History of Czech emigration to the USA

1848 - 1914


Why they went

In the 19th century, peasants faced a hard and oppressed life. The Czech (Bohemian), Moravian and Slovak lands were ruled as part of the Habsburg dominions. This foreign rule over the once independent Bohemian kingdom was long resented and opposed by its inhabitants. In a period of European enlightment, the habsburg emperors kept their peasants vertiually in slavery and poverty, without political or religious freedom.


In 1848, revolutions broke out throughout the declining Habsburg empire against their feudal and conservative rule. Some of the Czech protestors had the dream to restore an independent democratic Czech state, although most would have been happy with some form of self-rule and larger freedom.


Although suppressed quickly, it forced the Habsburg rulers to allow thier subjects greater freedom. The most important change was abolishing serfdom. Until that time, the aristocratic families controlled all aspects of the village live. Marriage outside the parish or moving to a different village could only be done with special permit of the feudal nobility. Although the peasants had the possibility to appoint an heir who would inherit the farm, this only concerned the right to live and work there, the actual premises were property of the manor. The peasant had to work for free regularly for the manor,a duty called robota (from which originated the word robot!).


This all changed after 1848. The forced payments to manor, church, and school were abolished and the peasants could freely resettle or move. They also could buy the farm premises from the manor, who exerted this final payment from the now free farmers.


In Europe, this was also the time of the industrial revolution and the Bohemian and Moravian region became the industrial base of the remaining Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the end of the 19th century, the Czech lands boasted a diversified economy on a par with the most developed countries in the world, although some areas, including part of South Bohemia, were not touched by this modern age.


Although good for the economy at large, these developments were not always good for the individual villagers in rural areas. Mechanization of agricultural practice, decreasing prices and a strong population growth made it difficult for most rural families to survive and offer a suitable future for their children. The constant wars, or threats thereof, added to the problems; most of the young men were called upon, and died en mass, to fight the Habsburg wars far away from home.


In this difficult situation came the news of possibilities in America. The young USA needed farmers and other experienced people to colonize the rural states. This could be the appealing alternative for unemployment or oppression at home! All political, economical and religious factors played a role in the decision of a farmer to emigrate. But the problems closer to home made this into a really complex and also emotional question. Families and villages split over the question if it was better to go or to stay. If going, how to pay for it, and who to send. Sometimes, one family would go as family, sometimes members of the family went as scouts, trying to earn money in their new homeland, to pay for the passage of those still in the old country. Sometimes one of the sons would stay and continue in the farm, while his siblings, with less possibilities for an independent existence, emigrated.


The substantial emigration from the Czech lands to the United States began in the 1840s, reaching a peak in the 1890s. Czech immigrants did not start arriving in America in large numbers until the 1870s. By that time, most of the good land east of the Mississippi was already taken. Having settled first in cities such as New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and St. Louis, many were drawn westward by the allure of free land and the frontier. Some were no doubt nostalgic for the agrarian life they had left behind in Bohemia or Moravia. Others may have been looking for adventure. For Czechs living in Chicago, Wisconsin was just around the bend. However, many discovered that good land was hard to get and that the price of land was beyond their means. So they went further west - to Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas. Other Czechs followed and by the 1880s, what had started as a trickle became a steady stream. For those who settled in these rural states with a high concentration of Czechs, the ultimate challenge was to make the transition from village peasant to frontier farmer. Czech immigrants came from economically depressed rural areas and were intellectually and culturally unsophisticated. They emigrated primarily for economic reasons, not to escape political oppression or to seek personal freedom. They often disguised this socio-economic motivation under the cloak of religious and political oppression, since the desire to escape autocratic rule plays well in America. The forefathers of these Czechs, however, did not flee. They were not refugees nor were they visionary radicals. They were simple peasants in search of land. They found it in the rural states of America.


The exhibition in the Kojakovice Center tells the story of village life and of the emigration to America: the factors influencing the decision; the problems in obtaining the necessary funds and permits; having never left the village, now traveling to far-away Hamburg or Bremen to embark, crossing the oceans under horrible and cramped conditions with hundreds and even thousands of others travelers in the last of the tall sailing ships and the hybrids of sail-steam ships; the immigration procedures at Castle Garden and later Ellis Island or other ports of entry; the journey to their new homes, and finally their settlement in the prairie states of their new homeland. This story is explained were possible by showing the history of emigrants from Kojakovice and similar villages in this area.


The exhibitions are not about statistics, but of people who, for generations, never went outside the border of the parish and now embark on a journey across an unseen ocean to a new future. It also tells of those who stayed behind and often still live in the same farms. Many of their American relatives still live on the same farms their ancestors settled in upon arriving in America.One example is the Mlnarik family of Kojakovice. The farm Kojakovice 2 is locally known as the house of the Mlnariks. Mlnarik is one occasionally occurring version of Mlynarik, which is Czech for miller of a small mill. Presumably, Kojakovice 2 was the farm, which the feudal lords provided for those families that operated one of their smaller water mills in the area (grain or wood mills).


In late 19th century, one of the sons inherited the farm, and the widow of his father with all his brothers and unmarried sisters emigrated to the USA. The exhibition tells the similar stories about, amongst others, the Vochozka and Simanek families, and their are many more examples. The Society is has located some of the descendants of the emigrants now living in America, and their story is increasingly integrated into the growing exhibition of what happened with the emigrants in their new homelands. The Society is still trying to locate more descendants to complete the history of this emigration. The website Small Towns is an American site where Americans of Czech origin tell their story. The site of Czech, Bohemian and Moravian Genealogical Research provides a wealth of links to Czech and American genealogy and history resources