Wendish to German to English: The Texas Wends

This article by Joseph Wilson first appeared as part of Chapter 9, From the Other Side of ther Furrow: A Folk-Group Sampler in Texas Country – The Changing Rural Scene.  Edited by G. Lich and Dona Reeves-Marquardt (Texas A&M Press, 1986), pp. 221ff.


Most Europeans coming to urban America managed to pass as Americans within one generation. In the city, they quickly learned to shed the quaint, distinctive features of the homeland, foremost among them the language and dress. They conformed to a new lifestyle, generally reserving old country habits and values for the privacy of their homes or churches. In the country, however, things are quite different. Immigrants may cherish vestiges of their home culture, marking the cadences of nature with the unique sound and structures of the native tongue, knowing that the neighbor over the hill – provided he doesn’t bum them out – will understand the concern for a good crop and a fine herd even if he doesn’t understand their language.

Language and culture seem to reflect each other. Wilhelm von Humboldt first asserted that “man lives with the world about him . . . exclusively as language presents it to him.” In order to understand a culture, first one must determine how language shaped a people’s construct of the surrounding world.[i] Language measures and dignifies the life-order of mankind; too often, not understanding the one has led to a break­down or the extermination of the other. In a pluralistic society such as in the United States, one group dominates smaller, subordinate groups to the degree that the smaller groups allow. When a group says “no” to efforts to subordinate heritage, culture, and life-order, language often remains that part of the baggage brought across the Atlantic that persists.

Early European immigrants recognized the good soil and healthful climate of Central Texas between the Brazos and the Colorado rivers. The area nurtures a rich ethnic mixture that today tolerates intermarriage across national and religious lines. That easy tolerance tends to swell the number of inhabitants with dual or multiple ancestries, the dominant group that tends to think of itself as “plain Texan.” But “no” has been heard in a variety of languages. Enter the country church at Serbin and find a Texan who yet regards the church as a bastion of culture; it supported grandparents in an alien country; it divided when they sensed their identity changing; it preserves the cyclical documents that mark life – baptism, marriage, death; it accepted their remains into its cemetery and marked graves in the language of the European homeland. Each generation sought its own identity in this quiet countryside, at a pace measured in decades rather than in years. The questions each generation of this tiny folk group asked would have been inaudible in a city.

[i] 17. John T. Waterman, Perspectives in Linguistics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 67.


Wendish to German to English:

The Texas Wends

Joseph Wilson

The Wendish Germans of Texas are in many ways unique. Typically, the immigrant communities in America maintained their language and their identity for a few generations and then accepted English and merged with the mainstream. The Texas Wends are different in that they first completed a transition from Wendish to German before starting the transition to English.[i] At the same time, they were making the transition from agrarian Europe to farms in Central Texas.

The main immigration of Wends into Texas took place in 1854, when nearly six hundred made the hazardous voyage together on one ship, the Ben Nevis, under the spiritual leadership of their pastor, John Kilian. The Wends (also called Sorbs) had been an ethnic minority group in Germany: Slavs who had been encircled by Germans centuries ago, and who over the centuries were being assimilated into the “German melting pot” (which had absorbed Poles, Czechs, Danes, French, and others) in the same way that ethnic groups were being assimilated in America. In the Germany of 1850 most of the Wends had long since become Germanized: they had given up their Slavic language for German, they had intermarried with the other Germans, and in general they had become indistinguishable from them. Sometimes their sur names might offer a clue as to their original Wendish origin, but usually even the name was no evidence. For one thing, intermarriage naturally brought purely German names in. And some originally Wendish names had been Germanized. Even left in their Wendish form, the surnames “looked German,” because Wendish was written with conventions of German spelling, and because German surnames, like American ones, have varied origins. However, in 1850 there were still about 150,000 unassimilated Wends in Germany who still spoke Wendish principally and had preserved some of their original folklore and customs.[ii] Even among these, naturally, the German language and German customs had made many inroads. Just as, in this country, English is the key to education, business success, and many other facets of life, in Germany, German was the key to upward mobility. Consequently, even these remaining “unassimilated” Wends were bicultural and largely bilingual. They felt the mixed loyalties any minority group feels. On the one hand, they felt that they were Wends and different from the Germans among whom they lived, but on the other hand they felt that they, too, were Germans, in a broader sense. That the Wends considered themselves to be Germans is clearly demonstrated in many ways: for example, by the fact that in every instance of Wendish immigration, into whatever country, the Wends always joined the other Germans.[iii] This kind of double identity should be easy enough for us in America, with our many ethnic groups, to understand, but it was an even more natural situation in the Europe of the nineteenth century, when nations often contained the most varied ethnic and linguistic groups within their borders, so that there frequently was an ethnic and linguistic difference between the village and the nation.

The Wendish Germans, who spoke Wendish at home and had to learn German for higher purposes, were not in such a very different position from most other Germans who spoke a dialect at home and standard German in school and business. And, like our Yankees and southerners, north Germans will often, even today, express contempt for Bavarians – and vice versa – but then unite against a common foe, realizing that they are both Germans. In very much the same way, a Wendish German might be angry with a non-Wendish German one day and join with him as a fellow German the next day.

As is unfortunately to be expected with any minority group, there was at times discrimination against the Wends and overt pressure on them to give up their language for that of the majority, but there was apparently little, if any, discrimination against them in Germany at the time of the immigration to Texas, contrary to what is sometimes stated.[iv] There is a similar, persistent, pious myth that the Wendish Lutherans who immigrated to Texas did so for purely religious reasons because they were being forced to join the amalgamated church of the Prussian state. George Nielsen in his work on Wendish migration has called attention to the fact that, at the time of the immigration to Texas, religious minorities in Prussia had the freedom to form “free churches,” and the Wendish Lutherans had long since done so.[v] This is not to say that a desire for greater religious freedom played no role in the migration, merely that this role has been overstated. Similarly, in regard to their economic situation, the Wends surely hoped for improved opportunities in America, but it is wrong to say that they had been living in virtual slavery in Germany. Even a casual glance at the passenger list of the Ben Nevis will show that there were landowners, mill owners, and master blacksmiths among them.[vi] Most were, to be sure, not so well off as these, but poverty was, after all, the general state of the masses in Europe. Pastor Kilian would hardly have applied to return to Germany to reassume a position in a Wendish congregation, as he did in 1864, if there had been significant religious oppression and ethnic discrimination.[vii]

When they came to Texas, the Wends naturally continued to consider themselves a subset of the Germans. As a matter of fact, they even still considered themselves Prussians and Saxons, respectively, depending on which of these two German kingdoms they had come from. Their first official action as a congregation, after boarding the ship for Texas, was to elect their leaders; for this they divided into two groups, Prussians and Saxons, and each group elected its own proportionate number of leaders. The minutes of this action were taken in German, and German continued to be used for most such official written purposes (baptismal records, marriage certificates, and the like) for the next hundred years in Texas, as it had been in Germany.[viii]

Wendish was, however, used for the minutes of the early congregational meetings. After a long and grief-filled voyage, the Wends were met in Houston by the German pastor, Caspar Braun, and members of his congregation, who helped them find food and shelter and passage onward. They made the ox-cart trip from Houston into the interior in small groups, making stopovers on the way at other German settlements such as Industry and New Ulm. Some stayed temporarily, and a few permanently, in these places; however, within a few months, most had gathered at or near what came to be called Serbin, in what is now Lee County. At that time, the area was part of Bastrop County, and for about two years, before the word Serbin was coined, the community simply called itself the Wendish Settlement. Although the region was largely wilderness, most of the geographical features already had English names – Low Pinoak Creek, Rabb’s Creek, Bullfrog Creek, Knobb’s Branch ­ and these names were used for giving the location of a person’s farm, naturally adapted into Wendish or German, Farmarja pschi Bullfrogu, or eines Farmers am Bullfrog, “of a farmer on Bullfrog Creek.”

Wendish was naturally written with the conventions of German spelling.[ix] Wendish books were printed in the standard ornate old German type, and handwriting was in the old German style. But, as was also the standard German usage of the nineteenth century, “Latin” print and handwriting, quite similar to those used for English today, were also often used for special purposes – proper names, foreign (not Wendish or German) words, and the like. The spelling of Wendish in Germany today has been changed radically, in a way that makes it look less like German and more like Czech; the Texas Wends, of course, never used this spelling. As examples, the surnames that were, and still are, spelled (in Texas) Pietsch, Schelnik, and Zieschank, would be Pič, Šelnik, and Cišank according to the new orthography, and would look very strange to the Texas Wends who bear these names.[x]

When they settled in the Serbin area, the Wends continued their intimate relationships with the other Germans nearby. Some organized German Methodists, whose more emotional preaching and services attracted a few of the Wends away from Kilian’s stately Lutheran services, were a major cause of the first split of the congregation.[xi] On the other hand, Kilian served for years as a kind of circuit-riding minister to various groups of German Lutherans nearby and even as far away as New Ulm and Industry, some forty miles away. These other Germans were evidently mostly not Wendish. Each year thereafter, more Germans ­ Wends and others – joined the group. The pastor’s records, all in German, make no distinctions between Wends and others or between members of the Serbin congregation and nonmembers.

The following is a typical random sample of the surnames of settlers mentioned in the early records as being from the Serbin vicinity: Gröschel, Schulze, Matthiez, Kappler, Miertschin, Wünsche, Urban, Lehmann, Melde, Menzel. Presumably all these people were Wends, but the surnames give no direct indication. Nor do the given names, which are all standard German names: Magdalena, Andreas, Hanna, Matthaus, Dorothea, August, Johann, Carl, Ernst. The Germanization of the Wends had already proceeded to the point that they were voluntarily using German names almost exclusively. Only a few names still had double forms, such as Jan for use in Wendish and Johann for use in German, or Jurij and George. In the great majority of the cases even in a Wendish context the German form is used, naturally with the necessary Wendish inflectional suffix, if required, as Ernstej, “to Ernst.”[xii] And even in those cases where there was a different Wendish form available, the people themselves evidently preferred the German form, perhaps because it was too much trouble to keep up with two different forms. Pastor Kilian, a learned man, always signed his Wendish documents as Jan Kilian and his German ones as Johann Kilian, and his English ones as John Kilian, and similarly shifted between, for instance, Jurij and George, when he was listing people’s names, and when there was a different Wendish form available. But in the few cases in the Serbin records where the people signed their names themselves, they almost always used the German form, even in a Wendish document. To sum it up again: it is impossible to tell from the Serbin records whether any individual person is Wendish or “pure” German. The linguistic preference, Wendish or German, of the individuals cannot be determined from the records either. Presumably in the majority of the original families, the normal home language was Wendish, but in some it was German, and it is quite clear that nearly all were bilingual.[xiii]

Since they quite naturally joined the other Germans in Texas, their German-Wendish bilingual world, with German the culturally dominant, more official language, continued in Texas as in Germany. They joined the conservative German Lutheran church of the Missouri Synod, all of whose dealings were in German – its church services, schools, seminaries, books, newspapers, and correspondence. As in Germany, the tendency of Wendish to die out and be replaced by German continued – indeed, it accelerated. Any bilingual situation like this was going to produce squabbles – and, of course, all kinds of other disputes – in Serbin. But the complicated struggles there, which twice resulted in the split, and later reunification, of the congregation into Saint Peter’s, which was more “German,” and Saint Paul’s, which was more “Wendish,” revolved about the most varying factors; they were not at all simply the result of “ethnic-German” opposed to “ethnic-Wend,” as is sometimes stated.[xiv] This is abundantly clear from the fact that at the time of the second split (in 1870, which involved more of a Wendish-German clash than the first one had), both congregations conducted services in both languages – Saint Paul’s continued its practice of German and Wendish services every Sunday, and Saint Peter’s did so for several years, before discontinuing the Wendish because of the difficulty of finding a pastor able to preach in it. Both churches continued to consist of both Wends and Germans.[xv] When language usage did materially enter into the dispute, as in regard to the language of the congregational meetings, many of those favoring exclusive use of German were ethnic Wends, who felt they were being progressive in giving up what seemed to them to be a useless dialect. And even those Wends who clung most tenaciously to their Wendish wanted their children to be educated in German.[xvi] Clearly, it was only a matter of time before German would replace Wendish altogether.

By the 1880s the use of Wendish in the homes had largely been replaced by German, even when both parents spoke Wendish. From then on, Wendish was relegated almost exclusively to the older generation; although Wendish services were still held until 1920, the Texas Wends had been completely Germanized. Until approximately 1940 their world was almost totally German. Not only were their churches, their schools, their festivals, and their weddings completely in German (with the marriage certificates and other such documents in German), but even their local newspapers were in German.

All this time – during the “first transition,” to German – the use of English was practically nil among the Wends, except for the geographical terms (creek, branch) and new concepts (Smokehaus, Fence). Nevertheless, after about 1890, most people began to learn some English, because, after all, there were Anglos and blacks around who did not speak German, although a surprising number of both categories did. The “second transition” was beginning, although English was not to become dominant until the 1950s and 1960s. Nearly all of the Wends born between 1890 and 1940 became fluent in German and English, with German their originally stronger language, and those who still heard Wendish at home became trilingual – truly a remarkable situation.

The most eloquent and visible testimony to the Germanness of the Texas Wends is given by the cemetery in Serbin. All the older grave inscriptions, from the 1860s on, including the graves of the original old settlers from Germany, are in German, usually with lengthy Bible quotations or hymn verses. Only one, from 1889, is in Wendish; like the German ones, it is in beautiful Gothic letters. The cemeteries of such daughter congregations as Fedor, Warda, and Winchester are similar. Besides the one Wendish inscription at Serbin, the only use of Wendish I have found on a gravestone is in a single bilingual German ­ Wendish inscription in the Old Warda (Holy Cross) cemetery. The inscriptions naturally also bear witness to the rigors of pioneer Texas and to life’s continuing ironies. One stands over the common graves of three young brothers and sisters, who all died within a week, undoubtedly from one of the yellow fever or other epidemics; two others honor young World War I soldiers, both killed shortly before the end of the war, fighting for their new homeland against their old homeland, now resting forever beneath beautiful stones, one in English, one in German. The gravestones also graphically depict the second transition, to English. The one soldier’s stone is among the earliest in English, although there is a beautiful bilingual English-German stone from 1891. There are a number of English stones from the 1930s, but German continued its dominance until the 1940s and 1950s; it was used extensively even during World War II and long after. The latest German inscription to my knowledge, in Serbia is from the year 1963 -108 years after the immigration.

German was used as the exclusive language of the congregational meetings at Serbin from the mid-1860s until 1966, long after the other German congregations of the area had gone over to English. For the next three years, both German and English were used, with the minutes kept in both languages. Since 1969, only English has been used. This amazing language-loyalty to German at Serbin is the reason I have often referred to Serbin as “the most German place in Texas.”

The German-Wendish surnames have, of course, been retained by the descendants of the Wends, usually without any changes except for the normal anglicization of the German umlauts, as in Groeschel for Gröschel. The names have always been pronounced in German fashion; this is becoming a problem now that many of the younger generation have little knowledge of German, and because dealing with non-German-speakers has become common. In the 1920s a few people began giving their children English first names, even in instances where the family language was still German. Serbinites and others from the area born in the 1920s and 1930s, who were nearly all raised in German, will have either English names like Leonard or Milton or Victor or German ones like Christoph, Helmut, or Hedwig. After the late 1930s English names predominated, but even in the 1940s and in some case much later, some children were still being given German names.

Old Wendish and German Bibles, hymnbooks, and prayerbooks are common family heirlooms, but the bilingual catechisms – the basic books of religious instruction – offer especially visible witness of the two transitions in Serbin. From the time of the immigration through the early 1900s, bilingual Wendish-German catechisms were common throughout the book, facing pages give the Wendish and German versions of Luther’s explanations of the Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments. Since some of the children were confirmed in Wendish and others in German, the same books could be used for both groups. In the 1930s these were replaced by bilingual German-English versions, as some children began to be confirmed in English. Nowadays, they are simply in English.

Another such cyclic repetition is seen in the language usage of the family. In the 1880s and 1890s when Wendish was being displaced, parents bilingual in Wendish and German raised their children in German, but often used Wendish with older people and between themselves, frequently as a kind of secret language to keep the children from understanding – which ensured, of course, that the children learned some Wendish.[xvii] A generation or two later, from the 1940s right down to the present, this family scenario was being and continues to be repeated, but now with the roles being played in German and English.

The end of the second step of this historic integration process is still in progress. We are fortunate to be able to witness the living use of German in Texas. Serbin and five other churches in the area still conduct German services regularly every other Sunday or once a month; these are well attended, although naturally mostly by middle-aged or older people. Before and after the services the people talk together in German or English. Many still prefer German at home. There is even at least one person, Carl Miertschin, left in Serbin who is still fluent in Wendish, as well as in German and English. The use of German is still taken for granted in these communities. Even to the young people who speak only English, it seems natural to hear their elders speak German. However, in the not-too-distant future, when all the German speakers in the area have died, their descendants will surely marvel that their forebears – on this same Texas soil – spoke German, and before that, in many cases, Wendish.

[i] The same is true of the Wends who immigrated to other places, mainly Australia, Canada, and South Africa. The major difference is that these other Wends went in smaller groups and simply joined German communities, whereas the Texas Wends were numerous enough to form their own community and thus to use and preserve Wendish longer. See George R. Nielsen, In Search of a Home: The Wends (Sorbs) on the Australian and Texan Frontier, Birmingham Slavonic Monographs, no. 1 (Birmingham, England: Birmingham University Press, 1977), pp. 2, 56 ff, 99 ff. This book is the most detailed and accurate source of information on the Texas Wends and the other Wendish immigrations.

[ii] Nielsen, Search, p. 11.

[iii] Nielsen, Search, passim.

[iv] Gerald Stone, The Smallest Slavonic Nation: The Sorbs of Lusatia (London: Athlone Press, 1972.), p. 19; Anne Blasig, The Wends of Texas (San Antonio: Naylor, 1954), p. 11.

[v] Blasig, Wends, p. 11; Nielsen, Search, pp. 60 ff.

[vi] The list is reproduced in English in Blasig, Wends, pp. 92 ff.

[vii] Nielsen, Search, p. 90.

[viii] Serbin Papers, Archives of the Texas District Offices of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Austin, Tex. (hereafter referred to as Serbin Papers).

[ix] There also was a system of spelling Wendish with a Czech-based orthography, which was used by the Catholics; Stone, Slavonic Nation, p. 120. Both systems have their relative advantages; the German-based system was easier, since the Wends had to be able to use both languages, and thus could use the same spelling system for both.

[x] In Germany today, either spelling may be used for such proper names; Stone, Slavonic Nation, p. 163. Undoubtedly, most people will continue to use the traditional German form.

[xi] Nielsen, Search, pp. 87ff.

[xii] The –ej is a dative suffix. Wendish is a highly inflected language; the person who does not understand how to interpret the many suffixes and other inflectional changes will make false interpretations of Wendish words and names. Thus, the title pages of Pastor Kilian’s Wendish printed works sometimes give his name in genitive form as Jana Kiliana, but the uninflected normal Wendish form is Jan Kilian.

[xiii] Nielsen, Search, p. 91.

[xiv] Thus while admitting a multiplicity of factors, W. H. Bewie, Missouri in Texas (Austin: Texas District Offices, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 1952), p. 11, says that the “real cause” of the 1870 split was “a language question.”

[xv] Kilian letter to Buenger, Nov. 15, 1873; Kilian’s declarations read to the congregational meeting of Jan. 16, 1870, Serbin Papers.

[xvi] Kilian’s notes for the congregational meeting of Aug. 8, 1869, Serbin Papers.

[xvii] My late mother-in-law, Emma Zoch Herbrich, born in 1885, grew up in this typical family setting. My father-in-law, Paul Herbrich, also born in 1885, heard little Wendish at home because his father, Ernst Herbrich (Herbrig), spoke only German, even though he was as a child one of the original Wends who came over on the Ben Nevis. Both always considered themselves German; if asked about the Wends, they would typically reply, “Oh yes, those were the old people; my parents were Wendish.”


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