Zombie Ideas

by Dr. George Nielsen, Special Features Editor
A working definition of the word zombie would be “the walking dead.” If such a being or beings could actually exist, I suppose there could also be zombie ideas. These would be ideas that are not valid and previously had been duly buried, but continue to emerge in general usage. In Wendish studies there are some zombie ideas that should be brought out of the shadows and debated, and then with appropriate incantations, given a final resting place.

Kolonie or Siedlung or Gemeinde

One of these often-used words to describe Serbin is “colony.” Words are symbols for reality and when you encounter a particular word an image appears in your mind. What image comes to mind when you read the word colony? Many Americas would think that a colony would be like Jamestown with a stockade protecting starving people because they spent their time searching for gold instead of cultivating crops. Serbin had no fort, stockade, or gold miners.

Another example of an American colony is the Amana colonies in Iowa. Amana is a better example than Jamestown because it had a religious foundation and the members were pietist Germans who, like the Wends, had problems with the established church. And the first Amana colony in Iowa was founded in 1855, the same year the Wends arrived in the Serbin area.

Both Jamestown and Amana enjoyed a formal, legal existence. Jamestown was called a corporate colony because it was an incorporated business enterprise financed by stockholders with the idea of getting returns for their investments. The stockholders owned Jamestown and the residents were employees. There were no family farms and searching for gold made sense because gold would yield dividends greater than acres of corn.

Amana was not owned by stockholders but by the faithful. Everything was held in common: the textile mill, the butcher shop, the gardens, vineyards, and orchards. Everyone contributed and everyone received. Even the meals were eaten in communal kitchens. Like Jamestown, the Amana Society did not permit privately owned farms. Serbin, whether referring to the town, the church, or the Delaplain League, was not a communal entity.

Even though the word colony does not describe Serbin, the 1854 migration on the Ben Nevis set the stage for a potential colony. In that year some Prussian Wends completed the legal requirements under Prussian law and formed a corporation for the purpose of migrating to Texas. Prussian jurisdiction did not extend to Texas, so the formation of a colony in Texas was not the issue. Instead, this group limited its scope to migration and then negotiated a contract with a shipping company to transport the emigrants. The leaders also set the ticket price and made provisions for Wends who were unable to fund their own transportation. Even so, some people in Europe envisioned the endeavor as a colony. The reporter for the Leipziger Zeitung, for example, in his account of the Wends gathering at the Bautzen train station, referred to the Texas settlement as a “Colonie.”

On their arrival in Bastrop County in 1855, a colony could have been founded when the leaders purchased a league of land. They could have incorporated under Texas law and held land in common as the Amana colonists did. The leaders, however, sold parcels of land to individuals who in turn built homes on their land. The fields of the Wends on the Delaplain were side-by-side but the settlement pattern followed the Texas pattern. Unfortunately, the records and documents of this period have not been found and we do not know the details of why individualism triumphed over collectivism. Carl Lehmann and Johann Dube were at the center of the decision but their records have not been uncovered. Even Pastor Kilian, the master record-keeper, does not shed light on this topic.

Instead of a colony, Serbin became a settlement or a community. The center of life was the church, and the founders conveyed that idea by staking out the church and church lands in the geographic center of the league. But the houses were not clustered around the church and instead the families traveled from their isolated homesteads to attend church services. While “colony” is not helpful for an American who attempts to envision early Serbin, the term “settlement” (Siedlung) is better because it conveys the image of a cluster of scattered houses and farms. “Community/congregation” (Gemeinde) is also appropriate because it suggests a common, unifying element that led people in a small geographic area to work together and look after each other.

Debating the difference between colony and settlement may seem like nothing more than splitting hair, but it is worthwhile. “Colony” implies a scheme or model (such as a Wendish, Lutheran village), central authority, concerted planning, and formal action, while “settlement” implies minimal or loose coordination, no grandiose scheme, but ordinary immigrants searching for a home.

George Nielsen

George Nielsen is a professor emeritus at Concordia University, River Forest, Illinois; noted Wendish historian; author of In Search of a Home, Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration; special features editor of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society Newsletter; and author of a biography of Jan Kilian.