In May 1984, following a major cleanup and restoration effort, Henry Jaeger Jr. sat down to write the history of the Jaeger-Witte Cemetery. He began with the statement “Just when and in what year the first death and burial and beginning of this cemetery (occurred) remains a hidden question.”
What we do know with certainty is that in 1850, Anna Marie and Victor Witte, along with their two daughters Marie Lissette and Helen Fransiska, and Anna Marie’s brother, Ferdinand Hagedorn left Hannover, Lower Saxony, in what’s now Germany. They arrived in Galveston, Texas in early 1850 and eventually settled along the banks of Mill Creek in Washington County. We know that in 1853, Anna Marie’s parents, Carl and Marie Louise Hagedorn and their daughter Adele left Oldendorf, Lower Saxony. They stayed with Anna Marie and Victor until September 1855 when they purchased land nearby. We know that neither Ferdinand Hagedorn nor Marie Lissette Witte appeared on any census taken after 1850. Given the locations of the Hagedorn and Witte homesteads, the chronology of events, and the customs of the time, we have concluded that they died in the mid to late 1850s and were the first two individuals buried in what would become the family cemetery.
When Carl Hagedorn died in 1869, he was buried next to his son Ferdinand and his land was divided among his children. The land on which the cemetery sat went to his daughter Adele and her husband, Herman von Bieberstein. There were nine graves at this time. Adele and Herman sold this land to their son Paul on March 4, 1895. In the deed after the boundary lines are detailed, it states “…an area of 100 acres of land, reserving however 1/8 of one acre as family burial ground.” This is the very first recording of a family burial ground on this land. According to oral family history, this burial ground was named the “Hagedorn-Witte Cemetery.”
During all of this time, a German immigrant named Peter Jaeger ran an ox freight line that stretched from Houston to Brenham. This put the Jaegers in contact with the Hagedorns and Wittes. October 23, 1899, Paul von Bieberstein sold his farm to Peter’s son, Henry Jaeger and Henry’s wife Alvine. On the deed, after the boundary lines are detailed, it states, “…an area of 100 acres of land, reserving however ¼ of one acre as the family burial ground, obligating us to keep said ¼ acre under a good substantial fence.” This doubling of size was most likely done so that the Jaegers would have a burial ground of their own while still giving the Wittes and Hagedorns the right to access and use their existing burial ground.
Soon after this sale, Rudolph Witte Sr. built a concrete retaining wall around the “Witte-Hagedorn” section to delineate it from the “Jaeger” section. A barbed wire fence with wooden stakes was built around most of the quarter acre (a portion of the space was not enclosed to allow for the eventual construction of a storage shed). A picket fence that had been erected around the graves of Marie Lissette Witte, Ferdinand Hagedorn, and his parents Anna Marie and Carl Hagedorn decades earlier was carefully maintained, along with the rosebush and cedar trees planted on top of these graves.
In 1931, Henry Sr. and Alvine sold the land to their son Henry Jr and his wife Lillie. There were now 25 graves in the Witte-Hagedorn section. And as with the previous deed, this one said “…an area of 100 acres of land, reserving however ¼ of one acre as the family burial ground, obligating us to keep said ¼ acre under a good substantial fence.” The Jaeger section sat empty for another five years until Alvine died in 1936. When her husband died seven years later, cradles were placed around their graves and the name of the cemetery changed from Hagedorn-Witte to Jaeger-Witte. According to oral family history, this decision to remove “Hagedorn” from the name was done because there were only three Hagedorn graves and no more Hagedorns living in the area.
Over the next four decades, Henry and Lillie oversaw care of the family cemetery. The last burial in the Witte section was in 1953 and in the early 1980s there were only five graves in the Jaeger section. As they settled into their retirement years, Henry and Lillie found it increasingly difficult to maintain the cemetery on their own. In his history of the Jaeger Witte Cemetery, Henry writes, “in the middle part of October 1983, the cemetery was grown up in grass and weeds so bad that one was unable to mow the tall grass and weeds with a lawn mower. When Johnny and Myrtle Mueller came to clean it, it was impossible, so they came to ask me to use a tractor and shredder to mow the tall weeds. That’s when we decided to ask for help, as we are all getting older. We decided on a fund drive and asked for donations from all family relatives. Around November 1, 1983, a letter was mailed out to every member asking for a donation for the cemetery fund.”
Henry coordinated this fundraiser and recorded the names of everybody who was sent a letter, along with the amount they gave. Now that the funds were available, Henry set about on a major cleanup and restoration effort which he carefully documented in writing and pictures. The split picket fence around Marie Lissette, Ferdinand, Carl, and Anna was removed, along with the cedar trees (the Hagedorn rosebush was left intact). The barbed wire fence was replaced with a chain link one and the retaining wall separating the Jaeger and Witte sections was replaced. Concrete steps leading from the Jaeger to the Witte section as well as a hand rail were installed. Gravel was brought in to create a parking area in the section of land not enclosed by the chain link fence. A beautiful archway was placed over the front gate and Henry’s son Lanis Jaeger designed and built a large sign that read “JAEGER WITTE CEMETERY.” This sign was placed at the road to direct people to the cemetery.
After the projects were completed, Henry formed the Jaeger-Witte Cemetery Association. This was a loosely organized group consisting of Henry and his children, whose purpose was to use the remaining funds to provide routine cemetery maintenance.
In 1991, Henry and Lillie sold the land to their son Lanis, who as with his father and grandfather, was obligated to keep “said ¼ acre of burial ground under a good substantial fence.” Shortly before Lanis died in 2007, he sold the land his nephew Brian Jaeger and his wife Karen. The deed did not make specific reference to the cemetery because by this time it was understood that care and maintenance was the responsibility of the Jaeger Witte Cemetery Association rather than the landowner. Henry and Lillie’s second daughter Jeanette Zemanek purchased a small portion of land surrounding the cemetery in 2014, with the intent to eventually donate this to the Jaeger Witte Cemetery Association. The deed makes a very important statement. That is, it can only be used for cemetery purposes and cannot ever be sold. Jeanette’s land was subsequently designated as cemetery space and donated to the cemetery association.
Shortly after Jeanette purchased the land from Brian and Karen, five of Henry and Lillie’s grandchildren came together to discuss the future of the cemetery. The members of the Jaeger Witte Cemetery association were no longer able to keep those roles. Just as Henry said back in 1984 about himself, everyone was getting older and had to ask for help. So they stepped down and the new cemetery association held its first formal organizational meeting on April 12, 2015. The original board consisted of Steven Jaeger, Jeff Jaeger, Debbie Byrd, Sandy Jaeger, and George Zemanek. The name of the association was changed from Jaeger Witte Cemetery Association to Jaeger Witte Heritage Cemetery Association to highlight the added emphasis on preserving not just the physical space but also the history and the heritage. The JWHCA has overseen major repair and building projects, including headstone restoration and the construction of a pipe fence. The association also collects oral histories, runs a website, and distributes an annual newsletter to over 100 individuals and organizations.
Family cemeteries are a very valuable historic resource. They contribute to the narrative of the surrounding area and give the landscape character and definition. They reveal so much about settlement patterns, historic events, lifestyles, and genealogy. The names on the headstones serve as a sort of directory of early residents and reflect the unique population in the area. They stand as a testament to the love and loss felt by those left behind. That is so evident in the Jaeger Witte Cemetery each month when we gather to clean and beautify our beloved family treasure. We often hear “to speak the name of the dead is to make him live again.” So truly those who rest in the Jaeger Witte Cemetery will never be forgotten.
Deed Records: Office of the Washington County Clerk, Washington County Courthouse, Brenham, TX
Jaeger Jr., Henry C, The History of Early Pioneer Families of Winedale, vol 1 1990
Jaeger Jr., Henry C, The History of Early Pioneer Families of Winedale, vol 2, 1994
Jaeger Jr, Henry C. Personal writings and photographs passed down through Jaeger family
Jackson, Melissa, Personal writings passed down through Hagedorn family
Schmid, Sanford, interview with George Zemanek, May 2017, notes only
*Unless otherwise noted, all sources listed above are presently located at the home of JWHCA Secretary George Zemanek in Houston, TX.