GATEWAY TO AMERICA1
by Miloslav Rechcigl, Jr.
New York City occupies a unique place in the history of Czech and Slovak immigrations to the United States. The New York harbor, which since 1884 can rightly boast of its world-famous Statue of Liberty, was the first place on the American continent where Czech and Slovak immigrants usually arrived. Here the infamous Ellis Island is located through which between 1893-1954, tens of thousands of these people passed, many of whom spent a number of unhappy days, if not weeks or months, there pending the resolution of the immigration problems, unless they were deported back to Europe.
Among the shore cities, New York attracted Czech and Slovak immigrants in largest numbers. It served more as a stop, crossroads or a bridge, enabling the immigrants to reach the interior of America. This was less true about the other nationalities and ethnic groups, such as the Irish or the Italians, who settled in New York in large numbers permanently. Although hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks passed through New York City, Josef Pastor estimated that in the year 1867 only about 1500 settlers from the Czechlands lived there.2
The first documented case of a Czech immigrant in New York was that of the legendary Augustine Herman (1621-1686).3 He settled there around 1640, during the period when the city was part of the Dutch Colony, known as New Amsterdam. Herman, who customarily signed his name Augustine Herman Bohemiensis, was a successful merchant and entrepreneur who, because of his reputation and popularity, was elected chairman of the “Council of Nine” which governed the City. Because of the recurrent disputes with the Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant, he later moved to the English Province of Maryland. There was another immigrant from Bohemia living in New Amsterdam at that time, by the name of Frederick Philipse (1626-1702),4 nicknamed by his contemporaries as "Bohemian Merchant Prince." He was most likely a descendant of the Bohemian aristocratic family Tchynsky who had to flee in exile from the Kingdom of Bohemia after the tragic Battle of the White Mountain. In time, Philipse became the wealthiest person in the entire Dutch colony. Based on old archival documents, it is fairly certain that there were other Czech settlers living in New Amsterdam in those days.5
Several ships bringing members of the renewed Unity of Brethren (Unitas fratrum), known as the Moravian Church, landed in New York harbor in the fourth decade of the 18th century.6 They only passed through, however, and moved onto Pennsylvania. The most important of these voyages was “Second Sea Congregation" which, on November 26, 1743, brought in three dozen Moravian Brethren from Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. They were followed by the "Third Sea Congregation," which delivered some 50 additional Brethren from the Czechlands. Apart from the Moravian Brethren, the old New York records indicate that, in 1740, several Bohemian Jews7lived here, among them Uriah Hyam and Elias Wollin. There is also a record of a Mathias Bush from Prague who later moved to Philadelphia where he became a successful merchant.
In the subsequent period there was no real reason for emigration from the Czechlands. Following the Napoleonic wars the economic situation was, more or less, satisfactory. Goods were relatively inexpensive and there was plenty of work. Only towards the end of the first half of the 19th century, when the country was stricken by droughts and low potato harvests, Czechs seriously began to consider the possibility of emigrating to America .
Nevertheless, there were a few individuals of Czech descent who came here prior to that time. One of them was a Bohemian composer Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861) who came to New York in 1832, although he had lived in the US since 1816. He was unusually popular and his contemporaries frequently called him the "American Beethoven." At the same time, Antonin Michal Dignovity (1810-1875) arrived in New York from Kanka in Bohemia. After many years of wandering around the US, he finally settled in Texas where he opened a private medical practice.
In 1836, two more individuals from the Czechlands resided in New York, namely Dr. Simon Polak (1814-1903) and Jan Nepomucene Neumann (1811-1860). Dr. Polak, after a short stay, eventually settled in St. Louis where he became a physician of note. Neumann, who was a Roman Catholic priest, served first in Buffalo, NY and later was assigned to Pittsburgh, PA, Baltimore, MD and finally to Philadelphia, PA, where he was named a bishop. In 1977, more than one hundred years after his death, he was declared a Saint, and as such became the first American male Saint ever.
Among the first noted Czechs in New York was also Frantisek Vlasak from Prague, a furrier by profession. He arrived in the city in 1836 and became a partner of the famous millionaire Jacob Astor. He later changed his name to Frank W. Lasak. When he died, he left property valued at five million dollars. Another furrier of Czech descent was Jan N. Konvalinka, also from Prague, whose wholesale establishment on Maiden Lane No. 36 still existed in 1890.
Another Prague native, Leopold Eidlitz (1823-1908), settled in New York in 1843; four years later his brother Marc joined him. Leopold was one of the most prominent architects in the US, while Marc became one of the most famous building contractors and entrepreneurs in New York City. Another Praguer, Charles S. Kuh, immigrated to New York in 1844 and later moved to South Carolina where he became a state legislator. Two years later, Issac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), originally spelled Weiss, arrived in New York, becoming a rabbi of the Hebrew congregation in Albany, NY. He later accepted a rabbinical position in Cincinnati where he founded the first Hebrew College in America. During his life, he was considered the chief representative of liberal Judaism in the US. There is also a record that Cenek Paclt of Turnov, Bohemia who, for a short time in 1846, lived in New York before joining the American forces during the Mexican War (1846-1848).
According to Thomas Capek, the first larger group of Czech immigrants in the 19th century consisted of military deserters from the 35th Pilsen regiment. Most notable among them was Tuma, known in New York under the name "Czech Columbus."8
Following the unsuccessful Prague revolution of 1848, a number of Czech political refugees began settling in New York. Among the most prominent ones were Vojta Naprstek (1826-1894) and Frantisek Korbel (1831-1920). Their New York phase was very difficult because they had to struggle just to stay alive. Naprstek later moved to Milwaukee, WI, where he opened his own bookstore and began publishing his famous newspaper. Korbel moved to California where he founded a factory for making cigar boxes and later established extensive vineyards and developed the famous American champagne bearing his name. According to available statistics, in 1852, fifty Czech families lived in New York. As far as we can determine, there were no Slovaks living there, as yet.
An important group of Czech immigrants in New York City were cigar makers from Sedlice, Bohemia. The earliest ones came to New York in 1857 where others later joined them. Cigar-making became the principal occupation of Czech New Yorkers, who could not find employment elsewhere. There were many women and girls among them, called "Greeners", because they did not know English. Their working conditions were rather poor and rarely did they earn more than $5 a week. Another popular job among the Czech immigrants in New York was pearl button manufacturing. Czechs also were frequently employed as tailors, cabinetmakers, and clockmakers.9
According to Habenicht,10Capek11 and other ethnic historians, the first Czech organization in New York was called "Cesko-Slovansky spolek" (Czech-Slavic Society), founded in 1849, under the chairmanship of Vaclav Pohl. From the initial 17 members it grew to 42 members by the end of 1849. The Society had a short life, becoming extinct in 1855. Actually, there is a record of the existence of an earlier mutual aid society of Bohemian Brothers, founded by Bohemian Jews in 1846.12 Simon Klaber was listed as President, Dr. Bruckmann as Treasurer and M. Opper as Secretary.
In the early sixties, New York Czechs organized their ""Slovanska lipa" (Slavic Linden Tree), followed in 1863 by "Cesko-Slovansky spolek nemocne podporujici" (Czech-Slavic Society to Aid the Sick), in 1865 by "Vcela" (Bee), and in 1867 by the singing society "Hlahol". And finally, in 1867, "Telocvicna Jednota Sokol v New Yorku" (Gymnastic Union Sokol of New York) was established.
Entertainment and theatrical productions were initially held in a private hall on Fifth Street in which "Narodni Jednota" and "Sokol" had their own rooms. In 1898, the Czech organizations built their "National Hall" on 73rd Street, close to Second Avenue and a new "Sokol Hall" on 71st Street, close to A Avenue.
Czech Catholics organized their first church services in 1874 in a private home on Fourth Street between C and D Avenues. Their first priest was Vendelin Vacula. Later, the Redemptorists were in charge and, in 1887, they built the Church of the Lady of Perpetual Help on East 61st Street - until today, the only Czech Catholic church in New York City.
Czech Protestants founded their own congregation in 1877, thanks to the labors of Gustav Alexy of Roznov. His successor became Vincenc Pisek of Malesov. Through his efforts the new modern Czech Brethren Presbyterian House was built in 1888.
It is noteworthy that, already in 1848, Czech Jews had their own congregation "Ahabath Hesed." Their synagogue stood on 133 Ridge Street and their burial ground in Cypress Hill Cemetery. Their first rabbi was Falkman Teberich, while Ignatz Stein was president of the congregation.
The first Czech newspaper
in New York was New Yorske Listy ( New York Papers), published by Slovanska
Lipa. The first editor was J. Reindl; later Jan V. Capek.
by Thomas Capek, in The Cechs (Bohemians) in America. Boston and
New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920, p. 40.
Miloslav Rechcigl, Jr., “Augustine Herman Bohemiensis,” Kosmas 3
(Summer 1984), pp. 139-148.
Capek, Ancestry of Frederick Philipse, First Lord and Founder of Philipse
Manor at Yonkers, N.Y. New York: Paebar, 1939.
5. On early
immigrants from the Czechlands to America, see also my article, “In
the Footprints of Czech Immigrants in America,” Czechoslovak and Central
European Journal 9 (1990), pp. 75-90.
information on the immigration of Moravian Brethren to the US, see my articles,
“The Renewal and Formation of the Moravian Church in America,” Czechoslovak
and Central European Journal 9 (1990), pp. 12-26 and “Moravian Brethren
from Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia,” Bohemia 32, No. 1 (1990), pp..
early Jewish immigration from the Czechlands and Slovakia, see my article,
“Early Jewish Immigrants in America from the Czech Historic Lands and Slovakia
to America,” Review of the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews
3 (1990-1991), pp.57-179.
Capek, The Cechs (Bohemians) in America, op. cit., p.25.
See also my article, “Czech American Tradesmen - Masters of their Profession,”
Habenicht, History of Czechs in America. St. Paul: Czechoslovak
Genealogical Society International,1996, p. 104. The book was originally
published in Czech, under the title Dejiny Cechuv Americkych. St.
Louis, MO: Hlas, 1910.
11. Thomas Capek,
Cechs (Bohemians) in America, op. cit., p. 255.
Kisch, In Search of Freedom. A History of American Jews from Czechoslovakia
1592-1948. London: Edward Goldston, 1948, p. 82..