Reasons for Immigration from Upper Silesia to Texas

Excerpted from the book The First Polish Americans: Silesian Settlements in Texas written by T. Lindsay Baker, published by Texas A & M University Press, College Station, copyright 1979.

From Chapter One, The Upper Silesian Origins

(Page 5)

In the mid-nineteenth century Upper Silesia constituted the extreme southeastern end of the Kingdom of Prussia. Administratively it composed the Regency of Opole, a political subdivision created in 1815-1816, after the agrarian reforms. Half a century later, when the Silesian peasants were departing for America, the Regency of Opole consisted of sixteen counties, five of the largest of which are known to have contributed immigrants to Texas. These counties were Opole (Oppeln), Strzelce (Gross Strehlitz), Toszek-Gliwice (Tost-Gleiwitz), Lubliniec (Lublinitz), and Olesno (Rosenberg).(6) This geographical source area of Polish immigration to Texas was divided approximately evenly between forests and open land, with most of the properties held by German nobles. The Polish peasants themselves owned small farms or worked on the manors, and they lived in small villages scattered through the countryside. The population of the five counties providing Texas immigrants was 288,300 in 1855, with an average annual increase at the time of 1.5 percent. Of this population OO percent was Catholic, 8 percent was Protestant, and 2 percent was Jewish. All the known Polish immigrants were Roman Catholics. (7)

Upper Silesia was by no means a wealthy region. It was characterized by the poverty of the Polish lower classes contrasted with the relative wealth of the German ruling elite. A Prussian writer of the period noted that the "common people" in Strzelce County, source of some of the first Texas immigrants, lived very simply and that "the servant class goes barefooted in the summer and many houses have no floors." (8) The reputation of the region as a poor one went beyond the borders of Germany itself. The Times of London, for example, described it as "the Ireland of ever open sore in her body politic." (9) The economic problems of the Polish peasantry were aggravated by the fact that they were separated both socially and linguistically from the German rulers. They were, in fact, pawns in a German-dominated society. (10)

Conditions were ripe among the Polish peasantry of the Regency of Opole in the 1850's for emigration abroad, but first a stimulus was needed to initiate the movement, The basic causes for emigration, to be discussed later in some detail, were all present, but someone had to go first in order to give the others directions, A young Roman Catholic priest named Leopold Bonaventura Maria Moczygemba was the catalyst, (11) Leopold Moczygemba was born at one o'clock on the morning of 24 October 1824 in the little village of Pluznica, situated between the county towns of Strzelce and Toszek. He spent his boyhood here and in the nearby village of Ligota Toszecka. In these villages his father, a native of Pluznica also named Leopold, supported his numerous family of ten children as an innkeeper and miller. Little is known about Leopold's mother, Ewa Krawiec, other than that she was the daughter of a farmer from the neighboring village of Boguszyce.(12) As a young man Leopold studied in the gymnasiums in Gliwice and Opole but then made the momentous personal decision to join the order of Friars Minor Conventual and become a priest. (13)

Leopold traveled to Italy, where in Osimo on 17 November 1843 he received the Franciscan habit. He remained in Italy for the next five years, studying and preparing himself to become a priest. Accepted into the order, he became affiliated with the Convent of Santa Vitoria delle Fratte in Osimo, where after a year's novitiate he made his profession on 18 November 1844. He began his studies for the priesthood at Ascoli-Piceno, continuing them in 1846 at Recanati. In that year he was transferred to Urbino and then was ordained a priest on 25 July 1847 in Pesaro at the age of twenty-two. He was sufficiently young that the procurator general of the order had to ask for a fifteen-month dispensation from age requirements for him to be ordained. Probably because of his youth, next he was transferred in 1848 to southern Germany for additional studies. (14)

As early as his departure from Italy, Father Leopold had considered going as a missionary to some distant part of the world. His desires had to wait, however, until a suitable opportunity presented itself. This chance came in early 1852, when Bishop Jean-Marie Odin, of Galveston, Texas, a Frenchman by birth, traveled to Europe seeking both priests and monetary assistance for his far-flung diocese in the wilds of North America. (15) Among his stops during the tour was the Conventual Franciscan cloister at Schonau, near Wurzburg, in the same Franciscan province as the Oggersheim convent where Moczygemba was staying. When Odin and his party visited Schonau, they recruited Father Bonaventure Keller, who at the same time recommended Moczygemba, "a Polish priest," to accompany him in missionary work among the German settlers in Texas. As soon as Leopold heard of this opening to go as a missionary to America, he wrote to the commissary general of the order for Germany, the Reverend Robert Zahradniczek, asking for permission to go with Keller to Texas. After some delay, on 30 April 1852 the commissary general wrote to Moczygemba that his long-entertained plans for becoming a missionary had been approved in Rome and that he could leave for America. (16)…

…Living among the German immigrants in Texas, Moczygemba quickly observed their economic and social advancement in the open society of the Texas frontier. (21) He decided that his family and friends back in Upper Silesia could experience the same success if they came to the New World, Consequently he began examining various potential sites for settlement and pricing land, at the same time writing letters suggesting and even urging people in his boyhood home to come to a place he was preparing for them in Texas. Although none of these letters from before 1855 has been found, slightly later correspondence suggests that he wrote back to Upper Silesia about the freedom and opportunities found by European immigrants in Texas, (22) The tone of one of his letters written from Texas in summer 1855 suggests what the ones just a few months before must have been like: "I wrote to him to come here…because he would live better here…I told him only because I wish for him to come. There will be a time, and it will not be long, when Franc will want to leave for America and he will not be able..John of the Uncles is very happy that his parents are coming here because they will live here in peace." (23)

Letters like this, and later correspondence written by the peasant immigrants themselves, created a sensation in Upper Silesia, The Polish farmers treated them like "religious relics" as they passed the letters from family to family, often affecting whole localities, (24) Father Leopold, in fact, addressed them to groups of people: "I greet all of you, Franc and his wife, sisters and Wrobel, also Uncles from Toszek, people from Boguszyce, Jemielnica, and Dolna, and everybody."25 As early as summer 1855, the local Prussian bureaucracy had become aware of the influence of Moczygemba's correspondence. At that time the high sheriff of Strzelce County reported to the police administration in Opole that the tendency toward emigration from his area was being excited by letters from "the missionary, Father Moczygemba, who works in Texas and who comes from Pluznica." The official added that the priest had many relatives and friends in the Toszek vicinity and that he was trying to persuade them to emigrate to Texas "with prospects of a better life." (26)

These letters from Texas provided the stimulus for the first Polish peasant immigration to America. In late 1854 the first parties of emigrants sold their properties and left Upper Silesia. They were followed by sizable contingents of farmers in 1855 and 1856 and by smaller numbers in the subsequent few years. The correspondence from Texas, however, was by no means the reason for the emigration. It was only the spur, The actual causes lay much deeper and were based in the economic and social problems of the Upper Silesian peasantry.

Poverty presented probably the most serious difficulty for the Polish peasants of Upper Silesia in the 1850's. Among the reasons for this poverty was the change in society caused by the early-nineteenth-century agrarian reforms, which had reduced the sizes of the peasant landholdings. With the fragmented properties the peasants became less and less able to support themselves. When natural disasters struck, as they did in the period, they were among the first victims. (27) High food prices plagued Upper Silesia in the mid-1850's. A major cause for this inflation was the Crimean War. When the war broke out in 1853, the Russian government prohibited the export of Russian grain to European markets, driving grain prices skyward in neighboring Prussia. At the same time several natural disasters hit Silesia. A potato blight caused by a fungus spread across the North European Plain and from there into Silesia, The decay of the potatoes in the fields either destroyed or heavily damaged several years' crops of this staple in the Polish peasant diet. Food supplies became so short that the Prussian government was forced to import maize from Hungary to feed the indigent. (28)

Accounts of poverty and suffering filled contemporary government reports and newspapers, The president of the Regency of Opole, for example, wrote to Berlin in May 1855 that "one can speak of a steady increase in poverty" rather than an improvement in the standard of living of the poorer classes. He continued that, although employment was available for day laborers in agriculture, road building, and railways, the salaries for such work were insufficient to pay "the high prices for food." The next year the same official reported that the greater part of the population in the Regency of Opole had lived through the winter of 1855-1856 in comparatively good condition but that "it is not unusual to encounter lean figures who lack the strength and vigor to live." He noted that the spring was the most difficult season for the peasants because by that time they had consumed their stored food, and then "the starving people reach for herbs and other unwholesome products."(29)

Across the boundary in Austrian Poland, where Polish-language publishing was much freer than in Prussian territory, the Polish press covered economic conditions in Prussian Upper Silesia in considerable detail. From Krakow, Czas reported in autumn 1855 that "the material conditions in Silesia have not changed at all" and that "this year the winter very easily could be the saddest ever." The author stressed the problems of inflated food prices, which he saw as created by the combination of poor harvests with curtailed grain imports, notably from the belligerents in the Crimean War. The writer of another article about the same time emphasized the significance of the potato blight, which destroyed "the only hope of the poor," while a third observer warned that "with true fear they wait in many places for the winter." (30) In the border town of Cieszyn, the local Polish newspaper, Gwiazdka Cieszynska, concluded that the desire of Upper Silesian peasants to emigrate to America was founded on bad crops and "the rotting of the potatoes." (31)

In addition to the inflated food prices were high taxes, which the peasants greatly resented. Reflecting on the immigration to Texas a decade afterward, the Polish Upper Silesian newspaper Zwiastun Gornoszlazki stated that, among the various reasons the peasants had departed for Texas, "first of all" in importance was that "they wanted to pay less taxes." Chronologically in the midst of the emigration Gwiazdka Cieszynska reported that what the settlers liked best was that "they do not have to pay taxes" in the new land. Even a local Prussian official commented in his reports that one reason people were leaving his district was to escape increased levies. (32)

In response to the poverty, inflation, and high taxes some of the Upper Silesian population turned to begging as a means of sustenance. In all the region the number of beggars reached into the hundreds if not the thousands. In a typical report the Opole correspondent of the Wroclaw Schlesische Zeitung wrote that in the summer of 1855 increasing food prices had caused beggars to proliferate on the streets of his city, despite efforts by charitable organizations to help the poor. He described how in Opole "both old and young beggars stand in the doorways asking alms from morning until night, swallowing what potatoes and bread are given to them." In the same article the correspondent coldly reported that the trade in the local grain markets was brisk and bringing substantial profits because of the high prices paid as the products passed through the hands of the merchants. In an article the next year the correspondent from Toszek-Gliwice County declared that in the preceding ten years the poverty of the Upper Silesians had become severe, "in contrast to the great wealth of some individuals." He went on to say that many people from childhood preferred to beg rather than to work, "a born proletariat that grows up without school or church." From Katowice came the demand for a special police force to act against beggars who had perpetrated several brutal robberies. (33)

Increased criminal activity, indeed, accompanied the economic difficulties. The contemporary press is filled with reports of crimes against private property. From Toszek-Gliwice County, for example, came serious complaints against a band of gypsies that in 1856 was moving back and forth across the county from village to village, begging and stealing whatever was available. Not all the new criminals engaged in petty crimes. The number of highwaymen also increased noticeably in the 1850's. The best known of these robbers was a former student of the university in Wroclaw named Kahle, who finally was caught by the authorities. (34) The numbers of criminals apprehended grew so large that the prisons in the Regency of Opole could not contain all of them. To help alleviate the overcrowding, the royal government moved about four hundred inmates from the severely crowded penal institutions to the old Szymiszow Castle near Strzelce. Despite the crowded conditions in Prussian prisons, however, many prisoners felt that the living conditions there were better than in the poverty of the outside world, and they preferred to remain incarcerated and be assured of warmth and wholesome food. As one of them reportedly asked, "Where can we find better conditions than here?" (35)

Making the economic problems of the Upper Silesians more difficult were natural disasters, among which were repeated outbreaks of typhus and cholera. Such epidemics in the 1840's are comparatively well known in the history of the region and were described at the time by the noted German physician Rudolph Virchow. (36) Less well known are the continued outbreaks of cholera, at times accompanied by typhus, which claimed victims numbering in the hundreds almost every year during the first half of the 1850's. The summer and autumn of 1855 were a particularly severe time in which 1,351 lives were lost. Country people suffered especially from the feared disease. In the village of Mozurow in northern Raciborz County, just south of the area that supplied immigrants to Texas, 55 of the 480 inhabitants died of cholera. (37) Mortality was also high among urban dwellers. In the city of Wroclaw, for instance, so many people died that official reports by the president of the police appeared daily in the press giving the death toll. (38) In the cities as well as in the villages the people undoubtedly scrutinized the newspaper advertisements like that of Herman Gochaczewski for his "cholera-liqueur," as they tried to decide whether the patent medicines would indeed protect them from the dread killer. (39)

A much more serious natural disaster for the peasants of Upper Silesia was the great Hood of summer 1854. By mid-August of that year unusually heavy precipitation had filled rivers and streams of the area to overflowing, and between the seventeenth and the twenty-fourth of the month there was such a heavy and continuous rainfall that the water levels rose higher than at any other time in over half a century. The Hooding occurred not only in the valley of the Odra, the principal river of Silesia, but throughout the region on all the smaller watercourses.

All the areas that sent peasants to Texas in the next few years were subject to the flooding. A newspaper correspondent from Lubliniec County, the easternmost district providing immigrants, wrote a few days after the downpour that, though there was no main river in the county, the small streams had destroyed or damaged many peasant cottages and that most of the road bridges and levees along watercourses were ruined. He reported that in most of the county only half of the crops had been harvested before the rains began and that the wheat and oats had not been gathered at all. A week and a half after the Hood these grains were still lying in the water-soaked fields, overripe and rotting. From Strzelce County came a report at the same time that, even that far away from the rivers, "we have a small picture of the Great Flood." This correspondent also remarked that the water was still in the fields and that it was impossible to drive wagons there because the wooden wheels sank into the mud. In such situations some of the desperate Upper Silesian peasants, fearing famine in the winter, with great difficulty trudged through the wet to cut and carry armfuls of grain to the barn.

Some of the greatest damage was caused by the collapse of levees and dams. In Kluczbork, just beyond the northwestern comer of the area from which the immigrants came, the church bells began ringing the alarm at ten o'clock on the night of 19 August 1854. There had been continuous rains and storms for three days, and the inhabitants of the town had been forced to stay indoors. That very night they were complaining about the inclement weather, unaware that the rains had been even heavier upstream in Olesno and Lubliniec counties, areas that later contributed immigrants to Texas. Water had filled the ditches, streams, and lakes; on the night of the nineteenth it overtopped the dams, washing great gaps in them. By the time the alarm was rung in Kluczbork, waves of water from these higher reservoirs were pouring through the streets of the town with a frightening hissing sound. The flow took away everything in its path, removing even the solid cobblestones and leaving only mud in their places.

The most severe damage was in the valley of the River Odra. There the houses in many places were flooded up to the windows and even the roofs, forcing the unfortunate residents to seek shelter in their attics, or, if that was impossible, to be rescued in boats. In this area many of the houses were destroyed by undercutting of their foundations. Few bridges could withstand the powerful pressure of the floodwater, and most of them were either damaged or destroyed.

All communications in Upper Silesia were disrupted. A report from Gliwice, for example, stated that the waters of the normally calm Klodnica River had overflowed their banks and flooded the road to Krakow, turning the outskirts of the town "into a river." There beside the Krakow road people were standing in water "up to their hips" and looking for help. All the major railway lines were closed and were returned to service only after the construction of temporary bypasses. The line between Gliwice and Kozle, for example, was put out of service by washed-out embankments near Labedy. The tracks could not be repaired for three days, and hundreds of grumbling Vienna-bound travelers were stranded in provincial Raciborz.

The flood caused the greatest harm to agriculture. All the hopes for a good harvest, which would have allayed the poverty of the region, were dashed. The rye harvest everywhere and the wheat and barley harvests in some places had already begun by the time the flood started, and the results had been satisfactory, but most of the grain crops either were washed away or rotted in the muddy fields, where they could not be harvested. Even the crops that had been taken into the barns were not safe. The humidity was so high in the days after the heavy rains that the stored crops molded badly. The fate of the potato harvest was as sad as that of the grain. As a result of the downpour virtually all the potato fields were flooded, and some of them did not show even a trace of their former crops. The president of the Opole Regency reported that less than a third of the normal crop of this mainstay in the peasant diet would be harvested. Although most of the livestock was able to escape from the rising waters, many of the animals subsequently had to be slaughtered because of lack of fodder or because of ailments they had contracted from days of standing in the water. Even after the flood receded and the sun finally came out again, the fanners were plagued with problems. One of the most serious was that their fields were covered with undesirable heavy, wet silt that prevented normal cultivation of the soil. (40)

...Economic problems, while the most important cause of the emigration from Upper Silesia, were by no means the sole reason for the peasant exodus. With the economic motivation came social impulses to try for a better life elsewhere. This incentive for leaving was rooted in the basic inequalities and discrimination of the society in which the ruling German minority dominated the majority Polish peasant population.

The contemporary Polish press demonstrated a clear understanding of these additional causes of Upper Silesian emigration. Gwiazdka Cieszynska wrote that the Polish population was leaving not merely because of "physical reasons, overpopulation, etc.," but for "social reasons." In Krakow, Czas stressed the gap between the peasants and the "well-off German landlords," with whom they were connected "by neither religion nor language."(42) A decade later the editors of the Polish Upper Silesian weekly Zwiastun Gornoszlazki, in an open letter addressed to the emigrants in Texas, stated that the only reason they could imagine for the people to have left their homes was that in America they had "an equality of classes and greater freedom of life than here." (43) At the same time that Zwiastun was writing to the Silesian colonists about their liberty in America, a local Polish priest in Texas could calm even the most severe complaints of the settlers by reminding them of the social discrimination they had suffered in their motherland:

When the Revolution of 1848 failed to alleviate the heavy discrimination against the Polish population of Upper Silesia, many of the peasants gave up hope for social reform in their homeland...

Another cause for Upper Silesian emigration abroad was the desire of many men to evade conscription of themselves or their sons into the Prussian army. Service in this rigidly disciplined military body was known throughout Europe for its severity. At the age of twenty every Prussian subject, with certain exemptions, was compelled to begin a three-year term of duty in the regular army followed by a two-year term in the active reserves. After this period the men were. released into civilian life but were transferred to inactive reserves, called the Landwehr, where they remained until their fortieth year. During these fifteen years they were required to spend fifteen days annually in military exercises. Even at the age of forty they were not free of their obligations. They were then transferred to secondary inactive reserves, called the Landsturm, where they remained until they reached the age of sixty. During this time they were subject to be called out in the event of foreign invasion. To avoid this onerous duty for their offspring, many fathers sent their sons to America, keeping at home one son, who as an "only son" was exempt from duty. This subterfuge was successful for some time, but after the government authorities realized how people were evading military service through emigration of all but one son, the law was changed so that the "only son" left after the emigration of all his brothers would no longer be exempt from the normal conscription. (47)

Added to the economic and social reasons for emigration was a vast array of personal motives. To the individual peasants themselves these reasons for leaving probably figured more importantly than the actual causes. People emigrated to avoid family friction, to escape scandals, to join relatives, to see new country, because others had gone, and for scores of other such reasons. The decision to stay in Europe likewise frequently was based on personal motives. Father Moczygemba, for example, wrote back to Pluznica about his brother, saying that "he doesn't want to come because he follows his and his wife's own ideas."(48)

While the several causes discussed were the most important in both beginning and continuing the emigration from Upper Silesia to Texas, many additional factors promoted or stimulated the movement. Among these elements were the continued arrival of favorable reports from America, the activities of emigration agents, the promotion of emigration by German landlords, and the spread of exaggerated rumors.

In the beginning Father Moczygemba's letters provided the catalytic agent that started the peasant movement, but as soon as the first Polish immigrants arrived in Texas, they also began writing letters back to their families and friends in Upper Silesia. Generally praising the new country, this correspondence convinced more and more farmers that they should try their luck overseas. Among the first people outside the peasant population to recognize the importance of the letters were, as might be expected, the local government authorities . As early as February 1855 the high sheriff of Olesno County wrote to Opole that the reason for the emigration from his and adjoining counties was reports from the people who had left the area and were writing back home about their "well-being in America." Later the same year the high sheriff of Toszek-Gliwice County blamed Father Moczygemba's letters for the movement. By 1856 the entire bureaucracy was aware of the influence of the American letters, with the president of the Opole Regency writing to Berlin that "favorable news" from Texas was even further increasing the tendencies toward emigration from his province. (49)