Texas history: When Texans read their news in German

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
The Seguiner Zeitung was one of many German-language newspapers published across the state, especially in Central Texas.

Chances are, if you live in Texas, especially Central Texas, the news of the world was once published in German not far from where you live.

In fact, an ancestor of the Austin American-Statesman, home base for the "Think, Texas" column and newsletter, put out a German-language edition during the 1870s. 

"We have secured the service of a German editor of first class ability who will take charge of the paper," John Cardwell, editor of the Statesman from 1871 to 1883, announced on April 26, 1874. "Representative men in different parts of the state have called upon us to publish such a paper; and we therefore look to influential men, both American and German, to assist in making it a success."

The first issue of the Texas Staats Bulletin appeared on May 9, 1874.

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An editorial in the Statesman the following day trumpeted: "It is a splendid-looking, 28 x 32-inch paper, and filled with the most interesting reading matter. ... We will try to make it a 'vade mecum' (guide) for our German fellow citizens, to whom we entrust it for the necessary patronage and support. The Staats Bulletin is entrusted to the care of a competent German editor, Mr. Bechmann, and other able writers will contribute to its columns."

That editor's full name, correctly spelled, was Eugene Von Boeckmann (1853-1897), who immigrated to the U.S. in 1867, and settled in Austin in 1872, where he and his father established a printing business. They also offered stationary supplies and book binding in the 800 block of Congress, where the Democratic Statesman had opened its offices.

A descendant of this printing business thrived in the 20th century as Von Boeckmann-Jones Co., official state printers, who also put out many books on regional history.

I discovered the seeds of this linguistic tidbit in "History of the Austin Statesman, 1871-1956," a mimeographed work by Roger M. Busfield that our current publisher, Pat Dorsey, found in a black three-ring binder stashed in a closet at our former offices on South Congress Avenue. 

A state of multilingual journalism

The very first Texas newspaper of record, Gaceta de Texas, came out in 1813 in Spanish and English. It was edited by José Álvarez de Toledo and William Shaler.

The heritage of multilingual journalism continues to this day, although I am unaware of any Texas newspapers that are still published in German or Czech, the third and fourth most spoken languages in the state while I was growing up.

The first German-language newspaper in Texas appears to have been the Galveston Zeitung, published as early as 1847. As German immigrants moved inland to take advantage of land grants secured by leaders such as Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, they established towns and, with them, newspapers. 

New Braunfels, one of the largest cities in Texas during the 1850s, produced the the Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung, which lasted some 100 years and is an ancestor to today's New Braunfels Herald-Zietung. (Zietung is German for newspaper.)

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San Antonio also published a newspaper with a similar name, the San Antonio Zietung. Seguin contributed the Zietung Seguiner, and La Grange a paper called La Grange Deutsche Zeitung. Copies of the Seguin and La Grange papers can be read at Portal to Texas History, an invaluable website maintained by North Texas State University.

It is important to remember that many of the German immigrants were intellectuals who brought with them traditions of literacy, lending libraries, athletic clubs (turnvereins) and theatrical culture. Even small German American towns supported opera houses and sängerfests, competitive singing festivals, which are still staged in some Texas cities and towns today. 

Dr. Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer, one of the finest observers of Texas geography, flora and fauna, edited the bilingual Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung, which changed its name to the New Braunfels Zeitung-Chronicle after it merged with the Comal County Chronicle in 1954. The German section was dropped in 1957, according to the Handbook of Texas.

Illustrated portrait of C.D. Adolph Douai, editor of the San Antonio Zeitung, an abolitionist newspaper published in German and English during the 1850s.

The San Antonio Zeitung began as a "Social-Democratic Newspaper for Germans in West Texas" on July 1, 1853. Edited by German scholar, teacher and social reformer C.D. Adolph Douai, it was written primarily in German. Like several other German-language papers, it condemned slavery in articles that were often republished in English.

Members of the local turnverein organized to protect the newspaper's offices from proslavery, anti-immigrant mobs in the city, often associated with the American Party, or Know-Nothing Party. Douai persisted with his abolitionist editorials until 1856, when he was forced to sell the paper to an opponent, who renamed it the San Antonio Staats-Zeitung.

After the Civil War, the San Antonio-based Freie Presse für Texas, founded in 1865, vigorously promoted American patriotism, including the invasion of Germany during World War II.

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The Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt (1899-1949) was at one time trilingual, published in German, English and Wendish (Sorbian). The Wends speak a Slavic tongue and Wendish immigrants settled near the Central Texas town of Serbin, where one can explore the Wendish Museum.

(I have spotted signs for that landmark hundreds if not thousands of times on trips between Austin and Houston, and always think: "I've got to plan a trip there someday.")

Considered unpatriotic by English-speaking Texans during World Wars I and II, spoken German fell out of favor in public places and retreated to the domestic sphere. One old-timer relates a story about uniformed men entering the Hoffbrau steakhouse on West Sixth Street in Austin, yelling: "German will no longer be spoken here!"

Quite a cultural setback from the 1890s, when some 1,000 German-language newspapers were published across the U.S.

Some cities, such as Cincinnati, Ohio, supported as many as five of them at a time. 

Many closed during World War I as advertising dried up; others succumbed during Prohibition, which was vigorously opposed by German Americans as a whole.

Today, while a dozen Spanish language newspapers can be found in the state's larger cities, places such as Houston also host papers with stories written in Chinese, Vietnamese, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati as well as English.

Between 2008 and 2021, the American-Statesman published an award-winning Spanish language weekly newspaper, Ahora Sí, that at one point circulated 30,000 issues a week. In recent months, the newspaper has begun to post Spanish translations of some of its stories on statesman.com.

As for German-language journalism, it was already disappearing in the 1920s and mostly gone by the 1940s. A quick internet search produced fewer than 10 active German-language newspapers in the U.S. today.

None of them in Texas.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.