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Our Take - The Significance of Panna Maria, Texas

January 2005

Volume XXV, No. 1

In October 2004, three Texas cities commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Polish settlement in Karnes County, Texas.(1) In December 1854, a group of Polish Silesians arrived in Galveston and traveled toward San Antonio on foot and by oxcart. They bought land and established an agricultural community near San Antonio that soon began to thrive. The subsequent groups also arrived in Galveston and then moved inland as far as Hidalgo County in the south and Deer County in the north. These early settlements are detailed in T. Lindsey Baker’s The First Polish Americans: Silesian Settlements in Texas (1979). Additionally, Polish Footprints, a quarterly of the Polish Genealogical Society of Texas, has published information on these early Texans and their descendants.

These early settlers contributed mightily to the transformation of the Texas wilderness into a place where people could build homes and cities, where they could farm and develop cultural institutions. It is said that those who first came to Galveston on the Weser steamboat were dropped by their guides under a large oak tree in the flat countryside between Houston and San Antonio. There they lived shelterless during the entire winter of 1854/55, using the local caves to escape rain and cold. The immigrants had hardly any tools and the land, though plentiful, did not provide enough timber to build even modest cabins. Yet within one generation the entire community began to thrive, as witnessed by the local newspaper accounts reprinted in Polish Footprints in Spring 2003.

The title of Baker’s fine book is unfortunately inaccurate. The Silesian farmers were not the first Polish Americans, and the Karnes County colony was not the first Polish group settlement in the United States. The first Poles in America were the Jamestown glass blowers who arrived on this continent with Captain Christopher Newport in early October 1608. The names of some of these Poles are Stanislaus Sadowski, Jur Mata, Zbigniew Stefański, Michał Łowicki, Karol Zranica, and Jan Bogdan. So far as we know, no research has been done on their fate. We do know, however, that in the seventeenth century Poland and England maintained vigorous trade relations, hence the presence of Poles in England from where they traveled to the New World. In 1848 a group of Poles settled in Parisville, Michigan: this was probably the first group Polish settlement. The immigrants from Poland trickled in throughout the eighteenth century, and the trickle intensified during the partitions of Poland. Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski came to America at that time.

Among the books written in recent years about these two one should mention Col. Francis Casimir Kajencki’s Thaddeus Kosciuszko (1998) and Count Casimir Pulaski (2005). Kajencki also wrote Poles in the Nineteenth Century Southwest (1990) which details the story of an enterprising Pole named Alexander Grzelachowski who helped to stake out the Texas-Mexico border. Among books dealing with the Polish American identity as it was formed in the periods of mass immigration at the turn of the nineteenth century and around the Great War are Karen Majewski’s Traitors and True Poles: Narrating a Polish-American Identity, 1880-1939 (2003) which records the story of Polish publications in the late nineteenth-century Midwest. One should also mention John Radzilowski’s Out on the Wind: Poles and Danes in Lincoln County, Minnesota, 1880-1905 (1992) and Polish Immigrants, 1890-1920 (2002) by the same author.

The above-mentioned books deal with fractional histories. Over the last twenty years the American Polish historians have not produced a single broad history of the Polish immigration to America. John Bukowczyk’s And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of the Polish Americans came out in 1986, and is the only modern history of Polish Americans in existence; works such as Wacław Kruszka’s History of the Poles in America to 1908 can be regarded as historical sources at best. Bukowczyk’s book is excellent, but it cannot substitute for a body of discourse that should have accumulated around the sizable Polish immigration to America. While American scholars of Polish background have thus failed Polonia, it has to be said that the atmosphere of the nonacademic Polish communities in this country has not been conducive to the production of serious scholarship. Yet it is from such scholarship that the recognition of an ethnic minority usually springs.

The celebrations of the Panna Maria settlement should be seen in this context. While these Silesians were not “the first Polish Americans,” they generated a large community of descendants for whom Panna Maria is the foundational event. In that they were assisted by the thousands of more recent immigrants from Poland and/or their descendants, for whom Panna Maria continues to serve as one of the defining moments in Polish American history. In October 2004 these various communities assembled together to honor the Polish pioneers. It remains to be seen whether this ample presence of Poles in Texas will translate into intellectual achievement recognized by American society at large.

The first step has been made in Panna Maria. Hopefully, the rituals and celebrations of this important “place of memory” will lead Polish Americans toward articulation of other symbols of the Polish presence in America in ways that are more permanent than speeches and picnics and dances and get-togethers. What makes ethnic presence in America visible are books, periodicals, institutions, foundations, and “places of memory” marked off and maintained by an ethnic group. Places of memory affix ethnic identities in space and time. Books and periodicals, however skimpily read, remain the prime sources of historical authority. It is through such authority that an ethnic celebration changes from a ghetto event to one noticed by the mainstream culture.

The history of any human group consists of such self-generated artifacts. Joining someone else’s bandwagon will not generate a history of Polish Americans. Becoming a groupie for the neocons, conservatives, liberals, the feminist movement, or the Chicago Bears will not make anyone move over to make a place for Polish Americans. One wonders how many Polish American leaders are mindful of these commonplace truths.

The Poles did not come on the Mayflower. They came on the Weser, a steamship originating in Bremen, Germany, and named after the river that flows through that city. (Perhaps Poles should team up with the Germans and contribute to the upkeep of the monument in Bremen dedicated to the Auswanderer, the monument featured on the cover of the January 2000 issue of the Sarmatian Review.) They did not gather at Plymouth Rock. They gathered under an oak tree in Karnes County, and celebrated a Catholic Mass there in gratitude to God for a safe passage. Places like Panna Maria endow Polish Americans with a sense of pioneering, an attribute other locations have given to Americans of other backgrounds. They also illustrate the sustaining force of Catholicism to which these early settlers adhered and which remained part of their heritage. Each “museum of memory” has to be a springboard for a new creative effort. Panna Maria offers a possibility of a further meaningful journey for those who celebrated its 150th anniversary.


1. Here is a partial record of the festivities on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the first Polish group settlement in Texas. On 22 October 2004, the Polish Ambassador to the United States, Przemyslaw Grudzinski, spoke at Rice University. His address was sponsored by Professor Marek Kimmel (Rice) and Dr. Waldemar Priebe (M.D. Anderson Cancer Center). Other speakers at Rice on that day included Dr. Thaddeus Radzilowski (PIAST Center, Detroit, MI), Dr. John Radzilowski (University of Minnesota), Professor Z. Anthony Kruszewski (University of Texas-El Paso), Professor Aleksander Wolszczan (Penn State University), Dr. Christopher Michejda (NIH Bethesda, MI), and Professor Thomas Napierkowski (University of Colorado). The Hon. Krystyna Tokarska-Biernacik, Polish Consul General in Los Angeles, was also present. The evening of 22 October saw a concert of the Acadian Symphony Orchestra with conductor Mariusz Smolij and soloist Adam Golka. The music of Frederic Chopin, Wojciech Kilar, Robert Schumann, and Aaron Copland was on the program. An additional attraction was the appearance of Lech Wałęsa and his Texas host, Professor Witold Lukaszewski of Sam Houston State University. The concert took place in the Wortham Center in Houston. 23 October was the day of the Polish American Congress banquet in Sugarland. Again, President Wałęsa made an appearance. 24 October included a trip to Panna Maria where the festivities continued. Two Catholic Masses rounded out the festivities: one was held at the Our Lady of Częstochowa Polish Parish in Houston on 3 October, and the other at the Polish Church in Panna Maria on 24 October 2004.

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