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Wends: The Story of a Dying Heritage

Friday 09 October 2015 at 11:19 pm.

This article by John Makeig first appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

Note: the Wends bought the Delaplane League for $1.00/acre not 50 cents/acre.

-0-

SERBIN - John J. Socha, director of Giddings Chamber of Commerce, encounters a common reaction from those who spot for the first time, his large, red and white "KISS ME I'M WENDISH" button.

"They say, 'The who? What's a Wend? ' " says Socha, a Lutheran pastor who for years has been churning out literature about the Wends, one of Texas' smallest, oldest and least known ethnic minorities.

Virtually the entire population of this tiny Lee County town is fully aware of who the Wends are and why they chose to settle here. And around towns such as La Grange, Warda, Dime Box, Winchester and Swiss Alp, which were settled by Wends in the last century, there is nothing mysterious about them. But outside this area, hardly anyone is familiar with the proud group that has been all but assimilated into American culture.

Their assimilation is so complete that in 1982 Wends - farmers, store owners, restaurateurs, landowners, school teachers and church pastors - are indistinguishable from the very people they once hated and fled Prussia to escape.

The Wends fled Prussia to avoid becoming "Germanized," only to move to Texas and then intermarry with the numerous German immigrants they had as their new neighbors.

Unlike the Amish and other religious groups that stayed together in one small region and worked hard to preserve their heritage, the Wends have all but vanished into Americana. Their language, Wendish, a Slavic mixture of Polish and Czechoslovakian remains alive only among a handful of older individuals.

The very heartland of the area settled by the Wends is a mile from here, set in a grove of trees off a narrow farm road that snakes past oil derricks and farmhouses to the tall, white, solid structure of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, which was built in 1871.

Not far from the church, with its balcony pews, raised pulpit, irreplaceable chandeliers and thick walls, sits the Wendish Museum which has out front, a sign stating: "Witajce K'nam!" That's Wendish for "Welcome!"

The museum's hand tools, colorful costumes worn by mannequins, aging primers and books, lanterns and farm implements, kitchen gear and memorabilia make up a considerable portion of all the remains of the U.S.-Wendish heritage that hasn't crumbled into dust over the decades.

Also in the small complex, between the museum, church and Wendish graveyard is the St. Paul Lutheran Church's school, a two-classroom structure which has 66 students in grades kindergarten through eight. Among them are many descendants of original Wendish settlers, but when they were asked if they could speak - to whatever extent - the Wendish language, not a single youngster admitted he or she could.

The school's principal, Dan Engler, pointed to a small, glass-enclosed area, near the front entrance, which contains the students' Wendish heritage - a few prayer books, primers and pieces of reading material, printed in the Wendish language.

"That's all there is," says Engler, whose school is supported jointly by members of St. Paul's congregation and a 6-year-old oil well that earns $1,000 to $1,500 a month.

The Wends, says Socha, were more or less serfs in Upper Lusatia, a region of the present East Germany that is bounded by the countries of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and the cities of Berlin and Dresden. In the 1800s the Wends lived in small hamlets, spoke their own language and were diehard Lutherans.

Their situation began to change, Socha says, when their forces were defeated by Napoleon's French troops at the Battle of Bautzen in 1803. Thereafter, the Prussians decided to better their position, so they freed the serfs, reinforced their army and, in 1817, turned the tables on the French by beating Napoleon.

This led to the formation of the Prussian Union. The Prussians, says Socha, carried matters a step further by calling for a merger of the evangelical, orthodox and reform Lutheran factions and said that, henceforth, there would exist no distinction between the groups.

This didn't set well with the conservative, orthodox Wends, who then numbered 50,000 to 100,000 and were disinclined to give up their religious choice in the face of demands by Germans who held a negative opinion of the lowly Wends.

The catalyst for transplanting the Wends from Eastern Europe to Texas was a young theological student at the University of Leipzig, Jan Kilian, who was among those opposed to a merger of the Lutheran factions. By the 1830s, groups of Wends' and anti-Prussian elements already were beginning to migrate westward to the United States and other more liberal nations.

In 1854, just after 200 Wends from Lusatia left by ship for Australia, Kilian led 588 Wendish men, women and children, carrying featherbeds, animals in cages, footlockers filled with tools and other personal goods, on a railroad trek to Hamburg. They reached England in two groups, were reunited, and then sailed for Texas on the 167-foot Australian sailing ship Ben Nevis.

Between the time they left Lusatia and their arrival in Galveston on Dec. 14, 1854, about 75 Wends had died of child birth, cholera, old age and more.

They reached the Gulf Coast just in time for another epidemic - yellow fever - and fled Houston, leaving a handful of weary Wends behind, for the wooded, rolling hills of what now is Lee County.

Socha says the Wends, whose hopes had been buoyed along by glowing reports they'd received the previous year from Wends who had come to Texas, arrived at the Colorado River and found land selling for the lofty price of $1.50 an acre.

They couldn't afford it, Socha says.

So they settled for 50-cent-per-acre, stony land and eked along, living in dugouts and shanties during a three-year legal process before they finally were declared owners of the property.

Ted Lammert, 74, a retired schoolteacher in Katy and president of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society, says his ancestors had so much trouble getting their initial crops going that they had to live off the then-plentiful game and every so often traveled by wagon to Houston and Mexico to swap cotton for groceries.

They'd barely arrived, says Lammert, before the Civil War began and Confederate recruiters began trying to conscript young Wends into the Southern army. Since they'd fled Europe to avoid slavery, says Lammert, the Wends were far from pleased to be forced into service to fight on behalf of a cause that called for the continuation of slavery for blacks.

"They'd stay on their farms dressed up as women to avoid recruiters, and others went to Wisconsin to evade the draft,'' says Lammert.

Meanwhile, the Wends, who had fought against relinquishing their Wendish language in favor of the Prussian-endorsed German, found themselves surrounded by German immigrants and German speaking neighbors.

"The very language they despised in Europe suddenly became very helpful to them," says Lammert. "And the German people in Giddings owned land right next to them, and they were no better off than the Wends. So they got along. And a lot of them started intermarrying with the Germans and forgot they were Wends."

Over the decades, Wendish settlers moved to the Port Arthur area to work in refineries, others spread to Austin and Fort Worth, and still others went back to the Houston area to find jobs.

The Wends, thus, were almost wholly absorbed into the Texas population, and the language began to disappear.

"The language really is gone now," says Lammert, "and it's hard to preserve a heritage and a people without a language."

How all this would seem to Jan Kilian, who died in 1884 at the age of 73 after decades as pastor of St. Paul's, is uncertain.

Lammert says Kilian probably would be most annoyed that the Wendish heritage has become so thoroughly assimilated into Texana. More charitably, Socha says Kilian could handle what has happened.

The orthodox Lutheran religion Kilian promoted so vigorously does, indeed, survive him. The Wendish descendants largely remain allied to the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod, the most conservative of the Lutheran factions.

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