The Wends (also known as Sorbs or Lusatian Serbs) are a Slavic people concentrated in East Germany near Bautzen and Cottbus in the upper Spree River valley, an area long known as Lusatia. They speak Sorbian, which is divided into two dialects, Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian. The language was originally written with Gothic letters, although since 1937 the Latin alphabet has been used. Wends have never had an independent nation, and their homeland has always been surrounded by Germans. During the Middle Ages the Wends survived the raids and massacres of German Eastland horsemen; especially during the Nazi years they were pressured to assimilate the German culture, and gradually they have adopted the German language and many customs, although they still retain a separate identity. In 1840, before overseas migration began, there were about 164,000 Wends in Lusatia. In the 1980s there were only 60,000. Outside Germany, most of the Wends settled in two areas, Australia and Texas. The desire for better economic opportunity was probably the main reason for Wendish immigration to Australia and to Texas a few years later. Although scholars dispute the role of social and religious factors in the process, Texas Wends commonly express the belief that their forefathers came here solely for religious freedom. Around 1848 small groups of Wends began immigrating to Australia, where many Germans had already settled. These pioneers sent letters home, many of which were published in local newspapers, and which influenced Wends still in Europe. A small group of Wends came to Austin County around 1849–50 and were quickly absorbed into the German community. In 1853 a group of thirty-five Wends left Bremen for Texas. They were shipwrecked off the coast of Cuba, but eventually made their way to Galveston, and from there to the communities of New Ulm and Industry.
In the fall of 1854 a newly established congregation of nearly 600 conservative Lutheran Wends, led by John Kilian, left Germany to join their countrymen in Texas. The group constituted the only mass exodus of Wends. Traveling first by railway and steamship to Liverpool, England, the Wends embarked on an English ship, the Ben Nevis, for the journey to Texas. While in Liverpool, however, a number of Wends contracted cholera, and seventy-three of them died on board the ship. After a three week stop in Queenstown, Ireland, to remove the sick and fumigate the ship, the Ben Nevis sailed for Galveston, where it arrived on December 15, 1854. Galveston was having a yellow fever epidemic. From December to January the Wends walked the eighty-five miles to New Ulm and Industry. Two lay leaders of the congregation, Johann Dube and Carl Lehmann, went on ahead thirty miles and purchased a league of land in what is now Lee County. At first services were held in one room of Kilian's two-room house, but the group set aside ninety-five acres for a church and school, later called St. Paul's. This was the first Missouri Synod Lutheran church founded in Texas and is thus the mother church not only of the Wends, but of all conservative Lutherans in Texas. After their first tiny log church was erected, individuals purchased farm acreage and town lots, built crude dugout houses for shelter, and established what became the community of Serbin. In 1860 Serbin had a post office. After 1871, however, a new railroad connection made nearby Giddings the business and commercial center of the region, and Serbin declined in both population and influence.
Over the years, due to religious dissension and economic pressures, the Wends spread throughout south central Texas. Today the leading Wendish centers are in Lee, Fayette, Williamson, Coryell, and Bell counties, especially in the towns of Serbin, Warda, Giddings, Fedor, Manheim, Loebau, Lincoln, Winchester, La Grange, Thorndale, Walburg, Copperas Cove, The Grove, Vernon, Swiss Alp, New Ulm, Industry, Noack, and Aleman. Substantial numbers of people of Wendish descent also live in Houston, Austin, and Port Arthur. While most Wends consider themselves Germans, they have maintained an ethnic identity. Early restrictions against intermarriage have relaxed over the years. Nevertheless, many individuals still claim there have been no intermarriages in their families since the arrival of the Ben Nevis. Early Wends practiced many distinctive customs, of which perhaps the most noticeable to outsiders was the German Lutheran custom of wearing black wedding dresses by Wendish brides to represent the grief and hardship of marriage. This custom died out by the 1890s. Religious conservatism militated against wearing bright colors, dancing, secular singing, or any other kind of frivolity. The Wends valued education, and today St. Paul's still has an accredited parochial school. Church congregations regularly paid for the higher education of promising young men who wanted to become pastors or teachers. In the 1980s Concordia Lutheran College in Austin still received considerable Wendish support.
The proximity of German neighbors eventually resulted in cultural assimilation and adaptation. At the time of their migration, most of the Wends spoke Wendish and German, and those who spoke only Wendish learned German after they moved to Texas. Most of the Wends in Serbin and all of the Wends who settled elsewhere had adopted German as their primary language by the time of World War I. The shift from Wendish to German is documented in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt, the principal German-language paper in the area. The newspaper, although largely written in German, also contained articles or letters in Wendish. Wendish, however, was gradually supplanted, reflecting the general shift to German language. By the 1930s the language had begun to die out in Texas, and few people remained who were still completely fluent. In the 1980s only a few people could still speak the language. In rural Wendish areas German continued to be used for church services until after World War II, but today it has also largely died out. The Texas Wendish Heritage Society, founded in 1971, actively seeks to preserve and, whenever possible, revive remnants of the Wendish culture. One project involves an attempt to translate and publish all early Wendish documents. The society, which had about 350 members in 1994, maintains a Wendish museum at Serbin and annually participates in the Folklife Festival of the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio. The art of Easter egg painting has been maintained as a Wendish tradition. Wendish Fest, an annual festival held at Serbin in September, celebrates the Wendish heritage of the area.