Wends Draw Strength From Their Heritage: Harsh German economy, orders to conform, prompted migration to Texas in 1854

This article by David McLemore first appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Sunday, October 16, 1983.

Note: A handful (35) of Wends migrated to Texas in 1853.

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SERBIN. Texas – Laverne Gersch doesn’t have to search for her ancestral roots. They’re all around her.

As she drives along dusty Lee County back roads near Serbin, she easily points out the landmarks of her heritage.

There, atop an oak-shrouded hill, her great-grandfather lived. It’s not far from a lovely frame house where Mrs. Gersch celebrated Christmas as a child. Along this dirt path, her grandmother once walked to school.

For Mrs. Gersch, a fifth generation Wendish Texan, the past and present weave into a whole as familiar and comforting as a homemade quilt.

“My husband is a Wend, too,” Mrs. Gersch said. “My granddaughter is the fifth generation to live on Gersch land. That’s special to me.”

To the outsider, the southern arc of Lee County appears to be only another part of Texas. The land rolls in gentle waves, embroidered by brushy creek bottoms and thick stands of oak and cedar.

But linger awhile in Serbin, Warda or the other communities that dot the farmland, and you find yourself in another country.

To the locals descendants of a nearly forgotten band of Texas pioneers, it’s the heartland. Welcome to Wendenland – land of the Wends.

The Wends are a Slavic people who settled in Central Europe after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, according to Dr. Sylvia Ann Grider’s book The Wendish Texans published by the Institute of Texan Cultures.

Today, as they have for centuries, European Wends are concentrated in Saxony in East Germany, south of Berlin, said Dr. Grider, who is assistant dean of graduate studies at Texas A&M University in College Station.

The Wends, or Sorbs as they’re known in Europe remain a distinct ethnic minority. Never having a nation of their own, the Wends differed from their German neighbors through a fierce adherence to conservative Lutheranism and a language and culture more closely allied to Czechs and Slovaks.

These differences prompted Prussian officials in the early 19th century to pass edicts forcing the Wends to conform to German ways. This Germanization, particularly of their faith, caused the Wends to rebel.

A handful of Wends emigrated to Texas and to Australia in 1850. In glowing letters home about the freedom of the frontier, coupled with the harsh economic realities of life in Germany prompted the largest and most unusual Wendish immigration.

In 1854, nearly 600 Wends in Saxony formed a Lutheran congregation for the sole purpose of moving to Texas. They asked Minister Johann Kilian to lead them. He agreed.

Reaching Liverpool, England, Kilian’s group sailed for the United States on the clipper Ben Nevis. Before they reached Galveston in May 1854, 73 had died. Ship’s records repeatedly noted the heartbreaking refrain “died and buried at sea.”

The Wends arrived in time for outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever. They hired oxcarts and headed inland, where they bought 4,000 acres above the Colorado River Valley for $1 an acre.

Under Kilian’s leadership, the Wends carved out a life from the sandy soil in Lee County. In the town they called Serbin – the Sorbian Place – they first built a church and then a school. The Wends had found homeland at last.

“The first several years were hard. Drought and sickness took a toll,” said the Rev. Reinhardt Wuensche, 70, an archivist with the Lutheran – Missouri Synod office in Austin. “Their land was the kind no one else wanted.”

“But the Wends are a sober, hardworking, conservative people,” Wuensche, a Wend, said. “They made it work.”

Wuensche estimates that about 10,000 people in Texas can claim Wendish ancestry. Others are scattered throughout the United States.

In Texas, Wendish life centered around family and church, Dr. Grider said. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Serbin, formed in Germany 130 years ago, still serves an active Wendish parish.

“We have about 550 members, and the church is filled each Sunday,” the Rev. Paul Hartfield said. And the congregation works together. They never forget this is their church.”

Built in 1870 as a replacement for earlier buildings, St. Paul’s stands tall and austere, its whitewashed sandstone walls shining brightly in the sun.

Inside a balcony runs around the chapel. Until 1950 the men sat above, and the women sat below.

The pulpit juts like a ship’s bow, 20 feet from the floor. Delicate marble-like lines drawn by turkey quills more than a century ago decorate the wooden pillars.

“The walls are 30 inches thick. They used wooden pegs to build it. No nails,” Hartfield said. The old pump organ in the loft opposite the pulpit is electrified now. But the hand pump remains connected.

“The power went out a few weeks ago, and the ushers started pumping, and we kept singing,” he said.

The church is essentially as it was when it was built by the members,” Hartfield said. The congregation doesn’t want to change it.

The Wendish colonists soon found themselves subject to what they sought to avoid in Germany.

Because they spoke German, the Wends quickly were accepted by the existing German colonists in Central Texas. Eventually they lost more and more of their Wendish language and culture.

Wuensche recalls that his father spoke, no Wendish. We lived in Bishop and my father never visited Serbin until he was nearly 80,” he said. He walked through the graveyard and was enthralled. He felt like he was among kin.

But the Wendish customs died hard. Sermons were preached in Wendish and German well into the early 1900s. At St. Paul’s today Wendish sermons are preached only on special occasions. Sunday services in German are held twice a month.

Wendish women, until about 1890, wore black wedding dresses, a symbol of the hardships they faced in life. They later adopted a grey dress and white veil before accepting the traditional white gown after 1900.

Other Wendish customs brought to Texas still were practiced in the 1930s. They included decorating Easter-eggs in brightly colored, intricate designs. A favorite with children was the rumpliche – men who came around Christmas weariing striped tunics and fake beards and masks to determine who was naughty or nice.

“As a child, I remember the rumpliche,” Mrs.Gersch said. “It was frightening, for they would take bad children away. But the one who came for me caught his beard on fire and ran from the house. It was wonderful.”

John Socha, a Lutheran minister in Giddings, became fascinated with the Wendish language. I’m Slovak, not a Wend,” he said. “But the words are very much alike. Sadly, I could read old Wendish books, and the Wends could not.”

Until 1938, the now-defunct Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt published notices in both German and Wendish.

“Only a handful of people around here can still speak Wendish,” Socha said. “A few others can say, ‘Wotce Nash?’ (How are you?) But that’s all.”

In the 1960s, a revival of Wendish culture began with the creation of the Wendish Club by five women in Lee and Bastrop counties. Now called the Texas Wendish Historical Society, it has about 400 members.

“We started it because we are proud to be Wends,” said Emma Wuensche, 77, of McDade, one of the founders. “One of the ladies had been to Germany and saw the Wends still had their culture there. It seemed a pity that we had lost ours.”

Like other Wendish descendants, Mrs. Gersch also became entranced with her heritage. She recalled family tales of how her great-great grandmother, Maria Krause, sailed to Texas before the great exodus of 1854. But her ship was wrecked near Cuba and she learned to roll cigars in order to pay her way to the United States.

“My father spoke fluent Wendish,” Mrs. Gersch said. “He didn’t learn German until he went to school. Now, I speak only a little, but I wish I had learned more.”

The Wends’ close family ties and conservative faith made them wary of strangers. “They were never very receptive to outsiders,” Socha said. “And, to a degree, you find that today.

“But I tell you, they’re thrifty, hardworking people,” he said. “And they’re the first ones to pay their bills.”

Mrs. Gersch admits the Wends are a conservative group. But she denies they are unfriendly.

“People say the Wends are cold to strangers, but that’s not true,” she said. “We like people, and we welcome anyone who treats us with respect.

“If it’s hard for an outsider to get into the community, it’s because so much of the land has been in the hands of the same family for 130 years.”

Mrs. Gersch said that the Wendish community remains close-knit. “There’s a saying that who we’re not related to, we marry. Everyone seems to be a cousin around here.”

One question nags at the Texas Wends. With their unique ethnic background, are they different from any other immigrant group?

While aware of their heritage, Dr. Grider said, the Texas Wends also think of themselves more as friends and neighbors. Not Wends. That is changing.

“Growing up, I never thought how different it was to be a Wend. I never thought we were different from any other American,” Mrs. Gersch said, standing in the old cemetery near St. Paul’s church.

“But standing here, I see we have something special. We’ve kept our faith, and we’ve kept our family unity. We’re surrounded by memories. I guess that’s how we’re different. We have continuity.”

A breeze blows gently from the south, rustling the oaks. The old tombstones, their German inscriptions etched with lichen, lean patiently in the sun.

For the Texas Wends, the circle is unbroken.

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Wendish Christmas

This article by Victor Vogel was printed in an unknown newspaper date unknown. The article by Sigman Byrd, Advance Man in Wendenland, for the Houston Chronicle on 9 Sep 1960 is remarkably similar. Vogel’s article states “122 years ago” which would have made the date of publication 1976.

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Knecht Ruprecht, the anti-Santa Claus, is supposed to be skulking from house to house this time of year in the southern part of Lee County, where Rabb’s Creek ripples down from the Yegua Knobs through sandy woodlands of tall cedars and gnarled postoaks.

Knecht Ruprecht may sound German, but he’s not. He’s Wendish.

According to Wendish folklore, Ruprecht is St. Nicholas’ hired hand. But no jolly elf is he. He’s a mean, ornery rascal who wears a red suit trimmed in white but also wears an ugly halloween-like mask and carries a whip, a stick and a black bag.

The hired hand’s Advent chore is to scare the devil out of boys and girls, whip and beat those who need punishment, and put the worst boys into his black bag and carry them clean away.

What he’s really supposed to do is frighten the kids into seasonal good behavior, thus preparing the way for jolly old St. Nick with his sleigh full of toys and goodies.

Several years ago I drove back through the miles and years to old Wendenland during Advent, not really looking for Knecht Ruprecht, wondering if I’d even find a Wend.

Six miles south of Giddings on Farm Road 446 a cutoff was marked SERBIN. Following the cutoff westward, I discovered Milton Moerby’s store and, a mile farther south, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, with its parish school, a parsonage and some other buildings. Between church and store were scattered farmhouses with their windmills and barns.

This pleasant little community was the heart of Wendenland.

That was the name chosen 122 years ago by Rev. Johann Kilian, the Moses of the Texas Wends, who led his 600 people emigrants from Prussia and Saxony, into this promised land in 1854.

Ironically, the Texas Wends were destined for the same fate that is befalling the more numerous European Wends. A Slavic people cut off geographically from other Slavs and surrounded by Germans, both groups are losing their ethnic identity and are being Germanized.

Rev. Arthur Arndt, who was the pastor at St. Paul’s the last time I visited Wendenland, was not only the fourth pastor in more than 100 years; he also was the first pastor who was not a Wend. He told me there hadn’t been a Wendish-language service at St. Paul’s since 1920. Rev. Arthur E. Graf is the present pastor.

But about Knecht Ruprecht …

“When I first came here in the fall of 1948,” Pastor Arndt told me, “the Ruprecht custom was universal. But I’ve discouraged it. I hope it’s a thing of the past.”

“But why?” I asked. “It sounds like a harmless game for the children.”

“It’s not Christian!” declared the pastor. “Frightening little children!”

Well, I didn’t know enough about the custom to debate the point. But I pursued Knecht Ruprecht to Moerby’s store, which then was the secular center of Serbin.

The store was filled with farm folks doing their marketing. A sign over the door to the bar said: “Crop gathering time is here. Let’s not wait until the end of the year to pay your grocery bills. We have bills to pay too. Flour per 25-pound sack $1.69.”

The bar was well patronized. Deer horns adorned the walls. A couple of domino games were going on.

“Do I remember old Knecht Ruprecht!” exclaimed Milton Moerby, echoing my question. “Listen! Once when I was a little kid, about this time of year, there would be a great loud thumping at the door. It would be Old Man Ruprecht screaming and shouting to be let in. I tell you I was scared half to death.

“But my folks would let him in. Of course it would be a neighbor boy, a young man, dressed up in a Santa Claus suit and wearing an ugly mask, carrying a stick, a whip and a bag. But I thought he was a real monster.

“I remember once he tried to put me in his bag. I lost a year’s growth, but he couldn’t put me in that poke!”

“But Ruprecht made us kids behave,” said August Kessel, who as a child studied the Wendish language at St. Paul’s and who still had a Wendish catechism and some other Wendish books. “The Ruprecht game didn’t really hurt us, because soon came Christmas with the Christkindchen and blessed Nicholas.”

Martin Mirtschin said: “I can remember seeing as many as 15 Knetht Ruprechts at our house at one time. I was scared out of my wits.”

Milton said if I could come back to his store on a certain day I could see a real live German-Wendish Knecht Ruprecht with his whip, stick and black bag. But I said I would settle for a real live full­blooded Wend.

They gave me a list of names: Synatschk, Mitschke, Proske.

But I never found a real, live one-hundred-percent Wend. Apparently the Wends decided if they couldn’t lick the Deutschlanders and the Bohemians they might as well jine ’em.

I remember St. Paul’s Church, a beautiful little stone building with a keystone over the entrance inscribed “Soli Deo Gloria” and a Texas star topping the weathervane on the steeple.

And I remember Pastor Arndt saying: “The Wends are a strange, mysterious people, devout, loyal and industrious. Nobody really knows where they came from. Some authorities say Martin Luther’s wife was a Wend.”

I thought about Martin Luther, walking past the bakeries of Wittenburg, changing all the bread in the windows into the body of Christ.

In Giddings J. A. Proske once published a Wendish language newspaper, the only one in the U.S. The last I heard, there was still a font of the curious Gothic Wendish type at a shop in Giddings.

But who could set the type? Who could read it? Who remembers Johann Kilian’s Wendenland below the Yegua Knobs?

Maybe Knecht Ruprecht does.

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The Wends in Texas

This article by L. S. Imm, Ph.D. was written in 1974 for an unkown publication which may have been something similar to The Lutheran Digest.

Note: The 35 Prussian Wends of 1853 did not settle in East Texas but in Central Texas in Austin, and Fayette counties.

Note: The Wends arrived in Galveston in December 1854, and while they had a church and services it was not known as St Paul Lutheran church until 1870. The original settlement in Bastrop County was known initially as the Low Pinoak Settlement or Rabbs Creek and was not known as Serbin until 1860.

Note: The two men who set out ahead of the group were John Dube and Carl Lehmann. They found that the Delaplain League had a clear title and purchased in for $1/acre, not 50 cents.

Note: Rules for decorum in the church were necessary because of the lawlessness that pervaded the Serbin area during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War.

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The Wends have figured prominently in the spread of Lutheranism in Texas and have made more than a little contribution to the development of the state. They constitute a substantiality despite the paucity of their present numbers. Texas has one of the two largest Wend colonies; the other one is in Australia.

You probably, with many others, will ask, “Who are the Wends?” Most people have never heard of them, even though there are many of their descendants in Texas.

Here’s a bit of their history to acquaint you with them: “Wends” is the name of a group of Slavic tribes which, by the 5th century, occupied the region in Germany before World War II between the Oder river on the East and the Elbe and Saale rivers on the West.

During the course of centuries, they succumbed to German conquests and have been more or less “germanized.” Henry I of the so-called Holy Roman Empire conquered them in 929 and extended German control over them to the Elbe River. But it was not long afterwards that the Wends rebelled. This was in 983 and they retained their identity after that until 1125, when under Lothar II the region was colonized by German peasants. Nevertheless the Wends were never completely “germanized” until quite recently. Even in recent times, they doggedly clung to their language and culture.

The original millions of Wends have been decimated by wars and absorption so that today there are only about 150,000 of them left in Germany and comparatively few in the United States. The last of them call themselves Serbs, Sorbs, or Lusatian Serbs.

By way of passing, it might be mentioned that the Wends today speak two Slavic dialects related to the Czech and Polish. They are so different to be mutually unintelligible. They use the Gothic alphabet. The so-called Wends are today being rapidly absorbed by their German neighbors. It is only a matter of a comparatively few years and all Wends will have been “germanized” over in Europe.

With the advent of the Lutheran Reformation in Europe in the 1500’s, most of the remaining Wends converted to Lutheranism and became staunch Lutherans generation after generation. They proved themselves to be a religious people with fundamental and conservative convictions and beliefs. They were disinclined to accept religious compromise. But with the year 1817, official interference with their religious convictions and beliefs raised its head. Lutherans and the Evangelical Reformed were ordered to unite without doctrinal agreement.

This galled the Wend Lutherans no little. The climax was reached, when a group of them in Saxony decided to move to another part of the world to find religious, political and economic freedom. They selected the Rev. John Kilian as their pastor and leader to take them to “the promised land.”

That was 120 years ago . . . back in 1854. Polk was president, turmoil was rampant and the United States was headed for a calamitous civil war. The Wends were unconcerned about the domestic situation on this side of the Atlantic. But it was not too many years before it caught up with them.

Five hundred and eighty-eight of them decided to leave their familiar surroundings and head for Texas, leaving most everything behind never to return again. It was a bold, adventurous and intrepid group that decided to emigrate to “the promised land.”

The reason that Texas was chosen was due to the glowing reports about Texas which had reached them from a group of 35 Prussian Wends who had settled in the early German colonies in East Texas. The thought of possible hardships, sacrifices, disillusionments, sickness and even death was remote in their minds. They visualized instead religious and political freedom, economic improvements and a more satisfying life than they had been leading in Germany.

They left Germany in September, 1854, for Galveston, Texas. However, before they left they organized themselves into a Lutheran congregation, with the Rev. Kilian as their pastor and leader.

This accounts for the inaccuracy in the Texas historical records which say that the Wends arrived in Serbin and organized St. Paul Lutheran Church in 1854, when they actually arrived there in 1855.

Their voyage across the Atlantic was far from one of undiluted joy. Seventv-three of their number succumbed to cholera. This was traumatic for all on the ship. Yet, they fared better than the Saxon Lutherans who came over in 1839 to form the nucleus of the Missouri Synod. One ship of the Saxons was lost and never heard from again. The patience of the Wends was taxed severely on the voyage. Monotony was rampant because the voyage lasted 3 1/2 months before Galveston was reached.

Their troubles were compounded after their arrival in Galveston: a yellow fever epidemic broke out. It further decimated their numbers.

Nevertheless the intrepid band started out for its destination, which ultimately was Serbin, Texas.

In the meantime, two members of the group had been delegated to scout the prospective settlement area and buy land. Their names have been lost in history. They bought 4,400 acres along Rabbs Creek for 50¢ an acre, of which 95 were set aside for church purposes.

(Incidentally, time proved that to be a good investment. Today that same land is selling for $300 an acre, which is 600 times its original sales price.)

With the deal consummated, the group set out from Galveston with ox carts and on foot. In those days, there were no 4, 6, 8, and 10 lane super highways and automobiles to average 60 and more miles an hour. They trudged along through prairie land on uncharted roads and reached Houston by Christmas. Here they spent their first Christmas on a bleak prairie in their new homeland. Here also illness again descended on them in the form of typhoid and slowed their trek to Serbin.

Serbin is located 40 miles east of Austin, the capital of Texas.

When they finally arrived, they had to live under the open sky and off the land. Their provisions were few. Fortunately the Rabbs Creek and Serbin area was, and still is, wooded. The first thing these hardy pioneers did was to cut down trees to build log houses.

The typical Wendish home back in those days consisted of one room. It of necessity served as living room, bedroom, and kitchen for the entire family until later on a second room was added for a kitchen. In the meantime, cooking was done outside except during a few months in winter. The houses usually were not painted.

Much of Texas was still open country, when the Wends settled in and around Serbin. But the lawless, “wild and wooly” era with its boisterous saloons and women of questionable character in every town, gun fights, cattle wars and drives was on the way out. Danger, however, lurked and the Wends wore six-shooters like the “rootin and tootin” cowboys did.

This is apparent from rules posted in Serbin stores and printed in the Bastrop paper in 1866 – 11 years after the Wends had arrived. These rules forbade men to wear hats in church, to chew or smoke tobacco in the church building and to carry six -shooters or any other weapon in church. Refinement was not exactly a mark of the Wends at the time.

Upon their arrival at Serbin these pioneer Wends found life to be a battle for survival. They had to travel on horseback and lumber wagons to Brenham – a round trip distance of around 140 miles – for the essentials of life. It took days to make that trip.

According to a recent article in the Lutheran Journal, Darby N. Reinke relates that the Wend’s manner of dress was unusual for the area. They wore shoes only to church mainly because the price of shoes was high. They wore sandals made of wooden soles and leather straps. The women wore long skits and loose fitting jacket tops. According to their beliefs, the women could not wear tight fitting clothes that revealed any part of their body or shape. Only the bride could wear the customary tight fitting wedding costume. it was so tight that she was in pain while wearing it. It was designed to symbolize the long years of suffering during marriage.

“The women wore black bonnets year around. The young girls and young women could wear white bonnets until a certain age was reached or children were born. The women lived under strict rules of dress.”

But due to the industriousness hardiness and determination of these pioneers, it was not many years before Serbin had grown to some importance and had its own well-supplied stores. At one time it even had two medical doctors. After 1871, however, Giddings, Texas started to over­shadow Serbin because of its location…[remainder of article was not copied. If you know of it please send to the Wendish Museum.]

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