The first Polish immigration to America, extending from 1608 to 1775, consisted of only a few adventurers or religious refugees; it was not until the period from 1776 to 1853 that political refugees from the Napoleonic Wars, the partitions of Poland, and the Polish Revolution of 1830 influenced immigration to Texas. Early in 1818 a group of Polish veterans who had served under Napoleon were among the roughly 400 men of various nationalities who sailed up the Trinity River and founded the military camp of Champ d'Asile north of Galveston (near what is now Liberty). This short-lived colony soon dispersed because of famine and the threat of Spanish military opposition. A few Polish veterans fought in the Texas Revolution at Goliad and San Jacinto. The greatest wave of immigration began in 1854 and lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Partition of Poland by its neighbors had led to deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in the homeland, and Texas offered encouragement to immigrants. Some came as early as 1830, as individuals rather than in groups, and these for the most part were absorbed into the communities where they settled. Simon Wiess was one of the Poles in Texas during the 1830s; he was living in Galveston by 1833, and served as a collector of customs under the governments of both Mexico and the Republic of Texas. Father Leopold Moczygemba, a Polish Franciscan missionary, had been working in the areas of San Antonio, New Braunfels, and Castroville since September 1852, and it was through his influence that a group of some 100 Polish families (accounts vary as to the exact number), from Pluznica and other villages of the Upper Silesian area of Poland, arrived in south central Texas. They sailed on the Weser, out of Bremen, and landed in Galveston on December 3, 1854; traveling inland, they founded the town of Panna Maria ("Virgin Mary") in Karnes County on December 24, 1854 (having the first Mass said there on Christmas Day following). Their new town was located on 300 acres at the junction of the San Antonio and Cibolo rivers; the land was purchased from John Twohig. This was the first permanent Polish colony in the United States, and ruins of the first stone buildings remain today. Though the first year in Texas was extremely hard, they persevered, and some 700 of their Polish countrymen followed, arriving in Galveston on December 15, 1855; thirty additional families arrived the next year. Not all of the Polish families reached the Cibolo-San Antonio junction. Some chose to remain in the coastal communities, and others continued along the San Antonio and Medina rivers, settling in St. Hedwig, Bandera, San Antonio, and Yorktown. It was at Panna Maria, however, that the first Polish Catholic church (1855) and the first Polish school, St. Joseph's School (1866), in the United States were established.
By 1861 there were about 1,500 Poles in Texas. With the influx of immigrants after 1865, the Texas towns of Cestohowa, Kosciusko, Falls City, Polonia, New Waverly, Brenham, Marlin, Bremond, Anderson, Bryan, and Chappell Hill were either founded or populated by the Poles. While the Poles settled primarily in South and Central Texas, after the Civil War some immigrants moved to East Texas, where landowners recruited them to replace slave labor. In East Texas the Poles worked primarily as tenant farmers (see FARM TENANCY). The earliest Polish colony founded in East Texas was the town of New Waverly (1867) in Walker County. Later in the nineteenth century more Polish immigrants moved to the north and northeastern sections of the United States to settle in the industrialized cities. For many years the Poles did not contribute directly to the political, cultural, or social life of the state; the language barrier was difficult to overcome, and many Poles chose to remain isolated rather than adapt to new situations. They did, however, contribute to the economy, being industrious farmers, artisans, and laborers. Their social life was bound up in the feasts and festivals of the Catholic Church. Native Polish clergy cared for the spiritual welfare of the people, and Polish national churches were founded. There were also small numbers of Polish Jews in some of the communities. Education, at first considered unimportant, became necessary to second and third generation Poles. Thorough "Americanization" of the Poles, however, did not take place until after World War II.
Texas Poles formed some fraternal groups. St. Joseph's Society, the first chapter in Texas of the Polish National Alliance, was established at Bremond in 1889. In the twentieth century the Texas branch expanded to include twelve lodges statewide by the 1970s. The locales included Houston, San Antonio, Panna Maria, Chappell Hill, Bremond, El Paso, and Yorktown, and a popular activity of the fraternal organization was the observance of Polish Constitution Day on May 3. The Poles did not generally establish Polish-language presses as did other European ethnic groups, and the teaching of the Polish language never developed beyond the primary level. It was not until 1971 that Polish ethnic consciousness in Texas emerged at the statewide level, with the founding of a Texas chapter of the Polish American Congress by Father John W. Yanta. By the late twentieth century the largest Polish population in Texas was in Houston, but with the exception of the Bryan, Houston, and San Antonio groups, the Polish settlements remained predominantly rural. The customs, traditions, and language of the old country were still in evidence among the older groups of Poles in Texas. In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson presented a mosaic of Our Lady of Czestochowa, also known as the Black Madonna, the patron saint of Poland, to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the oldest Polish church in the United States—in Panna Maria, honoring 1,000 years of Polish Christianity. In 1984 the Polish Genealogical Society of Texas was formally organized, and a special contingent of Polish descendants from Panna Maria greeted Pope John Paul II during his visit to San Antonio in September 1987.
In the 1990s a number of Polish organizations operated in Texas, including the Polish Arts and Culture Foundation and the Polish National Alliance Lodge No. 2540, both located in San Antonio, and the Polish Genealogical Society of Texas, located in Houston. The Panna Maria Historical Society published the Panna Maria Newsletter. The group promoted Polish cultural awareness and planned for the restoration of the church at Panna Maria. The Panna Maria visitors' center and St. Joseph's School Museum displayed artifacts and exhibits depicting Polish pioneer life, and the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio had an exhibit on Texas Polish culture. San Antonio was also home to Our Lady of Czestochowa shrine and museum, a grotto commemorating Poland's millennium of Christianity. A number of Texas Historical Commission markers across the state noted Polish towns, individuals, and churches; this included a number of markers in the Panna Maria area, as well as at St. Stanislaus Church in Bandera. Polish-related festivals in the state included an annual Homecoming Turkey Dinner every October in Panna Maria and a Polish food and arts-and-crafts booth at the Texas Folklife Festival every August in San Antonio. In 1990 there were 237,557 Texans of Polish descent. Of that total, 191,069 lived in urban areas while 46,488 lived in rural areas.