The Wends, a little-known immigrant group, settled in Texas among the Germans
in the mid-19th century. An ancient Slavic people also known as Lusatian Sorbs,
they had resisted assimilation in Europe for over 1,000 years, preserving their
own language and customs though not their political independence.
The ancestors of the Wends were West Slavs called the Milceni and Luzici who
occupied an area east of the Oder River in the early Middle Ages. The Wendish
homeland is part of the territory known as Lusatia in East Germany. Approximately
50 miles southeast of Berlin, it is about 1,800 square miles in area and is
bordered by Czechoslovakia on the south and Poland on the east. The Spree River
flows through its two major towns, Bautzen and Cottbus. The Wends have managed
to maintain their identity although they have been ruled at various times by
Germans, Hungarians, Poles, and Bohemians. In both world wars they unsuccessfully
sought recognition by the major powers as a nation-state.
The first of their foreign conquerors was Charles, one of Charlemagne's sons,
who defeated the Wends and burned Bautzen in 806; by the year 1100 the Wends
had been subjugated. German nobles dominated the Wendish peasants and relegated
the urban Wends to homes outside the walls or to restricted sections of the
city. They could become active in society only through German institutions and
the German language. The guilds were German, and the mercantile activity was
conducted in the German manner. Under pressure, especially in the part of Lusatia
under Prussian control, many Wends adopted German names and relinquished their
The Christianization of the Wends began prior to the German conquest, but it
was vigorously promoted by the Germans. They also followed the Germans in the
Reformation; most Wends converted to Lutheranism in 1530 after the Council of
Augsburg. Martin Luther's emphasis on the vernacular encouraged the Wends to
devise a written language, and in 1574 Luther's Small Catechism became the first
work to be published in it.
There are two versions of Sorbian, also called Sorbic, Wendish or Lusatian,
corresponding to the divisions of the Lusatian region. Both versions belong
to the Western Slavic group. The southern area called Upper Lusatia speaks a
dialect nearer to Czech (Luther's Catechism was translated into Upper Sorbian);
the northern area, or Lower Lusatia, a dialect nearer to Polish. Traditionally
the Wends call themselves Srbi in their own language, but the Germans call them
Wenden, a term widely used both by others and by, many of the Slavic Lusatians
themselves, including those who migrated to foreign lands in the 19th century.
In the Middle Ages, Wend was the German name for all West Slavs, however, and
as a result it came to symbolize the Germanization of the Wends that began in
the 9th century with the Carolingians and continued through the Weimar Republic
and the Nazi period.
Although Lusatia was also ruled at times by non-German princes, it has remained
under German control since the Peace of Prague in 1635. Prior to German unification
in 1871 it comprised parts of the kingdoms of Prussia and Saxony-Lower Lusatia
being under Prussian administration and Upper Lusatia under that of Saxony.
Since World War II it has been part of the German Democratic Republic (East
Germany) and divided administratively between the districts of Dresden and Cottbus.
Wendish ethnic awareness has been encouraged under the German Democratic Republic,
and the term Sorb has been adopted for the Slavs of Lusatia. The name is meant
to reflect their Slavic heritage and at the same time to distinguish them from
the Serbs of southern Europe. At present approximately 60,000 people in Lusatia
call themselves Sorbs. They are served by a Sorbian cultural center (the Domowina)
and a Sorbian-language newspaper, radio station, theater, folk ensemble, and
publishing house. The Sorbian language is also taught in the schools.
MIGRATION AND SETTLEMENT
The Wendish migration to the United States was closely associated with that
of the Germans. In 1849 some Wends settled in Austin County, Tex.; in 1853 a
party of 35 Wends sailed for Texas, and the next year Pastor Jan Kilian (I811-
1884) and 500 Wends landed at Galveston. Although some of the Wends had been
driven there by economic hardship, especially crop failures in the 1840s and
a land shortage resulting from population growth in Lusatia, the Kilian group
were religious dissenters: some of them had lived under Prussian administration
and left in reaction to government attempts to force the Lutherans and Calvinists
to worship in a single state church; others had lived under Saxon administration
and were unhappy over the doctrinal laxity in the Lutheran Church of Saxony
and theimpact of rationalism on the clergy.
A citizen of Saxony during his early life, Kilian denounced both administrations
and in 1845 contemplated emigrating to Australia. In 1848 he resigned his position
in the Saxon state church and became the pastor of several samll clusters of
independent Lutherans who refused to worship in the Prussian church.
Although Kilian exercised religious leadership, the migration to Texas was
directed by laymaen living along the Prussian-Saxon border who had formed an
organization to manage the emigrants and then asked Kilian to be their pastor
and to serve the Wendish congregation they hoped to establish in Texas. Wends
from both Saxony and Prussia joined the group, along with members of Kilian's
own congregations. A few more Wends migrated before the Civil War broke out
in the United States; altogether approximately 600 had arrived by 1860. Between
1865 and the end of the century another 600 came, followed by a few in the early
20th century. But of all the groups to migrate, Kilian's remained the largest
and most significant.
The Kilian party first fraveled to Hamburg, from where they sailed to Hull,
England. They took the railroad to Liverpool where they waited for a ship that
was scheduled to return to Texas for another cargo of cotton. Before this ship,
the Ben Nevis, could be boarded, however, several Wends were exposed to cholera,
and 73 eventually succumbed to it or to other sicknesses.
The survivors arrived at Galveston in December 1854. Most of them traveled
by wagon to join the earlier Wendish immigrants at New Ulm. During the winter
months their leaders purchased the Delaplain League (4354 acres) present-day
Lee County, and there built a church and a town called Serbin. A few built homes
in the village, but most of the Wends were farmers, and, like other Texans,
settled on isolated farms.
The first few years in Texas were difficult for the Wends. Delays in purchasing
the Delaplain League prevented early planting the first year, and two years
of drought followed. Inadequate shelter and diet resulted in more sickness and
death. The familiar crops of Lusatia, such as rye, wheat, and flax, did not
grow well in Texas, and the Wends had to adopt the local cotton and corn economy.
The Civil War brought some prosperity, when the prices for cotton rose in both
the Houston and Mexican market, and many Wends turned to carting cotton across
the Rio Grande. But the Wends were also confronted with the conscription laws.
Not owning slaves and not interested in fighting for Confederacy, as many as
possible evaded military service, but nonetheless several of their young men
lost their lives in the war.
Even in those more profitable years the Wends did not achieve the prosperity
of their Texas neighbors. The agricultural censuses of 1870 and 1880 show that
their farms were smaller and the productivity lower than those of the more established
population. Handicapped by the low fertility of the Delaplain League, the Wends
became prosperous farmers only through frugality, selfdenial, and hard work.
The local German community played a significant role in Serbin's development.
Many of the Wends who migrated to Texas were equally fluent in German and Sorbian,
and Kilian, trained in German schools and at the University of Leipzig, preached
in both languages. The church records of births, marriages, and deaths he kept
in German, but the congregational minutes and obituaries he recorded in Sorbian.
Some Germans had accompanied Kilian's migration, and several families had German
spouses. Initially the church services were conducted in Sorbian, as was the
language of the Lutheran school, taught by Kilian. However, German Lutherans
also settled in the Serbin area and joined the Wendish congregation; by 1862
Kilian was preaching in German every sixth Sunday. Eventually tensions in the
congregation arose over a variety of problems, and most often they were expressed
in controversy about which language to use. Because of the conflict over the
use of Sorbian, some Germans and "progressive" Wends left Kilian's congregation
in 1870 and formed their own fellowship. Though weakened by the schism, Kilian's
congregation continued construction of a larger sanctuary begun in 1866. The
most significant monument to the Texas Wends, the building was dedicated in
1871 and is still in use.
The two congregations existed side by side. In the period after the congregational
division, more and more of the Wends began speaking German, and Kilian increased
the use of German in his church services. Shortly before his death in 1884,
Kilian began to receive assistance from his son Herman, who had graduated from
the Lutheran Seminary in St. Louis. Through the diplomatic activities of the
younger Kilian, the two groups renewed their friendship and, because German
now predominated in the entire community, the two churches merged in 1914. Sorbian
was taught in the school until 1916 and used in the pulpit from time to time
until 1920, when Herman Kilian died and a replacement willing to preach in Sorbian
could not be found. The new pastor, Herman Schmidt, although a Wend, used Sorbian
only in private devotions and in pastoral visits. Ironically, the German culture
and language that the Wends had resisted for so long in Europe finally became
theirs in the United States, just as they had made the transition, however,
World War I broke out, and widespread anti-German sentiment induced the Wends
to shift to English. At the end of the 1970s some older people continued to
speak Sorbian, but German remained the more common second language. The group
that accompanied Kilian was interested in forming a single congregation, but
the Wends who had settled earlier in Austin County did not join the settlement,
and those whose occupations were suited to urban life remained in Houston. Establishing
a tight, cohesive colony was complicated further by the low productivity of
the land of the Delaplain League. As a result some of the Wends moved on, establishing
settlements in Swiss Alp, Fedor, Warda, Manheim, and other places. Most of the
Wendish immigrants who arrived after 1865 stopped at Serbin first and then continued
on to one of these other Texas settlements. In more recent years the Wends have
followed the general pattern of rural to urban migration by moving to Austin,
Houston, Port Arthur, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio. In spite of this dispersion,
however, unity among the Wends and recognition of their common heritage remain.
This fellowship is maintained to an extent through membership in the Lutheran
Church Missouri Synod and also, at least during the early decades of the 20th
century, through the pages of the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt (Giddings, Tex.,
1899-1949). The Wendish Culture Club was founded in Serbin in 1971. In 1976
it was renamed the Texas Wendish Heritage Society and is now engaged in perpetuating
The folkways of the Wends are tied closely to the church calendar, especially
the major festivals of Easter and Christmas, and to the personal milestones
of birth, death, and marriage that are also sanctified in the church. Easter
is celebrated with both religious services in church and the coloring of eggs.
A particular custom observed in both Texas and Europe, and also found among
other Slavic groups, is the use of "Easter water.'' The water dipped from a
brook early on Easter morning supposedly stimulates health and beauty; in Texas
it was sprinkled on sleepers' faces to awaken them. Of the personal observances,
most elaborate is the wedding, which involves both a church service and an elaborate
celebration. In Europe a professional wedding manager called a braska supervised
practically all aspects of the celebration, but in Texas his role was limited
to calling at the bride's home, leading the wedding party in songs and prayers,
and directing the procession to church and back to the home. Some social gatherings
in the earlier years also reflected the Wendish heritage. Feather-stripping
parties, accompanied by dancing and singing, required each person to remove
the soft part of the goose feathers until a cup was filled with feathers; then
followed the merrymaking. In more recent years the Wendish customs have been
neglected, and the celebrations of personal observances no longer reflect the
Wendish heritage, but simply follow the practices of the larger Texas community.
In addition to the Texas settlement and the Wends who migrated elsewhere in
the world - to Australia, Canada, South Africa - a small number went to Nebraska.
Although there was some communication between a few Texas and Australian families,
there was apparently none between the Texans and the small group in Sterling,
Nebraska, which was closely tied to the German community; at least no record
of any correspondence between the Nebraska and Texas Wends remains. The Wendish
poet Mato Kossyk (1853-1940), who migrated to the United States and became a
Lutheran pastor, visited the Sterling group in the 1880s and communicated with
them in Sorbian. But by now awareness of the Wendish heritage of some Sterling
families is only a dim memory in the minds of a few of the old people.
The best study in English of the European Wends is Gerald Stone, The Smallest
Slavonic Nation: The Sorbs of Lusatia (London, 1972). George Engerrand, The
So-Called Wends of Germany and Their Colonies in Texas and in Australia (1934;
reprint, San Francisco, 1972), also examines the European background as well
as the Texas settlement. Anne Blasig, The Wends of Texas (San Antonio, Tex.,
1954), is valuable because of its emphasis on the Serbin settlement, and Lillie
Moerbe Caldwell, Texas Wends: Their First Half Century (Salado, Tex., 1961),
adds material on the social life of the group. The most recent study is George
R Nielsen, in search of a Home: The Wends (Sorbs) on the Australian and Texas
Frontiers (Birmingham, England, 1977). Source materials on the Texas Wends are
to be found in the Concordia Historical Institute, St Louis, Mo., and the Texas
District Archives of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod in Austin.
Written by: Geroge R Nielsen
You can find many of the families listed in this publication:
"Nineteenth- Century Emigration of 'Old Lutherans' From Eastern Germany (mainly
Pomerania and Lower Silesia to Australia, Canada, and the United States)"
Westland Pubns ISBN:0915162067 This publication is a summary of a work
entitled "Die altlutherische Auswanderung um die Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts"
by Wilhelm Iwan, published in 1943. It explains the history of why some of the
"Old Lutherans" felt enough persecution to emigrate. Most of these individuals
left in groups as members of organized congregations and most were of the lower
classes. Most were from small towns excepting a few from Magdeburg and Erfurt.
Silesia was the first region in which the idea of emigration emerged. At first
the idea of Russia attracted some but then a letter from a blacksmith, Karl
Berger, from Guttmansdorf, Kreis Reichenbach, Silesia, told of his life in Michigan.
Many settled in New York, Michigan, Wisconsin and Canada.
Those that went to Australia arrived first at Port Adelaide aboard the Solvay,
on 16 Oct 1837.
The book is organized by date of emigration, then by province, district and
village emigrated from and then family names are listed along with first names
I received this book through interlibrary loan from Indianapolis University
Libraries, 755 Michigan Street, Indianapolis, IN, 46202. I should have it back
in the system by November 1998.