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« Six Old Luther Books … | Home | Looking Back »

The Wends of Texas

Friday 09 October 2015 at 03:56 am.

This article by Sydney Scout Sorenson first appeared in the Houston Chronicle on July 17, 1949.

Note: The land was purchased for $1/acre not 50 cents/acre and the original plots ranged from 25 to 286.5 acres.

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In August, 1929, the town of Serbin, in Lee County, Texas, celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. By no means an ordinary celebration, this occasion bore witness to what was without doubt the last use of the Wendish language in an official capacity in the Western Hemisphere.

Serbin, settled in 1854-1855, is not only the oldest Wendish settlement in Texas, but for many years it held the distinction of being the cultural center of the Wends (pronounced Vents) in America. Yet at no time did its population exceed 800 people.

Today, in place of the thriving little village with its solidly built church, a variety of businesses, shops, a resident doctor, etc., Serbin is no more than the fine old church, a store and a few houses. With the building of the old San Antonio - Aransas Pass Railroad into Giddings, Serbin steadily declined until it has become scarcely more than a name on the map.

Few persons know who the so-called Wends are, yet there are in the world perhaps 80,000 of this ancient race, of whom approximately 7,000 live in Texas. In slightly less than a century they have become almost totally assimilated by the dominant population. Many of the Wends have intermarried with Germans; consequently it would be difficult

to establish the exact number or pure Wends living here at present.

Several different names have been used for this racial group. The most popular name, Wends, has been imposed on them by German usage. However, these people call themselves Serbs, Sorbs, Lusatian Serbs, etc., but such names are practically unknown in Texas outside of the Wendish communities.

In reality the Wends are Slavs, and belong to the same racial strain which includes Russians, Poles and Czechs. Their ancient country of Lusatia is divided between two German provinces: Prussia and Saxony, where the parent stock has lived for 1500 years.

Noteworthy is the fact that the Wends, a farming people, have colonized only two parts of the world, Texas and Australia.

Ninety per cent of the Texas Wends are farm dwellers. Like the Germans, they abhor tenant farming, and will endure any amount of hard work and sacrifice in order to claim ownership of their property. Wendish farms are generally small in size. Nevertheless, a basic optimism dominates the Wendish character, and the majority of the Wendish people live long lives as industrious, law-abiding und contented citizens.

In 1854, under the 1eadership of Pastor John (Johann) Kilian, 558 Wendish Lutheran colonists, seeking religious and political freedom, sailed in two small ships from Hamburg, Germany, later transferring at Liverpool to a single large, double-decked sailing ship, the Ben Nevis, with Galveston as their port of disembarkation.

Upon their arrival in Texas, the colonists bought a league of land on Rabb's Creek, paying 50 cents an acre for it. The names of the first Wendish purchasers of Texas land are recorded in the courthouses at Giddings and Bastrop. Individual buyers acquired from 15 to 971 acres each, but there is no record of how the land was subdivided later among other members of the colony.

Early in 1855, the Wends began to build their log settlement, which they named Serbin in honor of their origin. The settlement thrived, and five years later the Serbin post office was established.

At Christmas, 1859, the first Wendish church in America was solemnly dedicated at Serbin. It was a memorable occasion made festive by the singing of many old Wendish songs. Speaking from the altar first in the mother tongue of the congregation, Pastor Kilian then preached in German for the German settlers who were present, and climaxed his discourse by speaking for the first time in English for the benefit of the Americans who had attended the services.

The church which stands in Serbin today, St. Paul's Lutheran Church, is a more recent structure, begun in 1868 and finished in 1871. Its windowed steeple and spacious, austere interior serve as a forceful reminder of Serbin's past. The solidity of St. Paul's structure and the thickness of its masonry offer a striking contrast to the flimsy building methods of the modern age.

This church has a truly remarkable record. In the approximate century of its history, only four pastors have been in charge, the first three being of Wendish descent.

John Kilian, who founded the settlement in 1854, was not only the first pastor, but the first teacher of the community. After 30 years of service, he died September 12, 1884. He was succeeded by his son, Herman T. Kilian, who was born at Serbin in 1859, ordained in 1883, and who served there until his death in 1920.

The third pastor of St. Paul's, the Rev. Herman Schmidt, was born of Wendish parents four miles from Serbin. He was baptized by Pastor John Kilian and started his education under the guidance of the pastor's younger son, Gerhard A. Kilian, who taught him three languages: Wendish, German and English. Mr. Schmidt prepared for the ministry in Illinois, and after holding pastorates at Galesburg, Ill., and Dexter, Iowa, he answered the call to become pastor in Serbin, where he assumed charge in 1922. There he died on July 4, 1947, and was succeeded by the Rev. A. Arndt, who was installed on September 6, 1948, the first non-Wend to serve as pastor of this congregation.

According to the Rev. Mr. Arndt, the congregation of St. Paul's made the transition from Wendish services (that is, regular Sunday services together with the German ) to all German services during Pastor Schmidt's time. Now the congregation is in the process of passing to the English services. However both German and English services are still held each Sunday.

The Wends of the present generation consider themselves of German descent, which is only natural when one considers the extent of intermarriage between these two races. Today the Wendish language is rarely heard, and the younger generation is more inclined to speak English than German.

Practically nothing survives of the old Wendish life. Neither costumes nor furniture of the mother country have been retained. Among the very old people, however, a few of the ancient Wendish superstitions may still be found. For example, there are among the Texas Wends a few of the very old who continue to cover a mirror when there is a death in the house. They also hasten to deliver verbal messages to their domestic animals when a member of the family dies. But this is the type of Wend that is gradually passing.

From the original Wendish settlement at Serbin there were numerous outgrowths: Giddings, Warda, Fedor, Winchester, Manheim, Loebau and Lincoln. Still other outgrowths are to be found as far northwest as Canyon, as far south as the Rio Grande Valley and as far east as Port Arthur.

Six miles north of Serbin, the town of Giddings, established in 1872 by Wendish colonists from the older settlement at Serbin, has surpassed the parent colony in population. It is at Giddings that the former newspaper, the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt, under the ownership of J. A. Proske, became the leading German language paper in Lee County. This newspaper owned the only Wendish type font in America, although its policy was to print in German and English.

Born in Prussia, Mr. Proske was educated in both German and Wendish. He came to America in 1870 and settled in Texas. He brought the Wendish type font to Giddings with him, and it is believed that he was the only person in America who could print in the Wendish language. As the owner of a collection of Wendish books, Mr. Proske...

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