On December 24, 1854, after traveling over 5,000 miles, a group of Polish Silesians gathered on the site selected for them in Karnes County, Texas. They celebrated Christmas mass, giving thanks for their safe arrival. Among those gathered were at least two men whose journey had not yet ended: Martin Pierdolla and Joseph Mihalski.
Martin Pierdolla and his bride Francisca (Wilon) Pierdolla were newlyweds traveling with Joseph Mihalski and his wife Francisca (Pierdolla) Mihalski. Martin Pierdolla and Francisca (Pierdolla) Mihalski were siblings. Joseph and Martin understood their responsibility to find a site with conditions favorable to the safety and success of their families, who would soon follow. The settlement in Karnes County named Panna Maria was unacceptable. A decision was made to look for land elsewhere.
Upon their arrival in Texas, the new immigrants had not received word that Fr. Leopold Moczygemba had selected a site for them in Karnes County. After meeting Father Leopold in San Antonio, they were required to immediately retrace their steps along the La Bahia Road back to the vicinity of Helena in Karnes County some forty miles away. This experience impressed upon the weary Silesians the distance from the remote settlement in Karnes County to the markets of San Antonio in Bexar County.
Joseph and Martin’s decision to look elsewhere served them well. As their search continued in 1855 for an alternate site, the land values in Karnes County collapsed. The settlers at Panna Maria, who had obligated themselves for up to ten dollars per acre, saw their land values drop to below two dollars per acre in a just few months. A young and inexperienced Father Leopold Moczygemba and his flock were ensnared in the “boom or bust” of Texas land speculation.
In 1855, Martin Pierdolla and Joseph Mihalski found Bexar County and its county seat, San Antonio, to have an expanding population of about 5000; many of the inhabitants were newly arrived European immigrants. Among the resources available to assist them were Polish-speaking residents of the area. Erasmus Florian (Florian Liskowacki) and Joseph Dornstin were known to have encountered these early Silesian settlers.
Dornstin, who came to Texas from Poland during the days of the Republic, was an Indian fighter and Texas Ranger. He befriended and lived among Silesians, often helping with land purchases and navigating the American system of government.
At that time, there was a large German population in San Antonio and German was a widely spoken language of commerce. The Silesians came from an area where the imposed official language was German and many spoke that language. They were deeply suspicious of the Germans, who they believed exacerbated the conditions that caused them to leave Silesia.
European immigrants, like Martin and Joseph, created excitement in the land market of Bexar County. Offers to divide huge surveys into sections, half sections or smaller tracts filled the local newspapers. Numerous land advertisements appeared in the San Antonio newspapers in 1854; several offered to sell land in the area east of San Antonio.
Bexar County land records and newspaper accounts refer to the area east of San Antonio by watersheds. The most notable watersheds were Salado, Cibolo, Martinez, Salatrillo, Chupaderas, and Calaveras; all named during the Spanish administration of Texas. Therefore, land draining into Cibolo Creek was called “on the Cibolo”; similarly land draining into Martinez Creek was called “on the Martinez”.
C. G. Napier, a self styled agriculturist from Walker County, Georgia, had decided to sell his holdings on the Martinez, and seek his fortune elsewhere. A few years earlier he had purchased land from C. K. Rhodes, one of the largest land brokers in the area. This land was located in the northeast corner of the John Springer Survey, or Survey #31 of Bexar County, about 17 miles east of San Antonio. Napier was among the first planters to recognize that the plantation model could not survive on the Cibolo with its unpredictable rainfall.
During the early 1850s, large slave-owning plantations were established along the Cibolo. Plantation owners who feared slave rebellion and their slaves running away to Mexico petitioned Bexar County Commissioners to establish slave patrols. These slave patrols were allowed to enter private property and arrest runaway slaves and those who might help them. This act created a “police state” along the Cibolo and cast suspicion on new immigrants and native Spanish-speakers who might not fully embrace slavery.
A major east-to-west road from San Antonio served the area in and around the John Springer Survey. Byrd Lockhart, commissioned by the Mexican administration of Texas, first laid out the road in the 1820s. This road was initially referred to as the Road to Gonzales. Over its existence it has been called by various names including: “The Road to Lavaca”, “The Ox Cart Road”, “The Road to Victoria”, “The Road to Chihuahua” and the “Road to Indianola”. It was along this road that the first shots of the Texas Revolution were fired in 1835.
On September 4, 1848, Bexar County Commissioner’s Court responded to a petition from settlers in the Sulphur Springs community (now Sutherland Springs) for a road connecting them to San Antonio. The Commissioners ordered a “Jury View” to be taken to lay out an improved first class road incorporating sections of the Gonzales Road in a new road that would follow the Gonzales Road to the Cibolo east of San Antonio. At the house of Claiborne Rector the new road would travel south along the west bank of the Cibolo to Sulphur Springs. The road was renamed in that record as the “Sulphur Springs Road”(not to be confused with later roads bearing the same name). Today, most of the road is enclosed within private property; however, a few sections of the road exist in modern roadbeds.
This was the road travelled the Silesians when they first came to view the land offered by C. G. Napier. By wagon, the trip on this road from San Antonio to the Springer Survey took less than a half-day. Giant post-oak trees covered the area giving it the name “The Post Oaks.” The land was well drained; grass and wildlife were abundant. The post oaks were an important source of fuel and timber. Individuals like William Budd Jaques had conducted successful agricultural activities in the area since before 1845.
On 1 October 1855 the Schuler Agency recorded a list of passengers departing the Port of Bremen for Galveston, Texas. Among the passengers were Adam Pierdolla and his wife Mariana and their family. Also on board with their children were Franz and Mary Kozub, Anton and Mary Kozub, Thomas and Agnes Krawietz, Albert and Cecilia Stanush, Valentine and Josepha Aniol, Johann and Josepha Golla, Sebastian and Marie Roswadowski, Johann and Josepha Sczodrak, Stanislaus and Franciska Palica, and Isador and Lucia Zizik. Paul Katzmarek traveled unaccompanied. Ludwig Zajac (Ziaontz), Jacob Zajac, Lawrence Ploch and Felix Tudyk had arrived earlier in 1855 with their families.
This group moved with studied determination, hoping to avoid the experience of the settlers of 1854. Since they took time to settle their accounts before leaving, many brought with them substantial resources including wagons, farm tools, and gold. Several were Prussian military veterans with experience in moving men and material.
On January 6, 1856 they began recording land purchases in the Springer Survey: Felix Tudyk bought 200 acres, Anton and Frank Kosub together bought 160 acres, Martin Pierdolla bought 40 acres, Adam Pierdolla bought 102 acres, Paul Katzmarek, Valentine Aniol, Ludwig Ziaontz, and Jacob Ziaontz together bought 200 acres, Lawrence Ploch bought 30 acres and Joseph Mihalski bought 40 acres, for a total of 772 acres.
These Silesians purchased land from, and lived among, non-Silesian residents. From the first days their neighbors included Casper and Adolph Real, James Nipper, Erastus Beall, Daniel Ross Coodey, C. R. Pittman, J. Cunningham, J. Classen, W. R. Brahan, A. G. Goodloe, E. H. Cunningham, S. H. Davis, Jesse Jones, Robert Adams, L. Walters, and others.
Note: Land and tax records list only individuals and families who owned land. Many of the Silesian families deferred land purchases in the area until after the Civil War. Since many new arrivals, which are listed in ship records, leased homesteads or lived with relatives, they are often difficult to assign to a specific location. Church records, journals, newspapers and brand records add to a fuller understanding of where they settled.
Fr. Leopold Moczygemba, who chose the site of the Karnes City location, did not approve of the settlement on the Martinez. His comments were reported in several European newspapers, “…because of the lack of water there are no good prospects for the future”. Ironically, over the remainder of the 19th century, the location prospered as additional Polish-speaking settlers relocated to Martinez from Poland and other locations in Texas.
The settlers followed the farming methods they had used in Silesia. Early tax records and agricultural censuses showed the primary beast of burden was the ox. Slow, lumbering, and sturdy, when yoked together in pairs, oxen had the capacity to pull enormous weight. Oxen, however, were not well suited to the heat of Texas summers; often in the heat of the day they would pull their plow or wagon, and farmer, into the nearest pond or stream. By 1860, most of the Silesians owned horses.
Bexar County Brand Records revealed the settler’s interest in raising cattle. Many possessed substantial herds by the 1860’s.
After the initial settlement of 1855, others Polish immigrants began to arrive and continued to arrive through the 1860s. The 1860 U. S. Federal Census for Bexar County recorded the following Polish surnames in the Martinez area: Planck (Ploch), Podola (Pierdolla), Mros, Cebus (Cibis), Anner (Aniol), Zajoc (Ziaontz), Kosup (Kozub), Menchalsky (Michalski), Lubansky (Lubianski), Prudlow (Prudl), Katemark (Kaczmarek), Stanish (Stanush), Diller (Dylla), Cravias (Kravietz), Ludwig (Tudyk), and Menskey (Miosga).
Additional sources, including civil, and church records, personal journals, and newspaper accounts, provide other surnames of families and individuals that arrived through 1878. These include: Golla, Gorzel, Kolonko, Kiolbassa, Mergele (Alsatian) Piosek, Sowa, Soltyczyk, Swierz, Winkler, Zygmond, Ramdzinski, Rakowski, Rozwadowski, Sczodrok, Kosielski, Sacherer, Dudek, Panek, Drysch, Latka, Musiol, Knapik, Morawietz, Singer, Palica, Dziuron, Lipok, Dubiel, Rakowitz, Kusmierz, Machula, Lyro, Sitkowski, Machnikowski, Glowacki, Pikosz, Drzymalla, Sanger, Woitena, Wanat, and Felix.
Cottage Hill a small settlement in the William McMinn Nuner Survey, near the southern boundary of the Springer Survey, was developing as a way stop for Ox Carts and Horse Mail when the settlers arrived. It would figure prominently in the development of the Martinez settlement. In the earliest days of settlement, it provided a post office, stage stop and store for the area. Saltmarsh Stage Lines was the major mail contractor and purchased property for a stage stand near Cottage Hill.
The Silesians were Roman Catholic. Among the first buildings erected was a log church completed on the property of Ludwig Zajac (Ziaontz) in September 1857. This structure served as a place of worship when circuit-riding priests came to minister to the community. For important events such as weddings and baptisms the Silesians often preferred to travel to San Fernando church in San Antonio. Funeral services were performed in the community.
The impact of the American Civil War on Martinez was immediate and profound. The Silesians were surrounded by zealous secessionists, men who immediately joined the fight. One of the reasons these Silesians chose to leave their country were the draconian requirements for military service placed on their men by the Prussians. Civil War conscription threatened to tear apart the newly arrived families. Many of the reluctant Silesians were conscripted into service and wore the Confederate gray in a fight they did not see as theirs. From fewer than 20 families, 19 men served during the War.
Several elite Confederate units were organized in the area. Among them the Mustang Greys who fought under Hood’s Texas Brigade and who General Robert E. Lee called his “shock troops”. Many of these men and boys were maimed and kill on the battlefield from Cold Harbor to Appomattox.
Immediately after the Civil War, the Silesians invited African freedmen to their community. The Haywood families, formerly owned by R. W. Brahan and his wife Martha Haywood Brahan, bought a tract of land adjacent to the Mihalski family near the center of the community. Lafayette, Hannibal and Tecumseh (remembered as Com’ see) Haywood taught cotton culture to the Silesians. The freedmen and the Silesians often brought in the celebrated “first bale” ginned in Bexar County.
During the days of Jim Crow, this relationship based on tolerance and necessity earned St. Hedwig the scorn of their neighbors. They called St. Hedwig the “community of freedmen both black and white.” St. Hedwig merchants and tradesmen served a large trade area of freedmen who were unwelcome in surrounding communities.
Shortly after the men returned from the Civil War, the community coalesced around the building of a new church in 1868 and a school in 1872.
They used native sandstone from the area for building blocks and mortar made from soft limestone hauled from the quarries in San Antonio. It is at this time that the community took the name St. Hedwig; the church was named “Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary”. The church would be dramatically enlarged in 1900 and again in 1924.
In the 1870s, Bexar County Commissioner’s Court began receiving petitions for roads to the community. Records indicate wide-ranging and intense negotiations for the placement of roads. These records reveal a participation in politics and a preoccupation with the acquisition of land.
Individuals and groups sought to establish an advantage in the access these roads provided to their land. The unusual arrangement of four adjoining plots of land, donated for the church site, created the center of the village. The arrangement also insured placement of a main road through St. Hedwig that provided access to most landholders.
Violence and death were constant companions to these first settlers. Albert, the younger brother of Frank and Anton Kosub, was murdered and robbed while travelling from San Antonio to Bandera in 1870. Lawrence Ploch was murdered in 1871 while he traveled with his family to San Antonio. The Sutherland Springs Chronicle on 18 August 1877 reported, “…Three persons…robbed four houses in Poland Town on the west side of the Cibolo…” Reports of violence against members of the community were regularly cited in the newspapers of the day. Bexar County Commissioner’s Court responded by placing a constable and a Justice of the Peace Court in St. Hedwig. Numerous trials were conducted for lawless behavior.
Two of St. Hedwig’s own sons became legends of the Old West. Martin Mroz became a wealthy rancher and outlaw who lost his wife, fortune and life to the deadly John Wesley Hardin. Alexander (Elic) Tudyk is remembered for his reign of terror in the community.
The adjacent community of Cottage Hill became a rival to St. Hedwig. During the 1870 and 1880 the two communities became enveloped in violence that would not be resolved until U. S. Federal law enforcement intervened.
Tragedy visited the clergy that served St. Hedwig. On November 25, 1863 Fr. Julian Przysiecki died in a riding accident while attending a party at the farm of Anton Kozub. The loss of Fr. Julian was a blow to the entire Silesian populations in Bexar, Karnes and Bandera County. It meant that no Polish–speaking priest was available to minister to the new Polish Texans through the Civil War. On November 2, 1869, Fr. Teofil Bralewski was stricken by a mysterious illness while saying mass and died within a few days.
Some believe that this Catholic community could have eventually been assimilated into other catholic churches in the area, perhaps becoming a mission of the German Catholic Churches. St. Hedwig was insured a national identity when priests from the Congregation of the Resurrection came to the area. These men were Polish nationalists who insisted that Silesian settlers have their own Polish churches and schools. The community of St. Hedwig negotiated with the priests and in return for a church and rectory was promised a school and an order of Polish-speaking nuns from their own community.
Fr. Felix Zwiardowski and Fr. Vincent Barzynski (who would later become a revered and controversial Polish leader in Chicago) came to St. Hedwig. Anton Kozub (Kosub) was elected deputy to collect funds and oversee the building of a church and a school. Kosub put in place strict accounting procedures for donations of money, work, and materials. Each transaction was documented in a ledger. Before leaving for Chicago, Fr. Barzynski was required to provide each contributor a receipt to close the ledger accounts. Only then did the four families, providing the land for the church, travel to the Bexar County Clerk and convey title to the Bishop.
Fr. Felix Zwiardowski, made it his business to bring teaching sisters to the community. This young, energetic, and single-minded priest, in a controversial move, created a new order of nuns, the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, also called the Blue Sisters to serve the Polish speaking community. Although short-lived, this order had its initial headquarters at St. Hedwig. With the establishment of a church and school, the community prospered. The San Antonio Express, in a most complimentary article, reported the commencement exercises of March 28, 1879. From its inception the school was a treasure to the community and retained its character through much of the 20th century.
With its well-chosen location and institutions in place, St. Hedwig benefited from subsequent migrations from other parts of Poland. These new arrivals, beginning around 1878, added to a vibrant community. Among the names associated with this group were: Strzelczyk, Mikolajczyk, Skrzycki, Padalecki, Ciomperlik, Dzierzanowski, Franckowiak, Grams, Nickel, Sczech, Cielencki, Deptawa, Dudek, Gerlich, Gorlaska, Hudek, Joniec, Pieniazek, Przybyszewski, Kalka, and Malinowski. By 1900, St. Hedwig had grown to a community of over 200 Polish families.
Along with its strong religious character and national identity, St. Hedwig possessed a definite secular identity and a spirit of tolerance. The church baptismal and marriage records list numerous Hispanic surnames. Bishop Neraz traveled to St. Hedwig to officiate at the wedding of Jacinto Casares and Maria Ramos in 1882; his entry in the church record is among few entries made by a bishop. Newspaper reports and census records documented non-Polish surnames in the area as farmers, traders, doctors and craftsmen.
Martin Pierdolla, Joseph Mihalski, and their contemporaries chose a site that served the Polish-speaking settlers well during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the twenty-first century St. Hedwig continues to grow and prosper with a legacy that includes a beautiful church, a proud tradition of independence and an important place in American history.
We are indebted to researchers for their works focusing on the early Silesian settlers of Texas: T. Lindsay Baker’s First Polish Americans and Fr. Yacek Przygoda’ Texas Pioneers From Poland. We are especially grateful to the Polish Genealogical Society of Texas for its work with ship records and records of kinship. The Panna Maria Historical Society provided a most useful reference in its compilation Silesian Profiles. Additionally, newspapers, civil records, church records and private family holdings served as essential resources.