When the early German settlers first pitched their tents on the banks of the Pedernales River, they were greeted by a harsh land full of fierce native people and the hardships of the Texas frontier. To be successful, their first job was to strike a treaty with the Commanche, a task that had never been accomlished before. With determination and courage, they carved their colony out of the wilderness
It was a harsh and wild frontier when John O. Meusebach and fellow German settlers marched up the Pedernales river in the 1840s to the site where the community of Fredericksburg was to be founded. They had made hefty investments in their German homeland, loaded up their belongings and family and boldly set sail across the Atlantic for Galveston Island where they loaded up wagons, hitched up the horses and headed out half way across the Texas frpntier in search of a new beginning in a New World - only to end up square in the middle of Commanche territory.
In the end, it turned out very well for both settler and Commanche. A unique treaty was struck by the two very different cultures requiring each to send representatives to live with the other group. Believe it or not, it was the only treaty in North America to ever be honored without violation by either of the parties to the treaty.
But paramount to this story are the very tense days and weeks just after the German settler's arrival in the Texas Hill Country. The Commanche were well aware of the group's 'intrusion' into their territory. But it wasn't their first encounter with Europeans moving in from the east, and from Mexico in the west. So they tempered their anger and kept careful watch. While they had experienced many violent encounters with other groups penetrating their territory in search of farm land and bountiful wildlife, Muesebach's group seemed different. Perhaps it was this curiosity that prevented widespread outbreak between the two groups at first encounter.
In what must have been the most harrowing days for the brave Germans, Meusebach and a group of settlers made arrangements to travel to and meet with Quannah Parker, Commanche Chief, at Parker's village on the San Saba river. While the largest contingent of German men made that march to the river, the remaining women, children and a hand full of men remaining behind knew they were vulnerable to a raid. War parties were keeping watch from the hills surrounding the settler encampment.
The watchful Commanche were sending smoke signals from hill top to hill top to keep up with the progress of the meeting between the two groups. The settlers knew that if treaty efforts failed, they were going to have to fight for their lives. The mood was tense and heavy.
After a day of successful negotiations, word was finally sent out by smoke signal from hill to hill, finally reaching the Commanche on watch above the settler's camp. Suddenly, as the sun set on the valley, a local legend has it that the war parties, receiving word that all had gone well and a treaty had been reached, set huge fires on the hill tops to celebrate. The settlers camped below, however, didn't understand the meaning of the fires, and huddled close waiting for and expecting the worse.
Legend has it that a young German mother, seeing the fear in her children's eyes, fabricated a story to calm them. Remembering an old German tradition of lighting 'Easter fires', she told the kids that the fires were in honor of Easter, and that the large bunnies they had encountered (jack rabbits) in this new land were boiling water to make dye for the Easter eggs they were preparing. She insisted the children go quickly to sleep, and the 'bunny' would hide the eggs for them to find in the morning.
Is this the beginning of the fabled Easter rabbit tale? Some claim that it is, others have different tales to tell. Regardless, by the following morning a few of the husbands and fathers from the treaty party returned with the good news, and indeed there was a celebration, including brightly-colored Easter eggs for the children to find.
For generations this tale has been passed down to the Fredericksburg descendants of those early settlers, and in 1948 the community decided to create an annual pageant to recreate the story for others to see. The Gillespie County Fair and Festivals Association took over the sponsorship of the pageant in 1984, and in December of 1989 a copyright on the two names for the pageant --Fredericksburg Easter Fires Pageant and Easter Fires of Fredericksburg Pageant -- was acquired by the fair association.
A special script for the pageant was written by the late Bill Petmecky. It combined history and legend into one story that has been told by a cast of hundreds of volunteers each year until the 2005 season. Because of the large cast and the complicated staging, the GCFFA decided to suspend the event until further notice.
While it's a shame the production has been halted, temporarily or otherwise, Fredericksburg remains a great spring destination and a place rich in Texas history. Texas wildflowers begin to bloom across the countryside, fresh spring rains bring life to the rivers and streams of the Hill Country, and the weather couldn't be better for some quality time off-the-beaten-path.