EDITOR’S NOTE: Caprock Chronicles is edited by Jack Becker, a Librarian at Texas Tech University. Today’s article is by Meredith McClain, associate professor emeritus, Texas Tech University. She writes about the little known influence of Germans on the Llano Estacado.
“Doppelgänger” literally means “double-goers” usually translated as “look-alikes”, “twins” or “doubles”. Our own Llano Estacado is the setting of one of the most extraordinary examples of the true German meaning, best rendered as “parallel lives”. Two men born in Germany, only 6 years apart, died in 1912 without ever having heard of one another, although both deeply influenced the history of our mysterious Llano; one through actions and the other through fantasy.
Heinrich Schmitt was born into a large weaver’s family (twelve children, four who died young and six who migrated to America). Being the youngest boy and eleventh of twelve children, he was possibly the favored child, whereas Karl May, the fifth of fourteen siblings, nine of whom died in infancy, was favored for his intelligence.
Schmitt was born in 1836, just as Texas became a Republic. Because of the repressive governments in Europe and the burgeoning industrial revolution, which ruined the weavers’ profession, the establishment of a new Republic on the American frontier was very big news in Germany.
So many Germans began migrating that in 1842 a group of German noblemen founded “The Society for the Protection of German Immigrants to Texas”, hoping to establish a “New Germany” in the new Republic. Before going bankrupt, the Society delivered more than 7,000 Germans to the Texas Hill Country. By 1852 every fifth white resident of Texas was a German immigrant.
At 14 years old, Heinrich Schmitt immigrated to North America with the blessings of his widowed mother, the town council, and Catholic priest, where he joined his two older sisters in Ohio. By age 15 he had found work and at 16 he struck out, as Hank Smith, for the Great American West.
After decades of adventures, at age 41, Hank moved into a rock house in Blanco Canyon with his wife and two children. His long-time friend and adopted family member, “Uncle” C.T. Hawse had the house warmed and supper on the stove, when they arrived at their new home on November 14, 1878. The first family to permanently live on the Llano.
By contrast, Karl May left his village at 13, headed for Spain. His father found him 24 hours later and brought him back home. Trapped in hopeless conditions, he made mistakes, lost a teaching position, then committed crimes which landed him in jail for eight years. However, during his incarceration, he devoured many library books describing life on the American Frontier.
By his release in 1874, at age 32, he was ready to become a writer and by 1892, at age 50, he gained wide-spread popularity and fame, based primarily on exciting stories he wrote set on the Llano Estacado, where a handsome German Frontiersman, Old Shatterhand, bonded with a majestic Mescalero, Winnetou. Together they ride from adventures to thrilling adventure across the West.
These stories are a major foundation of May’s worldwide popularity and his ranking as the most published author in the German language.
In May’s Spirit of the Llano Estacado (1888), he describes a lone ranch house, “Helmer’s Home,” owned by a German, where one can always get help and good cup of coffee. One thinks of Hank’s hospitable wife Elizabeth, who kept one room ready for guests and medical supplies for sick cowboys.
There is also the imagined hidden Oasis May placed on the Llano, possibly a pre-cursor of our own Lubbock Lake Landmark. May called our area a desert and emphasized how important water was to life. Robbers would shift the signs to water, causing travelers to die of thirst.
May couldn’t have known about our Playa lakes system, but he built on the danger of death lurking at each wrong turn, something the Buffalo Soldiers tragically experienced in 1877. Members of the Smith family tell that the origin of Hank’s bond with Uncle Hawes. It was based on Hawes’ rescue of a younger Hank in a desert area, when he almost died of thirst.
Hank Smith opened the door to settlement on the Llano Estacado, while Karl May opened his readers’ hearts and imaginations to a magical place with his descriptions of the Llano. Both died in 1912 having lived unusually successful lives. Their legacies live on, housed for the public to see in Crosbyton, where a replica of the Rock House resides in the Crosby County Pioneer Memorial Museum and in Radebeul, Germany the location of May’s villa and adjacent Native American Museum.
When Georgia Smith Ericson, granddaughter of Hank Smith, hosted the Karl May Society on her ranch in Blanco Canyon, in 2000, the Germans admiringly called her the “granddaughter of Old Shatterhand”. Since Karl May insisted that in reality he was “Old Shatterhand”, this means she was granddaughter to both (of) THESE “Doppelgänger” (literally: double goers).