They couldn’t have been more different, nor in some ways more alike.

Ferdinand Flake was a German Lutheran; Willard Richardson a Yankee Episcopalian.

Flake was born in Göttingen, Germany; Richardson in Marblehead, Mass.

Richardson was a slaveholder, Flake an abolitionist.

Yet, both became newspapermen. Richardson had started out as a teacher, Flake as a merchant.

Both cared deeply about honest reportage — insomuch as perceptions of truth are shaped by human beings’ inclination to interpret circumstances as they see fit.

And while they were competitors, there’s no evidence of any animus between them; in fact, Flake came to his rival’s aid during the Civil War, which otherwise pitted brother against brother, father against son.

Soon after the war broke out in April 1861, Texas Gov. Francis Lubbock ordered all civilians to evacuate Galveston on the grounds that the Confederacy that arose with secession — a rending of the national fabric that Flake assailed and Richardson came to embrace — was ill-equipped to defend the island should Union forces opt to attack it.

Richardson obediently packed up his press and made his way to the safety of Houston.

Flake did not. Given his nature, fashioned of German stoicism and honed by Lutheran rectitude, he was an unlikely sort to ignore a government edict, yet so he did.

At the time, Richardson was the owner and publisher and editor of The Galveston News. Flake was the owner and publisher and editor of Flake’s Bulletin and the German-language Die Union.

It was Flake’s good fate that Texas officialdom ignored his obstinacy.

It was Richardson’s ill fate that his new offices along the Buffalo Bayou one night burned to the ground, which, according to accounts at the time, cost him his press — and the newsprint he otherwise would have fed it, and all else he had taken with him from the island.

Flake was among Richardson’s rivals who nevertheless donated replacements for what he had lost.

Moreover, on New Year’s Day in 1863, when the Confederate Navy’s cotton-clads somehow overwhelmed the superior Union naval forces blockading Galveston, Flake provided accounts of what would prove to be one of the rebels’ final victories in the four-year war of grinding attrition.

Richardson never disavowed his support of slavery, while Flake, in his pages, condemned it, writing before the war that, “the odor of the slave trade is too strong for my nostrils.”

The two men did agree on one thing, however: their mutual opposition to secession. Flake did so for reasons of national unity, Richardson for reasons of expediency — his News was doing well financially and he rightly perceived that Texas and its fellow subversive states breaking from the Union would be bad for business.

In 1860, shortly after South Carolina became the first state to secede, beginning the nation’s descent to disaster, Flake in an editorial condemned the treason, his fiery words inciting a mob to ransack his offices and steal off with his type.

Yet, Flake had cached extra lead at his home and resumed publication without interruption.

Richardson and Flake differed as well in their treatment of the hero of the Texas Revolution, Gen. Sam Houston, later the new republic’s first president and, too, the first governor of the subsequent state of Texas, and later yet a U.S. senator.

Flake in his eponymous Bulletin often extolled the hero of San Jacinto.

Richardson, for his part, despised the statesman, repeatedly railing against Houston in the pages of The Galveston News. Houston, ultimately having had enough of Richardson’s diatribes, came to the island from Washington to publicly condemn the publisher’s printed assaults.

The slaveholding publisher, on May 19, 1857, responded in print, writing that, “Gen. Houston’s indecent attack upon the senior Editor of the News would do no harm in this community except to himself — it was as vulgar as it was unchristian.”

Richardson would take his enmity to the grave, dying on July 26, 1875, three years and one week to the day after Flake beat him to eternity.

With the latter’s death, Flake’s Die Union and his Bulletin passed on as well. Richardson’s News this year celebrated its 175th anniversary.

Tom Bassing writes a weekly column on the history of Galveston County. He can be reached at bassingtom@gmail.com.

(2) comments

Mike Box

Great story! Didn't learn any of that in 7th grade Texas History a hundred years ago.

Lydia Dozler

Excellent story.. Flake should receive more credit for his newspaper. The majority of German Immigrants in Galveston were not slave holders and did not want Texas to break away from the U.S.

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