Immigrant Houstonian Heinrich Warneke

The interior of  Warneke Immigrant Trunk reveals a hidden compartment.

The interior of Warneke Immigrant Trunk reveals a hidden compartment.

A LITTLE PIECE OF HISTORY | By The Heritage Society –

Images from The Heritage Society Permanent Collection.

Most immigration to the United States, including Texas, was motivated by desire for economic opportunity, prosperity and a better life for the next generation. This was certainly true for Germans in the 19th century. Most Germans were accustomed to rural life based around small family farms. A succession of wars, political turmoil and finally industrialization threatened their way of life. In 1845, a recession, high unemployment and a series of failed agricultural harvests made German life very difficult.

The Warneke Immigrant Trunk.

The Warneke Immigrant Trunk.

Texas immigrants did find opportunity, and many prospered, but they still faced turmoil and adversity. An example is found in the story of a German small-town baker named Heinrich Warneke. In September of 1846, Warneke was a husband and father to three young children when they decided to leave Germany. They boarded the ship  Karl Ferdinand with over 100 like-minded Germans bound for Texas.

The Karl Ferdinand arrived in Galveston December 20th, a journey of over three months at sea. The trip across the Atlantic was a difficult one. Conditions on the ships were notoriously bad, often lacking sufficient clean drinking water and toilet facilities. Rats, lice and bedbugs were common, and disease often spread quickly. It could not have been easy for Warneke and his wife, Fredericka, with a six-year-old, a toddler and an infant.

The Warnekes managed to survive the ordeal intact. Upon departure from the Karl Ferdinand, however, tragedy struck the new arrivals. Reputedly, while the ship was being unloaded, some of the immigrant families lost precious farm implements and equipment as it was accidently dropped overboard. The Warneke family brought three large wooden trunks with them, and one of these was among the cargo lost to the deep Galveston Bay.

The Warneke Immigrant Trunk.

The Warneke Immigrant Trunk.

Warneke had plans to settle in the new German enclave of Fayette County, west of Houston, but the fear of Comanche Indians changed his mind. He bought 300 acres for $100 in partnership with another immigrant man. Warneke built his home and farm there on Brays Bayou, about four miles outside of Houston at the time. The family might have felt their hardships were turned around, but calamity came again. Warneke lived one short year as a Texan before he was stricken and died in a yellow fever epidemic.

Despite Warneke’s untimely death, he succeeded in setting his family up for better times. The land he bought and subsequent land of his children became quite valuable. His daughter, Johanna, and youngest son, Auguste, both owned land where Rice Institute (Rice University) would be built. The Warnekes lived rather simple lives as farmers, but they established themselves in an area destined to become a bustling, thriving city. In this way, future generations of the family would prosper and eventually escape the hardships and struggles faced by their ancestors.

Five generations have followed Warneke as Houstonians, preserving his story and perpetuating his legacy. Auguste knew much more of the struggle his father bore. He not only lost his father to yellow fever, but his wife, Mary, also an immigrant, had been orphaned by the disease at four years old. Auguste and Mary escaped the yellow fever epidemics but not disease entirely. They both contracted anthrax in their 60s, and Auguste succumbed to the affliction. Mary managed to recover and with her daughter and six grandchildren, carried on the family. This branch of the Warnekes passed down the memory of pioneer family founder Heinrich Warneke along with an emblematic heirloom artifact.

For 170 years, the family preserved one of the trunks used to bring the family to Texas across the Atlantic. Still legible on the face of the trunk are the initials H.W. The simple wooden box that once held the whole lives and dreams of a young family now holds only memories and represents the man whose initials it bears: Heinrich Warneke.