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Polish Immigration to Texas

Texas early offered a new home to many Central Europeans. Beyond the significant populations of Germans and Czechs, many early immigrants also came from Poland, specifically from Upper Silesia near Opole. From the 18th century up to World War I, Poland was partitioned among its neighbors Russia, Prussia, and Austria. In the early 19th century Prussian Silesia's experience with poverty, high taxes, forced conscription, food shortages due to the Crimean War, a potato blight, and a great flood in the summer of 1854 led many to seek a better life elsewhere.

The first permanent Polish settlement in the United States was founded in Texas. Polish immigrants followed Father Leopold Moczygemba, born in 1824 in the Upper Silesian village of Płużnica. Moczygemba's own path to Texas led through Franciscan monasteries in Osimo, Italy, and Ludwigshafen, Germany. In 1852, the first bishop of the Texas Diocese of Galveston, Jean-Marie Odin, visited Europe and brought priests to the United States. Among them the Silesian Moczygemba was to provide missionary service to German settlers in New Braunfels. During this work he conceived a plan to bring other Silesians to Texas for socioeconomic opportunities. Letters he sent home spurred interest and a sense of urgency for moving to the New World, culminating in the first 150 immigrants' departure. Moving to a promised land, they sold everything and left nothing but memories.

These first Silesians set sail in October 1854 from Bremen in the Weser, which reached Galveston Harbor on December 3. From there they headed to San Antonio via Indianola. Father Moczygemba met the new arrivals on December 21. Though a small group of the Polish settlers remained in the nearby town of Bandera hoping for better opportunities, most accompanied the Father to found Panna Maria, Texas, on an uncultivated plateau in Karnes County. So began the first Polish settlement in America. With the ebb and flow of Polish immigration further communities soon sprang up, including Cestohowa, Kosciusko, Pawelekville, Falls City, and St. Hedwig, this latter ultimately the second largest. These villages later organized around the Catholic Diocese of San Antonio, founded in 1874. To their east the founding of New Waverly in Walker County in 1867 signaled the beginning of the East Texas Polish communities of the Diocese of Galveston.

The initial impressions of the new Panna Maria residents disappointed — nothing but open space with tall grass and scattered oak trees. Nonetheless, many provided their families both sustenance and income tilling their own land, while others found work as laborers with Americans. But life in Texas remained difficult. Early on floods, drought, and hailstorms wreaked havoc among the farming communities. These struggles and repeated bouts of disease ingrained a profound homesickness. Though the Silesians generally kept to themselves, disputes occasionally arose with Texas Germans over language use in churches and schools. The Polish language formed a pillar of identity and cohesion, maintaining its presence in many churches; in schools — the first, St. Joseph School in Panna Maria, was founded in 1866 — and in a newspaper, Nowiny Texaskie (Texas News), published from 1913–1920 in San Antonio.

Today, the Polish language in Texas is disappearing. With the advent of World War I, social discrimination from nativist groups increased toward the immigrants and their language. The Great Depression drove many from their communities and dispersed them throughout the countryside seeking opportunity. Teaching of Polish declined in schools. After World War II a range of factors hastened the process of Americanization, continuing to this day. Yet many of these communities persist. Each year all over Texas descendants of these immigrants meet to celebrate their heritage, especially during the holidays. Drawing on this enduring spirit, now is the time to discover and learn about this fascinating part of Texas cultural and linguistic history.


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    University of Texas at Austin
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    Austin, Texas 78712
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