The Last Voyage of the Brig Reform

by Frank Wissel By 1853 many Old Lutherans had left Europe for Australia and the United States. This article tells the story of thirty-five Wends who had initially planned to go to Australia, but in July of 1853, changed their minds and instead sailed to Galveston, Texas.1 The thirty-five were the Matthes Matthiez, George Schelnik, Johann Casper [Kasper], Hans Casper [Kasper], Johann Domaschk [Thomaschke], Christoph Krause and August Polnik families.2 The migrants boarded a train in Bautzen, Saxony on August 29, 1853 headed to Bremen on the first leg of their long trip. On September 4, 1853 they departed Bremen on a two-masted ship known as the brig Reform bound for Galveston3, 4 Little did they know that this would be the last voyage ever to be sailed by the Reform. Johann Kasper and his brother Hans Kasper, in a letter to a friend, relayed their account as to what happened on their voyage. The letter was printed in early 1854 in the Wendish newspaper Serbske Nowiny and was later translated into English by Dr. Joseph Wilson.4 The story told here is based on the Kasper brothers’ letter with corroboration from other sources. The voyage of the thirty-five Wends on the Reform was uneventful through the month of September and into the second week of October. The winds were favorable and the sailing was good.4 On October 9, 1853, Agnes Matthiez was born to Dorothea Rehle, the wife of Matthes Matthiez.2, 4 Ten days later, October 19, 1853, tragedy struck either the Krause or the Polnik family with the loss of a son. The records do not mention the name of the child but it was either Johann Krause, Johann Polnik or August Seamann Polnik, for all three died before the end of 1854, but one of them died on the voyage.2 Six days later, on October 25, 1853, about 11 P.M., after eight weeks at sea and just a few weeks short of Galveston, the Reform shipwrecked off the coast of Cuba, nearly splitting in two after hitting a rock.4, 5 The Wends feared for their lives and did not try to save their possessions as they were too concerned with personal survival. A lantern was hung as a sign of distress (presumably by a crew member), hoping it would quickly be seen as they were near an island. About four hours later a small Spanish steamship used to carry freight between coastal ports rescued them and took them to shore. Most of their possessions were already in the water and all they were able to take with them were the clothes on their backs and some of their bedding.4, 5 When they were taken to shore, they were unable to communicate with the people they encountered. Someone must have recognized the language they were speaking and sent for a German translator, after which they were taken to the town of Nuevitas.4 After they arrived in Nuevitas, they were “well cared for” by others. Who these other people were in Nuevitas is not known, but it is known that the Wends, and presumably the other passengers and crew, stayed for a total of three days. After three days in Nuevitas (Oct. 26 – 28), the passengers boarded a steamer bound for Havana.4 The steamer took only about three days to get from Nuevitas to Havana (Oct. 29 – 31).6 Once in Havana, the German Society and the German Consul provided care for another three days (Nov. 1 – 3). Maria Michalk Krause, wife of Christoph Krause, learned to roll cigars while in Cuba though it is unknown whether that occurred in Nuevitas or Havana.7 After their three-day stay in Havana, the Reform passengers boarded the steamer United States. It arrived in New Orleans on November 7, 1853 but due to fog, they could not dock until the next day, November 8.5 In New Orleans, the passengers needed a place to stay but did not have any money so they requested help from the police. Someone at the police station contacted the German Society of New Orleans and that group arranged for room and board for the night, for which the proprietor was paid $54.00. The German Society also spent $372.60 for new clothes, shoes and socks for the passengers of the Reform who were in need of help.8, 9 The next day, November 9, 1853, the passengers boarded the steamer Mexico bound for Galveston.3, 5, 8 At Galveston, each adult was given $6 and each child $3 by the German Consul courtesy of the German Society of Havana.4 However, Galveston was not the final destination. Although the Kasper letter does not state the destinations of each family, in all likelihood the group of Wends stayed together and continued on to Houston. In Houston, the Kasper brothers’ found wagons and presumably purchased them with the money they had received from the German Society of Havana. After the wagons were obtained, the Kasper brothers found Mr. F. G. Seydler (master mason from Bautzen) and travelled on to New Ulm, a journey that took about a week. Once in New Ulm, the Kasper brothers found work with another Wend, Mr. George Helas.4 The Kasper brothers did not live very long after arriving at New Ulm. Hans died at the age of 42 on September 26, 1855, and Johann only lived to the age of 48 years, passing away about one month after his brother on October 20 1855.2 Matthes Matthiez settled in New Ulm where he farmed until about 1860 when he moved to Willow Branch. By 1855, August Polnik had settled on Rabbs Creek. Christoph Krause was renting in Frelsburg in 1856 and Johann Domaschk was farming in the Low Pinoak Settlement. By 1857, George Schelnik was also farming in the Low Pin oak Settlement.10 While the life of the brig Reform ended that fateful night of October 25, 1853, fortunately the lives of the passengers and crew did not. While it took them another three weeks to get to Galveston, they made it. It is known that many of the Wends on that last voyage of the Reform were happy. They wrote letters to those they left behind in Germany, telling about their voyage and experiences in Texas. The thirty-five Wends had been part of Pastor Johann Kilian’s congregation back in Germany. Their letters were so positive, that many of Pastor Kilian’s congregation decided to immigrate to Texas. That group, numbering almost 600 at the time of migration, had diminished to about 500 by the time they arrived in Galveston.11 Fortunately Pastor Kilian was a good record keeper. Thanks to him, the thirty-five Wends who made the 1853 trip are known.2 Thanks to the Kasper brothers’ letter and Kilian’s article published in the April 15, 1854 edition of the Kirchenblat fur die Evangelisch-Lutherischen Gemeinen in Preussen, the story of their journey was preserved.12 From Kilian’s article, as translated by Dr. Wilson, the generosity of the German Society in Havana was also preserved. The German Society of Havana paid the sum of $2,200 for the Reform passengers to travel by steamer from Havana to New Orleans and on to Galveston. In addition to their fares, the passengers were given $500.12 While $2,700 is a large sum of money today, think about how much that was in 1853! The German Society in Havana and the German Society of New Orleans were generous to the passengers and crew of the Reform. So were the people in Nuevitas, Cuba. Their generosity was immense, and without it, who knows what would have happened to those who were on board the Reform on that fateful voyage. Without that voyage and the letters written by the thirty-five Wends, there might not have been a Wendish community in Serbin, Texas.

The Passengers of the Reform

While the Kasper brothers’ letter does not state the name of the ship they traveled on, the timeline for their travels is corroborated by the Wendish weekly newspaper, Tydzenske Nowiny published in Bautzen, German and in the New Orleans newspapers The Daily Crescent5, the Louisiana Staats Zeitung6and the New Orleans Deutsches Zeitung8. In addition, meeting minutes from the December 7, 1853 Seventh Regular Meeting of the Board of Directors of the German Society of New Orleans9 and the German newspaper Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung – published in New Braunfels, Texas3 – made mention of the group and their travel. All of these publications with the exception of the Tydzenske Nowiny, mention the Reform. The identity of the other passengers on the Reform is not known, as the passenger list for this voyage was lost or destroyed. Nor do we know the exact number of passengers and crew. The Louisiana Staats Zeitung from November 10, 1853 reported a total of 98 passengers13. The Sailors Magazine and Naval Journal, Volume XXVI stated: “Passengers, officers and crew, in all 94 persons, including women and children …” 14, while the New Orleans Deutsches Zeitung from November 11, 1853 listed the number of German immigrants as 91.8 The Daily Crescent newspaper on November 8, 1853, listed the names and family members of forty-seven passengers “and 157 in the steerage” from New York, on the steamship United States after its arrival in New Orleans from Havana. It also listed the eleven passengers from Havana “and five in the steerage” for a total of 220 people. While The Daily Crescent confirmed that those rescued from the Reform were on the United States when it arrived in New Orleans, it did not state their names or their number.5 The New Orleans Bee from November 8, 1853 also listed the names of passengers and family members on the steamer United States from New York and Havana but did not mention the Reform15 and neither did The Daily Picayune, which listed 204 passengers by name on the steamer United States and the total number of passengers as 212 in their November 8, 1853 edition.16

The Weather

It is not known exactly why the Reform ran aground. The Kasper brothers blame the captain. They do not mention the weather as having been a factor though there was a category 1 hurricane off the northeast coast of Florida on October 20, 1853 that headed north, grew to a category 2 storm, then weakened to a category 1 storm before losing power on October 22, 1853 off the coast of South Carolina. The storm inflicted wind damage to parts of northern Florida, Georgia and Charlestown, South Carolina. Some buildings and ships were damaged. Some of the ships damaged were in the harbors and some were at sea.17 The storm moved north away from the area where the Reform ran aground and was the last recorded storm of the season, so it is doubtful that the storm had any effect on the Reform running aground.

Figure 1. New Orleans Waterfront The 1854 city plan of New Orleans showing the harbor on the Mississippi River with the location of the Rhein Pfalz Beer House (where the survivors stayed upon arriving in New Orleans). Schoeneck was listed as the proprietor in the 1853 New Orleans directory. The location of the New Orleans German Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft) is also shown.18

Figure 1. New Orleans Waterfront
The 1854 city plan of New Orleans showing the harbor on the Mississippi River with the location of the Rhein Pfalz Beer House (where the survivors stayed upon arriving in New Orleans). Schoeneck was listed as the proprietor in the 1853 New Orleans directory. The location of the New Orleans German Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft) is also shown.18