The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/Bohemians in Nebraska

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Bohemians in Nebraska.

By Prof. Šárka B. Hrbkova, University of Nebraska

In this mixing bowl of nations it will require the most skillful alchemy to preserve the pure gold not alone of the native stock, but of the stranger within our gates. It is only fair and logical to know well the character of the constituents cast daily into the American melting pot.

In 1910 the total population of Nebraska was 1,192,214. In the same year, the population of foreign birth and foreign parentage amounted to 539,015, or almost one-half the total population.

Of this foreign population 62.810 or 13 per cent came directly from Austria or were born of parents coming from Austria. The question is, are all or nearly all of these “Austrians” from Bohemia? Of the 539,-392 Bohemians enumerated in the United States census in 1910, it is probably safe to say that one-eighth reside in the State of Nebraska. This deduction is based on a process of elimination, according to the claims of each of the other more important Bohemian communities in this country. The complete census, when issued, will give this in detail. Every year from 300 to 500 Bohemian emigrants arriving at the various ports give Nebraska as their destination. The immigration figures since 1900 entitle us to regard 69,000 as a fair estimate of Nebraska’s foreign-born Bohemian population.

Every one of the counties of Nebraska have Bohemian inhabitants, the heaviest percentages of Bohemians being in Douglas, Colfax, Saline, Saunders and Butler counties. Cities and towns which have a generous percentage of Bohemian population are Omaha, especially the south side, Wilber, Crete, Clarkson, Milligan, Schuyler and Prague. In the main, however, Bohemians are settled on farms rather than in towns, and in the eastern portion of Nebraska, rather than in the western.

The great majority of the Bohemians of the state are engaged in agricultural pursuits and as farmers are the real backbone of the great West. It may be said that the Bohemian farmers of the state represent the mainstay of the Czechs in Nebraska despite the fact that business and the professions each year win more adherents among them.

The first Bohemian who came to Nebraska, so far as can be learned, was Libor Alois Šlesinger, who was born October 28, 1806, in Ústí above the Orlice River in Bohemia. It is noteworthy that this first Bohemian immigrant to this state came to America to seek political liberty which in his own country was downed by absolutism prevailing in Austria after the unsuccessful revolution of 1848. Šlesinger left Bohemia in November, 1856, and in January of the following year arrived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which city was a sort of stopping place for most of the Bohemian immigrants en route for the great, attractive, booming West beyond the Missouri. The trip from Cedar Rapids to Omaha Šlesinger made by wagon, a little later settling near the Winnebago Reservation. His experiences were as picturesque and adventurous, if not more so, than those of other early comers.

Joseph Horský, who arrived in 1857 and also came by the Cedar Rapids route, was the second, and the now famous Edward Rosewater, who founded the Omaha Bee, was the third Czech to settle in the Cornhusker State.

The homestead laws, which went in effect in 1863, attracted to the West hundreds of Bohemians who had already become citizens or were about to swear allegiance to the starry flag. Saline County was the first to draw settlers of the Bohemian nationality, most of the first comers emigrating from the neighborhood of Manitowoc and Kewaunee, Wisconsin. Counties which were settled very soon after the coming of the Czechs to Saline County were Butler, Colfax and Knox counties. The settlement of Knox county by Bohemians was arranged in Chicago and Cleveland in 1868, when 800 families joined a prearranged scheme and moved from these two cities en masse to the shores of the Niobrara and Missouri. The following communities gave themselves Bohemian names: Prague and Praha in Saunders county, named after the capital city of Bohemia, Shestak in Saline county, Jelen in Knox county and Tabor in Colfax county.

After the first wave of Bohemian immigration to Nebraska, which consisted of men seeking political and religious freedom, other waves came, representing men who were escaping enforced military service in the Austrian army or seeking economical betterment. Despite the fact that large numbers came in 1865 and 1866 to avoid serving in the army, nevertheless, when the call came for volunteers to help preserve the Union these same Bohemians, fleeing enforced militarism, of their own will enlisted with Lincoln’s troops. This was true of Bohemians in Cleveland, Chicago, Cedar Rapids and other large centers of that nationality. The Czechs carried off many scars from the Civil War and you will find them in the G. A. R. rolls of honor in loyal percentages just as in the Spanish-American war, when whole companies of Bohemian volunteers left Nebraska for the Philippines and Cuba. One can well say with Walt Whitman:

Lands of the wild ravine, the dusky Sioux, the lonesome stretch, the silence,
Haply today a mournful wail, haply a trumpet note for heroes.”

From the domain of Roman Catholic Austria to unpledged Nebraska is a step of many thousands of miles. The difference in the religious attitude of many Czechs who have taken that long step is as great and is likewise analogous.

The Bohemians of the state may be roughly classified into three general groups—Roman Catholics, Protestants and Liberal Thinkers. There are forty-four towns and villages in Nebraska in which Bohemian Catholic churches and priests are located. Parochial schools are maintained in connection with some of the churches as, for instance, the building in Dodge where 140 children attend the instruction of Sisters of Our Lady.

There are some twenty Bohemian Protestant churches in the state, being mainly Methodist and Presbyterian.

The Liberal Thinkers are more recently organized, there being but five societies in Nebraska.

The Bohemian people in the United States are unusually strong on organization. Judging alone by Nebraska’s Bohemian lodge membership one might easily believe that they were inveterate “joiners”. It is a well-known fact that as members of labor unions they are “stickers” and believe thoroughly in the adhesive value of organization to gain a point. It is, however, as organizers of social and fraternal protective societies that the Bohemians excel. Practically every man of Bohemian birth or parentage belongs to one or more associations which have for their object insurance, protection in sickness and death, as well as the development of social life. There are also a number of organizations offering no insurance, but instead opportunities for education along gymnastic, musical, literary or related lines.

The lodges of the former or fraternal class afford cheap insurance to the Bohemian, the assessments being, in practically every instance, much lower than those exacted in other orders. Of the fraternal orders among the Bohemians the best known and most widely supported are: the Č. S. P. S., Česko-Slovanské Podporující Spolky or Bohemian Slavonian Protective Association, the oldest Bohemian organization in the United States, established in St. Louis in 1854. It has now a total of 25,000 members, 513 of them in eleven lodges in Nebraska; the Z. Č. B. J., Západní Česko Bratrská Jednota or Western Bohemian Fraternal Order with 20,000 members, of whom 1,189 in 67 lodges are in Nebraska; the J. Č. D., Jednota Českých Dam or Federation of Bohemian Ladies, having over 20,000 members with fifteen lodges in Nebraska; the S. P. J., Sesterská Podporující Jednota or Sisterly Protective Association, with five lodges in Nebraska. There are several thousands of Bohemians represented in Catholic Fraternal Orders in this state. In addition there are many minor organizations each with several lodges in Nebraska.

Among the social institutions which do not have any insurance features, but devote themselves directly to the betterment of social and educational conditions are the Sokol societies and the Komensky clubs. The first Komensky Educational Club, the purpose of which is the cultural development of Bohemian communities, was organized at the State University of Nebraska by Bohemian students in 1906. Since then twenty-six similar clubs have been established in six states, thirteen of the clubs being located in Nebraska. They have established libraries and reading rooms, organized evening schools and provided good clean entertainment for the community.

The Sokol societies are chapters of a central association with headquarters in Chicago. They provide physical training, wholesome sports and the use of libraries for members. The high ideals which characterized the organization of the original Sokol or “Falcon” societies in the old country actuated all the early enthusiasts who plunged into the rough pioneer conditions after life in Bohemia where they had had all the accessories of the highest civilization. The first Sokol society in Nebraska was organized in Wilber in 1875. Another very popular and typical Bohemian amusement reached a high state of development in the Nebraska settlements, namely, the amateur performance of theatrical plays.

Music, either vocal or instrumental, always had to be present in any gathering of Bohemians whether it were a coming together of neighbors or a formal session of a lodge. The Czechs are not unwarrantedly called “the nation of musicians”, as the Smetanas, Dvořáks, Kubelíks, Kociáns, Ondříčeks and Destinns fully attest. If a wager were to be made that every Bohemian community in Nebraska today has its own band or orchestra, it is safe to say that the bettor would win. The first musical organization west of Omaha was composed of Bohemians. It was the famous Crete orchestra which used to drive to Lincoln in Governor Butler’s day and play for dancing at the Capitol.

From the earliest times Bohemians have evinced an earnest interest in local, state and national politics. As a rule, they were to be found in the democratic ranks, but very early in Nebraska’s history a representative group of Bohemian Republicans became active, particularly so since the establishment by Edward Rosewater of a Bohemian weekly urging the principles of Republicanism. In the more recent days partisanship is no longer typical of the Bohemian people, their vote going to men rather than for party measures.

Since 1871 there have been forty-eight Americans of Bohemian birth or parentage in the State Legislature of Nebraska. The first representative of that nationality in the legislative body was Edward Rosewater of Douglas county, who also held other offices of honor, representing the United States at the Universal Postal Congress in Washington in 1897, promoted the Trans-Mississippi Exposition at Omaha in 1898 and was a member of the International Arbitration Conference in 1904.

The Bohemians, like all pioneers of western states, had the problem of preservation of existence for themselves and families to solve before the question of higher education could be wrestled with. But that the Czech could not long remain content without some intellectual pabulum in addition to the simple necessities is amply proven by the fact that barely had a handful of them settled in the state when they clamored for a newspaper published in their own language, that intelligence of the world and its progress might be purveyed among them. To be sure, long before this, Bohemian newspapers from eastern states had been circulated here, the first paper in the Bohemian language having been issued January 1, 1860, from Racine, Wisconsin, with the name “Slovan Amerikanský” (The American Slav).

The first number of the first Bohemian paper in Nebraska—the “Pokrok Západu” or “Progress of the West” was issued August 1, 1871, when Nebraska had been a state scarcely four years. Edward Rosewater, popularly known as Rozvařil, who was born in Bukovany, Bohemia, in 1841 and had come to the United States in 1854, a green Bohemian youth, had after a number of experiences, settled in Omaha where he founded “The Omaha Bee” and his Bohemian weekly-paper, the “Pokrok”, in the same year.

The Pokrok Západu had as its motto: “Pilně sloužíc zájmu národnímu, hledět chci vždy k vzdělání obecnému” (While ever serving national interests, let me give heed always to public education). In the initial issue the first editorial insists that Austria must become a Slavonic state, that it stands and falls in correspondence with the success or failure of the Bohemian people. The Pokrok Západu in November, 1872, combined with the “Amerikán”. It passed into the possession of John Rosický in 1877, who sold it twelve years later to a Printers’ Company under the direction of the present publisher, Mr. Václav Bureš, under whose management it has since remained. Many excellent journalists have sat in the editorial chair of the Pokrok, among them Václav Šnajdr, Fr. B. Zdrůbek, V. A. Jung, Thos. Čapek, Jan. A. Oliverius, F. J. Kuták, O. Charvát, etc.

John Rosický, who had left Bohemia in 1860 to escape military service, has been an important figure in the history of Bohemian journalism and the social life of the nationality, not only in Nebraska, but throughout the middle West. After selling the Pokrok Západu he established other papers among them the Obzor, the Americké Květy, the Osvěta, etc., which finally were combined in the weekly, “Osvěta Americká” or “Enlightenment of America”, which for a time published local editions in various communities of the state. In 1916 it became a literary weekly with the name “Květy Americké.

Although Nebraska is situated on the far end of a spoke of the Hub of the Universe, as our Massachusetts Athens is dubbed, her foreign-born citizens have nevertheless courted the Muses with successful results. Václav A. Jung, a former Nebraskan, has written a number of fine poems and translated Byron’s “Don Juan” and Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” into Bohemian. Mr. Jung’s novel, “On the Threshold of a New World” or “The Family of Peter Bel” (Na Prahu Nového Světa aneb Rodina Petra Běla), depicts Nebraska life and actual characters. He has recently completed a monumental English-Bohemian Dictionary in his capacity of instructor in English in Pilsen Academy in Bohemia. Thos. Čapek, who also served in the State Legislature, has written a number of books showing extensive and valuable research, among them “Early Bohemian Immigration” (Památky Českých Emigrantů), “Fifty Years of Bohemian Journalism in America” (Padesát Let Českého Tisku v Americe). In the English language he has written “The Slovaks of Hungary” and “Austria-Hungary and the Slavonians”.

Rev. John Vránek of Omaha has published a book of Bohemian poems entitled “Na Půdě Americké” (On American Soil).

A. Z. Donato of Wahoo, published the story of his trip around the world under the title of “Kolem Světa o Jedné Noze”.

Rev. A. Klein of Brainard, at present Vicar General of the Diocese of Lincoln, has contributed valuable articles to the Otto Enclyclopedia of Prague, Bohemia. Rev. Father J. S. Brož, formerly of Dodge, now of Schuyler, Nebraska, in addition to frequent poetic and prose contributions to the Bohemian Catholic press of this country, is at work upon a superior history of Nebraska in the Bohemian language. He has published “Z Prérie” (From the Prairies) , a book of Nebraska lyrics.

Prof. Jeffrey D. Hrbek, first instructor in Bohemian at the State University, wrote a large number of English poems which were collected and published after his death under the title “Linden Blossoms”.

John Habenicht, now of Chicago, has collected and published in the Bohemian some historical data of Nebraska, largely concerned with the history of Catholic communities.

Among English books and articles by Americans dealing with the subject of the Bohemians of Nebraska, especially notable are “Our Slavic Fellow Citizens” by Emily Greene Balch (Charities Pub. Co. 1908), and “O Pioneers!” by Willa Sibert Cather (Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1913), also “The Bohemian Girl” in McClure’s, August, 1912 by the same author.

Practically every Bohemian lodge or fraternal society in the state has some sort of library, ranging from a few works of fiction to several hundred volumes embracing valuable works of reference.

The Komenský Club of South Omaha presented the public library of that city with a goodly number of valuable Bohemian books which are in constant circulation. The State University’s Slavonic Department also has a growing collection of well-selected reference books. Other collections are owned by societies or private individuals in the state.

Ever since the great Bohemian educator, John Amos Komensky (Comenius) advocated universal education as well as scores of other reforms and progressive pedagogical ideas in his wonderful work “The Great Didactic”, written almost three hundred years ago, the Bohemian people have been firm advocates of education. The little country has had compulsory education laws for over half a century and has always held a high place in the annals of cultural races. It is, therefore, justly proud of the fact that it established in 1348 the first University in Central Europe, the University of Prague, antedating the first German University by over fifty years.

An examination of the records of the U. S. Commissioner of Immigration will show that immigrants from Bohemia have a far higher rate of literacy than the Germans, French, Irish and other nations, which are erroneously often credited with a much better record than they actually have in this respect. For instance, in the fiscal year 1912, of 65,343 German immigrants who arrived in the U. S., 2,736 could not read or write; of 18,382 French, 1,083 were illiterate; of 33,922 Irish, 390 could not read or write; whereas of 8,439 Bohemians, only 75, or less than 1 per cent were illiterates.

As a rule, the Bohemians of this state have upheld this record, giving their children the advantages of public school education, though, to be precise, it is only within late years that they have found themselves in a position to send their children on through the high school and then to the college or university.

It is interesting to note that over one hundred of the alumni of the University of Nebraska are either of Bohemian birth or of Bohemian parentage. Of this number about 40 per cent won honors of some sort. There are now seventy-four Bohemian-American students enrolled in the highest institution of learning in this state.

In 1907 a department of Bohemian was established in the State University, Jeffrey D. Hrbek being called from the State University of Iowa to the first chair of Bohemian founded in any state university, advanced Bohemian instruction heretofore having been given only in sectarian colleges. Since the establishment of the department in Lincoln the State University of Iowa in Iowa City, Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Georgetown University at Austin, Texas, and the State University at Columbus, Ohio, have put in Bohemian departments. The Bohemian language has also been put into the High School curriculum in Chicago, and in Nebraska the high schools in Wilber, Prague, Crete, Clarkson, Brainard, Verdigre and Milligan have instruction in the Bohemian language. A number of schools in the state below the high school give thorough instruction in the rudiments of this Slavonic tongue, chief among them being St. Paul, Abie, Bruno, Loma, etc.

In that finest army in the world—the public school teachers—the Bohemians of the state are doing their share to train American youth to the democratic and progressive ideals which only thorough education can bring about. There are 290 teachers of Bohemian birth or parentage in the public schools of some forty of Nebraska’s northern and eastern counties. Two of these are county superintendents, L. Bouchal of Saline county and F. J. Vogltanc of Colfax county.

There is no need to sound any other but the note of richest hope and warmest encouragement to nations like these sturdy, persevering, accomplishing sons and daughters of Bohemia who come to pour the gold and firm metal of their character into that mixing bowl whence shall emerge the transfused, transmuted being which we are pleased to call “the ideal American”.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.


The author died in 1948, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.