Researching Czechs in America

by Ruby Coleman

The first known Czech in America was Augustin Herman(n) who came to New Amsterdam in 1633. However, most genealogists who are researching Czech roots in America are interested in a later group of immigrants who arrived primarily between 1848 and 1914. It is estimated that over 400,000 Czechs came to America during that time period.

Clues to Czech ancestry can be found in home sources, such as old letters, documents, Bibles, death notices, Czech newspaper clippings, church records, tombstone inscriptions and even in family traditions. Listen to the stories that have been passed down in families. Take special notice of surnames, their spelling and meaning. Often surnames were converted to an English equivalent after immigrants arrived in the United States.

Prior to World War I, your ancestors may have been referred to as Bohemians which is Bohmen in German and Cechy in Czech. United States census records from 1880 to 1920 may refer to places of birth as Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary or Austria, depending upon the time period. The census will also provide information on naturalization and when individuals arrived in the United States, thus opening doors for searching passenger lists and naturalization records.

Czechs began arriving in Texas in 1847, settling in Austin County. More prominent settlements were in Wisconsin in 1848. They first settled along Lake Michigan in Kewaunee and Manitowoc Counties and then in Richland and LaCrosse Counties. Settlements of Czechs were prevalent in Iowa counties of Winneshiek and Linn. Nebraska appealed to many Czech immigrants, some of whom had settled earlier in Wisconsin, Illinois or Iowa. Favored counties of settlement in Nebraska were Saline, Colfax, Douglas and Butler.

From 1850 through the 1880s, some of the Czechs came to these shores to escape Austrian domination. Others were farmers experiencing an agricultural depression. Land was easier to obtain in the United States and many found work in the lumber industry in Wisconsin and Michigan. In all cases their heritage was preserved. They settled in groups, had their own Czech language newspapers, social groups and maintained their Old World customs.

Ports of arrival were generally through Galveston, New Orleans, Baltimore or New York. Check all possibilities when looking at passenger lists. They primarily embarked from Bremen, Hamburg and Antwerp. While most came from Hamburg, there were some who sailed from LeHavre or Rotterdam.

A number of Czech passenger lists have been published by Leo Baca. His nine volumes of lists cover the time period of 1848 to 1899. More information on them can be found at the web page, http://members.home.net/lbaca/.

The Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) contains an extensive Czech American Collection of books, newspapers, pamphlets, serials and manuscripts. There are over 1,000 printed volumes and files of approximately 30 newspapers dating from the 1860s to the present. Many are written in the Czech language. The center is located at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, MN. To learn more about what is available go to the Internet site, http://www.umn.edu/ihrc/czech.htm#top.

To learn more about your Czech ancestry and the history of the Czech people, an excellent book has been translated and published. It is History of Czechs in America by Jan Habernicht. Originally published in 1904, it has been translated and republished in 1996 by the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International. For more information on this book, check out the web site at http://www.cgsi.org/sales/book.htm or write to Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, PO Box 16225, St. Paul, MN 55116-0225.

Tombstone inscriptions, church records, old letters and Czech newspapers may contain puzzling words. The Czech language was spoken and written in families well into the 20th century. Church services were conducted in Czech. In English we call our parents father and mother. In German they are Vater and Mutter. In Czech they are otec and matka. To learn more about the Czech language and translations a helpful web page is Basic Genealogy Vocabulary German-English-Czech at http://www2.genealogy.net/gene/reg/SUD/dictionary.html.

There are many excellent Internet sites devoted to searching Czech ancestry. Czech Genealogy can be found at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~elainetmaddox/czgenealogy.htm. Many links from this will advance to other Czech pages. The CzechGenWeb project can be found at http://rootsweb.com/~czewgw/.

A thorough search of family sources, stories and customs will provide insight into your Czech ancestry. Their history can easily be discovered, sometimes only a footstep away on a tombstone.

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