The Household of Faith

This article by George Nielsen first appeared in the October 2016 Newsletter of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society.

Helping fellow members of the faith has a long history with the Texas Wends. Both German and Wendish newspaper articles that reported the departure of the 1854 migration from the Bautzen train station also stated that the poorer immigrants received financial support from those who were well to do. And both articles mentioned that the poor people would repay their benefactors when they arrived in their new country. Unfortunately, there are no documents that spell out the details of this support and any attempt to piece together the program from scattered incidental comments, could very well raise more questions than it answers.

While we do know that the support was limited to the cost of the ticket, which was 55 Taler, we do not know how many poor people received support. One source states that the amount in the fund was 8,000 Taler, which would cover 145 tickets, and another source says it was 6,000, which would pay for 109 tickets. So a safe estimate would place the number of Wends who received assistance at slightly over one hundred.

That mechanism for transferring the money from the haves to the have-nots could have been the V. L. Meyer shipping company. When individual passengers or a family unit boarded the train at Bautzen they took with them only personal items and shipped the bulky possessions separately. Because the shipping company provided the transportation, food, and other costs, the emigrant did not carry cash, but turned over all the Taler to the shipping company. The shipping firm exchanged the Talers for Dollars in Hamburg and later returned a portion to the appropriate person on arrival in Texas. The value of the fund administered by the shipping company in Hamburg was 12,000 US dollars. It is possible that the account of the emigration society held by the shipping company included the six thousand Taler for the poor as well as the Taler the emigrants deposited for exchange and later distribution.

One Taler and 12 Neugroschen was the equivalent to one Dollar, or 100 Taler was equal to 75 Dollars. You can get an idea of the purchasing power of a Taler if you remember that the lay leaders promised Pastor Kilian a salary of 1,000 Taler plus fees. So in Texas terms his annual salary was 750 Dollars. In purchasing power that amount could pay for 750 acres of Delaplain League land.

One problem with this program of aiding the poor was the possible death of a recipient. If a person died, who would pay the treasury for the 55 Taler investment? Kilian wrote that about 2,000 Taler was lost because of the death of the poor. At the cost of 55 Taler a person, about thirty-six of the seventy-four who died on the journey were poor. This 2,000 Taler loss presumably was pro-rated and when the American dollars were distributed, everyone received a lesser amount.

The account held by the shipping company was closed on August 8, 1855, when J. W. Jockusch of Galveston, consul for both Prussia and Hamburg, sent a bill of exchange for $123.42 to H. Ernst Knolle of Industry. Knolle, in turn, presented it to the Association of Saxon and Prussian Lutherans, who in turn gave it to Pastor Kilian for the Serbin congregation. Presumably the consul acted for the shipping company by distributing the dollars that remained.

While the leaders were looking for land the poor remained in Houston looking for work. When ownership for the Delaplain was transferred to the Wendish leaders (March 21, 1855) the poor were given the option to join the Wends in Bastrop County and to set up farms on the congregation’s land. There are no records that show how many took advantage of the offer, but infrequent references suggest that not many did. Working for a daily wage may have been a more realistic choice, but the practice of making church lands available for use by the poor was made a long-standing alternative and St. Peter’s congregation also adopted the practice on its fifty acres.

During the years after the settlement had been established, aiding the poor or needy was generally associated with help in housing for widows, individuals who were mentally handicapped, or families whose house was destroyed by fire. Instances such as this were relatively rare.

The most common form of help, and the one that did not require a resolution in the voters’ assembly, was given at the death of a fellow believer. The congregation closed ranks and provided support for the family that suffered the loss. Pastor Kilian generally closed an obituary thanking those who helped. Here is an example from widow Anna Schelnick’s obituary in 1865:

Thanks to the widow Anna Hollass for her visits and demonstrated love; to her widowed sister, Maria Kasper, for her sympathy and demonstrated great love; to John and Anna Schulze, for their demonstrated love; to John and Maria Schelnick, for their love; to aunt Anna Domaschk for visits and love, to Ursula Matthiez for visits and love, to the widows, Maria Mitschke, Anna Schubert, and Anna Malke for visits; to Carl Lehmann, for making the coffin, and to the two grave diggers, the pallbearers, and all of the mourners.

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