Augustin Heřman: The First of the First Bohemians-Americans on American Shores Part One
Someone always has to be first. First up to bat. First to go off the high dive at the municipal pool. First pick for teams on the playground. First in a Formula ®1 road race. So it is with America’s Bohemian immigrants. There had to be a first and as far as research tells us at this time the first Bohemian to come to the shores of America (actually Nieuw Amsterdam, later to become known as New York once the English won control from the Dutch) was Augustin Heřman.
If you are unfamiliar with this name (or the various other spellings you will encounter such as Herrman, Hermann, Heermans, and several others) don’t feel badly. While Augustin Heřman was truly an amazing immigrant he, like the majority of our Bohemian immigrant ancestors and their communities, has basically been overlooked in history books and neither adequately recognized nor memorialized.
In an effort to make a small dent in this oversight in history, we, at Onward To Our Past® are providing this primer on Augustin Heřman, first Bohemian immigrant to the shores of the future United States of America.
Augustin Heřman in Bohemia
Precious little is known for certain regarding the earliest times in the life of Augustin. There are conflicting reports of both his age and the year of his birth. These reports vary from 1605, 1621, 1623, and 1625. Likewise the city of his birth is also disputed with some reporting that he was born in Prague while others report that it was the town of Mšeno, which is some 53 kilometers due north of Prague. Actually in Mšeno, you will find a plaque commemorating Augustin Heřman placed in 1935 on Cinibulkova Street at the purported site of his birthplace. However, Professor Jan Kozák related to this author that when he last visited Mšeno for an extended period of time about two years ago, no one in town knew any additional details of the story of Augustin Heřman and his roots in the village. He went on to say “Actually, some scholars believe that Heřman was born there; others think there were some ties between the Heřman family and the town; and, finally, some people think this is a fantasy that Heřman and Mšeno were related.”
Some researchers, such as Miloslav Rechcigl, Jr., refer to Augustin as being from Prague. They base this on the fact that on occasion Augustin referred to himself as being from Prague. However, in our genealogy work we find, time and again, immigrants who when referring to their home use the largest nearby city as a reference. Personally, the author, in his years’ long quest to locate the Bohemian home village of his Vicha ancestors, had only the tiny clue of the single word ‘Pisec’ (sic) to lead him. When the Vicha ancestral home was finally discovered he found this word did not refer to a village at all, but simply the district of Pisek. Additionally, the author often refers to the fact that he is from ‘the Chicago area’, rather than his specific hometown in Northwest Indiana, especially to those unfamiliar with the finer points of United States geography. Perhaps this was the same situation with Augustin. Could it be that he would refer to Prague since it would be the only city in Bohemia any North American at the time might possibly ever recognize.
To add to this mystery, there are also conflicting reports as to who the parents of Augustin were. Again, Miloslav Rechcigl, Jr. in his monograph “The First Czech Settler in America” makes the undocumented claim that his parents were Augustine Ephraim Herman, a. wealthy merchant and councilor of Prague, while his mother was Beatrix, a daughter of Kaspar Redel, of a wealthy and high ranking Bohemian family. However, noted Czech historian, Tomáš Čapek, in his seminal book Czechs (Bohemians) in America makes the case that Augustin was the son of an evangelical pastor in Mšeno, by the name of Abraham Heřman. Abraham was forced to flee Bohemia, with his family, due to the brutal religious persecution of non-Catholics by the Hapsburgs during and after The Thirty-Years’ War. Čapek backs up his claim with an entry from the Mšeno village register as follows:
“In the Memorial Book of the Town of Mšeno (Bohemia) Litt.D., p. 39, the following entry is recorded: “A.D. 1621, the Sunday before Christ’s birth, on a cold day, our beloved pastor, Abraham Herzman, went into exile, with his family to the City of Zitava (Zittau). His noble-minded and pious wife did not live to see this humiliation, having died of grief one month before his departure. Before the parish house waited a vehicle, in which sat the entire family, that is, son Augustine and three daughters. The pastor blessed his flock and followed the conveyance on foot, the people meanwhile chanting, ‘ From the depths of my sorrows, I appeal to Thee, Oh Lord,’ and accompanying their minister to the village of Bezdedice.”
If the Augustine Herzman of Mšeno, disregarding the slight variation in the spelling of the surname, is not the Augustine Heřman of Bohemia Manor, it is, admittedly, a remarkable coincidence, in date and name.”
When we reviewed a transcription of the Last Will and Testament of Augustin hoping for some statement of his being from Prague or elsewhere, we found that in the will of Augustin, dated 27 September, 1684 found in Volume 15 (1891) issue of Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography there is no reference to his origin, beyond ‘Bohemian’. However, there is the enticing notation made, in pencil on some unknown date and by some unknown hand Aetatis 63 (age 63), which would, if true, place his date of birth circa 1621
As you will read a bit later, one of the crowning achievements of Augustin was his crafting of the first and remarkably detailed and accurate (geodetically surveyed) maps of the American territory of Virginia and Maryland. In the 2012, Volume 4 of Journal of Geographic Information Systems in the article “Map of Maryland and Virginia 1660-1670 Created by Augustin Herrmann” coauthors John R. Hébert (retired head of the Geography and Maps Division of the Library of Congress) and Jan T. Kozák (Institute of Geophysics, Prague, CR) provide some excellent detail about Augustin’s early life in their ‘Introductory Remarks’. While their article is concerned with Augustin’s now exceedingly rare map (only 5 original copies remain in existence) the authors nevertheless provide a detailed section on young Augustin’s life. Unfortunately while there are many specifics regarding his early years, beyond listing his birth year as 1623 in Bohemia, there is no mention of either a birth town or who his parentage.
In Volume XV (1920) of Maryland Historical Magazine there is the continuation of an article titled “Seven Pioneers of the Colonial Eastern Shore” written by Percy G. Scriven. In this article, which is Part II, is the story of Augustin Heřman. It includes a transcription of the application made by Augustin to the Provincial Assembly of Maryland in 1663 for the naturalization of his family and himself. This reads, in Augustin’s own words:
“Augustine Herman, born at Prague in Bohemia…”
Scriven also goes on to state, unfortunately without attribution to any records, the following:
“Augustine Herman was the son of Augustine Ephraim Herman, Councilman of Prague, Bohemia and his wife, Beatice Redel, daughter of Casper Redel, also of Prague. He was born in Prague in 1605…”
Likewise in Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume III (1892) on page 188 you can find a brief biography of Augusine Herrman. This biography states simply that Augustin was “…b. in Prague, Bohemia, about 1605…”
Certainly, while it is obvious many very capable and determined researchers have tried to answer the question of the parentage and exact year of the birth of Augustin Heřman disagreement exist and the answers to these challenging genealogy questions are as yet undiscovered.
What will we find next as we look into Augustin’s time in America? Coming soon!