The migration of Wends to Texas began in 1849 joined the massive nineteenth century migration of Germans to America. These few Wends in turn influenced the decision of nearly 600 Wends from sixty-five villages and towns in Prussia and Saxony to join them. Embarking from Hamburg in 1854 they travelled to Liverpool where they boarded a sailing ship, the Ben Nevis. Although a number died during the three month journey, there were also marriages and birth on route, and on December 16, 1854 they arrived at Galveston eager to build homes in Texas and preserve their faith and traditions.
Origins: European Background
The Wends, also called Sorbs, are a Slavic people who settled, probably during migrations of tribes after the collapse of the Roman Empire, in central Europe in an area called Lusatia on the banks of the Spree River near the modern cities of Bautzen and Cottbus.
As Germanic tribes moved eastward, they confronted the Wends and eventually the Germans conquered the inhabitants of Lusatia. While the Wends were under German control, they became Christians and during the Reformation most Wends became Lutheran. The Reformation’s zeal to present God’s Word in the language of the people led to the translation of the Catechism and portions of the Bible into Wendish. Three hundred years later, early in the nineteenth century the Lusatian Wends were citizens of two German provinces – Prussia and Saxony.
Religion: The Central Issue
The King of Prussia, in 1841, after more than thirty years of effort to combine all Lutherans and Calvinists into a single state church, made a concession and permitted any subjects who objected to the teachings of the state church, to form their own independent congregations.
A few Prussian Wends, in the vicinity of Weigersdorf and Klitten, who adhered faithfully to their Lutheran faith decided to establish a Lutheran congregation and in 1845 constructed their own church building. In 1848, the congregation called Johann (Jan) Kilian to be their pastor.
In spite of the increased religious toleration, restrictions remained, and some members of the congregation incorporated themselves into an association in order to migrate and to form a Lutheran Congregation in the New World. In 1854 Pastor Kilian accepted the group’s call to be their pastor.
Wends from Saxony, where there was discontent with the R—– tendency in the state church, joined with the Prussians in the desire to establish a Lutheran church free of governmental control. Their destination was Texas where a group of Wends, who had migrated in 1853, found a favorable environment.
The initial plan was to sail on one ship from Hamburg, but when the number of people increased to approximately 560, there was no single ship large enough to accommodate them. Instead of sailing on two ships, they chose instead to travel to Liverpool where larger ships were available. There they boarded the Ben Nevis that docked at Galveston on December 16, 1854.
Immigration: Other Causes
Even though the religious issue was at the heart of the 1854 migration, other considerations also played a part in the decision to leave Germany. As a minority in Prussia and Saxony, Wends suffered both economic and social discrimination. Wends, for example, were denied admission into professional guilds and Wends in cities lived in specified sections. There was also a continuous effort to force the Wends to discard their Wendish language and culture and assimilate into German society.
And finally, there were hard times that affected both Wend and German. Droughts, crop failures, and a burgeoning population brought hunger and poverty.
Settlement: The First Years
After the Ben Nevis Wends arrived in Galveston they continued on to Houston where they celebrated Christmas. Some remained in Houston but most travelled inland to the homes of the previous Wendish settlers. Instead of settling amidst German farmers, the Ben Nevis Wends searched for a tract of land where they could all settle together. Three months after they arrived they purchased the A. C. Delaplain League located in Bastrop County. After dividing the 4,254 acres into parcels, they began clearing the land and constructing one room log cabins and dugouts for their families. Hardships continued to plague the pioneers. They had arrived too late in the spring and missed the best time for planting. That late start, in addition to an extended draught, led to a meager harvest.
They also set aside 95 acres in the center of the league for the church. First they built a two room cabin used both as a residence for Pastor Kilian and as a school and church. Initially the place was called Low Pinoak Settlement on Rabbs Creek and later Serbin – the Sorbian Place.
Over the next several years, the Wends adapted to the new ways of farming and ranching required in Texas which was warmer and drier than their former home in Germany. Corn became a staple in their diet and cotton became a source of cash.
Within five years of arrival in the Serbin area, the Wends had constructed a new larger church building which was formally dedicated on Christmas Day, 1859. Pastor Kilian delivered a sermon which extolled the virtues of democracy and the value of separation of church and state. The sermon was delivered in Wendish, German and English.
Language: An Ethnic Identity
Wendish is a West Slavonic language closely related to Polish, Czech, and Slovak. In Europe, the language is split into two distinct dialects. Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian. The Upper Sorbian, or Bautzen dialect, was spoken by most of the Texas immigrants.
The history of the Wendish language in Texas closely parallels the development of the community itself. As the Wends became a part of their new homeland, they recognized the value of learning the languages of the region. Many Wends had learned German in Europe and German was the primary language of the Lutheran church. Some followed the example of Pastor Kilian and learned English in order to conduct business and participate in the new society.
The church and school, with sermons and music, were important in reinforcing the Wendish spoken at home. Maintaining the Wendish language was one of the immigrants’ goals, and Pastor Kilian, serving as both pastor and teacher, employed the language throughout his life. Kilian’s son and successor in the pulpit continued the tradition and services were conducted in Wendish until the 1920s. The parochial school at Serbin was the first and only non-European school to conduct classes in Wendish.
Traditions: Changing Times
Conditions of the Wendish community changed dramatically as a result of the Civil War. Economically, many Wends prospered by freighting cotton to Mexico and shipping it to Europe. But there was also the expectation that Wendish young men would join the Confederate army. Farming, not military service, was their preference and they felt no need to fight for Southern institutions. Under duress, most young men joined the Confederate army and some traveled through Mexico to join the Union forces.
Throughout the Civil War the population of the Wendish community grew as a result of birth rate, and following the war migration from Europe resumed. The land in the Serbin area could not satisfy the needs of the settlers, so many moved on and purchased land in other areas and founded new congregations. As the distance from Serbin became greater, the Wends adopted the language of their community: German if the area was predominately German or English if they found work in the cities.
The image of early Texas Wends was that of a conservative, deeply religious, hard-working, and frugal group. These traits were perpetuated by social interaction and through inter-marriage among Wends or with their German neighbors. Continued migration from Europe, which lasted into the twentieth century, also reinforced these traits and the loyalty to the church.