New Braunfels was established in 1845, and that founding came at a great human cost. The New Braunfels Cemetery located at 297 S. Grape Ave. holds a mass grave that became the final resting place for many immigrants who died either en route or after they arrived in New Braunfels.
That mass burial site at the southwest corner of the New Braunfels Cemetery contains an estimated 348 people who died during the Cholera Epidemic of 1846. The roughly one-acre area is almost devoid of any tombstones or plantings.
Currently, the Cemetery Committee and the New Braunfels Parks Foundation are working to create a lasting memorial remembering those lives. What follows is an overview of the groups’ vision for New Braunfels Cemetery, and how it came about. There are also ways that you can help.
From 1844 to 1845, four ships — the brig Johann Dethardt, followed by the Herschel, the Ferdinand, and the Apollo — were among those that transported German emigrants to the Texas Coast.
Just imagine: each ship carried both individual travelers and families, all seeking a better life.
The Adelsverein (Society of Nobles), of which Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels was Commissioner General, aimed to purchase land for the immigrants or secure land grants from the Republic of Texas.
Prince Carl did acquire lands near the Comal Springs and named the first settlement New Braunfels in honor of his German home. Braunfels, Germany, remains our Sister City.
In “Voyage to North America 1844-45: Prince Carl of Solms’s Texas Diary of People, Place and Events,” the Prince’s entry for Good Friday on March 21, 1845, noted:
“Crossing of the first 15 wagons, but what toil and what difficulty it was. Finally they are here.”
Soon thereafter, Prince Carl instructed Nicolaus Zink, a German immigrant, engineer, and surveyor, to plat both town and farm lots. Zink also set aside four acres for a public graveyard in what is now the New Braunfels Cemetery.
A short three months later, Pastor Louis Ervendberg recorded the death of Elise Catharine Reh Peter on June 23,1845. Pastor Ervendberg’s notation next to her name reads “the cemetery was dedicated by this burial.” Elise Peter died of “mucous fever.” Sadly, her husband, Gerlach Peter, died a mere one month later. Elise and Gerlach Peter are buried in unmarked graves.
By late spring 1845, Prince Carl asked to return to Germany. The Verein arranged to send Otfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach (John O. Meusebach) as the new Commissioner General. Writing in the July 1946 edition of “The Southwestern Historical Quarterly,” Professor Rudolph Biesele stated:
“The most tragic episode of the early days of the settlement was the terrible epidemic of 1846. Late in 1845 Meusebach received notice that the Adelsverein was sending 4,304 settlers to Texas…Unfortunately a long rainy season set in, whereupon disease broke out at Carlshafen, from where it spread to New Braunfels when the immigrants were finally moved inland. How many of them died in Carlshafen will probably never be ascertained. Estimates vary on the total number of victims inland, that is, on the way to New Braunfels, in New Braunfels, and in Fredericksburg, from 400 to as high as 1,200. Only one list of victims is known to me, and in it 348 names are listed, but not all the deaths recorded resulted from any disease in the epidemic stage. Most of the deaths were caused by diarrhea, dysentery, and bilious fever….The late fall of 1846 and the winter following brought an end to the terrible epidemic.”
Meusebach’s attempts to have the immigrants transported inland were complicated by the Mexican-American War.
Congress had admitted Texas to the Union on Dec. 29, 1845, and serious boundary disputes with Mexico began almost immediately.
President Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to south Texas. General Taylor’s army needed wagons to transport them, so the German immigrants had to wait for new transportation.
This delay, in combination with a long rainy season and overcrowded conditions in Carlshafen, helped create the epidemic that followed.
The Field of Graves Memorial design was created by Harmon Duke, a landscape architecture student at the University of Mississippi. His ancestors are buried in the cemetery.
Duke worked under the direction of Ylda Capriccioso, formerly Park Development Manager.
The Field of Graves Memorial will include a granite stone engraved with these words from Hermann Seele, whom Pastor Ervendberg chose to teach the settlement’s first school:
“A number of immigrants arrived, who mostly arrived sick, were given emergency shelter in a long open shed built on piles and covered with branches and thatch. There, the number of deaths rose to over 300. Only a few of the dead could be placed in coffins because of the lack of boards. During the summer as many as three — wrapped in canvas or blankets — were transported together every morning by a teamster in the employ of the Society (Adelsverein) to the cemetery, where they were buried in the prescribed manner by the appointed gravediggers.”
The memorial will include an eight-foot stone monument, educational signs, a native prairie meditation meadow, seating and walking paths.
Donations may be made online at nbparksfoundation.org. Contributions may also be sent to New Braunfels Parks Foundation, 110 Golf Course Rd, New Braunfels, TX 78130. Donations of $1,000 and up will be reocgnized on a donor plaque. If you can, please join the Parks Foundation and the Cemetery Committee in making the “Field of Graves Memorial” a reality.
Jane W. Miller is a member of Friends for the Preservation of Historic Landa Park and a Texas Master Naturalist.
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