Friday Historical Diversion: The Mild, Mild West

Some years ago, I succumbed to the blandishments of the overloaded bookshelves at Half-Price Books. I knew I shouldn’t have wandered into the section housing assortments of ‘Texiana’ but I did and I was tempted. Since I can resist anything but temptation, I gave in and bought a slightly oversized volume (with color plates!) with the gripping title of German Artist on the Texas Frontier: Friedrich Richard Petri for a sum slightly less than the current price on Amazon. Who was Friedrich Richard Petri, you might ask – and rightfully so for chances are practically no one outside of the local area might have heard of him, he finished very few substantial paintings, was only resident in the Hill Country of Texas for about seven years, and died relatively young.

He was one of those student intellectuals caught up in the ferment of the 1848 Revolution, along with his friend and fellow-artist (and soon to be brother-in-law) Hermann Lungkwitz. Upon the failure of that movement to reduce the power of the old nobility in favor of something more closely resembling a modern democracy, the two of them resolved to immigrate to America, that promising new land. Once there, they settled upon traveling Texas, where the Mainzer Adelsverein had previously established substantial enclaves of German settlers, and the weather was supposed to be particularly mild – a consideration, for Richard was plagued by lung ailments. Besides Hermann’s wife, Petri’s sister Elisabet, other members of their families joined them: Hermann’s widowed mother, and his brother and sister, and Petri’s other sister, Marie. They would become part of the second wave of settlers in the Hill Country; probably just as well, because neither of the Lungkwitz men or Richard Petri had any skill or inclination towards farming, or any other useful pioneering skill. Hermann and Friedrich were artists, Adolph Lungkwitz was a trained metalsmith and glass fabricator.

Traveling by easy stages down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and then presumably by regular packet boat to Indianola, the Petri-Lungkwitz families arrived in New Braunfels. They rented a small farm there in the spring of 1851, but did not intend to settle in New Braunfels permanently. It seemed they wished to look around; and so they did, house-hunting and sketching scenes and quick portraits of each other and the people they met. Hermann Lungkwitz later made use of these sketches and scenes in an elaborate bird’s eye lithograph view of San Antonio. In July, 1852, the families settled on 320 acres at Live Oak, about five miles southwest of Fredericksburg – and there they settled in, trying to make some sort of living out of farm work and art. They were unaccustomed to the former, although from this account, they seem to have sprung from stock accustomed to hard work, if not precisely in the sort of agrarian work required to make a living in a frontier settlement.

They seem to have gotten along pretty well at that, for the book is full of sketches, watercolors and finished paintings by Petri and Lungkwitz; accomplished and vivid sketches of their friends, their families and the countryside around. There are landscapes of the rolling limestone hills, the stands of oak trees and meadows around Fredericksburg, a distant view of the town, with a brave huddle of rooftops, a poignant sketch of Elisabet, mourning beside the grave of hers and Hermann’s baby son, who lived for only three weeks after his birth. There are sketches of their farmstead, of neatly fenced areas around the two small log houses in which they lived, charming sketches of his sister’s children and their pet deer, of theatrical productions in Fredericksburg – all elaborate costumes and ballet dancers – and of the women in the family going to pay formal calls, balancing their parasols while sitting primly in the seats of an ox-cart. There are sketches of friends, of officers from the Federal army’s garrison at nearby Ft. Martin Scott, of sister Marie’s wedding to neighbor Jacob Kuechler. And there are elaborate sketches of Indians, mostly people of that Comanche tribe which had signed a peace treaty with the German settlers of Fredericksburg and the surrounding areas, for Friedrich Richard Petri had a sympathetic eye and considerable skill. Oh, this is indeed the American frontier, but not quite as we are accustomed to think about it – that never-never land that is the popularly assumed picture that comes to mind whenever anyone thinks “Old West”.

And that is why I bought the book, out of funds that I could not well afford, because I used some of Friedrich Richard Petri’s sketches to form my mental image of the German communities in ante-bellum Texas. The sketches are lovely, detailed and revealing. How people dressed, what their houses looked like, the kind of fences they put around them and the sort of gardens and native plans they let grow, how they went about their work and leisure. This is not the stereotypical ‘old west’ of so many old movies and television shows – black hats and white hats and the tense shoot-out in the middle of a dusty street of false-front buildings. This is something altogether different; a peaceable and cultured ‘old west’, of singing societies, and community theatrical presentations and concerts, of homes where the Comanche Indians came peaceably, without leaving a trail of fire, theft and murder behind them.

Friedrich Richard Petri fell ill in late 1857 – of his old lung complaint, or some combination of that and malaria was never quite clear. While his brothers-in-law and other relations were busy in the fields and about their other business, he went down to the nearby Pedernales River and drowned. The supposition is that he was ragingly thirsty, or hoped to cool his terrible fever in the waters. A combination of inability to earn a living by farming, in combination with the turmoil brought on by the Civil War drove the remainder of the family from Live Oak. Hermann and Elisabet and their children moved into San Antonio, where he partnered with an old friend there in a photography studio. Marie’s husband Jacob Keuchler survived the massacre of Unionists on the Nueces, and returned from exile in Mexico after the war to become Commissioner of the State Land Office. And Friedrich Richard Petri’s collection of sketches was eventually reassembled, although the number of actual finished paintings is on the light side. Many of them were sent to Germany, and might still exist there, in attics and storerooms, or in the dark corners of old-fashioned parlors, in the houses of people who think of them in passing as just a nice 19th century rural water-color, and never realize that they have a relic of the mild, mild west in their possession.

7 thoughts on “Friday Historical Diversion: The Mild, Mild West”

  1. In reading this I am wondering of the culture shock – of life in Germany to life in Texas – and how many of those hard scrabble settlers could afford to buy paintings and sketches

  2. Bill, after the first decade or so, the German settlements really weren’t all that hardscrabble. In 1855, Frederick Law Olmstead visted – and was just dazzled at how tidy and comfortable the homes of the German settlers were; even on the farthest settlements, they were adorned with framed prints or painted on-plaster, with hanging plants from the porches, and full of books and well-built furniture. Very clean, very pleasant, very civilized, in contrast to the usual Anglo log cabin shack, which he found comprehensively awful.

  3. Sgt – that is interesting – the contrast between the English and German settlers – but then – having been in Germany in the early 70s – and to see pictures of major cities just 25 years earlier – it was hard to believe. Your book is next on the list – I suspect I will become a “Sgt Mom” fan once reading about Magda and knowing there is more of the adventure – if I just go to Vol 2 & 3 ;-) If I ever leave CA perhaps I should settle in this country –

  4. Sgt. Mom: I assume you have read Rudolf Biesele’s The History of the German Settlements in Texas: 1831-1861. I haven’t read the book, but knew some of his grandchildren.

  5. I think I probably did, Gringo – since when I was doing research for the Trilogy I read everything available through the San Antonio Public Library about the Germans in Texas. I still have a lot of the material I photocopied from books, like the ship-lists (the particulars of the thirty+ ships chartered to bring in settlers, and the 1850 census for Gillespie county.)

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