Johann von Racknitz, German career soldier, empresario, and organizer of the first German colonization venture in Texas, was born the illegitimate son of Eugen Baron von Racknitz and Maria Ortlieb Baumann on March 10, 1791, at Bächingen, a small village in Bavaria near Haunsheim, the ancestral estate of the Racknitz family near Ulm. His father was descended from a line of Styrian knights and nobles in southeastern Austria dating back to the thirteenth century. In 1813 Racknitz joined the Hanseatic Legion, a military force maintained by the three independent city-states in North Germany, Bremen, Hamburg, and Lübeck. He served in a cavalry squadron at Hamburg until receiving his discharge in August 1814. In March 1815 Second Lieutenant Racknitz commenced service in the Fifth Cavalry Regiment of the Royal Württemberg Army at Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart. Later that year, in June, he helped drive Napoleon's advancing forces back from the Rhine near Strassburg. Two years later, in response to news reports about Gen. Francisco Xavier Mina's efforts to organize an expedition to liberate Mexico from Spanish rule, Lieutenant Racknitz petitioned for discharge from service, which was granted on April 15, 1817. He promptly sailed to Philadelphia in an attempt to overtake Mina, and from there he traveled on to New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Texas, but not before November 11, 1817, when Mina was executed by Spanish forces in Mexico.
Racknitz spent the next two years first in Texas, then in New Orleans, and on the island of Cuba. He returned to Germany in the summer of 1819 penniless and in poor health. In August of that year he was reinstated as a second lieutenant of cavalry in the Royal Württemberg Army, where he served until 1827, when he was granted a discharge at the rank of Rittmeister (captain). In January 1827 he had married Maria Steiger von Montricher in Grafenried, a small Swiss village north of Bern. During the next four years Johann von Racknitz lived in or near Meersburg on Lake Constance, where he drafted and presented to the government of Württemberg three colonization plans, the last of which was an ambitious plan to settle large numbers of German and Swiss emigrants on the Colorado River in the province of Texas. Within six months agencies had been established in Stuttgart and other major cities of southern Germany, and colonization contract negotiations begun with the Mexican authorities. In order to expedite the contract negotiations, Racknitz and several colonists sailed from Le Havre, France, on June 3, 1833, aboard the ship Bolivar. When the group arrived in New Orleans in late July, a cholera epidemic was raging in that city. With several more German emigrant families that he found stranded in New Orleans, Racknitz traveled immediately on to Brazoria aboard the schooner Maria Elizabeth. En route, the ship's crew became so ill that Racknitz's colonists had to pilot the ship themselves. Arriving more than three weeks later at Brazoria, the group continued by ox-drawn cart up the Colorado River as far as Bastrop. By then, early October, some of the colonists had died, and the others, including Racknitz himself, were ill with the cholera and vómito, or yellow fever. As soon as he had recovered sufficiently, Racknitz rode to San Antonio de Béxar for help. When he returned to his camp with the supplies given by the governor and citizens of Béxar, the remainder of his colonists had died or had fled to Austin's colony and other settlements.
Racknitz then traveled on to Mexico City, where he negotiated for colony lands in the state of Tamaulipas between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers and received President Antonio López de Santa Anna's personal support of his project. A contract for colony lands in the state of Tamaulipas was issued and signed by all parties by August 20, 1835. Within a matter of months, a booklet appeared in Germany advertising the colony and soliciting emigrant colonists: Nachrichten über die deutsche Colonie des Barons von Racknitz am Fluße Nueces im mexicanischen Staate Tamaulipas. . . (1835). At the same time, as the conflict was building over Texas independence, Johann von Racknitz returned to Stuttgart, where he negotiated for permission to solicit colonists in Württemberg and published a more detailed book advertising his new colony: Kurze und getreue Belehrung für deutsche und schweizerische Auswanderer, welche an der Begründunq der Colonie Johann v. Racknitz, im mexicanischen Freistaate Tamaulipas, gelegen, Theil nehmen wollen. . . Simultaneously, the Stuttgart newspaper Schwäbischer Merkur was publishing frequent reports on the war between Texas and Mexico. When Racknitz returned to Mexico early in 1837, he worked to have his colony lands along the Nueces River assigned and surveyed, but the Mexican government authorities were too occupied with hostilities against Texas and in 1838 with hostilities against France in the so-called Pastry War. The French blockade of Mexican ports on the Gulf of Mexico prevented for several months the entry of German emigrants assembled at New Orleans into the state of Tamaulipas, and by 1839 Racknitz's contract was due to expire. By 1841 the state and federal authorities had renewed his contract, although the colony lands still had not been surveyed or formally assigned. In May 1841 Racknitz reported from Matamoros to the minister of war and the navy that he was setting out with a number of German and Mexican families to the colony lands, which he would survey himself, and asked the army for arms and ammunition to defend his colony. The same year he published in Baltimore and Bremen a second book advertising his colony on the Nueces River: Die deutsche Colonie in Tamaulipas, Mexico: Kurz und treu geschildert zur Anweisung für Auswanderer. But without an agent in Germany to recruit for his colony, Racknitz's extension expired in 1843 unfulfilled, without his having established a permanent colony on the Nueces River.
In December 1843 Juan de Racknitz was commissioned a captain of cavalry in the Mexican army. During the Mexican War he fought in three major battles: the battle of Angostura near Saltillo, the battle of Cerro Gordo near Jalapa, and in the siege of Mexico City. In December 1848 he was discharged from the Mexican army, and in January 1851 he received the decorations and pension due him as a war veteran.