Czech Footprints in the USA

July 7, 2020

… A brief history of immigration from the Czech Republic to the USA

In 1840, a potato crop failure caused by mold hit Europe. Famine broke out in Ireland and drove thousands of emigrants to America. Hunger also affected Bohemia, but the country still had an almost medieval serf system that did not allow free movement and migration. So the daredevils solved the journey to America by fleeing. By 1865, more than 10,000 emigrants had arrived in the United States from Bohemia through the ports of New York, Baltimore, Boston, Galveston, and New Orleans, from where they went inland.

In the middle of the 19th century they lived in St. Louis (Missouri) over three quarters of all Czechs in the United States, a total of over 7,000 people. The city was only a temporary refuge, as most of them wanted to go further north. The first issue of Národní noviny (National Newspaper) and Slowan amerikánský (American Slav) was published here in 1860. Furthermore, the czech word spread through the Slavia newspaper.

There are still many compatriots living in Texas who are proud of their Czech and Moravian origin and legacy. They live in several districts and their original homeland is reminiscent of embroidered costumes and especially the names of municipalities - Prague, Roznov, Moravia, Novohrad, Bila Hora, Vsetin, Dubina, Hergar, Holub, Kovar, Mikeska, Krasna Lipa, Ratibor, Pisek, Sebesta, Vokaty or Zizkov. Some of them are still exclusively Czech.

In 1873, geologist Charles Wilber founded a small settlement on the Nebraska prairie. Over the next twenty years, 500 Czechs settled here and their descendants live here to this day. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan officially confirmed that Wilber in Nebraska is the capital of all Czechs in the United States.

The city of Chicago was founded in 1837 in a place what the Indians called Chicagoua (wild garlic), and the first Czechs came here 10 years later. By 1870, the Czech village in Chicago had grown to 10,000 inhabitants. They lived mainly in the districts of Prague (the district burned down on October 9, 1871) and Pilsen.

In the middle of the 19th century, repeated economic crises began to drive poor peasants from the Czech Republic to the USA. By 1910, there were almost 100,000 inhabitants. Among them were skilled craftsmen and trained factory workers. Among them, for example, workers from a cigarette factory in Sedlec near Kutná Hora. In 1873, almost all cigarettes sold in New York were made by Czechs.

The year 1924 marked a thick line behind immigration. The laws restricted the influx of Europeans, and for Asians, American borders were completely closed. After the entry of the USA into II. 200,000 Czechs fought in World War II. The US Liberation Army advanced in 1945 through Germany toward the Czechoslovak border under General Patton. It stopped only in western Bohemia, in Pilsen, as provided for in the Agreement of the Powers of the USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. After the war, the United States offered assistance in the Marshall Plan, but Czechoslovakia was already controlled from Moscow at the time, and in 1947 it refused such assistance. Czechoslovakia found itself behind the Iron Curtain until 1989…

…Czechs who made imprints in the USA

The very first known immigrant of demonstrably Czech origin to the USA was an expert in mining of precious metals, Prague Jew Joachim Gans, who went to the USA as a member of the ship's crew sent in 1585 by Queen Elizabeth I. The ship's crew established the first English settlement in America the locals did well and had to leave the settlement involuntarily. Gans worked briefly in Wales, where he had to leave due to his success and Jewish background. He returned to Bohemia via Germany, where in 1596 he bought a large house in the town of Česká Lípa, where his family lived until the onset of Nazism in 1938.

The unity of the Moravian brothers

The Moravian Brothers arrived in Pennsylvania in 1741 and established a settlement with the biblical name Bethlehem. Its inhabitants peacefully converted the Indians to the Christian faith, cultivated the land and engaged in crafts. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were sent to fraternal schools to study their nieces. Members of the Unity spread Christianity in the far reaches, in West Indies and in Greenland. The names of some other fraternal communities in the USA are, for example, Salem, Nazareth or Tabor.

Tony Cermak 

He was born in 1873 in Kladno to a poor mining family as Antonín Čermák and at the age of three he moved with his parents to Chicago, USA. He soon became involved in unions for raising employees' wages. He started a business and entered politics as a Democrat. He did not agree with the ban on alcohol, he feared an increase in crime. In 1931, he won the battle for the post of 44th mayor of Chicago, convincingly won and set the city on its feet by clearing it of corruption, the mafia (Al Capone) and making the city famous overseas, including in Czechoslovakia. In February 1933, he was accidentally hit by an assassin who aimed at President Roosevelt. One of the streets of Chicago still bears his name - Cermak Road.

Ray Kroc

Ray was born in 1902 to Czech parents in the suburbs of Chicago and his life story is the fulfillment of the American dream. In 1953, the McDonald brothers ordered several mixers from Ray for their stalls. He was enthusiastic about the concept of their refreshments and offered them business cooperation. He kept the name of the original owners, but gave the restaurants a new character. In 1961, Ray bought the entire company, which successfully spread abroad. Ray Kroc died in 1984.

American astronauts

American astronauts James Lovell, Eugene Cernan and John Blaha were of Czech origin.

James Lovell was the commander of the Apollo 13 spacecraft, and he carried the Czechoslovak flag with him to the prepared ascent to the surface of the Moon. After the explosion of the oxygen tank on the ship, he demonstrated immense improvisational skills and successfully brought the ship back to the globe.

Eugene Cernan, a native of Chicago, came to the moon as commander of the Apollo 17 spacecraft to be the last man to walk on the moon's surface. He died in 2017.

John Blaha traveled into space a total of five times on three different shuttles, Discovery, Atlantis and Columbia.

Antonin Dvorak

The most famous Czech composer was born in 1841 near Prague to poor rural conditions. His exceptional musical talent, diligence and great tenacity led him to an honorary doctorate at the University of Cambridge and he became an honorary Member of Parliament in Austria. His music is played all over the world and its recording was even in space. The American patron Jeanette Thurber invited Dvorak to New York as the guest director of the Conservatory of Music. Dvorak accepted the invitation and in 1892 went there with his family. His American assistant Jan Josef Kovarik came from Spillville, Iowa and had Czech parents. Dvorak went to Spillville for the holidays and was welcomed on the spot by settlers from southern Bohemia around the towns of Tabor and Pisek. Rare guests were welcomed with traditional czech dishes, czech buns, stuffed with cottage cheese and traditional meat with czech dumplings. In honor of his work in the USA, which ended in September 1883, Dvorak composed the 9th Symphony, entitled From the New World. Americans as well as Czechs consider it their national music. American astronaut Neil Armstrong listened to the New World Symphony a few moments before entering the moon's surface.

Madeleine Albright 

Maria Jana Korbelova was born in Prague in 1937 into the family of a diplomat of Jewish origin. WWII they survived in England while their family were tortured in concentration camps. After the war, the Korbels returned, but after the communist coup in 1948, they left Czechoslovakia for the second time and applied for asylum in the United States. Madeleine became involved in politics, in 1978 she joined the National Security Council. In 1992, President Clinton appointed her US Representative to the United Nations and 1997 Secretary of State. She was responsible for the accession of Czechoslovakia to NATO.

Martina Navratilova

Martina Navratilova is a former Czechoslovak and later an American tennis player, the world tennis player between 1978-1987. Martina comes from Czechoslovakia, but in 1975 she emigrated to the USA and in 1981 she became an American citizen. She is considered one of the best tennis players of all time. She has won a total of 59 grand slam tournaments, 18 singles, 31 women's doubles and 10 mixed doubles, which historically ranks her second among women. Among all tennis players, she holds the absolute record in the number of tournaments won, 167 in singles and 177 in doubles. In women's singles, she won a record 9 titles at Wimbledon. In 2000, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Martina currently participates and initiates many charitable projects in all parts of the world. She is a citizen of the Czech Republic and the USA, but she lives permanently in Florida, USA.

Milos Forman

Director, screenwriter and actor Milos Forman was born in 1932 in the small Czech town of Čáslav. Both parents died in concentration camps and little Milos was taken in by relatives. He studied theater and film directing. He first became famous in the Czech Republic, but after leaving in 1967, when he received permission to travel, he also became famous in the USA. He offered America a Czech sense of humor and a distinctive way of telling. In 1974, he shone with the filming of Ken Kesey's novel Flight over the Cuckoo's Nest, which won five Oscars. In 1985, he won 8 awards from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and another of Foman's films, Amadeus, which depicts the life of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in a captivating way. His work is very rich, he has created documentaries, screenplays, directed, produced films and plays. He died in 2018 in the USA.

Ivan Lendl

They nicknamed him Ivan the Terrible because he had a grim expression on his face during matches. He is considered one of the best tennis players in history. He was born into a tennis family in 1960 and at the age of twenty contributed to the Czechoslovak victory in the Davis Cup. The communist regime persecuted him mentally and financially, so in 1986 he decided to apply for American citizenship in the United States. Ivan Lendl lives in Florida with his family, plays golf, and collects art, especially works by the famous Czech painter Alfons Mucha.

Jaromir Jagr

The Czech hockey striker with an inseparable 68 (a reminder of 1968, when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia) on his back was born in Kladno, Czechoslovakia, where he also put on skates for the first time and rode on ice. In 1990, he was drafted into the overseas NHL at the age of 18 and dressed in the colors of the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the next two years, he won the Stanley Cup with the "Penguins" and became the youngest NHL player in the history of the competition. He won the cup once again in the future and added other successes, such as the NHL's most productive player trophy, and records. He is the oldest player to score three goals in one match.

Ivana Trump

née Zednickova, was born in 1949 in Gottwaldov (now Zlin). From an early age, her father helped her develop a talent for skiing. In 1972, she was selected as a substitute for the Czechoslovak Olympic team, thanks to which she was allowed to travel outside the Communist Eastern Bloc. With her first husband, George Syrowatka, she emigrated to Canada, where she did business with ski equipment. She also worked as a model in New York, where in 1976 she met businessman Donald Trump. After marrying him in 1979, she became vice president of interior design at the Trump Organization. In 2006, she received the Distinguished Czech Woman in the World award, which is already awarded by the International Coordinating Committee of Foreign Czechs.

Jan Hammer

He was born into the musical family of a professional jazz singer and became famous as a twenty-year-old music for a film fairy tale in 1968. After the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in the same year, he left for the USA, where he was accepted to the famous Berklee University. After collaborating with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he composed music for the successful Miami Vice series, and collaborated with greats such as Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana and David Gilmour. Winner of several Grammy Awards.

Bohdan Pomahac

The most famous Czech plastic surgeon and passionate chess player Bohdan Pomahač comes from Ostrava. He originally dreamed of being a pilot, but graduated from the Medical Faculty in Olomouc and decided to help patients. After graduating, he went to the American city of Boston in the state of Massachusetts, where he went to the hospital. He is the first physician to perform a complete facial transplant in the United States. He is considered a leader in his field. Pomahac is also the author of several professional books.

Jara Cimrman

The paradox of history is that the most famous Czech, the genius and omniscient Jara Cimrman, was born in Vienna, the capital of the then monarchy. Due to the not very careful registrar Huschke and his positive attitude towards alcohol, one can only speculate whether this happened in 1856, 1864, 1868 or 1883. Cimrman was a genius and during his prolific life he engaged in a whole range of activities: from criminology, school reform, construction airship, exploring life beyond the Arctic Circle, the invention of yogurt and the presentation of the Panama Canal project, including the libretto of the opera of the same name. Last but not least, he also contributed to the improvement of the dental condition of the inhabitants of the Czech lands as a nomadic dentist, but he achieved by far the greatest importance as a playwright. Most likely, he lived briefly in 1879 in Menlo Park, New Jersey, USA, where he inspired the famous Thomas Alva Edison to invent the improved light bulb, the first functional electric lighting.

Jara Cimrman has a considerable response in Czech culture and even won the highest number of votes in the nationwide poll The Greatest Bohemia in 2005. He was eventually eliminated from the competition because his actual existence could not be proven. 

The personality of Jára Cimrman was created by an original theater ensemble as the main character of all their plays and gradually became a nationwide Czech phenomenon.


History of Czechs in the USA, R. Fucikova; Práh 2019


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Dagmar Pavlíčková