The Wends In Germany and In Texas

This article was first printed, with Dr Wilson’s permission and consent, for the Krause family History, Shipwreck to Settlement, in 1990.

The Wends or Sorbs of Germany are an originally Slavic group in what is now southern East Germany, in the area called Lusatia (Lausitz), around the cities of Bautzen and Cottbus. They were surrounded and infiltrated by the German expansion to the east in the middle ages, and consequently have been living in and among a German majority population for about six hundred years. Even in the most Wendish areas, the majority has been German for centuries. It was inevitable long since, that the Wends would be assimilated into what might be called the German melting pot, which has similarly absorbed Danes, French, and Poles. For the Wends, the Germans were not only numerically superior but also culturally: for several centuries, while Germany and the German language were among the cultural leaders of the world, the Wends did not even have a written language. It is not that the Wends had no culture; indeed, they did ­ they had a treasure of folklore, customs, and folksongs, but it was only oral. The lack of a written language was a critical disadvantage. Naturally, there also usually was considerable pressure from the Germans and the German government in the direction of Germanization of the Wends and other minorities (compare the similar pressures on minorities in the United States to become Anglicized). Thus, partially forced and partially willingly, the Wends quite naturally more and more took on the German language, German names and German culture.

As also is commonly the lot of minorities, the Wends were often discriminated against, in choice of professions, in housing, etc. However, by the mid-19th century their situation had greatly improved and was apparently little different from that of other rural Germans. As can be seen from the Ben Nevis passenger list and from the Serbin baptismal records, the Wends who left for Texas had been practicing many professions (pastor, blacksmith, locksmith, tanner, baker, etc., often with the prestigious title ‘master’ appended, as in ‘master miller’), and some were property owners (f. ex., ‘mill property owner’). They were not prohibited from using their Wendish language; it was used in churches, schools (at least to a limited extent), books, and newspapers. While many were emotionally attached to Wendish, there were many incentives to abandon it, since it was of little practical use, while German was not only the language of the majority, but also a major world language.

In Germany today, the word ‘Wends’ is felt, at least by some linguists and historians, to have a pejorative ring, and the word ‘Sorbs’ is often used instead. Neither term is very exact: many people are confused by the old German usage of’ Wends’ to mean any of the many different Slavs on medieval Germany’s eastern borders, and say that the present Wends are the remnant of a mighty race that controlled a vast region. Actually, the present Wends of Germany stem from two different small Slavic tribes which had settled in the north and south of Lusatia in the early middle ages. In Texas, the people have always called themselves Wends, if not simply Germans, and the rather artificial new term ‘Sorbs’ is completely unknown.

The Wendish language is closely kin to the other Slavic languages, linguistically situated, as its geographical location would suggest, between Czech and Polish. Like Czech, it accents the first syllable of the word. It exhibits the Slavic case system with even more than the normal complexity, and has preserved some features that other Slavic languages have lost, such as a full range of dual forms (that is, special plural forms for two) in verbs, adjectives, and nouns, and an aorist-imperfect simple past tense. There has of course been a great German influence, in a more obvious way such as in recognizable loan-words like sula ‘Schule’ (school) and farar ‘Pfarrer’ (clergyman) and less obviously in older loan­words (f.ex. bur ‘Bauer’ (farmer), srybar ‘Lehrer’ (teacher) from Schreiber), loan-translations, f.ex. horjewzac ‘aufnehmen’ (take up), and in word order.

Like most languages in Europe, Wendish is, of course, split into a multitude of dialects, almost with a different dialect for every village. These many village dialects then are grouped into the two major divisions ‘Upper Wendish’ (in the higher country of the south) and ‘Lower Wendish’ (in the lower country of the north), this linguistic division being a result of the derivation from two different tribes. While speakers of the two major dialects can understand each other, although often with difficulty, the differences are great enough that from the beginning, two separate written languages have developed. This has naturally been a serious impediment for the development of Wendish, which already had enough problems.

Since the Wends had essentially always been ruled by and surrounded by Germans, and since they had no written language of their own for such a long time, the German language had always been used for all higher purposes. Not until the Reformation, with its desire to proclaim the Gospel to the common people and with the rise of learning and the invention of printing, were there efforts to devise a Wendish written language. And even thereafter, right down until the present, the written language has been largely in the service of religion. Even after the Reformation, it was a slow and continuous struggle to develop a written form for what must have seemed to many to be useless dialects. This struggle was particularly acute in the 19th century, when, for the first time, really serious efforts were made to establish and propagate the Wendish written language. Various writing systems were tried, which mainly fell into two camps: a Lutheran one which adapted German spelling conventions to Wendish and used German (‘Fraktur’) type, and a Catholic one which based on Czech and used Latin type (with s rather than sch, for instance). Thus, two rather different spelling and printing systems developed (compounding the problems of the split into the different dialects).

In the mid-19th century, there were still about 150,000 people speaking Wendish (scattered in among over a million Germans). At the present time, there are only perhaps 20,000 speakers left (estimates vary widely), and all of them speak German also. The assimilation into the German mainstream has thus almost been completed. Since the end of the Second World War, the East German government encouraged the use of Wendish, and fostered the teaching of it in the schools, but the natural decline in usage has not been halted. There still are a few newspapers and books being published in Wendish, that is, either Upper Wendish (mostly) or Lower Wendish. Now only the Czech-type spelling is used.

The Wends who came to Texas in the mid-19th century are a unique group for several reasons. They were conservative ‘Old-Lutherans’ who were scattered throughout the Southern (‘Upper’) Lusatian area, politically divided between Saxony in the south and Prussia in the north. Pastor Johann (Jan in Wendish) Kilian had been serving as pastor of all the Wendish Old Lutherans in Prussian Lusatia who did not wish to be in the Prussian state church, because the state church was, by royal decree, ‘united’, that is, an amalgam of Protestant church bodies and consequently not purely Lutheran. Kilian’s headquarters were at the neighboring villages of Weigersdorf and Klitten (located about 18 kilometers or 10 miles northeast of Bautzen), each of which had its own church, and from there he traveled every few weeks to the areas of Spremberg (near Hoyerswerda) in the west and Muskau and Cottbus in the north, to serve his branch-congregations there. Each of these branch-congregations in turn was the focal point for the Old Lutherans of the surrounding villages. Thus, Kilian was the pastor of several thousand Lutherans in Prussia. Previously, he had served congregations in Saxony, so he was well known in scores of villages in both the Prussian and Saxon part of Lusatia.

Many Germans and other Europeans were emigrating at the time: most for the United States, but some also for other new lands, especially Australia. In the 1840s, some dozens of Wends had emigrated, mostly for Australia, where they joined other Germans.

In 1849 and in the early 1850s, a few individual Wends had come to Texas. Apparently they all had settled among the Germans in the area of lndustry, New Ulm, and Frelsburg.

The first small group emigration, comprising several Lutheran families from Kilian’s congregations, took place in 1853. This group departed from Bremen on Sept. 4th on a small sailing ship. Details of the voyage are given in the article, “Contemporary Materials Concerning the 1853 Emigration of Wends to Texas”, especially in the letter written by Johann and Hans Casper. The group suffered shipwreck off Cuba, losing all their possessions, but their lives were saved, and with the help of Germans in Cuba and New Orleans, they were able to finally get to Galveston and Houston, where they were met by one of the earlier Wends and escorted from there to the Industry – New Ulm area, where they settled, at least temporarily.

The 1853 emigrants wrote such favorable letters about Texas that, in 1854, over 500 of their fellow Lutherans, from many different villages, decided to leave for Texas. To this end they entered into a formal alliance, constituting their group as a new Lutheran congregation and as an emigration society (for mutual financial help), and called Kilian as their pastor. In September, 1854, they traveled by rail to Hamburg, then by ship to Hull, on the east coast of England, then by rail to Liverpool on the west coast, where they were to embark on the sailing ship Ben Nevis. Kilian, himself, and his family were unable, at the last minute, to go with the group, because he had to face charges of instigation of emigration. Luckily, he was able to clear himself quickly, and caught up with the group in Liverpool. Unfortunately, however, in Liverpool they got caught up in a cholera epidemic, which caused many deaths and pursued them all the way across the Atlantic. Their sailing from Liverpool was delayed by the epidemic, and when they did sail, so many still were sick and dying that the captain took the ship to Queenstown, Ireland, where they spent three weeks in quarantine aboard the Ben Nevis and another ship, the Inconstant. When they finally arrived in Galveston in December, 78 people had died.

They proceeded by steamer immediately to Houston, where some of the poorer ones stayed, lacking the funds to go further. Most, however, continued, on foot and in wagons, to the Industry area, where the earlier immigrants received them. Here, again, lack of money caused a number to remain, while the nucleus group, joined by some of the 1853 emigrants, continued westward to the land which became Serbin. Nearly all of those who stayed at first in the Houston or Industry area proceeded to the Serbin area as soon as they could afford it, usually after a few years. Even though the Industry area was about 40 miles from Serbin, the people who stayed there formed a branch of the Serbin church, and for 12 years Kilian regularly visited them approximately every five weeks, preaching and performing pastoral services.

The Wends who emigrated to Texas in the mid-19th century were already Germanized to a great extent. They were thoroughly bilingual in German and Wendish. We have indications that a few spoke only Wendish, and a few only German, but evidently nearly all were fluent in both languages. Similarly, their culture was a mixture of Wendish and German components. German was used for nearly all written language, even personal letters among family members. Wendish was used in church services alongside German, that is, usually every Sunday and holiday there was a Wendish service and a German one. Kilian taught the school in Wendish and German until the first teacher, Leubner, was called in 1868. Since Leubner knew no Wendish, the school became completely German; this was, however, not really a problem, because the Wends wanted their children to have German schooling. The congregational meetings, which also in a sense were the worldly government of the group, were apparently held mainly in Wendish for about ten years, at least the minutes of most of these meetings of the first years are in Wendish, nearly all written by Kilian himself. The other major surviving category of documents in Wendish is the Wendish component of the so-called obituaries. These were brief biographies, called in German Lebenslauf, about a page long, with an additional half page or page of expressions of thanks to friends and relatives for help at the funeral. These obituaries were read in church the Sunday after the burial. About 50 of those that are preserved are in German and about 200 are in Wendish.

Thus, in Texas they continued their bilingual Wendish-German life, continuing to mingle with other Germans, and continuing to use German for their more official language. Contrariwise, though they recognized the similarity of the Wendish language to Czech and Polish, there was no mingling with the nearby Czechs or Poles of Texas. They called their community Serbin, meaning ‘Wend-land,’ from the Wendish word for ‘Wends,’ Serbja, which is of course related to the word Sorbs on the one hand, but also to the word Serbs, again giving rise to confusion with the Serbs of Serbia, with whom the Wends are no more closely related than with any other Slavic group. Speaking of confusions, there is another one that should be noted: the Wends of Germany and Texas are not the same as the ‘Windish’ (German Windisch) Slavs of the old Austrian Empire (now part of Jugoslavia), who are usually called Slovenes. The major settlement of these Windish people in the United States is in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They are as different from the Wends as the Czechs are.

The Wendish-German culture of the Texas Wends should be appreciated as a unique double heritage. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to decide whether a given custom or saying is originally Wendish or German, just as it is often similarly difficult to determine whether a certain Serbin family was originally Wendish or German. The custom of the ‘birds’ wedding’ (usually called by the German term, Vogelhochzeit) was originally Wendish, but the ‘Rumplich’ (Santa Claus), sometimes touted as specifically Wendish, was German (Knecht Ruprecht). Nearly all the beloved Wendish hymns were translated from German originals.

Texas had a very large German population at the time the Wends came, and also the other Americans the Wends had contact with in other states, such as other church bodies, were almost always German. Even much of their business correspondence, for instance to shipping firms, was conducted in German. In their isolation in Texas from other Wends, the usefulness of the Wendish language was even more severely limited than it had been in Germany, so Wendish was used less and less, and German more and more. After about 1880, it was mostly only older people that still spoke Wendish, and the Wends no longer considered themselves Wendish-Germans but simply Germans. However, Wendish church services continued to be held (alongside the then dominant German ones) until1920. From 1920 until about 1940 the world of the Texas Wends was almost exclusively German. Only after the transition to German had been completed, did English begin to make any kind of impression on the group; the final assimilation to English began slowly in the 1930s, and a bilingual German-English life began to evolve. But German was the dominant language until the 1950s, and it was the language of the congregational meetings at Serbin until1966. Currently (1991) German is in about the same situation as Wendish was in 1919: still used for church services for the elderly, but the younger generation not speaking it any more.

Pastor Johann (Jan) Kilian, the leader of the Texas Wends, who guided the emigration and the formative years of the colony in Texas, was an educated theologian with a degree from Leipzig. He was a patriotic Wend but considered himself ‘just as much a German as a Wend’, as he once wrote. Thoroughly fluent in Wendish and German, before leaving Germany he had become a figure of some importance in the development of the Wendish language and literature, translating works of Luther and other theologians, writing religious poetry and hymns, and even making small collections of Wendish words, one of botanical terms (which are mentioned in Pfuhl’s outstanding 19th century Wendish dictionary). Kilian led the group in Texas for 30 years, from 1854 until his death in 1884. His oldest son, Gerhard, became his school teacher in 1872. Another son, Hermann, succeeded him as pastor and continued the use of Wendish, alongside the then-dominant German, until his own death in 1920.

The Wends and other Germans of the Serbin area prospered after the initial difficult years. Pastor Kilian had personally joined the ‘German Evangelical Lutheran Church of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States’ (now called the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) soon after arriving in Texas. The congregation formally joined this Synod in 1866, after being delayed, in part, by the Civil War. Kilian was constantly plagued by squabbles in the congregation, and some members left and established St. Peter congregation in Serbin. In 1914, St. Peter was dissolved and its members returned to St. Paul’s. As the original congregation grew in the early decades, it spread for miles around the town of Serbin, and daughter congregations were formed: Fedor, Manheim, Warda, Loebau, Greens Creek, Winchester, and Lincoln. The Greens Creek congregation was too small to survive, but the others are still alive and well-especially the mother congregation, itself, St. Paul of Serbin, which is thriving.


* Parts of this chapter have been adapted from materials I have previously published elsewhere. For more details on the Wends in Germany and in Texas, see especially George Nielsen In Search of a Home: Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration (Texas A&M Univ. Pr., 1989).


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