against political and religious tyranny. The Darmstadters wanted to create a classless society with no ruler and guiding themselves by common collective consent. There would be no private property.
The organization of the Darmstadt group of the 1840s was encouraged by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, John O. Meusebach, and Hermann Spiess, the first three commissioner-generals of the Adelsverein. Prince Carl and Hermann Spiess made speeches at the Universities of Giessen and Heidelberg about setting up a utopian type socialistic colony (The word Utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More four hundred years ago in which he described a perfect society). Prince Carl also made speeches at the Industrial School at Darmstadt. He said Texas would be perfect for their communistic and socialistic ideas of freedom and equality; it was a young republic and susceptible to new ideas.
The young university fraternity men’s social life was made up of a fondness for sword dueling, singing, drinking grog (combination of weak beer and rum), and talking. Immediately I pictured a scene from Romberg’s musical “The Student Prince” with its well-known song “Drink, Drink, Drink”. Five men gradually emerged as leaders – Gustav Schleicher, Ferdinand von Herff, Hermann Spiess, Friedrich Schenk, and Julius Wegner. Von Herff had the potential to become a famous surgeon and Hermann Spiess, a naturalist, would become Meusebach’s successor as commissioner- general. Spiess and von Herff first met in the 1830s at the Gymnasium (high school) in Darmstadt.
Spiess had traveled through the United States for two years in 1845-46. He visited NB, then returned to Germany and met with von Herff in Darmstadt. Von Herff was part of a social circle of idealists including Alexander von Humbolt, the Grimm brothers, and poets Bettina von Arnim and Hoffman von Fallensleben.
These endless talks on the university scene led to the intellectual groundwork of the Darmstadt group and finally created the resolve to leave Germany and move to the U.S. The group lacked money, so when Spiess suggested that they join the Adelsverein, they accepted, even though most of them were against the aristocratic system. The Darmstadt probably could never have financed their project alone and, after all, the Adelsverein had free land.
There was trouble within the group from the start. Immediately von Herff took over as leader and that was the exact opposite of the idea of everyone being on equal ground.
The Darmstadters arrived at Indian Point on July 4, 1847, and used 14 carts provided by Spiess. They walked, singing German fraternity songs along the way. Some with money bought horses. It was noted that none of them knew any English except von Herff.
When they arrived in New Braunfels they camped outside the Sophienburg (headquarters of the Adelsverein). Not to waste time before leaving for the Llano, they bought 500 acres of land two and a half miles away from NB (location later became Danville). Here they planted vegetables and grapes, built log cabins and called the area the Darmstadt Farm.
On Sept 1, one month later, the group left for Fredericksburg. Gustav Schleicher stayed behind to run the farm in Comal County. Reaching the north bank of the Llano, they named the place Bettina after the liberal writer Bettina von Arnim, the woman who inspired the movement. There they built a large log building where all slept on camp beds and began their utopian experiment. There was no Indian problem because John Meusebach had already made a treaty with the Indians and the Comanches received medical help from von Herff. He had actually removed cataracts from the eyes of one of the Comanche chiefs. For that, the chief presented the doctor with a 14 year old captured girl from Mexico who would later become the wife of Hermann Spiess.
After less than a year, the utopian experiment was doomed to failure because it was humanly impossible to live up to its own ideals. The professionals in the group wanted to direct and order and not work. The laborers and mechanics could not see the justice in what was happening and so they did nothing. The educated men didn’t know farming, and just wanted to hunt and read classical literature. Most did not want to take orders from Herff and Spiess. Within the organization, discord arose over ownership of property.
As other utopian experiments had done, Bettina failed. By 1848, only eight people were left. In the U.S. between 1663 and 1860, one source claimed that there were 130 idealistic utopian communities attempted. Bettina was the first in Texas. And so, the Darmstadt utopia rose and fell.
What happened to the forty 40s? Some went back to Germany, some to other communities in the hill country and some came back to the Darmstadt Farm in Comal County. Many joined together with another freethinker group called the “48ers” who arrived after the 1848 Revolution in Germany. Being strongly against slavery, the Texas freethinkers joined together during the Civil War against the Confederacy. Individuals from these freethinker groups did much to further education in Texas, to further freedom for all and to advance scientific advancements for all.