The Czech Republic and the flag of the Czech Republic
Welcome to the Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, and the Czech Republic Page of Onward To Our Past®. Here you will find what I hope will be useful information, insights, and links into genealogy and family history in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, and the Czech Republic.
My goal here is not for this location to be the ‘be all and end all’ of your search for your Bohmian and/or Czech family history and roots. Rather I plan for this to be a knowledge hub from which you can learn, link, find additional resources, and return with questions, ideas, and new findings.
Since I am a Genealogical Historian, I will begin with just a bit of history for us.
This is a photo of the 1700′s map of Bohemia I found in a used book shop.
HISTORY OF BOHEMIA:
As genealogists and family historians, we are accustomed to trying to find things that have been largely lost in the impenetrable vaults of time. However, I must admit that as I began my journey back in time to find what I could about my elusive Bohemian great-grandfather Joseph K. Vicha, I was quite surprised to learn that the entire Bohemian immigrant community has been largely ignored and little studied. This being true even though the Bohemians were a vibrant, integral, and important segment of major cities in the United States such as Chicago, Illinois, Cleveland, Ohio, New York City, New York, and St. Louis, Missouri. Plus a significant number of small cities and town scattered across the Midwest and Southwestern farm belts.
Another early item that you will become aware of is that our ancestors were alternately listed as Czechoslovaks, Czechs, Austrians, Slavs, or even at times the pejorative, ‘bohunks’. In the records in Cleveland I find that they were fairly consistently listed as ‘Bohemian’ in all the records I have been finding.
Quick overview of the names you will find for the same geographic area as Bohemia
- Historic to 1918: Bohemia or Ceska
- 1918-1938: Republic of Czechoslovakia
- 1938-1945: Annexation by Gemany
- 1945-1960: Czechoslovak Republic
- 1960-1990: Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
- 1990-1992: Czechoslovakia
- 1993 to present: Czech Republic
I quickly discovered that my ancestors were indeed Bohemian (not bohemian) and that Bohemia, now a significant region of the Czech Republic, has a long, rich, and tumultuous history. Bohemia was one of the leading and most enlightened countries of the European continent far before any other of the Western European nations knew much of anything about enlightenment. They were centuries ahead of all of Europe in their educational system, cultural development, and political, religious, and economic freedoms. After the Thirty-Years War, it changed to a nation enslaved by a neighbor State and nearly destroyed for their beliefs. I suggest you read about such early Bohemian historical figures as St. Wenceslas, St. Procopius, Karel Havliček, and of course, Jan Hus. As I personally dug deeper and began to learn more about the Thirty-Years War, which in history class I had only been taught to memorize the start and end dates I was shocked to learn of the devastation rained down upon Bohemia. I learned about the Counter-Reformation. I learned about the uprising of 1848 and the Battle of White Mountain. My spirit sank as I learned of the reprisals and the attempts to exterminate Bohemia and her people. However, best of all, I began to understand my ancestors, my personal history, and the foundations for many of their beliefs that were handed down to me for my life generations later, especially since my ancestors were ardent Freethinkers.
I am sure you wonder why might our ancestors may have left Bohemia. In my case, I knew my family legend of the onus of military service (conscription for a ten year term) to a foreign master of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Habsburgs. I also knew of their persecution because of their Freethinking ideals.
However, I gained a better insight when I read Kenneth D. Miller’s book The Czecho-Slovaks in America. In his book, Miller states “It was possible inBohemia under the old regime to distinguish three classes of peasants. First, there was the “sedlák” or famer, who was the owner of a farm of from twenty-five to a hundred acres and a nice “statek,” or farmhouse. Then there was the “chalupník” or cottager, who owned a small cottage, and from five to twenty-five acres of land. Peasants of this class made but a scanty living from their farm, and were apt to eke it out by hiring themselves out as day-laborers or farm-hands, or by carrying on some form of industry in the home during the winter months. The third class is made up of “nadeníci” or day-laborers, who owned no land at all, but generally lived in a tiny cottage on the farm of the “sedlák” or on the great estate of the nobleman, receiving their rent as part of their wages. These people were miserably poor and lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Czech cottagers – The immigrants toAmerica were largely from the second class. The “sedlák” was too comfortably fixed to want to leave his homeland, while the day laborer was too poor even to think of emigrating. But the cottager was in the position where it was difficult for him to make a decent living, while at the same time he was in possession of some property which could be sold or given in security in order to raise the money necessary for the journey.” I found this particularly interesting since in the Bohemian records I have located, several of my ancestors were indeed listed as “chalupník”, or cottagers.
Unfortunately, I shouldn’t have been surprised. A member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, Professor Francis Dvornik, states in his book, Czech Contributions To The Growth of The United States, “The fact that, so far, no attempt has been made to present a synthetic picture of the Czech immigration into the United States, and at evaluating Czech contributions to the growth of their new country, in a language accessible to all Americans, induced me to publish this essay, in the hope that someone else, more informed and better equipped, would one day complete it.”
An excellent background book on Czech immigration to the United States is Jan Habenicht’s seminal work, History of Czechs In America and translated into English by Miroslav Koudelka. By chapter, Jan recounts the Bohemian immigrants in 47 of the 50 United States. An excellent resource, however I will make one note about the author here. It is widely acknowledged that Jan Habenicht allowed his prejudice for the Bohemian immigrants who stayed aligned with the Roman Catholic church to show in this work. As a result it is not balanced with an equal discussion or inclusion of those Bohemians who were Freethinkers, a group of slightly over half of the immigrants to the United States.
Immigration began slowly and grew until the beginning of World War I. According to Eleanor E. Ledbetter, in her work The Czechs of Cleveland, there were only three Bohemian families in Cleveland in 1850, in 1860 only fifteen, and that by 1910 it was one of the largest Bohemian cities in the world, outnumbering even New York at that time, with an estimated population of some 50,000 first and second generation Bohemians. Thank goodness for Ms. Ledbetter, the Cleveland Librarian, who wrote this booklet! When you do serious research on the Cleveland Czech community, it is often the only resource anyone can cite. I am glad it is here. I am amazed that it is basically all there is.
According to Vaclav Snajdr, founder of Dennice Noveveku, one of the early Cleveland Czech-language newspapers and president of the Pilsener Brewing Company, in The Bulletin of Western Reserve University, there were three distinct periods of Bohemian immigration. The first was in the 1850’s. For us as genealogists it is very interesting to note that Mr. Snajdr points out that at this time the railroad did not connect Cleveland to the East, so “These immigrants came to Cleveland via boat from Canada, Montreal and Quebec…” The second period of Bohemian immigration was from 1860 to 1866, the period of time of the Austrian wars with Prussia and Italy, both fought mainly on Bohemian soil and which Mr. Snajdr points out ‘ruined many families’. The third period, and by far the largest in terms of numbers of immigrants, was during the decade of 1870-1880.
Leo Baca’s series of books, Czech Immigration Passenger Lists, can be a huge help for Bohemian immigrants as these nine volumes include not only Ellis Island immigrants, but also those who entered the United States via Castle Garden, New Orleans, Galveston, and Philadelphia. As a Clevelander, it was also interesting for me to read in The American City, that the City of Cleveland provided every immigrant who arrived on Ellis Island and stated Cleveland was their destination, with a copy of “The Immigrant’s Guide to the City of Cleveland, Ohio”. This ‘neat booklet’ was the work of the city immigration officer at the time, R. E. Cole, and was written in Czech, English, German, Hungarian, Polish, Yiddish, Slovak, Croatian, and Italian. Some 35,000 of these were given out and contained advice and information on the city.
It is also important to note that across the seas in our ‘homeland’, the Czech Republic is now divided into seven regions for their National Archives. These facilities hold most of the pre-1900 Parish books, plus cadastral records, maps, architectural documents, court and administrative records, as well as early Census records. Some of these regional archives are coming online, certainly good news for us all. You can even ‘friend’ the Central Archive in Prague on Facebook! The regional archives are located in Prague, Třeboň, Plzeň, Litoměřice, Zámrsk, Brno, and Opava for your reference.
Due to the home village locations of my ancestors, I have a need to use the Digital Archives of the State Regional Archives of Třeboň22 and I speak very highly of it. This site is fast accumulating all of the important documents for genealogy from the Třeboň district of the Czech Republic. The records that are online here are marvelous and one of the real treats of this archive is that you can sign up for regular email notices that come out whenever new documents are electronically created and made available on this public site.
Again, as genealogists, it is important for us to be aware that according to Joseph Slabey Roucek, of Penn State University, in The American Journal of Sociology, it was not until 1882 that the United States Immigration Service began to recognize Bohemian as a distinct nationality. Remember this key date when you are searching records for early Bohemian ancestors. They very well may be categorized incorrectly as German, Austrian, Slavic, or some other nationality.
In the early 1900’s, Clevelander and Bohemian nurse, Magdalena Kucera, wrote an article in Charities, A Weekly Review of Local and General Philanthropy. In her article, entitled “The Slavic Races In Cleveland”, Ms. Kucera states that there were some 40,000 Bohemians in Cleveland at that time and that “The Slavic races in Cleveland number one-fourth of the population”. Ms. Kucera also reports “They (Bohemians) are among the most intelligent and progressive of our immigrants. Nearly all of them have had a common school education and their record as useful citizens is one to be proud of. They strive to own their own homes and many of them already possess comfortable, attractive houses. The Bohemians have representatives in nearly all the trades and professions, the younger generation, especially, turning to law, medicine, and business. There are thirty doctors, twenty lawyers and many successful business men who have an established reputation for honesty and fair dealing. In the department of education they are also doing their share. Several of the young women are school teachers, one being on the teaching staff in one of the high schools, another a member of the Board of Examiners, a third, in the training school for teachers.” I found it of great interest to note that in Thomas Čapek’s book, The Čechs (Bohemians) in America A Study of Their National, Cultural, Political, Social, Economic and Religious Life, that Čapek confirms the importance of Magdalena Kučera’s information in a footnote as follows: “More trustworthy data on the Cleveland community than Chotek’s story are contained in the narratives of ….. Magadalena Kučera”.
Bruce M. Garver also points out in his chapter entitled “Czech-American Freethinkers on the Great Plains, 1871-1914”, in the book Ethnicity on the Great Plains, “Among all the nationalities that emigrated fromAustria-Hungary, they (Czechs) ranked highest in the percentage of skilled laborers and of literate adults – 98.5 percent …”
Dr. Garver’s chapter title brings to mind another of the aspects of the Bohemian immigrants that set them apart from their fellow immigrants, certainly was critical to my family, and is of importance to us as genealogists. Bohemian immigrants were split, almost 50/50, between Freethinkers and those following a formal religion, usually Roman Catholic. Freethinkers were crucial in establishing many of the Sokols, Lodges, theater, drama, and musical groups, camps, and fraternal organizations. Jan Habenicht, a staunch Roman Catholic, notes early, again in his History of Czechs in America, “Readers will probably be surprised that so much heed in this book was paid to the development of Czech Americans’ club life. It was necessary. The activities of Czech Americans concentrated heavily on the establishment of theatrical, singers’, Sokol, church, and fraternal organizations, and there is no denying that this kind of activity has been very broad and its results have probably been the only effective expression of Czech life in America.”
In the case of my family, both of my Knechtl and Vicha branches were staunch Freethinkers. Among other effects, this meant that for generations marriages were performed by Justices of the Peace and not in churches. This also means materials such as Lodge membership rosters, books such as Joseph Martínek’s One Hundred Years of the ČSA. The History of the Czechoslovak Society of America and the Czechoslovak Heritage Museum affiliated with the CSA in Oak Brook,Illinois can be of significant help and importance. Again, on a personal note, when I have been searching for my Bohemian ancestors in online resources such as GenealogyBank.com (a subscription site), which has great coverage via their historic Plain Dealer archive, at the Western Reserve Historical Society Library, or the Cuyahoga County Archive, I often find family mentioned due to their various Freethinkers Lodge activity.
After many years of conducting my genealogy work, it continues to puzzle me as to why so little study has been done on the Bohemian immigrants to all of the United States. I will say, with some hard digging, there can be some exquisite gems uncovered, such as Dr. Gregory M. Stone’s PhD dissertation, Ethnicity, Class, and Politics Among Czechs in Cleveland, 1870-1940, (18) but sadly such gems are few and far between and quite a challenge to find at times. I believe we certainly need more study of this important and significant community!
The following are some excellent resources that as of this writing seem to only appear in print and not in digital form yet. Some are a bit dated, however the hints, material, information, and data in them can be invaluable.
Czechs and Slovaks in North America: A Bibliography, Esther Jerabek, Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in America, Inc. New York, New York, 1976
Ethnicity, Class, and Politics Among Czechs in Cleveland, 1870-1940, Stone, Gregory Martin, UMI Dissertation Services, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1993
The Czecho-Slovaks in America, Miller, Kenneth D., George H. Doran Company, New York, New York, 1922
One Hundred Years of the CSA: 1854-1954, Martinek, Joseph, Cicero-Berwyn Press, Berwyn, Illinois, 1985
Ethnicity on the Great Plains, Luebke, Frederick C., University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1980
American Freeethought, 1860-1914, Warren, Sidney, Columbia University Press, New York, New York, 1943
Cechs and Bohemians in America, Capek, Thomas, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1920
Genealogical Research for Czech and Slovak Americans, Miller, Olga K., Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1978
Locating Your Immigrant Ancestors, Neagles, James C, and Lila Lee, Keith W. Watkins & Sons, Providence, Utah, 1975
Our Slavic Fellow Citizens, Balch, Emily Greene, Charities Publications Committee, New York, New York, 1910
This outline by Shon Edwards is one of the very, very best resources available. It is one of the most important ‘Go To’ documents on Bohemia and Czech genealogy you will find anywhere — and I do mean anywhere! Shon is terrific and has amazing knowledge of this field.
The Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad (ACASA) at the University of Chicago Regenstein Library is an exceptional resource for anyone studying Czech and Slovak history. This archive covers the subject not only in Chicago, but beyond as well. One of the most impressive items in their collection is that they have perhaps the only complete set (1875-1958) of the Amerikan Narodni Kalendar!
This series is of immense importance and the great news is that, as they can afford it, the Archive is digitally copying every issue. An ongoing index of most of the holdings can be found here and here. These two lists are still works in progress, but are an excellent start to get an idea of the size of the holdings at ACASA. Plus the Archives holds a list of more than 9,000 refugees from Czechoslovakia from Regensburg, Germany from January to August 1948.
The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (NCSML), located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has significant holdings in a variety of areas of Czech and Slovak heritage. It houses the largest collection of Czech and Slovak music outside of the Czech Republic.
This from The Library of Congress (LC) website, which states that the LC is considered to be the best repository of Czech and Slovak books, periodicals and other reading materials outside the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The monographs and bound periodicals relating to the culture of the Czechs and Slovaks amount to ca. 115,000 items, with the yearly acquisitions of monographs averaging ca. 1,500 over the last 10 years. The LC has about 2,000 Czech and Slovak periodicals, of which ca. 600 are currently received, and more than 170 Czech and Slovak newspapers, with 14 titles currently received. It is estimated that about 80 percent of all these materials are in Czech or Slovak, English being the predominant language of the rest.
While the Czech and Slovak collections in the LC are generally good, they are especially strong for books and periodicals published after 1945. This is due to the fact that after 1945 monographs and periodicals published in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech and Slovak Republics) were purchased by LC on the basis of a blanket order.
The period of the 1920s and 1930s (the era of the First Czechoslovak Republic) is also well represented. Some of the holdings of works from this period have been acquired retrospectively, with stress being laid on volumes showing the excellent Czechoslovak craftsmanship in book design and printing.
Another area of relative strength is Czech and Slovak exile and Samizdat literature published during the Communist era.
Thomas Capek was a prolific writer and historian of Czech-Americans. This index is a very helpful guide to all that is held in the United States Library of Congress. These can be invaluable aids to the serious Czech/Bohemian genealogy and history student.
This paper, produced by the United States Embassy in the Czech Republic and written by George Kovtun, Czech Area Specialist at the Library of Congress, holds a wealth of Czech-American information. It has a very lovely history, historic Czech-Americans with some biographies attached, and a great index of resources. Worth the click for certain!
CSGI has some good information on this homepage and an excellent reference library onsite in St. Paul, Minnesota. Helpful folks and worth the membership fee.
AFOCR is a longtime organization that focuses on strengthening ties between the Czech Republic and the United States. In early March 2013, they added a beginning Czech genealogy page to their site and are getting into more and more cultural and family history work. As they get more seasoned this could well become a worthwhile site and repository of interesting information.
I read that no state in the U.S. has a larger percentage of Czech-descendant citizens than Nebraska, so this site is well worth a visit if you have Czech ancestry in Nebraska. They have old issues of their magazine online, and the now sold-out issue from 1993 The Czech-American Experience is all here. There is some very interesting information and data here for anyone to read,
Suggested Experts for additional assistance:
If you need any translation services (over 50 languages) especially Czech, I can fully endorse Karel and his firm. He is very detail oriented and pays attention to deadlines and needs of the client. An excellent translator as well!
I have used Martin Pytr as an expert researcher in my Czech work and he has been excellent. Always prompt, always fairly priced, and provides what he promises — and equally important does not over promise! Take a look at his site if you need a great researcher in the Czech Republic who focuses on Moravia.
I have also used David Kohout in my research work in the Czech Republic and have been very pleased with his work as well. David is exceedingly thorough and detail oriented in his efforts. He grabs onto a project and doesn’t let go until he and you are satisfied! You can check out David’s site by clicking on his name above.
If you have done much of any work on your Bohemian/Czech genealogy you will most likely recognize the name of Miroslav Koudelka. Why? Well, Miro was selected to translate Jan Habenicht’s book “Dejiny Cechuv Americkych”, or “History of Czechs in America”. Not much you can add to that credential, but there is more. Miro has written other books and is now a full time historian and genealogy researcher in the Czech Republic. Miro’s vast knowledge of Czech history coupled with his passion for genealogy and family history makes him an invaluable researcher and a very special guide for the genealogy-oriented trip enthusiast in the Czech Republic. You can see my interview with Miro here!
Rev. Jan, as he likes to be called, is not only an excellent researcher, but a wonderful host and guide for genealogy trips in the Czech Republic. Take a look at Jan’s site and enjoy!