Johann Friedrich Ernst, the first German to bring his family to Texas, was born Christian Friedrich Dirks, son of Meine and Sybille (Grimms) Dirks, on June 18, 1796, at Burg (Castle) Gödens near the village of Neustadtgödens, just north of Oldenburg in Lower Saxony. He began to use the name Ernst after his departure from Oldenburg. In 1800, after the death of his father, who was employed at Burg Gödens, Ernst moved with his mother to Varel in the Duchy of Oldenburg. In February 1814 he joined the Oldenburg Regiment of the Duke of Oldenburg, and he remained a soldier until June 1819. He reached the rank of quartermaster sergeant and received a medallion from the duke for his participation in the campaign against Napoleon. He married Louise Gesine Auguste Weber (see STOEHR, LOUISE W.) in Oldenburg on October 25, 1818; they had seven children. In June 1819 the duke appointed him clerk at the post office in Oldenburg.
In September 1829 Ernst, his wife, and their five surviving children fled Oldenburg; he was subsequently charged by the Duke of Oldenburg with embezzling a large amount of money from the post office. He and his family escaped by way of Bremen, Osnabrück, Münster, and Brussels and eventually sailed from Le Havre for New York, where they arrived in late 1829. For a time Ernst and his family ran a boardinghouse in New York. There he met Charles Fordtran, also a German. They became friends and decided to move together to Missouri. On the ship to New Orleans they read a prospectus about the favorable conditions in Austin's colony in Texas and changed their destination. The Ernst family and Fordtran sailed on the schooner Saltillo for Harrisburg and arrived before March 9, 1831; they were the first German family to arrive in Texas.
On April 16 Ernst obtained a league of land on the west bank of the west fork of Mill Creek in Austin's colony; Fordtran's grant was nearby. In February 1832 Ernst wrote a long letter to a friend in Germany describing Texas in glowing language. This letter appears to have been circulated widely in Germany and to have encouraged others to immigrate. Ernst became well known as a benefactor to new emigrants from his homeland: his house served as a hotel and a boardinghouse for travelers, and he even assisted new settlers financially. He acquired the nickname "father of the immigrants."
He became a justice of the peace in Austin County and sold lots from his league to new immigrants. The resulting settlement, Industry, was the first German town in Texas. Ernst became involved in a variety of other activities: cultivating tobacco, making cigars, recording rainfall and temperature data at his farm, establishing the Teutonic Order in Texas, and chartering a university, which never came into existence. He wrote several letters to the editor of the Telegraph and Texas Register regarding his tobacco enterprise and weather data. Also, he proposed to the Congress of Texas that the republic formally encourage German immigration. President Mirabeau B. Lamar at one time considered proposing Ernst as envoy to the Netherlands. Ernst died sometime between May 16 and July 10, 1848. See also GERMANS.