Iowa Wends

To search through a database of Dr. Nielsen’s original notes regarding the Iowa Wends, please click here.

This article first appeared in the July 2004 issue of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society Newsletter. It was last revised on April 30, 2012.


At the conclusion of a session at Concordia Historical Institute, a retired pastor from Iowa informed me that a group of Wends had also settled in State Center, Iowa. Although I found it difficult to imagine that such a settlement could exist and not be hinted at in Texas sources, I kept his assertion in the back of my mind. Finally, in 1989, I wrote to Pastor Marvin Flanscha, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, a congregation three and one-half miles north of State Center, for verification. He substantiated the existence of the Wends and on a subsequent trip to the area I examined the church records and also spoke to a woman named Mrs. Atvea Schmelich Zeisneiss who said “My father spoke Vendish.”

During the next years I tried to piece together a picture of the Wends using church records and census material, but not until I came across a study group of Wendish descendants did I make significant progress. The group’s primary focus was on family history, but they knew their families were Wendish and that in one way or another, they were all friends or relatives. The two who helped me the most were Connie Lyall of State Center and Cathy C. Petersen in San Diego. Since then Cathy has conducted extensive research in the European sources and on Iowa connections with Canadian Wends.  She also coordinates a network of e-mail correspondents scattered around the globe. One of their projects was the transcription of the church registers from 1824 to 1875 of their church in Europe.


The Iowa Wends were predominately from Drachhausen, a small village north of Cottbus in Lower Lusatia. Drachhausen, meaning house of the dragon, celebrated its 500th anniversary in June 2004. Drachhausen is located on the north edge of the Spreewald and is surrounded by flat terrain with sandy soil. The village is also the home of the parish church which served residents of the village and a few neighboring villages. The nearest largest neighboring town is Peitz, located on a large lake and well known regionally for its delicacy: carp. This northern location probably helps explains the absence of information in Texas about the Iowa Wends. The Iowa Wends were from Lower Lusatia while the Texas Wends were from Upper and Middle Lusatia. 

The citizens of Drachhausen may have been isolated, but they were not ignorant of the outside world. During the mid-nineteenth century at least one resident migrated to Australia, at least twenty-two found homes in Canada and thirteen traveled to South Africa. During that same period, and extending into the twentieth century more than 150 migrated to Iowa.

Chain Migration

While the Texas Wends illustrate migration in a group, the Iowa Wends fit under the category of chain migration. The five hundred fifty-some Texas Wends who migrated in 1854 traveling together and brought along a pastor and religious items such as the bell for the church and a processional cross.  Entire families, including infants, made the journey. The Iowa Wends, on the other hand, crossed the Atlantic as individuals, often as young adults, or in small groups, over a period of years. In chain migration one person found a place in the United States that suited him and then sent back letters with directions and generally funds or tickets for the next unit to make the crossing. For the Iowa Wends, there are two examples of even greater assistance. One Wend, John Schmellik returned to Drachhausen in 1896 for a visit and brought back fifteen immigrants. Another, Martin Riese, went back on several occasions, and returned with an individual and paid the fare on the condition that the immigrant would work for him for a year. 

Probably, the first person from Drachhausen to settle in southeastern Iowa was Christian Wilhelm Stempel. He also could well claim the honors of being the first Wend to migrate to United States. Although Drachhausen was largely Wendish, Stempel, a physician, was most likely well familiar with German society, having participated in the Napoleonic wars.  He owned land near Drachhausen and migrated in 1847. Stempel also took with him a resident from Drachhausen who worked for him as a carpenter. In the years that followed more members of his family and other Wends crossed the Atlantic for Iowa.

 One Wend who migrated and also attracted immigrants, was Christian Gullick.  He, with his wife and two children, migrated in 1853, six years after Stempel. The route the Gullick family took went through England, and was similar to the 1854 Ben Nevis group. However, instead of going to Galveston, Gullick disembarked at New Orleans and traveled upriver to Fort Madison, Iowa, where Stempel had settled, and bought some land along Sugar Creek. Four years later, in 1857 the Muschick family of ten people, the largest single family to migrate to Iowa, joined the Gullicks. But then, in 1861, the American Civil War began and only Matthes Schlodder migrated in 1863. No more followed until 1868 when the Bubner and Schmellik families of four people made the journey.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 1871 disrupted conditions in Europe and the Panic of 1873 brought bad times to the United States and the only families to migrate between 1868 and 1881 were from Canada—August Woito in 1869 and the Martin Riese family in 1871. They had been part of the Wendish migration to Ontario, but fertile Iowa soil held greater appeal than the rocks of Canada. 

Also in 1871 French Grove, as the location just north of State Center was called, joined Fort Madison as a destination. After one of the Muschick daughters had gotten married and the young couple decided to find a new home further west from Fort Madison, the entire family followed. From that time on the new migrants went to either place, some finding work in agriculture or with the railroad at Fort Madison and some in agriculture near French Grove. But the Wendish families kept in touch even though separated by 150 miles.

  From 1881, when migrations resumed, to 1884 the Markus, Mehlish and Nuemann/Neumann families and the individuals including Martin Schergun, Matthes Bulkow, and Martin Mehlow migrated.  Then followed another break in the migration until the 1890s when many single individuals migrated such as Martin Buckwar, Matthes Kullowatz, Johann Gushmann, Christian Martin Bohrisch, and Otto Richter.  Fred Hannusch migrated in 1893 and then in 1897 his parents and six siblings followed.  Migration continued into the twentieth century with members of the Mehlow family migrating in stages from 1898 to 1910 and the Domann family from 1905 to 1924.

Religious Affiliation and Wendish Awareness

The number of German speaking residents in southeastern Iowa was small when the first Wends arrived in Fort Madison, so the religious choice was limited because of language. They had been members of the Prussian state church and most had not found problems with the royally ordained blending of Lutheranism and Calvinism. One exception was the Marcus family whose staunch Lutheranism made religion a factor in migration. In general, the Wends living in Fort Madison affiliated with the one German-speaking congregation that served both Lutherans and Calvinists and eventually became St. John UCC, a Calvinist or German Reformed church.     

The largest concentration of Iowa Wends was French Grove, near State Center and the church they attended was Lutheran, a congregation of the Missouri Synod. Both Lutheran bodies, the Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America currently maintain congregations in State Center itself, and descendants of Wends can be found in both synods.   

In addition to the frequency of marriage between Iowa Wends, the church records hint of the close ties the Wends maintained. Very often the choice of witnesses at the Wendish weddings and the sponsors at the baptisms of infants of Wendish families were Wendish. The continual migration of Wendish speakers also reinvigorated the use of the language. Wendish could be heard well into the twentieth century when John Schulze and one of the Hannusch men daily talked in Wendish on the telephone. Even so, German and English generally replaced Wendish. A major deterrent to the perpetuation of German and Wendish came in World War I, when Iowa, like Nebraska, passed legislation prohibiting public use of all foreign languages.

Other Migrations

The settlement at French Grove, in central Iowa, was only the initial settlement, and soon Wends began to spread to other small neighboring communities such as Zearing, St. Anthony, and Clemons. The Schlodder family moved further afield and settled in northeastern Kansas. Others such as some of the Muschicks went directly from Drachhausen to New Jersey and Pennsylvania and the Zachow brothers went to upstate New York. Thanks to modern communication and transportation, and the energy of the descendants, the scattered children of Drachhausen are reviving their ties and celebrating their Slavic heritage.

See also “Wending Their Way to Ioway” in the September/October 2006 issue of The Iowan. The following pages were compiled in the early stages of research. Since then Cathy Peterson has identified many more names and details.