On 28 December 1838, nearly three years after the official proclamation of South Australia, Danish Captain Dirk Meinertz Hahn arrived from Altona with his three-masted ship Zebra of 350 tons built in 1818, a crew of sixteen and 188 passengers plus all their belongings. She had left with 199 passengers plus crew. In addition the ship carried one hundred barrels of pork, one hundred barrels of flour, 65 barrels of fresh water, 17 hogheads of beer and vinager, 14 barrels of herrings, two boxes of boots and shoes, and 40,924 bricks.
Some of the passengers had been on board for several weeks before the ship left. Two of them died during this time and were buried at the Altona cemetery. When the ship finally left on 12 August, another two passengers died before it had even reached the open sea. Another twelve passengers died during the voyage, a remarkably low number for that time. The last body was buried at sea just before reaching Kangaroo Island.
The Zebra was the third ship which carried German Lutherans to South Australia. The Bengalee and Prince George had arrived earlier. The migrants from the Zebra and a few from the other two ships were the founders and settlers of Hahndorf, named after their Captain, Hahn.
Unfortunately the Zebra passengers had to stay on board until 2 January 1839 as a result of the low tide. They were greeted by Pastor Kavel who had made it possible for them to immigrate to South Australia. With the further help of Captain Hahn, the Lutherans obtained 150 acres of land in the Adelaide hills, from William Dutten and his partners, to be divided among the 38 families.
Most of the Germans were impressed with the land. Captain Hahn referring to agriculture stated that the land around Adelaide was still in a state of development as far as vegetation is concerned. But the soil and climate leave no room for doubt that they can produce the best fruits of the field and garden, as well as various sorts of cabbage, potatoes, etc.***
After a few weeks the German migrants made their way from Port Adelaide, better known at that time as Port Misery, to their promissed land. They carried most of their belongings on their own backs or in hastely made carts drawn by themselves. The hiring of bullocks was beyond the means of the majority of them. By May 1839 all had made the trip to Hahndorf successfully where a town had been surveyed and land alotted to each family at a cost of $14 per acre.
On arrival they looked astonished at the luxuriant vegetatian. Now the real hard work began. Land had to be cleared, vegetables put in, crops sown, breaking in the cattle and milking the cows. At the same time shelter had to be provided from the cold nights. These first houses were made of any material at hand. At the same time they had to get used to the climatic conditions, so different from their native country, which they had left because of religious persecution.
Their first winter in the Adelaide Hills was far from what they had expected. Food was often lacking and many went without at times. Some even died of hunger. Eventually the new migrants managed to produce a surplus of farm products which were sold in Adelaide by their women. They walked all the way through the hills to town in the hope of selling them to pay off their husbands' or fathers' loans or to buy more land. Years later some of these women would walk once a week to Coromandel Valley where secure factory work was available.
Within five years they had established themselves, earning the respect of most of their neighbours. Population had increased to just over 250 and the town had a large number of cattle and 12 horses. Land under cultivation had also increased with 40 acres of potatoes and vegetables and 80 acres with wheat. They had a mill worked by bullocks, a general store, an Inn, a blacksmith, a pair of sawyers, several carpenters and a number of cobblers. In 1844 it was reported that 'the men tan their own leather and the women card and spin wool and knit their own stockings. In order that no opportunity may be neglected of improving their circumstances, those of the able-bodied among them, who can be spared from home, find employment with the neighbouring farmers and settlers, in the capacity of shepherds, labourers or servants'.
By the early 1850s many of the original families had moved away to improve their prospects. Some had moved to Klemzig whereas others had settled at Lobethal or in the Barossa Valley. They looked for more and better farming land outside Hahndorf. In the town itself the early primitive buildings were gradually replaced by stone stuctures of the traditional German fachwerk style. Hermann Koch, a surveyor and original Zebra passenger, had moved to Klemzig and was doing well.
In November 1841 Koch wrote to Captain Hahn that he had taken up land with J. Fiedler and built a house on it. Almost half of it had been cleared, ploughed and sown. In one year, he said, I have become one of the principal farming peasants of the Colony, and have done that without money. He also informed Hahn that Hahndorf had already five hundred head of cattle. Two years later he wrote an extensive account on South Australia and the success of the German migrants who by hard work had established themselves mostly on their own land. The article, which dealt with the climate, soil and agricultural production, was published in both Germany and England.
Although life was still hard they were now working for themselves and looking to the future with confidence. Today Hahndorf is no longer a German settlement, it has grown into a multi-cultural community and South Australia's top tourist attraction. There is still evidence of the early days, even in the main street.
There are several of the original buildings standing, including the old mill, built in 1864, St. Michael's Lutheran Church, built in 1859, replacing the original pug building dating from 1840 and the Hahndorf Academy. This was built in 1857 and became the first government supported primary school. It was later used, at different times, as a college, dentist room, hospital, betting shop and Council Chambers.
Hahndorf was declared a State Heritage Area on 26 August 1988.