BOHEMIANS IN NEBRASKA
BY SARKA B. HRBKOVA
Professor of Slavonic Languages, University of Nebraska
EARLIEST COMERS TO AMERICA
In the very heart of Europe, forming a
mountain-girt corner of northwestern Austria, lies the
lovely little country of Bohemia. Since the fifth century it
has been continuously occupied by the Czechs, named after
the patriarch who led them thither from the parental
Slavonic home in western Russia. Despite the frequent
misunderstanding of the term Bohemian by the ignorant or
thoughtless, the Czechs or Bohemians are not nomads or
gypsies, but a simple agricultural people attached to the
land which has been "home" to them for fifteen hundred
years. The name Bohemia was passed over to the country from
the Boii, a Celtic tribe, who occupied the land long before
the coming of the Czechs. The name Boii was corrupted to
Bojohemum and then to Bohemian--a continuous cause of
misunderstanding, because so many know the name only as
applied to wandering tribes or Latin Quarter experiences in
of the colony. Even as early as 1633, Herman had become prominent in the public affairs of the new country, though ever loyally proud of his Bohemian origin.
Frederick Phillips, or Filips, of Yonkers, was the second Bohemian to come to America. These two, Herman and Phillips, became the ancestors of such men as the Bayards, Sargents, and John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States supreme court. Worthy vanguards, indeed, of the great peaceful army that has come since their time nearly three hundred years ago.
In this "mixing bowl of nations" it will require the most skillful alchemy to preserve the pure gold, not alone of the native stock but of the stranger within our gates. It behooves us, then, to know well the character of the components which are daily cast into the American mixing bowl.
In 1910 the total population of
Nebraska was 1,192,214. In the same year, the population of
foreign birth and foreign parentage amounted to
530,015--almost half the total. Of this foreign population,
62,810, or thirteen per cent, were either born in, or of
parents who came from, Austria. The question is, are all, or
nearly all, of these "Austrians" from Bohemia?
seventeen states and more than that number of nationalities in Austria, each with widely differing characteristics. In the general census foreigners are classified by the language they speak, by their nationality, a far truer description.
Of the 539,392 Bohemians according to the census of 1910, it is probably safe to say that one-eighth reside in Nebraska. This estimate is based on a process of elimination, according to the claims of each of the other more important Bohemian communities in this country. The complete census when issued will give this in detail. Every year from 300 to 500 Bohemian immigrants arriving at various ports give Nebraska as their destination. The immigration figures since 1910 warrant us to regard 100,000 as a fair estimate of Nebraska's Bohemian population.1
1The foregoing statement of the total population of Nebraska, of the total foreign population and the number of Bohemians is from the U. S. Census of 1910. The census bureau estimated the population of the state in 1916 at 1,250,000. The total foreign population in 1910 included all persons of foreign birth, and those born in the United States one or both of whose parents were of foreign birth. The 539,392 Bohemians, classed in the census as Bohemians and Moravians, comprised 282,738 of foreign birth and 310,654 born in the United States but of foreign or mixed parentage. Moravia, an Austrian province, lies contiguous to Bohemia on the east. Its population in 1900 was 2,435,081, 71.36 per cent of whom were Slavs and "scarcely distinguishable from their Bohemian neighbors"; but the Bohemians are called Czechs, while the Slavs of Moravia and West Hungary are called Moravians and Slovaks. So, while the Bohemians and Moravians are very much alike, the census does not disclose how many of each are comprised in the total of 539,392. They came to the United States from thirty-five nations and provinces of all the continents, but mainly as follows: from Austria, 515,183; Germany, 17,382; Hungary, 2,868; Russia, 1,694; Canada, 236.
In the distribution of foreign population by states, the number of Bohemians and Moravians is not given, only the total number of each nationality. Thus Nebraska had of Austrians, 62,810; Hungarians, 2,142; Germans, 201,713. As is shown above, there were only 17,382 Bohemians and Moravians from Germany and 2,868 from Hungary to be distributed among all the states; and though most of the Austrians in Nebraska are doubtless Bohemians their total number, 62,810, falls far below Miss Hrbkova's estimate of 67,674, and a generous allowance.
While every county of Nebraska has Bohemian inhabitants, the largest numbers are in Douglas, Colfax, Saline, Saunders, and Butler. Cities and towns which have a generous percentage of Bohemians are Omaha, South Omaha, Wilber, Crete, Clarkson, Milligan, Schuyler, and Prague. In the main, however, Bohemians in Nebraska are settled on farms rather than in towns, in small communities rather than in cities, and in the eastern, rather than in the western part of the state.
A large majority of the Bohemians of this state are in agricultural pursuits; and as farmers are the real backbone of the great West, it may be said that the Bohemian farmers are the mainstay of the Czechs in Nebraska, despite the fact that business and the professions each year gain more accessions from them.
The first Bohemian who came to Nebraska, so far as can be learned, was Libor Alois Slesinger, who was born October 28, 1806, in Usti above the Orlice River, Bohemia. It is noteworthy that this first Bohemian immigrant to this state came to America for political liberty, which the absolutism prevailing in Austria after the uprising of 1848 had stifled in his own country. Slesinger left Bohemia in November, 1856, and in January, 1857, arrived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which was a sort of stopping place for most of the Bohemian immigrants en route for the great, attractive, beaming West beyond the Missouri. The trip from
from Germans and Hungarians would scarcely make up the deficit. On the same basis--the census of 1910--the estimate of 100,000 Bohemians at the present time (1917) is still more excessive. On the other hand, censuses are far from infallible, and Miss Hrbkova's estimates were based upon laborious investigations in various ways other than actual enumeration, the results of which convinced her that her numbers were not too high.
The data of the census cited are from The Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910, I, table 5, p. 965; table 8, pp. 968-70; table 22, p. 995.--ED.
Cedar Rapids to Omaha, Slesinger made by wagon. A little later he settled near the Winnebago reservation. His experiences were as picturesque and adventurous as those of other early comers, if not more so. Joseph Horsky, who arrived in 1857 and also came by the Cedar Rapids route, was the second, and the now famous Edward Rosewater the third, Czech to settle in the Cornhusker state.
The homestead act2 attracted to the West many Bohemians who had already become citizens or were about to swear allegiance to the "starry flag". Saline county was the first to draw settlers of the Bohemian nationality. The three Jelineks, Nedelas F. Krten, Vac. Sestak, the Kovariks, Robert Sery and John Herman were the first comers, all of them emigrating from the neighborhood of Manitowoc and Kewaunee, Wisconsin. John Herman had been a man of high position in Bohemia; and was an envoy to the emperor of Austria during the troublous period of the revolution of 1848. His zeal for the cause of liberty and constitutional rights was incompatible with absolutist rule, and he was forced to fly to America in 1853. He brought to this country an immense fortune, but lost it through speculations in Wisconsin.
The counties of Butler, Colfax, and Knox were settled very soon after the coming of the Czechs to Saline county. In 1867, the Sonka, Mares, Dostal, Masek and Gruntorad families settled in and around Abie, Bruno, Linwood, and Brainard; whereas the Foldas, Novotnys, and Kratochvils came to Colfax in 1867. Knox county's settlement by Bohemians was arranged in Chicago and Cleveland in 1868. Eight hundred families joined a prearranged colony scheme and moved from those two cities en masse to the shores of the Niobrara and the Missouri.
Communities in Nebraska have been given Bohemian names as follows: Prague and Praha, in Saunders county, after the capital city of Bohemia; Shestak, in Saline
2 Passed May 20, 1862; became effective January 1, 1863.--ED.
* Praha is in Colfax County
county; Jelen, in Knox county; and Tabor, in Colfax county.
The first wave of Bohemian immigration to Nebraska consisted of men seeking political and religious freedom. Subsequent waves comprised men escaping enforced military service in the Austrian army or seeking economic betterment. Though large numbers of Bohemians came to America to avoid serving in the army at home, yet these same Bohemians, who had but just fled from enforced militarism, of their own will enlisted here to save the Union. This was true in Cleveland, Chicago, Cedar Rapids and other large Bohemian centers. The Czechs carried off many scars from the Civil War; and you will find their names in the G. A. R. rolls of honor in loyal percentages. So in the Spanish American war, almost whole companies of Bohemian volunteers left Nebraska for the Phillipines and for Cuba. One can well say with Walt Whitman,
Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lonesome stretch, the silence,
Haply to-day a mournful wail, haply a trumpet-note for heroes.2
From the domain of Roman Catholic Austria to unpledged Nebraska is a, step of many thousands of miles. The difference in the religious attitude of many Czechs who have taken that long step is as great and is likewise analogous. Bohemia's greatest trials and sufferings were a result of religious struggles, both internal and with neighboring states. From the introduction of Christianity into Bohemia in 863 by Cyril and Methodius, the nation's brand of religion has been different from that of her neighbors. Bohemia accepted Christianity from two Greek Priests of Constantinople, who at once introduced the Slavic Bible and preaching in the mother tongue. Bohemia's neighbors received their Christian missionaries from Rome, which required the Latin service.
3 Far Dakota's Cañons.--ED.
The burning of John Huss, who preceded the German Luther by a decade more than a hundred years, lighted the way for the reformation, which would not have been possible without the work and martyrdom of the Bohemian reformer. The smoldering dissensions which burst again into flame in 1620, when the Bohemian and Moravian Brethren were exiled and the country was depopulated and plundered, have ever and anon crackled and thrust out gleaming tongues. But the days of crucifixions and martyrdoms are memories of the middle ages. A clearer, whiter light now shines for those who think on things religious. Perhaps no other people think or write so much on the various phases of religious controversies as Bohemians. And yet the charge of infidelism is too often wrongfully made against them. A people who are thinking, debating, arguing on religious questions and meanwhile trying to live according to the golden rule are much nearer certain professed ideals of conduct than some of the pharisaical "professors" themselves.
The Bohemians of Nebraska may be roughly classified into three general groups--Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Liberal Thinkers. There are Bohemian churches and priests in forty-four towns and villages. The church at Brainard is a very fine structure, costing over $40,000, exclusive of interior decorations, and is the pride of the community. Parochial schools are maintained in connection with some of the churches. For instance, there is a fine building in Dodge where 140 children attend the instruction of Sisters of Our Lady. There are some twenty Bohemian Protestant churches in the state, mainly Methodist and Presbyterian. The Liberal Thinkers are but recently organized, so there are only five societies in Nebraska, four of them located in Omaha, and only one of them exclusively devoted to the object of the organization. The others are lodges of different orders which have signified approval of the purposes of the Svobodna Obec or Liberal Thinkers League.
The Bohemian people in the United
States are unusually strong on organization. Judging alone
by Nebraska's Bohemian lodge membership one might easily
believe they were inveterate "joiners". It is well known
that as members of labor unions they are "stickers". They
believe thoroughly in the adhesive value of organization to
gain a point. However, it is as organizers of social and
fraternal protective societies that the Bohemians excel.
Practically every man of Bohemian birth or parentage belongs
to one or more associations which have for their object
insurance, protection in sickness and death, as well as the
development of social life. There are also a number of
organizations offering no insurance but, instead,
opportunities for education along gymnastic, musical,
literary or related lines.
Among the social institutions which do not have any insurance feature but devote themselves directly to the betterment of social and educational conditions are the Sokol societies and the Komensky clubs. The first Komensky educational club, whose purpose is the cultural development of Bohemian communities, was organized at the State University by Bohemian students, in 1906. Since then twenty-six similar clubs have been established in six states, thirteen of them in Nebraska. They have established libraries and reading rooms, organized evening schools, and provided good, clean entertainment for the community.
The Sokol societies are chapters of a central association with headquarters in New York. They provide physical training, wholesome sports, and the use of libraries for members. The high national ideals which characterized the organization of the original Sokol or Falcon societies in the mother country actuated all the early enthusiasts who plunged into the rough pioneer conditions after life in Bohemia where they had all the accessories of the highest civilization. Among the early organizers of Sokol societies in typical Bohemian communities was J. K. Mallat, now of Lincoln, who in 1875 helped to organize the first Sokol society in Crete, giving public gymnastic performances in Kovarik's hall, midway between Crete and Wilber. In 1882 the Sokols were organized in Wilber, where Mr. Mallat, having had thorough gymnastic training in Bohemia, was chosen first instructor or "coach"'. The Sokol society was an immense factor in the early social life of Wilber. There also a very popular and typical Bohemian amusement, amateur theatricals, reached a high state of development. There was no tragedy too difficult for the Wilber Thespians to attempt in the palmy days when J. K. Schuessler, the grand old man of the Bohemian American stage, directed the performers. Mr. Schiiessler, who was the father of Mrs. Fred Herman, of Lincoln, was a pro-
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