The Czechs in America
by George Kovtun
Czech Area Specialist
Augustine Herrman (Augustin Herman), the first known immigrant from Bohemia, came to New Amsterdam in the employment of the West India Company. He became a surveyor and one of the founders of the Virginia tobacco trade. Bohemia is part of the present-day Czech Republic, but it is not clear whether Herman's mother tongue was Czech or German.
Frederick Philips (Bedrich Filip), a Protestant exile from Bohemia, arrived
in New Amsterdam. Chroniclers refer to him as a 'Bohemian merchant prince'.
He was one of the wealthiest men of his time in the American colonies.
Augustine Herrman moved from New York to Maryland. He obtained a 20,000
acre land grant in Cecil and Newcastle counties and built Bohemia Manor.
Herrman drew the first map of Virginia and Maryland "As it is Planted and Inhabited
this Present Year 1670 Surveyed and Exactly Drawne by the Only Labour and Endeavour
of Augustin Herrman, Bohemiensis."
Portrait of Augustin Herrman,
printed on his map of Virginia and Maryland.
Herrman's map of Virginia and Maryland
First group of Moravian Brethren sailed to America. These descendants of the
followers of Jan Hus were exiled after the defeat of the Protestants in 1620
and settled in Saxony. Although the Brethren became overwhelmingly German,
they kept the memory of their origin by retaining the name Moravian Brethren.
The first Moravian Brethren appeared in New York. In Pennsylvania the Brethren
founded Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Lititz.
The first Moravian church was built in New York.
More than 2,000 Moravian Brethren lived in the colonies at the time of the
Declaration of Independence.
William Paca, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence for Maryland,
was probably of Czech extraction.
John Wilkes Kittera, thought to be a descendant of Moravian Brethren, was
elected as a Federalist to the Second Congress; he was then elected to four
John Wilkes Kittera was appointed by President Jefferson as United States
attorney for the eastern district of Pennsylvania.
Anthony (Antonin) Dignowity from Kutna Hora, linguist, inventor, and physician,
arrived in New York. He practiced medicine in San Antonio until his death in
1875. He was an abolitionist and a friend of Sam Houston.
Francis W. Lassak (Frantisek Vlasak), a successful merchant, settled in New
York. He started as a furrier, probably in cooperation with John Jacob Astor,
acquired considerable wealth, and became one of the few Czech millionaires
Jan Nepomuk Neumann, born 1811, arrived in New York from the southern Bohemian
town of Prachatice. He was ordained a Catholic priest in old St. Patrick's
Cathedral. In 1852 he became the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. He was beatified
in 1963 and canonized in 1977.
A Czech Jew, Simon Polak from Domazlice, a doctor of medicine, came to St.
Louis where he founded an eye and ear clinic and an institution for the blind,
which was one of the best in the state of Missouri.
Czech immigrants established their first settlement in Texas at Catspring,
in Austin County. The names of 14 of the early settlers have been preserved.
Cenek Paclt, an adventurer and globe-trotter, is the only soldier of Czech
nationality serving in the Mexican War of whom we have any record. He claimed
to have taken part in several of the battles that ended in the seizure of Mexico
The first important Czech settlements in the United States were founded in
Wisconsin. A. Kroupa, a political refugee, was the first Czech to reach Racine.
The city of Racine soon became the first American city with a considerable
number of Czech settlers. Caledonia, near Racine, was the first Czech agricultural
The political refugee Gustav Adam, a Czech patriot who had participated in
the insurrection against Austria, was the first Czech to reach Cleveland. He
was a good musician and became an orchestra leader in Cleveland's theater,
Vojtech Naprstek, considered to be the spiritual father of Czech journalism
in America, lived for about a decade in the United States. He published the
freethinking Milwaukee Flug-Blatter , the first periodical publication
of a Czech in America; although a German-language paper, the Flug-Blatter was
read largely by Czechs. Naprstek encouraged Czech-Americans to organize and
publish their own Czech newspaper. After his return to Bohemia he familiarized
his country with American ideas, institutions, and methods. His efforts, experiences,
and collections became the basis of the present Naprstek Museum of Asian, African,
and American cultures in Prague.
Francis Adolph Valenta, a Moravian doctor of medicine, left for America. He
was probably the first Czech immigrant to settle in Chicago, where he practiced
medicine and owned a pharmacy.
One of the early Czech settlers in Chicago, John Slavik from Brno, opened
the first Czech restaurant and saloon on Clark Street.
The Czech Catholic priest, Henry Lipovsky, founded the first Czech parish
in St. Louis and built the first Czech church in the United States, dedicated
to St. John Nepomuk.
The first school teaching the Czech language and history was opened in New
A Czech cultural organization called Slovanska lipa (Slavic linden) was founded
in Detroit. It was modelled on a patriotic association of the same name that
had been established in Prague in the revolutionary year 1848. Cleveland was
followed by other cities. Soon every larger Czech settlement had its own Slovanska
lipa, a cultural center which also performed important social functions.
The first Czech Catholic priest to Cleveland was Father Antonin Krasny. He
was one of the Czech patriots sentenced to prison by the Austrian authorities
after the unsuccessful revolt of 1848. He was given amnesty and left for America.
On his initiative a Czech Catholic church was built in Cleveland in 1867.
Anthony Dignowity published Bohemia under Austrian Despotism , the first
English-language work about the situation of the Czechs in Austria, written
and published in America.
The first Czech newspaper in America, Slowan Amerikansky , published
by Frantisek Korizek, appeared in Racine, Wisconsin. It was a semi-monthly,
then a weekly, with 450 subscribers. In the same year another Czech weekly, Narodni
noviny , was launched by Czech immigrants in St. Louis.
Early Czech newspapers in the United States.
The composer Jan Balatka, a Czech by birth, became the conductor of the Philharmonic
Society of Chicago.
The first two Czech newspapers published in America merged under the name Slavie.
Racine became the home office of the new weekly. Published until 1946, Slavie had
a number of distinguished editors, such as Frantisek Mracek, Vojtech Masek,
and Charles Jonas (Karel Jonas), the future Democratic lieutenant-governor
The Czechs of Chicago established their first Czech school; they also had
the first Czech lawyer, K. Kolacnik.
Charles Jonas was a 23-year-old political emigre when he arrived in Racine
to take over the editorship of Slavie. He began publishing dictionaries,
handbooks, and guides for Czech immigrants. During the Franco-Prussian war,
1870-71, he was an American war correspondent in Germany and France. In 1885
he was appointed the U.S. consul in Prague. In 1890 he was elected lieutenant-governor
of Wisconsin. He became the U.S. consul in St. Petersburg and in Crefeld, Germany,
in 1894. For his important role in the Czech community and in American public
life he was sometimes referred to as 'the first Czech in America'.
Frederick George Novy (1864-1957), one of America's pioneers in bacteriology,
was born in Chicago the year his parents arrived from Bohemia. Acclaimed for
his original research in microbiology and for his important work in laboratory
techniques, he was a model for the character of Max Gottlieb in Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith .
He was known for his strong commitment to truth and to meticulous scientific
work. In 1901 Novy was appointed a member of the United States commission to
investigate the bubonic plague in the Orient. He was associated with the University
of Michigan, where he was named chairman of the new Department of Bacteriology
in 1902 and later served as dean of the medical school.
The first Czech book on record in America was published in Racine: Pravda
cili volne posouzeni udalosti a pokroku XIX. stoleti (The truth, or an
open discussion of events and progress in the nineteenth century), written
by Karel Prochazka.
The first Czech workmen's club was founded in Chicago. Similar clubs followed
in Cleveland (1869) and New York (1870).
Czech women in Chicago founded the first organization of their own, called
Tomas Capek, an 18-year old immigrant from Strakonice in southern Bohemia,
arrived in the United States. He graduated from the University of Michigan
and Columbia Law School and became a legislator in Nebraska, and later a successful
lawyer and banker. As a writer he recorded the history, culture, and social
life of Czech immigrants in a number of significant works. His The Cechs
(Bohemians) in America, published in 1920 and reprinted in 1969, is a basic
work on Czech-American history.
Adolph Sabath, born in southern Bohemia in 1866, immigrated to the United
States. He served for 44 years as a Democratic U.S. Representative from Illinois,
holding the record for consecutive terms in office. He introduced the first
workmen's compensation bill and the first old-age pension plan, and was identified
with the fight for social security legislation, the liberalization of immigration
policy, and civil rights. During World War I, he was an active supporter
of the Czechoslovak independence movement.
Ales Hrdlicka arrived in the United States. The renowned scientist was born
in Humpolec in Bohemia in 1869. In 1905 he set up the division of physical
anthropology in the Smithsonian Institution and became division curator in
1910. He founded the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 1918
and was its first editor. In 1929 he founded the American Association of Physical
Anthropology and served as its first president. He was the foremost specialist
in anthropometry and American Indian anthropology.
Oberlin College organized a Theological Seminary for the Protestant Czechs,
in connection with its Slavic Department.
Czech Benedictines, who had come to the United States to take care of the
spiritual needs of Catholic immigrants, established the only Czech institution
of higher education in America, the College of St. Procopius in Chicago. It
moved to Lisle, Illinois, in 1901.
Antonin Dvorak, the best known of the Czech composers in America, was director
of the National Music Conservatory in New York. He was deeply interested in
the American folk idiom, especially in the melodies of black Americans and
in American Indian rhythms, and advised his students to use them in creating an American
music. Between January and May 1893 he wrote his famous New World Symphony .
Rudolf Ruzicka, born in Kourim in Bohemia, arrived in the United States as
the 11-year old son of Czech immigrants. He became a noted graphic artist,
recognized especially for his wood engravings. He devoted an interesting part
of his work to New York and Newark. Sent to Italy by Scribner's, he made a
series of beautiful engravings for the book Fountains of Papal Rome ,
published in 1915.
The Fountain of the Sea-Horses in Rome, an engraving by the Czech-American
artist Rudolf Ruzicka.
The Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome, by Rudolf Ruzicka.
Figure of Neptune in the Trevi Fountain in Rome, by Rudolf Ruzicka.
A scene from Rudolf Ruzicka's book of engravings, Newark , published
Alphonse Mucha, one of the world's greatest decorative artists,
arrived in the United States. He spent much of the next 17 years in
this country, designing, painting, and teaching at academies in New York, Chicago,
and Philadelphia. Supported by the philantropist Charles R. Crane, he created
a cycle of 20 large paintings, the Slavic Epic, in the early 1920s.
The Czech artist Vojtech Preissig arrived in New York and for the next 20
years worked and taught in the United States, where he introduced many new
printing techniques. During World War I, while he served as director of graphic
arts at the Wentworth Institute in Boston, he designed a set of now famous
posters for Czechoslovak volunteer forces and for the U.S. war effort.
A Czechoslovak poster from World War I, designed by Vojtech Preissig.
The leaders of the Czech National Alliance and the Slovak League signed the
Cleveland Agreement, in which they pledged to cooperate for the common goal
of independent statehood for the Czechs and Slovaks.
Portrait of Thomas G. Masaryk, published in the Christian Science Monitor on
December 1, 1915.
Czech and Slovak organizations in America formed a joint association that
declared itself to be the American branch of Masaryk's Czechoslovak National
Historical flags and coats of arms, published by the Czechoslovak National
Council in New York in September 1918.
Karel Capek's 'fantastic melodrama' R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) was
translated into English and produced in New York. In subsequent years many
of Capek's novels and stories ( War with the Newts , The Absolute at
Large , Tales from Two Pockets , The Makropoulus Secret , and
others) were translated and published in America.
Anton Joseph Cermak, born a coalminer's son in Kladno, near Prague, was elected mayor of Chicago. Cermak was Chicago's first foreign-born mayor.
In 1933 Cermak was killed in Miami by the assassin's bullet intended for President
Roosevelt. Before dying he said to Roosevelt: "I am glad it was me instead
In the period of tension between Czechoslovakia and Nazi Germany, culminating
in the Munich Agreement, the Czech National Alliance was reactivated and a
Slovak National Alliance was established in the United States. In two years
the Czech National Alliance had 213 chapters, with more than 30,000 members.
The University of Chicago invited the exiled Czechoslovak president, Edvard
Benes, to deliver a series of lectures.
As in World War I, the representatives of the Czech National Alliance, the
Czech Catholics, and the Slovak National Alliance formed the Czechoslovak National
Council, which coordinated their activities in support of the Czechoslovak
government in exile in London, headed by Edvard Benes.
Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, born in 1890 and often called the leading
Czech composer of his time, immigrated to the United States, where he composed Memorial
to Lidice for orchestra, and a number of symphonies, concertos, and chamber
works. In the 1950s he returned to Europe and died in Switzerland in 1959.
A township near Joliet, Illinois, was renamed Lidice, in commemoration of
the village in central Bohemia destroyed by Nazi occupiers. In the Czech village
of Lidice all the men were shot to death, the women were transported to concentration
camps, and the small children were sent to Germany for adoption.
In a coup, the Communist Party took over the government in Prague. As a response
to the suppression of democracy, former members of the Czechoslovak parliament
who were refugees in the United States established the Council of Free Czechoslovakia
in Washington, D.C.
Francis Dvornik settled in the United States. Born in Moravia in 1893, Father
Dvornik was a Byzantine scholar of world repute. In America he was associated
with the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, Harvard University, until
his death in 1975. He is also known for his studies on early Slavic history.
Two hundred intellectuals of Czech and Slovak origin founded the Czechoslovak
Society of Arts and Sciences in America. The noted mathematician Vaclav Hlavaty,
of Indiana University, was its first president.
On March 7, the 110th anniversary of the birth of the first president of Czechoslovakia,
the U.S. Post Office issued a stamp honoring Thomas G. Masaryk.
The Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews was established in New York.
Czech film director Milos Forman, born in Caslav in Bohemia in 1932, began
a remarkable American career. His best-known Czech films were the prizewinning Loves
of a Blond and The Fireman's Ball . His American films include One
Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (winning Academy Awards for directing, best
film of the year, best actor, best actress, and best screenplay in 1975), Hair , Ragtime ,
and Amadeus , which was awarded eight Oscars in 1986.
Arnost Lustig, Czech writer and Holocaust survivor, came to the United States.
He became Professor of Literature and Film at the American University in Washington.
His works published in America include Darkness Casts No Shadow , Diamonds
of the Night , A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova , and The Unloved .
Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, landed on the moon. Cernan
was born in Chicago in 1934 to a Czech mother and a Slovak father. After the
end of the manned lunar missions, he acted as senior U.S. negotiator in direct
discussions with the Soviet Union on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
Writers Josef and Zdena Skvorecky established Sixty-Eight Publishers in Toronto.
Their publishing house developed into the main supplier of Czech literature
for the Czech-reading public in the United States. During the period of Communist
repression in Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968, Sixty-Eight
Publishers became an important focus of free Czech publishing activity. Most
of Josef Skvorecky's novels (such as The Cowards , The Engineer of
Human Souls , The Miracle Game , and Dvorak in Love ) were published
in English translation in the United States.
In January Madeleine Albright was confirmed by the Senate as Secretary of
State and became the highest ranking female official in U.S. history. She was
born in Prague in 1937 as the daughter of a Czech diplomat, came to the United
States at the age of 11 years, graduated from Wellesley College, and earned
a PhD at Columbia before entering politics. During 1993-97 she served as
the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.
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