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Polish Texans

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Culture and the Arts
Panna Maria, the first Polish settlement in the United States. Photo by Robert Plocheck.

 

In December 1854, one hundred Polish families arrived in Galveston on the Weser. Traveling by wagon down the coast to Indianola and then inland, the group reached a spot on the coastal prairie about 55 miles southeast of San Antonio. With the celebration of a Christmas Mass, they founded Panna Maria, the first Polish settlement in North America.

Today there are at least 228,309 Texans of Polish ancestry, according to the 2000 U.S. census, making them the seventh largest ethnic group in the state. But, the history of Polish Texans goes back before Panna Maria.

Earlier Arrivals

A few Poles arrived in Texas as early as 1818. These were members of the predominately French group that sought refuge near present-day Liberty. General Charles Lallemand, a close lieutenant of Napoleon, led several hundred veterans and families into exile at a place they called Champ d’Alise (Field of Asylum).

The upheavals in Europe amidst the French Revolution and Napoleon’s reign influenced the alliance of the Poles. The nations of Prussia, Austria and Russia had partitioned Poland in the 1790s, leaving a small Kingdom of Poland around Warsaw. However, this “kingdom" was subject to the Russian czar and had limited independence.

So, many Poles had joined the French forces against the occupying powers and at least four of these veterans were members of the short-lived colony in Texas: their last names were recorded as Malczewski, Skierdo, Salanav and Boril. In less than a year after the settlement was founded, the Champ d’Alise colonists fled to New Orleans as supplies ran out and the Spanish military was moving up from Mexico to disperse them.

In Poland in 1830 an uprising against the Russian rulers failed and the limited independence ended. All segments of society, military and civilian, were assimilated into Russian institutions. The same pressures were also occurring in the Prussian sector of Poland, where the government was encouraging ethnic Germans to move into the Polish territories and, related to that, was not opposed to the Polish moving out.

The effect of these government policies left the Polish people with only their language and the Polish Catholic church structure to distinguish them from the Orthodox Russians and Lutheran Prussians.

This situation pushed other individuals to leave for Texas. These Poles soon found themselves caught up in the simmering Texas Revolution. Michael Debicki, an engineer, served at Goliad. Others serving with Colonel James Fannin were Francis and Adolph Petrussewicz, John Kornicky and Joseph Schrusnecki. All died at Goliad. Felix Wardzinski served at the Battle of San Jacinto.

Panna Maria

But it was a series of disasters in the 1850s in Poland that created the real impetus for significant immigration to Texas. Severe weather, a poor economy, floods, lack of food, epidemics of typhoid and cholera; all these spurred interest in a better life elsewhere.

How that came to be Texas was through the efforts of a Polish priest who had been serving the German parishes in New Braunfels and Castroville, Rev. Leopold Moczygemba. The Franciscan had arrived in 1852, and it was his correspondence home to the province called Silesia that served as the catalyst for emigration.

The 1854 group, some 300 people in all, was made up of farmers and artisans, including Father Moczygemba’s several brothers. The Polish immigrants were not destitute but from a propertied class with the resources to finance the long journey by rail, ship, boat and wagon to their eventual settlements in Texas.

Father Moczygemba had picked the location in Karnes County near the convergence of the San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek and had helped arrange the purchase of land. But soon, many on the party were unhappy with the primitive conditions of the locale and blamed the priest. As a way of reconciliation, a banquet was arranged to hear the complaints of the settlers. The pastor assured them that the wilderness hardships were behind them. Then, as they all began their meal, a rattlesnake fell to the table from the rafters.

In 1856, whether because of the continued ill-feeling or merely because of needed service elsewhere, the Franciscans moved Father Moczygemba to the Midwest where other Poles were moving into cities.

Today their legacy is seen in the large Polish communities from Illinois to Pennsylvania. Father Moczygemba died in Michigan in 1891 and was buried in Detroit, but in 1974 his remains were brought to Panna Maria (Virgin Mary in Polish) and reinterred at the spot where he had celebrated the inaugural Mass in 1854.

Other groups of Poles quickly followed their relatives to Texas but many stayed in settled towns such as Yorktown and San Antonio rather than enduring the more rugged conditions of new settlement.

But some new towns were started. One of the first after Panna Maria was St. Hedwig in Bexar County. In 1855, another group of Polish immigrants moved out to the frontier west of San Antonio, settling in Bandera.

In their everyday life, there was significant contact with the Mexican-Texans living close to the Polish colonies and who worshiped in the same Catholic parishes. Sources say that often the Polish immigrants learned Spanish before they were proficient in English.

Blue and Gray

By 1861, there were some 1,500 Poles in the state, and they were quickly faced with the choice of participation in the Civil War. Most, for as long as possible, tried to stay out of the struggle, but they eventually were involved. In all, some 70,000 Texans served in the Confederate forces, and this included the unit called the Panna Maria Grays, made up of Anglos and Poles.

The Confederate fortifications at Galveston, Sabine Pass and other coastal sites were planned by Col. Valerian Salkowski, and several Silesians from Panna Maria served in Wilke’s Battalion of Light Artillery.

But, there were also more than 2,000 Texans who served in the Union Army. Many of these Unionists were recent immigrants who found slavery morally repugnant and whose allegiance was to their new homeland, “America."

There are accounts of Poles who, after being captured as Confederates, accepted offers of release from prisoner-of-war camps in return for joining units of the Union Army. One Union officer wrote that most of the Confederates who chose to do this were “foreigners, Germans, Polanders, etc."

One such soldier from Karnes County, Peter Kiolbassa, started as a bugler in the Panna Maria Grays but ended the war as captain in command of a company of the Sixth U.S. Colored Cavalry.

After the war he settled in Chicago and became the first Polish-born state legislator in America and a leading figure in Chicago politics.

Another Polish soldier from Texas was Joseph Cotulla who enlisted in the First Texas Cavalry in the Union Army. The county seat in La Salle County, where he settled after the war, is named for him.

Second Wave in 1870s

Back in Poland, another insurrection was put down in 1863, resulting in increased restrictions from the ruling powers. In the Prussian partition, Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, a program enforcing German culture onto the Polish people, caused about 152,000 Poles to leave the provinces of Pozan, Bydgoszcz and Silesia.

This new wave of immigration in the 1870s brought Poles to the Texas towns of Anderson, Stoneham, Brenham, Bremond, Chappell Hill, New Waverly and others. Many of them started as sharecroppers on what used to be large plantations and eventually acquired their own land.

Later, Polish settlement branched out from south-central Texas to start farming communities at White Deer in the Panhandle in 1909 and McCook in the Rio Grande Valley in 1927.

Thurber, an important mining town west of Fort Worth, was populated in the late 19th century mainly by European immigrants, including a large segment of Poles. When the mining ended in the 1920s, many of the Polish laborers went to mining areas in other states or moved into Texas cities.

Into the 20th Century

The 20th century phenomenon of urbanization included Texas Poles. The Polish community in San Antonio grew as young people left the farms for life in the city. Houston attracted other young Poles. By 1900 there were some 200 Polish families in the port city. A century later there is said to be 55,000 people of Polish descent in Houston.

Unlike the reticence at the start of the Civil War, the young Polish-Texans were quick to enlist for service in World War I. The isolation that had been a result of their language and other differences had given way through assimilation to closer ties to the rest of Texas society.

It was through this war effort that their ancestral homeland would again be an independent nation. Ironically, when they returned from the service to their Texas homes, they were faced with a resurgent nativism during the 1920s. Ku Klux Klan harassment and anti-Polish and anti-Catholic discrimination were evident at this time.

Another group of Polish immigrants arrived in Texas in the 1980s when the faltering Communist regime was cracking down on the Solidarity movement. Most of this group were professional people who made their homes in Texas’ urban areas.

About the same time, the shift of population from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt brought more Polish-Americans from the northern and midwestern states to become Texans.

Important Polish Figures

Polish contributors to Texas culture include Carl von Iwonski. The paintings by this German-Polish artist portrayed the pioneers in Texas from the 1850s into the 1870s. In the later part of this period, he also became known for his photography. Brought to New Braunfels as a child, he worked in San Antonio and was a leader there during Reconstruction of the Radical Republicans. He returned to Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) and died there in 1912.

Another figure in the arts was Pola Negri, who spent the last decades of her life in San Antonio after being a Hollywood star in the silent era.

A more recent film star is Nina Kaczorowski, who grew up in Houston, the daughter of immigrants. Her films include Pearl Harbor and The Minority Report.

Religion

The importance of Catholicism as the overwhelming factor in maintaining Polish identity can be seen right from that first Mass at Panna Maria. Almost immediately, as each new location was settled, a church would be started with the priest serving as principal leader and advocate to the civil society around them.

Important figures among them were Rev. Vincent Barzynski (1838-1899), pastor in St. Hedwig and San Antonio and who later led the largest Polish parish in Chicago; Rev. Thomas Moczygemba (Leopold’s nephew, 1863-1950) who was the acknowledged leader of the Polish community in San Antonio; and Rev. Edward Dworaczyk (1906-1965) who wrote The First Polish Colonies of America in Texas.

Through the church the Polish community has maintained contact with leaders of their ancestral home. In the last decades, Lech Walesa, who lead the Solidarity movement and served as president of Poland, has visited in Texas, as have Polish cardinals and bishops who participate in Polish Catholic feasts.

In 1982, amid the last wave of immigration, the Catholic bishop in Houston established Our Lady of Czestochowa Church as a Polish parish. It now has about 250 Polish families and a school teaching the Polish language.

Language, Music and Food

A few people in the older rural communities still speak an antiquated Silesian dialect that is difficult for modern Polish speakers to understand. Of course, many of the Poles who arrived in the 1980s speak the modern language. Today, two universities in the state, the University of Texas at Austin and Rice University, offer studies of the language and culture.

The Mexican-Polish connection that began in 1854 also brought the blending of music, mixing sounds from the polka groups and adding the use of the accordion to Mexican bands in South Texas.

However, even though the accordion is a part of Polish polka, the fiddle is the centerpiece and is what distinguishes Polish from Czech and German polka bands. One popular band today, Brian Marshall and the Tex-Slavik Playboys, continues this legacy. Marshall is from the Houston area but with Bremond roots.

Polka music is still heard on more than 20 radio stations statewide, including Austin, Dallas and Houston and Polish dance groups are active in those cities and in the San Antonio area, home of the Polish Eagle Dance Group and the South Texas Polish Dancers.

Classical music from Poland is the focus of two groups in the state, the Fryderyk Chopin Society of Texas, in Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande Valley, and the Chopin Society of Houston. The Houston group annually stages the Polish Music Festival in that city. The performances include not only Chopin but also Paderewski and others.

Also in Houston, the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences publishes a scholarly journal, The Sarmatian Review, and holds a Polish Film Festival annually.

Festivals also abound in the smaller cities with servings of Polish food. Preeminent is the kielbasa, the Polish sausage with lots of garlic.

Other foods include the pierogi, a dumpling often stuffed with various fillings; bigos, a kind of stew; babka, a cake served at Easter; rosol, chicken soup, and golbaki, cabbage rolls.

But, the Texas cultural mix shows up prominently in the annual homecoming turkey dinner in Panna Maria, where the menu includes tamales.

Festivals

• Panna Maria Homecoming Dinner, October

• Polish Film Festival, Houston and Austin, November

Parish festivals,

     • St. Stanislaus, Anderson, October

     • St. Stanislaus, Bandera, May

     • St. Mary, Bremond, October

     • St. Stanislaus, Chappell Hill, September

     • St. Ann, Kosciusko, August

     • St. Joseph, New Waverly, September

     • St. Mary, Stockdale, October

     • Holy Cross, Yorktown, September

• Polish Heritage Festival, Brenham, October

• Polski Dzien Festival, Bremond, (including the Polish Pickle 5K run), June

• Slavic Heritage Day, Houston, October

• Various music festivals and competitions, annually,

Groups

• Chopin Society of Houston

• Austin Polish Society

• Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences, The Sarmatian Review, Houston

• Polish Genealogical Society of Texas

• Polish National Alliance, various chapters

• Polish American Congress, Texas division

• Polish-American Club of Rio Grande Valley

• Kosciuszko Foundation, Houston Chapter, encourages cultural exchanges with Poland.

• Polish Education and Cultural Center – Ognisko

• Polski, Houston.

• Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, Texas division, a fraternal and benevolent society.

• Polish Home (Dom Polski), founded in Houston in 1891 to assist less fortunate of Polish community.

— written by Robert Plocheck, associate editor, for the Texas Almanac 2004–2005.

• Link to Panna Maria town page. 

SOURCES

The First Polish Americans: Silesian Settlements in Texas, by T. Lindsay Baker, Texas A&M University Press, 1979.

The Polish Texans, staff, University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, 1972.

New Handbook of Texas, 1996, various: "Poles," by Jan L. Perkowski and Jan Maria Wozniak. Others, "Leopold Moczygemba," by T. Lindsay Baker; "Carl G. von Iwonski," by James Patrick McGuire; "Barbara Apollonia Chalupec [Pola Negri]," by Christopher Long; "Vincent Barzynski," by Joseph W. Schmitz; "Thurber," by James C. Maroney; "Grimes County," by Charles Christopher Jackson; "Karnes County," by Christopher Long; "First Texas Cavalry USA," by Eugene M. Ott Jr. and Glen E. Lich.

The Medallion, Texas Historical Commission, 1990: "Historic Karnes County" and "Panna Maria, Texas."

Chronology of Central European Colonization in Texas, by Lera Patrick Tyler, online.

• Polish Genealogical Society of Texas, "Polish Texans" and "First Polish Catholic Settlements in Texas," compiled by Virgina Felchak Hill, online.

Polish American Journal, June 1997, "Preserving ‘Polonia’s Plymouth Rock’: Panna Maria, Texas."

The Reaction of Former Peasants to American Slavery: A Case Study of the First Silesian Settlement in North America, Panna Maria, Texas, by Eric Opiela, online.

A History of La Salle and McMullen Counties, online.

Texas Art Teaches Texas History, online.

• Polish Roots, "What 19th Century Provinces Now Belong to Poland?" and "The Poles of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania," online.

• Polonia Today, "A Brief History of Poland," online.

• Polonia: United States of America, "Panna Maria, Texas: The First Polish Settlement in America," by Richard Lysiak Jr., online.

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