Early Czech Migration to the USA

(This part comes from a paper that can be downloaded at the bottom of this page, please refer to it for bibliography)

Numbers of Czechs in the US

The first historically recorded Czech to settle in the United States was Augustin Heřman (1605?-1686), first mentioned in 1633. (Dubovický, 2003). In 1920, there were 623 thousand Czechs (and 620 thousand Slovaks) in the USA. (Kořalka, Kořalková, 1993) In 2000, the share of Czechs (persons with at least one Czech parent) on the US population was 0.8%, with most of them in the Midwest region (Illinois, Ohio, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota). However, the biggest Czech population was in Texas. (Dubovický, 2003: 59)

Czech emigration to the USA in the 19th and early 20th century had several peaks: 1. 1853-7, 2. 1867-74, 3. 1891-4, 4. 1903-8 (renewed in 1911). Obviously, these periods correspond with the general trends in European overseas migration (see chapter “Atlantic Mass Migrations”), with the only exception of the third wave, which came a little late to the Czech lands. During the first thirty years, Czech migration represented
80 per cent of the whole Austrian migration. (Dubovický, 2003: 15)

Reasons for Czech Migration

The most important incentives for migration were the same as elsewhere: population growth, changes in agriculture, bad harvests, competition of cheap American wheat, starting industrialization, the revolution and abolition of serfdom. However, the situation was worsened by political uncertainty caused by the Crimean War in 1853-6 and the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. (Kořalka, Kořalková, 1993)

In the 18th and at the beginning of the 19th century, emigration from the Austrian monarchy was forbidden and only rare exceptions were allowed. The patent issued by Joseph II. in 1784 for the first time described an emigrant as a person departing abroad “with the intention of not coming back”. In 1832, a new patent was issued by Francis I. which revoked the general prohibition of emigration. Only those eligible for military service were not allowed to emigrate freely. In any case, emigration was associated with a loss of Austrian state citizenship. (Kořalka, Kořalková, 1993)

Characteristics of Czech Emigrants

The first emigrants were middle classes of peasants that were relatively better off and could afford to pay for the travel. Among the poorer, only one family member would often leave to earn and save enough money for the rest of the family to join him. A significant number of (illegal) Czech emigrants were young men who wanted to avoid military service. (Dubovický, 2003: 15; Kořalka, Kořalková, 1993)

The character of the main source regions was the same as elsewhere in Europe: nonindustrial rural areas distant from industrial centres. In the Czech lands, it was the case of the south and south-west, which were the main emigrant regions from 1850s until World War II. Not only was any industrial production missing there, but conditions for intensive agriculture were also unfavourable, not to mention the division of land: among large landowners and insufficient smallholdings. When the railroads reached these areas, they did not bring development as much as they facilitated emigration. Later, many emigrants originated also from southern Moravia and some deindustrialized areas. (Kořalka, Kořalková, 1993)

Timing of Czech Migration

With a small delay, Czech migration went in the footsteps of western Europe, while the eastern parts of the Habsburg monarchy followed after a couple of decades. At the end of the 19th century, the trend began to change. The birth rate in the Czech lands (and most countries of western and central Europe) fell and so did the emigration rate. (Kořalka, Kořalková, 1993) Nugent (1995: 86-7) quotes numbers indicating the ethnic distribution of East European migrants between 1899 and 1924. It is clear from the overview that the share of Czechs was the lowest (together with Romanians): only 2.3 per cent, while the share of Slovaks or Hungarians was over 8 per cent, the highest percentages being 27.1 for “Hebrews” and 22.1 for Poles. He clarifies that Czech emigration was slight after 1900 because its peak had been in the 1870s and 1880s,
similarly to the German one.

In his comparison of German and Austro-Hungarian migration, Nugent also points out that Czech migration to the USA differed from the general trend in the Austro-Hungarian empire. “In most respects, language apart, they shared the characteristics of the south and south-west German landseeking, family migration that predominated in the 1850s to 1870s.” He explains that the Czechs were subject “to much the same pressures as south-western Germans – uncertain harvests, diminishing markets for home industry, gradually less competitive grain prices, and the prospect of smallholdings subdivided beyond the point at which their children would have acceptable life chances.” Family migration was characterized by an extremely balanced sex ratio (54 per cent male and 46 per cent female between 1820 and 19289) and a low return migration rate. (Nugent in Cohen, 1995: 107-108)

US Destinations of Czech Migration

As to the settlement in the USA, important destination of Czech migrants was the Midwest, but after 1852, a strong wave of predominantly Moravian migrants headed also for Texas. However, Dubovický points out that despite a relatively high share of land seekers among Czech migrants, most of them actually stayed in towns or cities, such as New York, Chicago, etc. For most of them, especially those in the industrial areas, coming to the US was a culture shock, but their adaptation was eased by expatriate associations. (Dubovický, 2003: 18-19)

When migrants arrived to America, they often had to change their occupation. Many of those who settled in farms had often come from small towns, while most of the Czech (and especially Slovak) labour migrants at the end of 19th century were originally from rural areas but headed for mines and steel mills. (Kořalka, Kořalková, 1993) Dubovický (2003: 22) notes that Czech migrants were literate above average (together with Jews and Scandinavians), and also Kořalka and Kořalková observe that most emigrants were hardworking, initiative and energetic. Emigration of such people annoyed the supporters of the Czech national movement (taking place in the same period as mass migrations), who tried to maintain relations with the emigrants in the USA and even pondered how to prevent their assimilation, but the latter was to no avail. The first generation of Czech immigrants already felt more like Americans, possibly American Czechs, as soon as they were naturalized. (Kořalka, Kořalková, 1993)

(The following part sums up Tim Prchal's "The Bohemian Paradox: "My Ántonia" and Popular Images of Czech Immigrants" (2004))

Stereotypical Images of Czech Immigrants in the US

Despite the fact that Czech migration to the USA actually coincided with "old" rather than with "new" European migrations to the United States (in its timing, form, duration, skills, and sex ratio), it was generally perceived as "new" in the United States, and grouped with migration of Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians, and other Eastern, but also Southern European nations (the "old" immigrants being the English, Dutch, Germans and Scandinavians). This is also one of the points Prchal is raising in his paper, which focuses mainly on how Czechs are captured in Willa Cather's novel "My Ántonia" (1918).

"New" migrants were generally perceived as "passive, inarticulate, and illiterate, agriculturalists by inheritance", who "differ fundamentally from the more intelligent and efficient Northern races [...] who, as we know, not only made their fortunes in our cities, but dared to become also the hardy and successful settlers of our distant Western plains." (Sergeant 1910: 232, cited by Prchal, p. 6) In the rhetorics of that era, Czechs and other "new" migrants were referred to as a different race. While "old" migrants were considered as "the same branch of the Aryan race", with "similar tastes, traits and characteristics", "new" migrants were viewed as threatening and "inassimilable", and generally inferior. (p. 7)

Nordic supremacy was backed with a pseudoscientific theory of Madison Grant, who used a "cephalic index" to differentiate between races based on the ratio between a skull's maximum width and its maximum length. Thus, there were three races: Mediterranean, Nordic, and Alpine, the first two characterised by a long skull and the third one, including Czechs and other Slavs and described as "subordinate and obscure", by a round skull. In fact, Eastern Europeans were even excluded from the concept of a "white race"! (p. 8-10)

A paradoxical image of Czech immigrants was created in general discourse. On the one hand, their "musical proficiency and their tenacity for retaining their original language" was appreciated, while on the other hand, "their dedication to Freethinking philosophy and its religious skepticism, their volatile and potentially violent natures, and their materialism" were generally disapproved of. (p. 11)

Willa Cather attempted to reshape this popular image of Czech immigrants, with whom she was familiar from her years spent in Nebraska, and whom she considered "people of a very superior type." (p. 7) She omitted some of the negative traits completely, while explaining or downplaying others. In her book, the Czech immigrants are Catholics, who might be warm-hearted, impulsive and materialistic - but there are individual differences or logical reasons for their behaviour; they love music and dancing, and they preserve their language and culture - to remember their roots, "but also to ensure greater family cohesion." (p. 19)

However, when you ask an average American what the stereotype of Czechs in the US is today, you will probably hear that none. The number of people with Czech ancestry is far too small. Feel free to disagree, though, I would love to read your comments!

My Ántonia (Oxford World's Classics)O Pioneers!Rekindled Fires (1918)Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (Mela - Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the Americas)


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