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« Wends: The Story of a… | Home | Where's the Beef? »

Wends Trade Ethnicity for Freedom, Prosperity

Friday 09 October 2015 at 11:27 pm.

This story by Samuel Hudson first appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Tuesday, May 24, 1983.

Note: The Wends did not enter England via London but rather via Hull.

Note: The Wends bought their land, called the Delaplain League, for $1/acre, not 50 cents/acre.

Note: The Wendish wedding dresses were still black into the early 1900s.

Note: Almost every Wendish family with a male between the ages of 18 and 30 had someone serving in the Confederate Army.

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Njech Boliu dzakuje

Szo wutroba wschech ludzi,

Kiz wulke wezy szam

Tu czini a tez wschudze . . .

Opening lines of Now Thank We All Our God, from Wendish Hymns and Spiritual Treasures published in Fort Worth in 1979.

With that and other hymns on their lips, fleeing religious, cultural and political persecution, an expedition of Wends left their homeland in Europe and came to Texas in 1854. Here after enduring hardship and isolation, the Wends found freedom and prosperity and . . .

Wait a minute. The Wends? Who are the Wends?

Although the Wendish Heritage Society estimates that descendants of the expedition of 1854 now number 50,000, the Wends are no more as an ethnic group in Texas. The last sermon preached in Wendish was delivered in 1979. Besides freedom and prosperity, the Wends in Texas found living next to them the cousins of the "Prussians" whom they fled Europe to escape. The Wends also discovered that, away from Germany, "Prussians" were upstanding and attractive people. The Wends intermarried with these Texas Germans and adopted their customs.

One vanished Wendish custom was that Wendish brides wore black to their weddings.

"That was because the Wends tended to dwell on the burdensome aspects of marriage," explains John J. Socha, a Wendish historian and the former pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Worth. He is now pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Dime Box and manager of the Giddings Chamber of Commerce.

''You can trace the course of Wendish assimilation into Texas culture by when the color of Wendish brides' wedding dresses changed." Socha says. "In the 1880s their dresses were gray; by the turn of this century, their wedding gowns were white."

This is Sochas outline of the Wendish trek to and through Texas:

The Wends were a Slavic-language minority living in Upper Lusatia, a province in what is now East Germany. The Wendish language is to Polish and Czech as, roughly, Catalan is to Spanish and French.

The Wends were a rural people, keeping to themselves in small villages and hamlets. By the end of the 18th century they still were serfs, members of the lowest feudal class, bound to the land and owned by a lord - slaves in all but name.

After the Prussians and their allies were defeated by Napoleon's troops at the Battle of Bautzen in Lusatia in 1803, the Prussians freed the Wends from serfdom in order to give them a stake in the struggle against Napoleon's invaders. ln 1817, the Prussians, with Wends fighting alongside them, defeated Napoleon.

This victory led the strengthened Prussians to form the Prussian Union and to set about "Germanizing" the territories they controlled. One mode of "Germanization" was the forced merger of the evangelical, orthodox and reform factions of the Lutheran church. The Wends, who had been highly orthodox and conservative Lutherans since Jan Hus and his followers spread the Reformation among the Slavs, rebelled against this denial of their faith. The Prussians also attempted to suppress Wendish as a written and spoken language.

In 1854, Jan Kilian, a young theological student at the University of Leipzig who had been active in anti-Prussian movements, led 588 Wendish men, women and children out of Europe. Via London, they sailed from Hamburg to Texas on the Ben Nevis, a 167-foot Australian sailing ship.

By the time this expedition of Wends reached Galveston on Dec. 14, 1854, death by childbirth, cholera and old age had reduced their numbers to close to 500.

The survivors arrived on the Gulf Coast to find themselves amidst a yellow fever epidemic. Leaving a weary handful behind in Houston, the Wends moved overland to what is now Lee County. They settled six miles from Giddings, on land selling for 50 cents an acre. They called their settlement Serbin.

The Wends established homesteads and learned to work their stony land. Then the Civil War broke out. Recruiters arrived and tried to conscript young Wendish men into the Confederate Army. Having a low opinion of armies and of any form of forced servitude, some young Wendish men avoided conscription by working in their fields dressed as women; others fled to Wisconsin.

During Reconstruction, the Wends suffered alongside their German neighbors and came to know and like them. As they became more assimilated into Texas culture, the Wends began to spread out in Texas.

In 1870, a group of Wendish families left Lee County and settled in Vernon. Some of their descendants now live in Tarrant County.

"By 1934," John J. Socha says, "an anthropologist from the University of Texas (at Austin) said that there were Wends living in 40 major cities and towns in Texas."

How can you tell if a Texan is of Wendish extraction?

"We've had some buttons made up," says Socha, "like political campaign buttons. Some say, 'Ya sym Serb,' which means 'I'm a Wend' and have a picture of the ship on which the Wends sailed to Texas. But the more popular buttons are in American English. They just say, 'Kiss me, I'm Wendish.' "

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