Challenging the grand myths of migration narratives

February 16, 2023

Trish Markert, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology

Story and photo by Rob Rombouts

“Historical migration narratives are rarely examples of reality,” said Trish Markert, “but become mythologies of the past.”

Markert has joined the department of Anthropology as an assistant professor. Drawing upon historical archaeology and mixed methods such as ethnography, narrative and architectural analysis, oral history, and digital mapping, Markert studies how migrant communities create a sense of place across generations.

Through her work, she hopes people can “recognize that celebratory myths of the settler-colonial past aren’t as monolithic as history would make them out to be.”

Markert has focused on the Texan communities of Castroville and D’Hanis. In the 1840s and 50s, migrants from the Alsace region of Europe moved into area, located west of San Antonio.

The Alsatian migrants initially built settlements that resembled the region they originated from, with some changes made to match their new homes, including the materials used. The two communities underwent significantly different experiences since their founding.

After its foundation, the residents of D’Hanis moved one mile east of the original settlement to be closer to a newly constructed railroad, and the ruins of ‘Old D’Hanis’ remained largely untouched. The move signaled a shift away from the Alsatian migrant culture, and an adoption of American ideas of progress, Markert said. Some original rock homes in Old D’Hanis became home to Mexican migrants in the early 20th century.

Castroville, the larger of the two towns, saw continued habitation of its original buildings. Overtime many of the homes were renovated and changed to meet the needs of the new residents. Many have been restored to their original appearance and are included on an historic home tour.

The Alsatian language was the first language for many generations in the towns. Overtime, particularly through the First and Second World War, the connection with the Alsace region was severed. In the 1950s and 1970s, Alsatian-Texans started to re-establish a link with Alsace, with the shared language as a starting point for deeper connection.

In present day, Castroville is seeing the growth of nearby San Antonio subsuming it as a suburb. Castroville has adopted its unique heritage for tourist needs, presents itself as “The Little Alsace of Texas” and hosting an Alsatian festival. D’Hanis, further west, appears as an old railroad town but connects to its migrant past in less visible ways, like genealogy and family history.

Landscapes and oral histories in both towns reflect how current inhabitants, including descendants, relate to the initial Alsatian migration, as well as subsequent migrations. In Castroville, the town invests in “the preservation and conservation of its colonial past in a more packaged way,” said Markert. “They present to the world a version of Alsatian colonial culture they imagine their ancestors had.”

Included in this image is the Steinbach Haus, originally built in 16th-century Alsace, which was dismantled and reconstructed in Castroville as a gift from France in 1998. “It is out-of-place in Texas, but they made it part of the landscape in an intentional way,” said Markert.

In D’Hanis, the ruins in Old D’Hanis offer a different glimpse into the initial Alsatian migration event. Less visible in both places but apparent through community-based work, oral histories, and archives are the ways that other migrants, particularly those from Mexico, have shaped these places. Interdisciplinary work reveals how multiple migration events have impacted both towns through time.

In Texas, and North America more widely, conversations about migration are contentious. “A lot of what people think about the frontier and colonialism are grand myths,” said Markert. “You don’t often hear about specific instances of migration, or how multiple migrations and movements impact each other through time, including how these smaller instances connect to the violent displacement of Indigenous peoples.”

Migration stories, and meanings of these stories, “are being negotiated across 50 years or even a century,” she said. “Narratives from the 1850s still have an impact on the present. We have an understanding of the past, and we have to grapple with that in the present.”

Markert is “glad to find a home in a department that values work across the subfields of anthropology.” She hopes to work with colleagues doing work across the fields, which will allow her to continue research on historical migration, place, and identity in “interesting and exciting ways.”

Markert’s research has been supported by the National Geographic Society, Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies, Wenner-Gren Foundation, Council of Texas Archeologists, and Medina County Historical Commission.