The Lone Star State of ‘Moravci’ in its Formative Years

9-10 2009 Ostatní English
obálka čísla

The State of Texas has always had a unique place in American history, as indicated by its nickname “Lone Star State,” as it is generally known. Texas was a scene of many battles and disputes, first between the French and the Spanish, the former, in the end, were forced to surrender to Spain. After Mexico overthrew the Spanish rule, in 1823, Texas became part of the Mexican territory, when also the first Americans settled there in 1821. In 1837, Davy Crocket, Jim Bowie and other heroes died at the Alamo, fighting for freedom from Mexico. Sam Houston led the Texans to final victory against the Mexicans at San Jacinto. For nearly ten years, Texas was an independent republic. After Texas became a state in 1845, the settlers fought the Indians for many years in order to protect their families and homes.

Pioneer Settlers

According to some historical records, the first Czechs who stepped on the Texas soil may have been the members of the Bohemian Jesuit Order on their way to Mexico, as part of their missionary activities among the Indians in the second half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th century. Evidence of this are the found bells in some of the Indian chapels bearing the names of the Czech Saints. Among Mexican people Czech Saints are apparently held in high esteem which they acquired from the Bohemian missionaries.

It seems likely that Karl Postl (1789-1864), a monk and a priest from Popovice near Znojmo, Moravia, visited Texas sometimes after 1823. He hid his real identity under the name Charles Sealsfield. In the US, he was a reporter and writer. It is not known for certain whether he traveled throughout Texas, Mexico, and the Southwest, but modern scholars have deemed it probable. Postl may have owned a plantation on the Red River at some point, but there is no definitive evidence to support this. From 1829 to 1832 he may have worked as a journalist in the Southwest. He immortalized Texas in his novel Das Kajütenbuch (Zurich, 1841), or The Cabin Book (New York, 1844; London, 1852). In addition to the latter novel about Texas, in which he portrays the fledgling republic as the world’s great hope for the future, Sealsfield wrote twelve other novels and book-length interpretations of North America and Europe.

In February 1836, Frederick Lemský (?–1844) appeared in Texas. Not much is known about him except that he came from the Czech Lands and that he was a fifer in the four-piece Texas Army “band” at the battle of San Jacinto. He enlisted in the Texas army on March 13, 1836, and served in the company of William E. Howth and Nicholas Lynch. He was a musician in the army until December 31, 1836. He is said to have played “Come to the Bower” on the flute at the battle of San Jacinto. He then settled in Houston. On January 27, 1838, Lemský advertised in the Telegraph and Texas Register, offering his services as a music teacher and teacher of German and French. He was a charter member of the German Union of Texas, incorporated on January 21, 1841. In March 1842 the Brazos and San Luis Canal Lemský was the employer of thirty men digging there. In January or February 1844 Lemský drowned when a “hard norther” capsized the barge on which they were hauling corn.

Several Czech families came to Texas with German immigrants in 1841 and settled with them in the vicinity of New Braunfels and Fredericksburg. The Catholic priest Rev. Bohumir Menzl from Frydlant, Bohemia, was among them, serving as their spiritual Father. He was the first Czech Catholic priest in Texas. He supervised the construction of the first Roman Catholic church in Fredericksburg and also erected a cross on a hill northwest of town. He was a careful observer of Texas flora and fauna, as he related in his correspondence with his friends in Bohemia. The life of a circuit-riding priest was a Spartan task and Menzl, worn out by his travels, returned to Bohemia in 1851.

Michael Anthony Dignovitý (1810-1875), a native of Kutná Hora, belongs, undoubtedly, among the oldest Czech settlers in Texas. He was trained as mechanic in Kaňk, Bohemia and somehow got involved in the Polish revolution in 1831 and later immigrated to America. After his arrival in New York in 1832, he traveled southward to Natchez, MS and eventually to San Antonio, TX, working at different jobs. After receiving medical training he opened a medical practice in MS and then in Indian Territory in Arkansas. When the Mexican War broke out, he hurried back to San Antonio with a group of Arkansas volunteers. He later became a successful doctor and businessman there, but in the 1850s his outspoken abolitionist views made him controversial. In 1859 he published an autobiography in English, Bohemia under Austrian Despotism to clear his name. He was one of the first Czech-born writers to publish in America. In his book Dignowity rails against the “tyranny” of American public opinion and criticizes the American legal system. Dignowity’s reputation as a Unionist and abolitionist continued to plague him, and in 1861 he narrowly escaped hanging in the San Antonio plaza. He traveled by horseback to Washington, D.C., where he was employed by the federal government. His property was confiscated, and two of his sons were conscripted into the Confederate Army. The sons later escaped to Mexico, however, and joined the Union Army.

In 1849, Leopold Karpeles (1838-1909), a native of Prague, Bohemia, immigrated to Texas, whose name one doesn’t normally find in histories dealing with Czech Americans. He initially settled with his older brother Emil in Galveston, which means that the latter must have already lived there for several years. He worked as a merchant, making trips to Mexico and the western territories of the United States. In 1861, his opposition to slavery and secession led him to leave Texas for Massachusetts, where he enlisted in Company A of the Forty-Sixth Massachusetts Infantry on August 15, 1862, and served in the regiment in the North Carolina campaign. He rose to the rank of color corporal before mustering out on July 29, 1863. By the spring of 1864 he was back in Massachusetts working as a clerk. He enlisted in the Fifty-Seventh Massachusetts Infantry and was appointed color sergeant. On May 6, 1864, at the Battle of the Wilderness, the Fifty-Seventh lost 262 of its 548 men. At several crucial stages of the battle Karpeles exposed himself to enemy fire by climbing up on stumps and rallying the regiment around its colors. In 1870 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. He fought at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 10, 12, and 18, 1864. At the Battle of the North Anna, on May 24, Karpeles was badly wounded. He refused to relinquish the flag and be evacuated until he fainted from loss of blood. Karpeles spent most of the next year in military hospitals, and was discharged in May of 1865. He settled in Washington after the war and was rewarded for his military service with a job in the post office, which he held until his death in 1909.

In March 1850, Rev. Josef Arnošt Bergman (1797-1877), a Protestant minister from Zápudov, near Mnichovo Hradišt?, landed in Galveston and proceeded by coastal and river steamers to San Felipe and then by oxcart to Cat Spring. The German colonists hired Bergmann as their school teacher and preacher. Bergmann bought the tract of land currently called Kollattschny Cemetery, and there preached and taught school in a small log building. Bergmann is, however, best known for the letter he wrote to his friends in Bohemia after his arrival in America. This letter told of the freedom to be found in Texas, the large amount of land available at cheap prices, and how he had already acquired many chickens, hogs, cows, and a horse. His letter was eventually published in the Moravské Noviny (Moravian News), and people in Moravia began to discuss plans for following the Bergmann family to the great free state of Texas. Groups of Czech families came in 1852, 1853, and 1854, and this started the waves of migration of Czech and Moravian people to Texas. Bergmann, credited by many Czech immigrants and their descendants as their reason for immigrating to Texas, was the father of the Czechs in Texas.

In 1850, Wenzel Mat?jowský (1828-1904), from Nechanice, Bohemia, immigrated to Texas, landing in Galveston. On reaching Texas, he engaged in farming and in 1852 established a cigar factory in Bastrop. He then moved to Long Prairie where he bought a merchandise business. He became a postmaster there and in 1873 he renamed it Nechanitz, after his native town. During the Civil War, he was a strong Union man and became allied with the Republican Party. In 1886 he was elected a Representative to the 20th Texas Legislature.

Group Migrations

The first more numerous group of Czech immigrants came to Texas from Nepomuk and Cermna in northeastern Bohemia, landing in Galveston in 1852. There were 16 families altogether, mostly poor farmers, cottagers and laborers without special qualifications who decided to immigrate to America after their region suffered a severely poor crop season. They, initially, planned to immigrate to the Banat region, located in the southern part of Rumania, but Josef Leschinger talked them out of it and the group decided to immigrate to America. It is a paradox that Leschinger, who instigated their emigration, at the end, remained in Bohemia, and the group was led by Josef Shiller. His son, also named Josef, studied law and became one of the first Czech attorneys in the US.

Unfortunately, this first group immigration effort to Texas ended in a disaster. They were swindled on the way, rerouted through Liverpool and boarded on the overcrowded ship “Victoria.” Because of poor conditions on the ship, and the uncooked food, which was moldy and rotten, but forced to eat, most of them became ill and half of them died during their tumultuous seventeen-week voyage.

A year later, another group from the same region followed, with 32 families, this time at the helm with Josef Leschinger. Subsequent groups came mostly from Moravia, who learned about Texas from Moravske noviny, which were regularly reprinting Begmann’s letter. It is of interest that it was actually Lešikar who first came across Bergmann’s famous letter and who had it reprinted in Moravské Noviny, which were edited by his friend Ladislav Klácel. Since the letter generated such a huge emigration from eastern Moravia to Texas, Lesikar considered himself “the originator of the emigration of our people to Texas.”

The Lešikar’s group reached Cat Spring in 1853. Josef J. Lešikar (1816-1883), 1 a highly educated man, was admirer of Karel Havlíček Borovský and prepared the foundation for Czech journalism in Texas and in America, in general. As a representative of the St. Louis’ Národní Noviny, which openly sided with the Union, Lešikar’s life was continuously exposed to danger from the side of the Confederation neighbors.

The most prominent Czech immigrants of that period were two patriots, who took part in the 1849 Revolution, namely Jan Reymershoffer (1808-1876) and Josef Mašik (1810- 1881). Reymershoffer2 was a native of Holešov where he owned large property and at one time was a member of the Austrian Parliament. After coming to Texas, he established a small store in Cat Spring and later removed to Galveston where he became a successful merchant, as well as public servant. His sons became wealthy millers and exporters of Texas flour to England and Germany. His oldest son and grandson had positions at the Austrian Consulate for Texas.

Josef Mašik, a native of Začany near Hustopeče, who was a teacher by profession, wasn’t as lucky as Reymershoffer. He had to work manually at first and also as a farmer. Only later, he succeeded to return to his profession. He was considered to be the first Czech teacher in Texas.

Four years later, another Protestant minister of note arrived in Texas, namely Jan Zvolánek (1815-1890), a native of Sobínov, near Havličkův Brod, Bohemia. He belonged to the ancient Unitas fratrum Church and, in addition to his ministry, he was also trained as a physician. After arriving in Galveston in December 1854, his family settled at San Felipe, where Zvolánek bought a house and practiced medicine. The Czech-Moravian Brethren Church in Texas was founded and grew under Zvolánek’s ministry. In 1855 he was called to serve the Czech and Moravian families at Ross Prairie. He was probably the first minister ever to preach in Czech in Texas, and perhaps in the United States. He also became associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Texas and preached in German in Lutheran churches.

Harsh Beginnings

As one learns from Tomáš Ječmének from Fayetteville, the first impressions of Czech immigrants in Texas Cat Spring were not too enthusiastic, as one would expect from Bergmann’s and Zvolanek’s letters. “In 1855, father with his entire family left for America, actually for Texas,” writes Ječmének in Kalendář Amerikán. “We spent seven weeks on the ocean. There were 50 other families with us, all Moravians from the Vsetín region. From Galveston we took a boat through the bay and canal to Houston, where hired foremen took us with oxen teams to the village Cat Spring where all the Moravian emigrants gathered. We were all heartbroken, especially fathers and mothers when we did not see anything else except wilderness with a few poor fields. Everybody complained and women lamented, wringing their hands with despair that we will die in this wasteland.”

>From J. J. Skrivanek Sr.’s testimony, we learn that the Czech immigrants in Texas built their first homes, called “loksáky” or “logsáky,” meaning log cabins in Czenglish, with dirt floors, and a roof of grass. The furniture consisted of few items which they had brought from their homeland, and whatever could be hauled on wagons from Galveston. Usually, a few dishes, some clothes and a feather-bed were all that a family owned. The feather-bed was called “zlatá česká peřina,” a well deserved name, for it saved many lives during the cold winter months. There were no beds in the “logsáky,” but the pioneers drove wooden spikes into the ground in the corner of the log houses and covered these with tree branches and moss. These, in turn, were covered with the feather-beds. Wood blocks served as chairs.

Under most cruel and inhumane conditions, the Czech immigrants had to build their new dwellings, wooden shanties, from fell trees, floors from stamped soil, with a room in middle of which was a primitive fire pit for cooking. With bare hands they had to work their small fields, using the most primitive tools, which they themselves had to make. Beyond that, they had to defend themselves against Indian attacks, not to speak of unexpected natural disasters.

Only a few families remained at Cat Spring. The majority removed to Fayetteville and the neighboring counties. The first Czech colony Dubina was established in the vicinity of Weimar. One of its first settlers was Josef Petr, who moved there in 1850 and later became a member of the Texas Legislature. Another community was established in Fayetteville, where the Czech immigrants built their Catholic church. From here the Czechs moved to Ellinger and Live Oak Hill which they named Hostýn. In 1856, the Czech settlers established the village Praha. Other Czech immigrants settled in the village Bluff. The Czech community La Grange already had its Czech mayor in 1876, in the person of Augustin Haidušek (1845-1928), a native of Frenštát in Moravia. In 1880 the latter was elected a member of the State Legislature of Texas, which, through his influence, agreed to allow teaching Czech in the State Texas schools. Other Czech communities in the Fayette Co. included Flatonia, Schulenburg, Warrenton, Holman, Ammansville, Cistern, Eagle and Roznov.

Following 1856, the Czech communities expended from Fayette Co. also to Lavaca Co. The following villages belonged here: Halletsville, Yoakum, Shiner, Moravia, Novohrad, Bila Hora and Vsetin. In Colorado Co., the Czech farmers settled in Columbus, Weimar, Nada and Freisburg. The Burleson Co. welcomed its first Czech settlers in 1870. Their main settlements were Novy Tabor, Sebesta and Frenstat. The capitol city Caldwell had its own Czech colony with its own church. Czech settlers came to Brazos Co. around 1871. Their center was in Bryan, where they had also their church. Other settlements were established in the villages of Cameron, Taylor, Grange and Corn Hill.

With time, Czechs spread to other Texas counties, often naming their communities with Czech names, such as Dubina, Hergar, Holub, Kovar, Krasna Lipa, Mikeska, Nechanitz, Ratibor, Pisek, Vokaty, Zizkov, etc.

Adjustment and Behavior Characteristics

In spite of their harsh beginnings, most Czech immigrants in Texas have made it and many of them became very successful in their careers, of which this Conference organizer, Dr. Clinton Machann, Professor of English at Texas A&M University, is a good example. I could, of course, name other personalities, such as B. P. Matocha, former Secretary of State of Texas, Frank J. Malina, a pioneer in rocketry and space exploration, Eduard Míček, Professor and Chairman of Slavic Languages at the University of Texas in Austin, Bishop John L. Mořkovský, S.T.D., the Oscar winning actors Sissy Spaček and Rip Torn, Western swing musicians and singers Adolph Hofner and Hank Thompson, baseball players Doug Drábek and Scott Posedník, football tackler Dusty Dvořáček, and so on and so on, but this is not the focus of my paper.

To get a glimpse of the nature of the unique behavior and the character of the Czech Texans, let me quote from a narration offered by John M. Skřivánek, Professor of Modern Languages at Texas A&M University in the fifties and the sixties of the last century: “From the original settlements, some 350,000 American-Czechs have scattered all over the State. They are represented in all walks of life. Motivated by the desire to form an all-Czech community where they would not be exploited or molested by groups of other nationalities, the Czechs invited fellow countrymen to move into areas which they themselves had already occupied. Within a few years, such areas were settled by large numbers of Czechs and a sort of Czech cultural island was created. A feeling of solidarity was thus established. Since they were culturally differentiated from people in surrounding areas, the Czechs founded community organizations, in which their native language, customs, habits, traditions, and social values were perpetuated. Remaining virtually isolated from intimate contact with the surrounding population, such communities as Sebesta, Kovar, Praha and many others remained almost totally Czech in character until a few years ago. Certain modes of behavior traditional to these people have persisted for over a hundred years.

Czechs have always been closely associated with farming, not only as a distinctive form of work but as a distinct way of life. Because land was at such a premium in Czechoslovakia, it was and still is looked upon by the Czech-American as a symbol of status and security. So deeply was this idea embedded in the mind of these people that land ownership is characteristic not only of the farmer, but also of the city dweller who is also engaged in other occupations.” Skřivánek also stressed that the Czech family still functions as not only a social but also economic unit, with strong family ties. This influence is so strong that one seldom reads or hears of a Czech youth running away from home and juvenile delinquency is relatively unknown. The illiteracy among the Czech immigrants was among the lowest of all groups that entered the US, which is also exemplified by the fact that no immigrants brought more books to the New World than did the Czechs.

According to the American sociologist Robert L. Škrábanek, the Texan Czechs were always proud of their heritage, as he expressed in the following words: “With one foot in America and the other still in the Old Country, a band of Czech farmers led a distinctive and fiercely proud way of life in Central Texas in the 1920s and 1930s. Were there corn rows straighter and neater than those of their non-Czech neighbors? Did their children excel in the local schools and in country-wide athletic contests? Were cooperation and trust rather than rigid individualism the norm in everything from insurance plans to beef clubs to cotton harvests? The explanation for all of these differences seemed simple to them: ‘We’re Czechs; they’re Americans.’“

As we’ve learned from the periodical Slavie, the Moravians formed as much as 80% of the Czech population in Texas, most of them from the eastern and northern Moravia from the Silesian border, who “defended” themselves against being called Bohemians or Czechs, preferring to be known as “Moravci”.

Miloslav Rechcigl, Jr.
Rockville, MD

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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