Illustration: Laurindo Feliciano
Illustration: Laurindo Feliciano

My three children are sixth-generation Texans, and if you had told me, a roller-skating suburban New York girl, that I would ever type that sentence, I would have said you were insane. But here I am, married for 19 years to a man who says “pin” for “pen” and has three pairs of cowboy boots and a Stetson. The first time my husband-to-be visited my mom’s place in Rye, New York, he came downstairs in jeans and dress shoes, and she pulled me aside. “I told all my friends he was a Texan,” she whispered. “Doesn’t he have any boots?”

Amused, my fiancé—Timothy “Tip” Meckel—went upstairs and changed his footwear. All evening, my mother’s friends pointed at his feet and giggled. Imagine Amanda marrying a Texan! And not just a Texan but a scientist—none of us had ever met a geologist before. When my family came to our wedding, they were utterly lost trying to follow my father-in-law’s directions, which instructed guests to “turn right at the cretaceous outcrop.”

DNA tests can now tell you exactly where you came from and which mysterious biological relatives exist for you to cyber-stalk and maybe even contact. My childhood wasn’t easy, though, and as I raise my Texan children in Austin, I’m not as entranced by pinpointing where I came from biologically as I am in understanding where, instead, I belong.

I am the daughter-in-law of German settlers who arrived in Indianola, now underwater but once an immigration hub and later a thriving port city. To delve into the family I was lucky enough to marry into, I decided to begin in Indianola and follow the route my husband’s ancestors had traveled to reach the Hill Country, specifically Boerne and New Braunfels. It would take me a few days of driving slowly and eating lunches at historical markers, but it took the German immigrants months—and many did not survive the journey at all.

To help me plan, I contacted another woman who married into the family, a beautiful blonde named Susie Tumlinson. Susie is “obsessed with genealogy” and a kind and brilliant research companion. For a few weeks, we traded emails, Susie sending me copies of Meckels listed on 1850 US Census reports; land grants written in florid calligraphy; and sepia-toned family photographs of ancestors.

Susie wrote excitedly one morning when she found an article in the February 1927 issue of Frontier Times Monthly: “Hardships of a German Family,” penned by Bernard Monken, who was 11 years old when his family, seeking the promise of new land, favorable climate, and liberation from religious and political oppression, sailed from Germany on a schooner called the Neptune. The Neptune was a sister ship to the Hercules, which had carried, according to the ship’s roster, 53-year-old John Hein Meckel; his wife Frederica; and their children, Sophie, 21; Cath, 15; and Daniel, 12. The ships arrived in Indianola in 1845, after an arduous 58-day journey, and then the going got even tougher. Since Monken’s article was the closest I’d come to a road map, I consulted it to plan my journey from the Gulf Coast to the Hill Country.

The Meckels were drawn to Texas through the Adelsverein, also known as the Verein zum Schutze deutscher Einwanderer in Texas (Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas). Founded in 1842, the Adelsverein sought to establish a German colony in the nascent republic. Two years later, reorganized as the German Emigration Company, the group bought an interest in the Fisher-Miller Land Grant, which had been an effort by the Republic of Texas to establish German, Dutch, Swiss, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian colonies on 3 million acres between the Llano and Colorado rivers.

The Adelsverein promised willing emigrants inexpensive transportation from Germany to Texas; wagons upon arrival to transport them and their belongings to colonizable land; a house; grains; implements to begin planting; and religious and educational needs. This sounded too good to be the true—and it was. Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, commissioner-general of the Adelsverein, was the first to arrive, and he quickly realized the difficulty ahead. He had to shepherd the German immigrants 300 miles from the coast of Texas to land that was not only infertile, but was also home to Comanches. This ultimately resulted in the establishment, farther south, of New Braunfels, but only for the immigrants lucky enough to get out of Indianola.

A Brig Weiser ship carrying brave colonists arrived in Galveston in 1844. This was the first of more than 60 ships bringing more than 7,000 immigrants arriving between 1844 and 1847. Most endured a painful litany of storms, shipwrecks, illness, death, and spoiled food in pursuit of a better life. Unsure how to bring these hapless arrivals to the Hill Country, Prince Solms left them in Galveston while he searched the coast for a port of disembarkation closer to Central Texas.

Outside Port Lavaca, he chose a jut of land marking the oyster reef between Matagorda Bay and Lavaca Bay. This was Indian Point, later known as Carlshafen and Indianola, which the author Brownson Malsch describes as “the mother of Western Texas…a city that was born, flourished, and died on the Texas Coast between 1844 and 1887.”

After their crossing from Germany in 1845, my ancestors would have spent a few days in Galveston and then, like other immigrants, taken a smaller vessel to Indianola. According to Monken, his “steamer…overloaded with human beings and their belongings” sprung a leak and was stranded on the journey. As the ship filled slowly with water, its passengers decamped to the nearby Island of Matagorda. Eight days later, Monken’s family was ferried to Indianola, where an ugly surprise awaited.

Monken’s family discovered that there were no buildings or tents. No preparation had been made for their arrival, and the teamsters who had been contracted to take the immigrants inland had absconded to make more money working for the U.S. Army. Immigrants were forced to make houses from sod, huddling inside to escape the punishing sun, rebuilding as constant rains melted the dwellings. And it only got worse.

significant challenge confronts any journalist who wants to write a story about Indianola: It no longer exists. Still, I loaded up my proverbial wagon (in my case, a dented Mazda5) and went in search of it. I started in Port Lavaca, about a 15-mile drive northwest of Indianola, to check out the Calhoun County Museum. There I met the director, George Anne Cormier, and her assistant, Vicki Cox, who showed me around the museum’s fascinating collection of Indianola artifacts. A 32-piece German porcelain set and ornately carved marital bed were imbued with the hopes of early settlers. They’d had little idea upon arriving in Indianola—a “plague-infested immigrant camp”—how useless their porcelain might be.

The porcelain and chests pierced my heart. How carefully they must have been packed in anticipation of a new life in America! And how devastating to be met with wet sod and starvation.

My brother-in-law, Kit Meckel, has a wooden chest in his Colorado home. He’d heard it was brought from Germany. Having researched these immigrants’ treacherous and endless treks from Germany to the Gulf Coast to the Hill Country, I told him there was no way this was possible. But in the Calhoun County Museum, next to the German porcelain, was a chest identical to Kit’s.

The porcelain and chests pierced my heart. How carefully they must have been packed in anticipation of a new life in America! And how devastating to be met with wet sod and starvation. In 1877, the Galveston Weekly News wrote, “With no other shelter, these unfortunate victims lived in holes they had dug in the ground…immigrants suffered first from malarial fever…dysentery…cholera…. Hundreds of corpses were buried (in shallow graves), only to be dug up by the wolves, and their bones were left dotting the prairie….”

I bid goodbye to George Ann and Vicki and drove from Port Lavaca about 20 minutes to the place where Indianola had once been. It was a very bright and cold February day, the sky wincingly blue. Recent rainstorms had left standing water along the side of the road.

I passed a historical marker for the grave of Angelina Bell Payton Eberly. In 1842, when Eberly discovered men secretly removing records from the state capital, she fired a six-pound cannon in protest. This prompted the return of the archives to Austin, but Eberly ended up in Indianola, where she died in 1860. When I identify as a Texan, it’s feisty women like Angelina and  my mother-in-law, Barbara Meckel, I’m trying to emulate.

I reached a wooden sign that read, “Welcome to Historic Indianola.” But all I could see were some RVs and empty campsites on North Ocean Drive. Two men were bundled against the cold, optimistically moving metal detectors along a strip of sand. But apart from a few scrubby palm trees, concrete picnic tables, and a worrisome dog with no collar, there was absolutely nothing. I parked my Mazda and donned a parka.

By the 1870s, Indianola had become a major port, and had grown into a bustling and glamorous city. But Indianola was ravaged by hurricanes in 1875 and 1886, and then abandoned. The former city sits underneath waist-deep water. When the waters are clear, you can see the foundation of the old courthouse about 50 feet offshore. I stood in the whipping wind and looked at the pale brown waves.

Texas singer Charlie Robison’s song “Indianola” tells a story from the point of view of a child on one of the ships arriving at Indianola. So many didn’t make it here, and so many never made it out. I played the song in my head and thought of the Meckels, feeling grateful.

My little brother was just ten years old,
When we hit bad weather and hid in the hole,
We could see Texas was only a mile,
And oh, little brother, I remember your smile…
At Indianola.

I spied a 22-foot granite statue of LaSalle, the French explorer who colonized Matagorda Bay in the 1680s. As I walked toward the monument, I called my father-in-law, Lawrence Daniel Meckel II, in Denver. I told him I was standing at the place his ancestors pulled to shore. He said he wished he could be there with me.

I didn’t call my own father because, well, it’s complicated. Let’s just say I missed him then, for some reason, or I guess for the same reason: I always miss him. But that’s just the way it is, and it’s a lot better than being a kid on a two-masted schooner in the rain approaching Indianola. I’m 46 years old, and that’s too old to think for very long about what you wish were true. Family is where you find it, in the end. When you find it, hang on.

Bernard Monken was 11 when his family landed in Indianola. They spent several muddy months on the coast. Several months. I spent just about 20 minutes, and then I headed out. “On the 5th day of July, 1846,” Monken writes in the Frontier Times article, “our wagon loaded with sixteen persons and their belongings left Indianola for New Braunfels. The first night we camped on Chocolate Creek.”

I left the site of Indianola at 2 p.m., and at 2:09 p.m., I reached the bridge over Chocolate Bayou. I stood there for a moment, imagining the Meckels camped in this squelchy spot. The next day, Monken writes, “one wagon wheel broke in the midst of an open prairie.” With no water or wood for cooking, they had to borrow a wagon, eventually reaching Victoria. It took them 14 days to travel 40 miles.

As I piloted my Mazda over the prairie, rolling hills came into view. The Guadaulpe River rushed its banks. I can only
imagine how heavenly this must have looked to the ailing pioneers.

Compared to a Conestoga wagon, my Mazda was a Lamborghini. I zoomed along, listening to Cardi B and stopping at Buc-ee’s to fill up my tank and grab some snacks. “Upon our arrival in Victoria,” Monken writes, “we were all more or less sick, and our hands and faces were sore and swollen from mosquito bites.” Me, I was hopped up on Diet Coke and Dilly Bites.

Next, Monken writes, the family made their way to Spring Creek, “where no meat and no vegetables were to be had,” but eventually they reached Hochheim, a town founded by Volentine Hoch in 1848 as a trading center for the immigrant pioneers near the Guadalupe River. Hochheim still exists as a few homes and a lovely cemetery containing “many unmarked sites where pioneer immigrants…were interred.” When I visited, the graveyard was quiet and sun-dappled, with a giant live oak tree watching over it. Sometime between 1870 and 1880, a Masonic Lodge was built that served as a school, church, and community center.  The large white building with a sign reading “Hochheim Lodge” remains.

Monken and his family eventually got out of Hochheim, but their wagon was “bogged down” in nearby Peach Creek. “My sick brother sought shelter under a tree, where my sister tried her best to protect him with an umbrella. But still it rained.” Conveniently, Monken’s sister, Rose, arrived from New Braunfels, where she had been working as a servant girl.

Rose, a “fearless rider,” headed to Gonzales to find a doctor for the sickly crew. “A bunch of mustangs crossed our path,” and “her mount was bent on following them.” He “reared up and fell over on her, the pommel of the saddle striking near her heart.” In Seguin, “death relieved her suffering.”

As I piloted my Mazda over the prairie, rolling, green hills came into view. The Guadalupe River rushed its banks. I can only imagine how heavenly this must have looked to the ailing pioneers. I passed Annie Oakley Pest Control and the Cow Palace Restaurant at the Gonzales livestock auction, taking US 90 toward Seguin.

I drove slowly through Seguin, thinking about Monken and his sister, Rose—her brave and tragic death. I was so distracted by thoughts of the past that a police officer had to tell me that I was going the wrong way around the Seguin town square. It was time to retire to my evening abode, the glamorous Olivia Mansion. I sank into a giant tub of bubbles that evening, feeling guilty, thankful, and apprehensive about the experiential adventure ahead.

I ventured to New Braunfels in the morning. It had taken Monken three months to reach the area where my ancestors had settled. His story concludes, “Fifty-six years have passed since those eventful days…My aim in putting this down on paper is mainly to remind the youth of today that they owe to the pioneers all honor and respect for blazing the trail for their own prosperity and the wonderful developments the country now enjoys.”

drove another 70 miles northwest to another German settlement, Fredericksburg, and met up with my husband and our children. We ate at a downtown restaurant, where we had a very German lunch of three kinds of bratwurst with schnitzel and sauerkraut. My husband remembers his grandmother’s schnitzel as one of the best foods in the world, and I savored the buttery noodles. My 7-year-old daughter, a committed vegetarian, was not as charmed by our meaty repast.

We strolled the streets of Fredericksburg (“Holiday Sale! 50% off all Guns, Knives, and Christmas Decorations!”), then headed out to our “Definitive Texas Hill Country Glamping Adventure.” Nervousness set in as I thought about braving a night in the conditions my ancestors endured regularly. At the Barron’s CreekSide Resort, we settled into a 220-square-foot replica of a Conestoga settler’s wagon. Barron’s also had a historically accurate wagon on-site, so we were able to see that the “glamping wagon” where we’d spend the night was about four times the size of the vehicle Bernard Monken and 15 others (and all their belongings) had inhabited.

I unrolled the 4-foot family tree with my name on it, and my children’s names, too. There it was: a clear lineage from Germany to Indianola to Boerne, from these courageous pioneers to me.

Our kids jumped out of the car, unzipped the wagon, and freaked out. There was a king-size bed; two bunk beds; a coffee maker; cute dishes and pillows; and a fat collection of Louis L’Amour stories. However, it was cold and getting colder, and the canvas covering the adorable wagon wasn’t going to provide much insulation.

But I was researching our ancestors, who’d faced much larger trials. My children plugged in the electric blanket and cuddled into the king-size bed with our miniature schnauzer, Schneffles (named after Mount Sneffles in Colorado, my son’s first big climb), while my husband unpacked the car. When we were settled into our wagon, the temperatures dropped further, and I read aloud a Louis L’Amour short story about a girl who arrived just in time to save her cowboy from ruination.

Over breakfast at the Old German Bakery & Restaurant the next morning, we traded complaints about how badly we had slept in the 30-degree wagon, especially with its small heater kicking on and off at random throughout the night. We would have had a rough time on the frontier, we agreed, and then we grabbed a to-go “crump”—a giant dessert made of two pastry shells filled with custard and piled with powdered sugar.

From Fredericksburg, we traveled another 70 miles south to Boerne, where we met up with my research partner, Susie. She walked us around her beloved town and told us stories of our Meckel family. We visited the Julius A. and Anna Phillip House, built around 1900—Anna (Meckel) Phillip is the sister of Hugo Meckel (my father-in-law’s grandfather). We took a peaceful stroll in the Boerne Cemetery, marveling at the elaborately carved headstones and pausing to say simple prayers before the many Meckel graves. Susie directed us to Sisterdale, where Daniel Meckel, who had been 12 years old on the journey from Germany, once owned 160 acres. After an incredible lunch at The Dienger Trading Co. and a private tour of the historic Phillip Manor, a newly restored boutique hotel, Susie said we had just one more stop to make.

At a downtown copy shop, Susie picked up her order. She handed me a laminated scroll. My family, including Schneffles, got out of the car and watched as I unrolled the paper. It was a 4-foot family tree with my name on it, and my children’s names, too. There it was: a clear lineage from Germany to Indianola to Boerne, from those courageous pioneers to me. How amazing, I thought, tears hot in my eyes: America welcomed these German immigrants, who were able to make new lives for themselves and their children, their children’s children, and so on, all the way down to a New York kid who’d been embraced by a handsome Texan, and brought home.

Where do you want to go today?

Where do you want to go today?

From the June 2019 issue

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