Celia Hayes: Frontier Surgeon – Dr. Herff, Medicine Man


celia_hayesFrom about 1850 on, there was a doctor-surgeon of such legendary skills practicing his trade in South Texas that his patients often traveled hundreds of miles; Doctor Ferdinand Ludwig von Herff, who dropped the aristocratic ‘von’ after coming to Texas. He arrived as part of a circle of young idealists called the “Forty”, who planned a utopian commune along the ideas espoused by social critics of the time. (Interesting and experimental communes sprouted like mushrooms all during the early 19th century. Few lasted longer than the 1960s variety.)


Like the 1960s variety, Herff’s companions were students or recent graduates. 220px-Ferdinand-Herff-1Hermann Spiess had already toured through the United States and Texas, but when Count Castell, of the Mainzer Adelsverein heard of their intentions, he offered funding if they would establish it on the Verein land-grant in Texas instead, where John O. Meusebach, the commissioner of the Verein was about to negotiate a peace treaty with the Penateka Comanche. In mid-summer of 1847 the “Forty” arrived in Texas, led by Herff, Spiess and Gustav Schleicher, a trained engineer who would eventually oversee building of the rail system throughout Texas. They had brought along a huge train of baggage, supplies and equipment; seeds and grapevines, mill machinery, a small cannon, many dogs, one woman – a cook/housekeeper named Julie Herf (no relation), Doctor Herff’s collection of surgical impedimenta, and many barrels of whiskey. By fall, they had all this and a herd of cattle at their town-site, which they named Bettina, near present-day Castell. They built a long building to use as a barracks and common-room, planted crops and settled in to live their dream of communal living close to the land; Ferdinand and Hermann’s Excellent Frontier Adventure.

They were long on ideals and enthusiasm, but short on relish for back-breaking agricultural labor. It didn’t last beyond a year, but in that time, Doctor Herff performed a single amazing feat of surgery. A Comanche warrior with an advanced case of cataracts appeared, asking to be healed. They did not dare turn the man away. Dr. Herff had already been treating various Indians who presented themselves, and would eventually become fairly fluent in the Comanche and Apache dialects … and he had brought the latest in ophthalmologic instruments with him.

They would use ether to anesthetize the patient, and Doctor Herff would have to have sufficient light. Since ether was flammable, he would have to operate outdoors. A tidy man, he insisted on it being a clear, dust-free, windless and insect-free day, and boiling the water used to irrigate the eyes of his patient. A dozen commune members stood by armed with palm-leaf fans to keep flies away while Dr. Herff set to work, probably knowing that this was an operation that could not be botched. Even if there was a peace treaty in force, an unhappy Comanche would not stop at a letter of complaint.

Corner_of_Navarro_-_Near_Dr_Herff_HouseFortunately the primitive surgery was successful, the patient ecstatic at being able to see well again. He departed, promising the doctor the most generous reward at his command – a woman. One can imagine a great deal of jollity at Dr. Herff’s expense from the other young men of the “Forty”. Three months later, the Comanche reappeared with a young Mexican girl in tow, and handed her over to Dr. Herff, who put her in the care of the only other woman in Bettina, the housekeeper/cook. The girl’s name was Lena, or Lina; she was never able to recall enough about her original family to return to them. Eventually, she married Hermann Spiess. Dr. Herff practiced medicine tirelessly for the next sixty years, establishing San Antonio’s first hospital and several medical associations, and the town of Boerne. Generally, if there is a surgical “first” anywhere in Texas during the last half of the 19th century, he was the surgeon responsible.


Dr. Herff appears briefly in my trilogy of novels about the German settlers in frontier Texas – the Adelsverein Trilogy, and has somewhat more presence in my latest released book, The Quivera Trail, which rolled out in November, 2013. He is the family doctor to an extended family of prosperous German settlers in San Antonio, in the 1870s – and performs one of his miracle surgeries at the climax of that book. There are two historical markers related to him – one on the Riverwalk near the site of his San Antonio residence, and one on the top of a hill near his summer home in Boerne, which became the summer highland retreat of wealthy San Antonio residents later in the 19th century.


What happens when Mrs. Gaskell meets Zane Grey?

9780934955324-Perfect.inddThe Quivera Trail is intended as a sequel to the Adelsverein Trilogy, as picks up in 1875, with Dolph Becker courting and marrying a young Englishwoman, Isobel Lindsay-Groves. Isobel has several problems, the first of them being a domineering and cruelly judgmental mother and the second that she has made a dreadful hash of her debut year and failed to marry – marry well, or marry anyone at all. She is plump, socially inept, loves dogs and horses, and wishes wistfully for a quiet and modest country life. Dolph Becker is the answer to a prayer, as he offers all that … but the price for escape from a gilded world of privilege and the casual malice of her mother and Society … is to marry a man she barely knows, and follow him to Texas.

Accompanying Isobel on the journey to her new home in Texas is Jane Goodacre, her personal maid and confidant. Jane, the daughter of a small country shop-keeper, also has ambitions – and talents that she hardly suspects. The limitations and expectations for a young working-class woman in Victorian England weigh very heavily on Jane, although she does not realize that … until she and her lady mistress arrive in Texas.

The Quivera Trail is now available on Amazon, and on Barnes & Noble, and in Kindle and Nook versions. The print version is also available autographed, directly from my website at www.celiahayes.com.


I will give away one print copy of the first book in the Adelsverein family saga; Daughter of Texas to a commenter.  


Before the Alamo … Before the legends were made…

On the day that she was twelve years old, Margaret Becker came to Texas with her parents and her younger brothers. The witch-woman looked at her hands, and foretold her future; two husbands, a large house, many friends, joy, sorrow and love.

The witch woman would not say what she saw for Margaret’s younger brothers, Rudi and Carl – for Texas was a Mexican colony. Before the Becker children were full-grown, the war for Texas independence would come upon them all and show no mercy.

During her life, she would observe and participate in great events. She would meet and pass her own judgment on great men and lesser men as well; a loyal friend, able political hostess . . .  and at the end, a survivor and witness. But in all of her life, there would be only one man who would ever hold – and break – her heart


+ posts

23 thoughts on “Celia Hayes: Frontier Surgeon – Dr. Herff, Medicine Man”

  1. Oh Celia, I enjoyed reading this so much. I wish there was a way to have copies of all of these articles I have read on here and learned so much about our country and State of Texas, as well as others. I am 78 and have never heard any of this. Who would have believed that a cataract surgery took place back in the 1800s. I would sure like to win your book. And, some day to own all of the other ones. I wasn’t born in Texas but moved here at the age of one, so I definitely a Texan. Again Thanks for your visit here and for the give-away of your book.
    Thanks also to the ladies of Petticoats and Pistols. I love this blog.
    MAXIE mac262(at)me(dot)com

  2. Thanks, Maxie – I started writing about the German settlers in Texas because I had never heard of it either! It was just going to be a single book, and then … well, there was so much good materiel out there, which no one had ever made into a ripping good yarn!

  3. It’s fascinating to read about people who influenced our world today. I’m from Wisconsin where there is a huge German population. My grandfather was a physician(general practitioner)in the late 1800’s. He died from gangrene, a complication of diabetes. It’s hard to imagine a world without insulin. I haven’t read any of your books yet but I did enjoy the intro to Daughter of Texas, Margaret’s story.

  4. Celia,
    I loved reading your post and discovering a new author.
    Your books sound wonderful and something I would really enjoy reading. Thank you so much for an opportunity to win the prelude book, Daughters of Texas.

  5. Celia, welcome to P&P! We’re thrilled to have you chat with us. And what a fascinating subject. Texas is full of so many interesting people. I never get tired of their stories and love when I come across something or someone I didn’t know about. I once posted a blog on here about Dr. Sofie Herzog who lived in the Brazoria area. She immigrated from Austria. Wore her hair cropped short, rode astride on her horse, and lived life the way she wanted no matter the talk. During her time as a physician in Brazoria, she removed bullets from 24 men and never lost a patient. She strung the bullets on a necklace and wore it around her neck. Like Sofie, I really wish I could’ve known Dr. Herff. What an interesting conversation we’d have.

    Your books look wonderful! Wishing you much success.

  6. Your post was captivating and fascinating. Your books look wonderful and interesting. Wishing you the best of health, happiness and more adventures.

  7. Welcome to P&P, Celia. What a great blog! Although I was born and raised in Texas, there is still so much I don’t know. We have such an interesting history. Like Linda, I’d love to have a sit-down with Dr. Herff! Thanks for stopping by and blogging with us. Big hugs from Texas, Phyliss

  8. it is so fascinating to learn about the history, the people and your unique and special novels. What a great topic. Thanks for this subject which interests me greatly. Your books are amazing and very special.

  9. Celia, I found your post about Dr. Herff very interesting. I have to admit I have not read any of your books as I was not familiar with them. The story lines look very good.
    I will plan on adding to my reading list.Thank You

  10. Celia, I have not read your books before but will be checking them out. I found your post very interesting. Back when I was going to school we toured a place that had a lot of the old medical instruments, it was amazing to see. Wish you a very happy holiday season.

  11. You are quite welcome, ladies! Happy to be able to tell some of those stories about odd people and curious incidents! (Sorry to have been so late in responding – I was at Christmas on the Square in Goliad today. Book event – bit of a bust, through being so darned cold.

  12. Celia, I truly enjoyed reading your blog today and will be searching out your books to add to my TBR list. I love the bits about your book but may have searched them out just to find out more about you as my maiden name was Hayes. is this your actual name?

    • Hi, Connie – it is my pen name, but only different from my given surname by two letters. I started off as a blogger, a decade ago, and my daughter was still in the military – and my parents and brothers were/are in the phone book. I wanted to keep them all out of any controversy I might have stirred up.

  13. Welcome to P&P. Being a native Californian, I really never knew too much about Texas. However, over the last few years of reading daily blogs on P&P, I have learned a great deal about Texas. And today, you gave us another view that we would not have known otherwise. Thank you. Being of German descent, I think I would enjoy your stories a lot.

    • Hi, Mary J – I had never known about the enormous German settlement in Texas – that the common language over a good few counties up to the 1920s was German, not English.
      I was brought up in California, too – and never knew to what extant Texas had been settled and organized Germans, Czechs, Poles, Alsatians and others. When I did find out about it – I thought what a ripping good story it would make!

  14. Celia, what an interesting post. I have lived in Texas my whole life and I never tire of reading about the great state. Thank you for what you do.

  15. I’m adding your new book to my Christmas wish list. It sounds great. I also want to read more about this Utopian settlement in the mid 19th century. Sounds interesting.

  16. Hi, Jane – it was a very short-lived settlement; just about all the gentlemen involved were later in positions of influence in the German community in Texas. They were all very well-trained in various technical fields. I think there is something about Bettina in a book by a local historian, Jefferson Morganthaler. It’s called very plainly, The German Settlements in the Texas Hill Country. He has a great bibliography, which lists just about every scholarly work available on the subject.

  17. Loved the post about Dr. Herff. Some things that were done then would never be repeated today. Who knows what could have been done? Probably best we don’t. I have learned some about the German settlers but only what was in MY (went to school in the 60’s and 70’s) history books in school and what I’ve read since. I would like to know more. Would greatly appreciate a chance to win your book.

Comments are closed.