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Identifying Wends

A checklist

Wednesday 30 April 2014 at 3:11 pm.

Defining a Wend is not difficult. Identifying one can be a problem. Decades have passed and generations have succeeded each other since the Wendish migration to Texas. Even in contemporary Germany there are people with Wendish names who do not speak Sorbian and consider themselves German. So if you are studying your ancestry what are the clues that indicate descent from Wendish ancestors? Here are some:

1. Family tradition.  Is there a tradition in the family that a particular ancestor was Wendish? An affirmative answer is usually decisive. However, if there is no such positive answer, the person could still be Wendish.  For generations Wends in Germany had given up their Wendish identity and assimilated into the German society. One reason could have been marriage to a German. Another reason could have been an effort to avoid discrimination in order to improve a standard of living. In some instances a Wend was aware of his heritage, but did not talk about it for a variety of reasons.

In Australia, for example, the Wends generally blended with the German immigrant society. But when Australia joined England’s fight in World War I against the Germans, some Wends regretted being labeled as Germans. Some Australian Germans experienced hostility from their English neighbors. Identifying themselves as Wends would only confuse the neighbors, so instead they said they were Poles, another Slavic group that was well known. These Poles, however, were Lutheran and not Catholic. On further investigation each family that was “Polish Lutheran” was in fact Wendish.  So the absence of a clear family tradition of being Wendish, does not rule out that possibility that the person was Wendish.

Another example is the heritage of a friend of mine in Illinois. His father migrated Illinois in the early twentieth century from Germany and my friend considered himself as having a German heritage. As I got to know him better I mentioned that in Texas his name would be considered Wendish. Then I learned that his father came from the area around Hoyerswerda and I encouraged him to ask his mother (The father was deceased.) for more information. One day he showed me his father’s baptismal certificate an on it was the seal of the “Wendish” church where the baptism took place.

2. Language.  The most convincing evidence would be a memory of the ancestor speaking Wendish, singing Wendish hymns, or teaching children how to count in Wendish.  But possibly the only memory is that the ancestor spoke a foreign language and it was not German. On occasion Wendish is erroneously considered to be a German dialect or Low German. Because the Wendish homeland was in Saxony or Prussia before 1871 and in Germany thereafter, knowledge of German would have been expected. But if the ancestor spoke a language that was not German, and at the same time claimed a German heritage, it most likely would have been Wendish. Did anyone in the family possess a book written in Wendish and was the book inscribed? The language of the book can be identified.

3. Family surname.  Kieschnick, Symmank, and Zoch, for example, are fairly reliable indicators.  Noack, Urban, and Kilian should arouse interest, but Noack and Urban are names in other Slavic groups, and Kilian could be Irish.  On the other hand, Deutscher, Lehmann, and Schneider would not seem to be Wendish, but they can be. A Slavic sounding name is not a sure indicator. Names that end in ow, such as Janzow, are often German names found in eastern Europe in provinces such as Silesia and Posen.

4. Village of origin. If the village was not located in Saxony, Prussia, or Brandenburg, the likelihood of being Wendish is remote. Even if the village of origin was located within one of these provinces, Wendish origin was not a sure thing because many villages were occupied predominately by Germans. Some villages, however, were predominately Wendish and others were mixed. Once the village is identified then the extent of the Wendish population at the time of departure should be determined.  So the village of origin is best used for ruling out Wendish ties, but can provide additional evidence for being Wendish.  The city of Bautzen was largely German, so a person from Bautzen would most likely be German. However, the place of origin could have been a Wendish suburb of Bautzen or a neighboring Wendish village, and Bautzen could have been used as a simplification, much as we would say “Houston” instead of “Pasadena.” So Bautzen as a birthplace would not preclude a Wendish tradition.

5. Association with Wends: The greater the association, the more likely Wendish heritage. Was the person married to a Wend? Were the attendants at a wedding or the sponsors at a baptism Wendish? How many brothers or sisters married Wends?  Who were the close family friends and who was invited to social gatherings? If there is a passenger list, were there Wends on the same ship?

6. Government records.  Each time a United States census is taken the officials look for different information and change the questions. A frequent question asked by census enumerators at the end of the nineteenth century was the country of origin. After German unification in 1871, Germany as the country of origin would not be helpful.  However, before that time entries other than Saxony, Prussia, or Brandenburg could be used as evidence. Another question the census may have called for was the mother tongue. A precise answer to this question would have been a windfall for us, but most census enumerators treated the question lightly. In most districts the enumerator listed Wends as Germans or German speakers. In two instances, however, Wends are identified as Wends. The first case was the 1910 Census, Lee County, Precinct 2, District 48. The enumerator, Robert A. Falke, identified Wends.  The second was the 1920 Census of Fayette County Pct. 4 Dist. 60 where Ernest Kunze was the enumerator. Both men were Wends, and they would have understood the difference between German and Wend.

On occasion some people have suggested garments or facial features as evidence of a Wendish heritage. The black wedding gown is not evidence because that was a popular fashion at a particular time. The elaborate Trachten or folk costumes would be acceptable as evidence but they were not worn in Texas. Neither facial features nor complexion are evidence of a Wendish heritage.

nine comments

Becky Donaldson Rubke

George, did my grandfather Emil Otto Schneider’s father come over on the Ben Nevis? We are wondering whether our Schneider family is Wendish or just German. His mother was Anna Patschke. That’s right your grandmother, Emily was is Otto’s sister. She was the oldest and Otto was close to the bottom of the list. I am just establishing my relationship to you. I also had you for a history class at River Forest. Thanks for any comments that you can make.

Becky Donaldson Rubke - 11/9/2012 23:42
George Nielsen

Becky, Otto’s father, Carl Heinrich Schneider did not come over on the Ben nevis. He migrated around 1870 when he was nineteen years old. He grew up in Weissenberg, a regional town—larger than the usual village. He told my father that he was not Wendish but he learned the language from his playmates. I fondly remember your grandparents and also remember visiting with your mother on the River Forest campus.

George Nielsen - 11/20/2012 19:40
edth maletsky RN

seeking anyone by the name of Rapko from Kottbus area
seeking information on my mother in law’s family
she was Martha Augusta Rapko b. Jan 1 1892 in (Kottbus?)
worked in a bakeshop c. 1908 1910
had a brother named Oskar
where should I start? no birth record for Martha
and no further info on background. My only slim clue is the
name itself which does not appear to be German, so maybe

edth maletsky RN - 02/23/2015 23:24
George Nielsen

Although I have not encountered the name Rapko, it could be a Wendish name. It could be a German name but spelled Rapkow.

There are several entries on Google for Martha Augusta Rapko and they list her husband’s name as Maletsky. If this is not the one you are looking for, try Ancestry. com or search the files of Ellis Island.

George Nielsen - 02/26/2015 06:11

Hello, I’m looking for some online resources to help track my genealogy. My last name is Hestilow, which I’ve been told is Wendish. Ancestry was never a big topic in my family, so I don’t have any family stories or history to go on. I’d really like to know if my name even sounds likely to be Wendish.

Kendall - 08/10/2015 20:02
Randal Hoppens

Comment moved to Forum 9/15/2015. Please see link in George Nielsen’s response below.

Randal Hoppens - 09/15/2015 03:50
George Nielsen


Your comment has been moved to the Forum. Please view my response there: http://wendishresearch.org/a_board/viewt..

George Nielsen - 09/15/2015 15:58
Renata Gallagher

My maiden name was Dohrenwend. Does that mean that my grandfather came from a Wendish family?

Renata Gallagher - 01/8/2016 07:49
Andrew Hinton

My Great Great Grandfather came from Germany in 1880-1890s his last name was Patz not a German sounding name also the language was a regional dialect that a west German couldn’t translate completely.

Andrew Hinton - 11/5/2017 19:13

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