Issues that Influenced the Wends to Immigrate to Texas

During the 2012 Wendish Fest, The Texas Wendish Heritage Society awarded a record 24 Scharath Wendish Scholarships to members of the Society who are currently enrolled in a college, university, community college, or trade school. The application included an essay of 1000 words or less about the issues (political, social, religious, economic) that influenced the Wends to immigrate to Texas, and applicants were asked to include issues that his/her ancestors experienced if known. While these essays are available for reading in our Genealogy Library, not all of our members have the chance to visit us in person. Therefore, beginning with this issue, we will print a few of these essays in our newsletter so that more members have a chance to enjoy the essays and gain an appreciation for the level of effort these students put into their applications.

The Scholarship Board selected four essays for printing in subsequent editions of the Society Newsletter. The first essay was written by Eli David Symm, at the time enrolled at Tarleton State University, Stephenville, Texas, studying Physics and Engineering Physics. The second essay was written by Jena Lynn Meuth, at the time enrolled at The University of Texas at Austin studying psychology and geography. The third essay was written by Mason Becker, at the time at Texas A&M University enrolled in the Mays Business School. The fourth essay was written by Peter Gaskamp, at the time in the School of Engineering at the University of Kansas, pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering.

Issues that Influenced the Wends to Immigrate to Texas
by Eli David Symm

Wends, or Sorbs as they are known in their country of origin, are a European Slavic people who have occupied much of Eastern Germany, specifically the region called Lusatia, since the ninth century AD. Their conformity to a Christian faith was nearly complete by the 1200s primarily due to the conquest of the Germanic races over them. During the 16th century, an estimated 75% followed the lead of Dr. Martin Luther and other Reformers by adopting a Christ-centered confession of faith, known to the world today as Lutheranism. This trait, along with their changed political, social, and economic stance emerging from the post-feudalistic society, placed the Wends in a delicate situation in which some found it advantageous to expatriate themselves from the land their ancestors had occupied for over a millennium. Their 19th century migration, primarily to Australia and Texas, is a complex tale of an oppressed people seeking economic flexibility and freedom from religious persecution.

June 25, 1530 marked a very important day for the Wends who many years later were to leave their Lusatian homeland. At Augsburg, in Bavaria, the Lutheran princes presented Emperor Charles V with a confession of their faith and doctrine, the Augsburg Confession. As a result of this act and the tumultuous period that followed, the Peace of Augsburg was signed with its principle of cuius regio, eius religio [“he who governs the territory decides its religion”]. This allowed each German ruler to choose the official religion (Roman Catholic or Lutheran) of their respective territory and legitimized the practice of Lutheranism in the Holy Roman Empire. The ensuing conflict brought upon by the struggle for power, the Thirty Years War, was destructive to all the German lands including Lusatia; however, its resolution in the Peace of Prague (1635) gave the entire domain of Lusatia to the control of the Elector of Saxony (until 1815). A further extension of peace signed in Westphalia (1648) reaffirmed not only cuius regio, eius religio but also extended it to Calvinism and appropriated the right for Christians of opposed faiths to practice their beliefs in their home territories. The Sorbs, therefore, had the ability for over 150 years to practice their respective faiths free from persecution of the state. This was by no means an easy endeavor, especially with the Napoleonic Wars and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire occurring during this time period.

 The 1810s brought about a period of rapid change for Lusatia. At the Congress of Vienna, Lower Lusatia, to the north, was awarded to Prussia and Upper Lusatia remained with Saxony. In addition, around this time period, serfdom was outlawed in both the Saxon and Prussian states. One can see that a clearer separation between church and state found today was not in existence in 19th century Germany. To aggravate the situation, King Friedrich Wil helm III, a Prussian Calvinist, in an effort to worship with his Lutheran wife, proceeded to unite the Lutheran and Reformed churches of Prussia into a comprehensive Union or Evangelical church. This regrettable approach, to a traditionally liturgical and confessional denomination, was not acceptable for the devout Wendish Lutheran conscience.

Among the chief complaints of the Union Agenda were the over-generalizations and uncontroversial content meant to appease all faiths. Although by the 1840s independent Lutheran churches in Prussia were allowed, they still faced the hindrance and close-mindedness of not being part of the accepted state church.

Concurrently, the Wends in both Upper and Lower Lusatia were being encroached upon by the ideas of Pietism and Rationalism. The reaction against these was the development of the neo-Lutheran repristination theology, a returning to the historical confession of the early Lutheran church. In fact, this movement and the political climes previously mentioned contributed significantly to the decision by a German Lutheran minority under the tutelage of Martin Stephan to leave Saxony, paralleled by the Wends a few years later. However, the immediate solution for the Upper Lusatians was the formation of prayer conventicles for laypeople to practice the “true” faith (something which was to cause trouble for the Texas Wendish settlers later on) and for the Lower Lusatians to hold secret worship at private homes. The combination of secular intrusion upon religious life, along with the widespread cognition that their traditional faith was at risk, would certainly make any Christian uneasy.

Economically, it can be said that the Sorbs were behind their German neighbors. Subject to the landowners for many generations and consequently thrust into a growing industrial society after the abolishment of serfdom with little to no land or job prospects, their future was definitely bleak. In some ways the relative independence that the peasants now enjoyed came at a terrible economic and societal price. The Wends themselves did not have the rights that other citizens of Saxony enjoyed, nor were they treated as equals of their German neighbors. Outside of Lusatia the Sorbian tradition was not well known and when Germans moved into the area they viewed the Sorbs with contempt. The state government had no interest in helping reinforce the culture of a race that they had been actively trying to squelch since the Middle Ages. The Wends, when they could get a position practicing their trade, were largely underpaid and were not allowed in trade guilds. Accordingly, a large number of the people became destitute as a result of their not being allowed to compete with the German workers.

Under these circumstances, with the Lusatians surrounded by a Germanic majority which offered them no promising future, the exodus of a few Wendish brothers to Australia and Texas and the resulting correspondence led them to believe that conditions outside their homeland, while initially daunting, offered hope. Therefore, in order to exercise their belief in the Word of God as the one true faith, provide the younger generations with economic opportunity, and maintain their culture as they saw fit, some Wends left their Lusatian homeland for better prospects.

Issues That Influenced The Wends To Immigrate To Texas
by Jena Lynn Meuth

Unlike the Germans, Czechs, Swedes, and Poles who immigrated to Texas in search of cheap land and economic opportunity, the Wends that settled in Lee County sought religious freedom and the right to speak their native tongue.

The Wends (or Sorbs, as they called themselves) are an ancient Slavic people whose ancestors were West Slavs called the Milceni and Luzici. Since the early Middle Ages, they have occupied an area east of the Oder River in East Germany known as Lusatia. The region is comprised of two different parts. The southern area, Upper Lusatia, is bordered by Czechoslovakia and is centered on the major town, Bautzen. The northern area, Lower Lusatia, is bordered by Poland and is centered on the major town, Cottbus.

The villages in which the Wends lived were sites of manors, or agricultural administrative units. The manorial system was instituted as soon as the Sorbs lost their independence in 1100, when the last Sorbian tribe, the Milceni, was completely conquered. In the years that followed, German rulers rewarded upper noblemen and military leaders with large areas of land, called a fief.

The surface surrounding these villages provided the land for manors. The nobleman, or feudal lord, lived in the largest house of the manor while our ancestors occupied huts on a small portion of land. The Wends were known as serfs, meaning people living in bondage. They could own some property, but they were subject to perform labor and pay dues and rent in accordance with the will of their lord. The lord’s land was always the first to be plowed, sowed, and harvested; hence, most peasants attended to their land at night, when they and their animals were about to collapse. Serfdom in Prussia was abolished in 1807 and in Saxony in 1832. Under the new economic system, there was an oversupply of farm laborers who also had too little land to support their families. Consequently, many were forced to seek their fortunes in the cities.

When Wends came to urban areas, they were relegated to restricted sections of the city. They faced oppression in the work force, being denied the right to do the skilled labor in which they were trained. Even if they were hired, a Wend received less pay than a German. In the part of Lusatia under Prussian control, most Wends adopted the German language, names and culture. The new system and Germanization had a huge impact on the Wends and many decided to migrate to Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the United States.

German conquerors and western missionaries have played a huge role in the Wendish history since the 9th century, when they introduced Christianity by means of the sword. By the 12th century, the Sorbs were not fully converted. They rebelled against the church’s cruelty and intolerable taxes by the bishops. The Wendish Crusade (Wendenkreuzzug) in 1147 was led by Germany to make Christians out of the Wends. Danes, Saxons, Poles, and some Bohemians also volunteered to crusade against the Wends. By 1185, Christianization of the Wends was essentially complete.

After the reformation in the 16th century, Catholicism and Lutheranism were recognized according to the religion of the ruler in whose territory you lived. Since most of Lusatia was ruled by Lutheran noblemen, the majority of churches and their congregations became Lutheran. Our ancestors were referred to as “Old Lutherans” who were scattered throughout Upper Lusatia, which was politically divided between Saxony in the south and Prussia in the north. Pastor Jan Kilian had been serving as pastor of all the Wendish Old Lutherans in the Prussian region who did not want to become part of the Prussian state church made up of Lutherans and Calvinists. He also served villages in Saxony where Wends were unhappy with the doctrinal laxity in the Lutheran church of the region and the impact of rationalism (an aspect of Protestant thought). Pastor Kilian was the pastor of several thousand Lutherans, which suggests why he was called to serve as pastor for the largest and most significant emigration group of 1854 which consisted of Wends from both Saxony and Prussia.

The proximity of German neighbors eventually resulted in cultural assimilation and adaptation. At the time of their migration, most of the Wends spoke Wendish and German, and those who spoke only Wendish learned German after they moved to Texas. By World War I, most of the Wends had adopted German as their primary language. During World War II, they were pressured to assimilate to German culture. Though they have adopted the German language and many customs, they still retain a separate identity. Today, the mother congregation, St. Paul’s of Serbin, is thriving and the Wendish heritage is being revived and cherished.

Issues That Influenced the Wends to Immigrate to Texas
by Mason Becker

My name is Mason Becker and I am a Wend. One hundred fifty-eight years ago, several of my ancestors, along with Pastor Johann Kilian and his congregation, boarded the Ben Nevis and made the long journey to America. It was a hard trip and several of the immigrants never made it to the new world. Among those who survived the trip and eventually settled in Serbin, Texas were my ancestors: Carl Teinert, Johann Teinert, Johann Becker, Rosina Becker, Georg Becker, Hanna Kurijo, Michael Kurijo, Maria Handrick, and Hanna Hattas. If it had not been for these courageous people, I would not be able to have the life and freedoms that I enjoy today.

Why did these people give up their homes and make the journey to America? According to several sources that I have read, the main reason seems to be that they were looking for a place they could practice and preserve their religious beliefs as they saw fit. The Prussian government was forcing the Wends to join the Evangelical Reform church, which they thought would dilute their pure Lutheran faith. The government was also forcing the Wends to speak the German language and even Germanize their names. Many of the Wends were being denied the opportunity to work at jobs for which they were trained. If they were hired, they didn’t receive as much pay as the Germans received. Pastor Kilian and his congregation made the difficult decision to leave everything they had and move to a strange new land. The Wends knew that if they stayed in Germany, they would be forced to give up their Wendish heritage and their Lutheran religion. The amazing faith of these people is what led them and sustained them over their long journey. They knew that God would be with them even though the odds of survival were slim. The trip to Texas was long and hard and they did face tragedy as 58 members died during a cholera outbreak on the Ben Nevis. Once in Galveston, they encountered yellow fever and many became very sick, but they pressed on looking for a place to settle. After traveling several hundred miles inland, they were able to purchase a parcel of land, which became Serbin. Here they built a church and school, which are still in use today. It is truly amazing to me that these people, without any of our modem technologies, were able to build the beautiful church that I attend each Sunday. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for these people to leave their homes, friends and families to travel to a strange new place, not even knowing what they would face once they got here.

The strong faith and beliefs of the Wends are still evident in my life today. Most of my extended family still live in the Serbin area and attend St. Paul. Just this morning during the service, Mr. Wiederhold stopped playing the organ in the middle of “Jesus Savior Pilot Me” and I was amazed at how beautiful the congregation sang in unison even without the music. I thank God that my parents decided to live here in Serbin and believe in the importance of a Christian education. I cannot imagine growing up and going to school anywhere else. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, all the way back to great-great grandparents all belonged to this wonderful congregation.

I don’t really know any of the hardships or experiences that my family in particular may have faced, but I do know that many of the traditions of the Wends have been passed down through the generations and are still practiced today. My grandma and tantes [aunts] still get together and make homemade Wendish noodles from scratch. I have helped several times and now, as these ladies get older, they have been teaching my aunts how to take over the noodle making. My family also gets together and does hog butchering. This tradition has also been passed down and now my dad and uncles are taking over and teaching my generation how to follow. Although some of the methods have changed, the main idea is that we all come together to help each other out. I guess that was one of the main reasons the Wendish people were able to survive. They came together and helped each other out.

Since I was a little boy, my parents have helped at the Wendish Fest each year in September. As I have grown up and now help out myself, I am amazed each year as our small community is invaded by hundreds of strangers that, in fact, are really all part of my family. Even though I don’t know many of them, I am still connected to them by our Wendish ancestors and the strong faith in God that these people carried with them across the ocean. God has truly blessed me, as well as this wonderful place called Serbin, Texas. I don’t know what God has in store for my future, but I do know that because of my roots, I will remain strong in the faith and will teach my children the same beliefs that have been passed down for 158 years. Serbin, Texas will always be my home and the Wends will always be my family.

What I Think It Was Like as a Wend to Emigrate from Germany to Texas
by Peter Gaskamp
Hope and Sadness

My name is Johann Vogel. I was born on February 19, 1841 in the village of Forstgen, near Oberlausitz Germany. My parents, Andreas and Agnes, along with my sister Maria and my brothers Ernst and August, lived in a small cottage on the land we farmed. I spent my early years helping my father tend the land, raising livestock and growing food for our family. It was just after my 13th birthday when my parents first mentioned their plans to relocate to Texas, in America.

I was filled with sadness at the thought of never again seeing the sun rise over the fields I had known my whole life. I was angry with them for wanting to take us from our home and friends. They explained this was to give me and my siblings a better future, while enabling us to preserve our heritage. The Prussian government had been relentlessly smothering our culture, oppressing our language and religion, while preventing economic participation. Our villagers were rarely allowed to work in the nearby town, and when they were they weren’t paid fairly. The government continued to pass decrees that prevented us from worshipping how we wanted, or in the language we wanted. The combination of economic inequality and religious oppression was not a future my parents could let their children bear. In September we were on a train headed for Hamburg.

This was the first time I had been on a train, and it was exhilarating. However; Hamburg brought frustration. Instead of the large ship we arranged to take us to America, there were two small ships waiting for us. Stories were circulating about other smaller ships getting off course and wrecking, so it was demanded that the shipping company uphold the original arrangement. After weeks of waiting, we were loaded onto the two smaller ships and taken to Hull, where we took a train across England to Liverpool. Here we met the large ship Ben Nevis, which was to carry us and almost 600 others across the Atlantic.

I hadn’t realized the trip was going to be so trying. While waiting for the Ben Nevis to be loaded in Liverpool, there was an outbreak of cholera which took 14 lives. After the ship left port, people continued to succumb to sickness. The parents of a boy I had befriended contracted the disease and died. A week later, he and his sister perished as well. I was stunned and scared by the extensive loss of life. My family prayed for us and for our fellow travelers. The disease forced us to stop in Queenstown, Ireland, so the Ben Nevis could be decontaminated. It took three weeks to cleanse the ship. The cholera ultimately claimed 31 lives. The Ben Nevis left Queenstown in late October.

The rest of the journey was less dangerous, but still continued to try our patience. Storms, as well as clear windless days, slowed travel, but the ships’ crew persisted on and we stubbornly persisted with them. The journey was punctuated by a wedding ceremony, and a number of births. Sadly, only one of the newborns survived the journey. After seven weeks we arrived in Galveston, Texas. Over 70 people had died during the journey.

My heart raced as my eyes took in the land of my new home for the first time. This was where we could live as we wanted. We would be able to learn and pursue trades, worship as we traditionally had, and speak in our own tongue. We were free from the oppressive Prussian government. As I breathed in the salty and sulfurous air of the port city, I was filled with both hope and sadness. Hope for the prospect of a new life; sadness for those who lost theirs on the journey.

Though nearing the end, our journey wasn’t over yet. We were temporarily detained in Galveston as customs searched all of our belongings in order to determine the necessary taxes. During this time there was an outbreak of yellow fever, which claimed more lives from our travel-weary group. Customs officials shortly realized that our humble belongings contained few valuables. They stopped searching and charged fifty dollars for everything. We were soon on another steamship, headed towards Houston.

When we arrived in Houston, a number of families decided they would not carry on to the new settlement. For many, they simply could not afford to travel any further. Although we were not completely broke, the remaining journey would likely deplete what little resources we had left. Prudently, my parents chose to use the remaining money to purchase a small plot of land in Houston. We cleared the land and set about farming and raising cattle. Although the soil was sandy and comparable to that of Forstgen, the heat and humidity were unfamiliar. The most difficult parts of our new life were becoming accustomed to the mosquitoes and dealing with the unrelenting summer heat. Learning how to farm in this climate was also a challenge. We quickly found that we would have to grow different crops, most notably com. Since we were able to fairly participate in trade, we also began growing cotton, solely for profit. I started working as an apprentice under a neighbor who taught me the cabinet maker’s trade. I soon began what would tum into a long career with the Houston and Texas Central Railway.

Although the journey had been long, I was thankful to be in our new home. Being able to fully participate in the community and local economy was truly a rewarding experience, as was being able to maintain our religion and language. This was an opportunity I could have never realized in Prussia. I would never forget the hardships that were encountered on the journey here, nor could I forget all the lives lost along the way. This sadness deepened my respect for the opportunities now available to me and my family, and quietly strengthened my hope for the promises of the future. 


Bell, William. Shakespeare’s Puck, and his folklore, illustrated from the superstitions of all nations, but more especially from the earliest religion and rites of northern Europe and the Wends. London. 1852. Print.

Blasig, Anne. The Wends of Texas. The Naylor Company. 1954. Print.

Engerrand, George C. The so-called Wends of Germany and their colonies in Texas and in Australia. University of Texas. 1934. Print.

Federal Ministry of the Interior [Germany]. National Minorities in Germany. 2010. Print.

Nielsen, George R. In Search of a Home: Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration. Texas A&M Press. 1989. Print.

Vogel, Edward. “Andreas Vogel and His Descendants: 1813-1983.” Personal family document. 1983. Print.

A Young Love: Murder in Texas: Helena Anna Zschech and Erwin Wilhelm Mros. Translated into English by Lillian Wilhelm and Luise Dressler. Copyright: Christine Schönerr. 2009. Print.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top