The following is the article published as the cover story of the most recent edition of the Ohio Genealogical Society Quarterly (Volume 51, No. 4, Winter 2011). I hope you enjoy it and perhaps gain some insights.
The Vicha home as it stands today in the Czech Republic
It started with a simple request. My loving, 91 year old Mother, Laverne, quietly asked me to “find out what I could” about her grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha. Hey, I’m a good son, so my answer was a quick and hearty, “Sure, Mom! No problem!” Since then, I have learned that agreeing to find something or someone in genealogy is much like Cinder, my hunting dog – you don’t brag her up until after the hunt is over.
While I prepared for my search, memories flooded back. I was a youngster again and my mother had just announced that there would be a family gathering. This was not earth-shattering news as we often had significant (read ‘very large’) family gatherings at our home. This one, however, caused my grandmother to be on the telephone (as soon as the party line was free) and she was speaking Czech! Ah ha! That meant the Bohemian side of the family was coming! Knedliky, Koláče, my father having to stock what my mother reminded him had to be ‘the good, Bohemian beer’ from the State Store, and lots of laughter, loud voices in an exotic language, debating, hugging, and enjoying on another.
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 great-grandfather 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 early Cleveland.
Diving into my research I quickly realized that I was grossly uneducated when it came to the culture of my ancestors. I wondered why these people that everyone told me, at differing times, were Czechoslovaks, Czechs, Austrians, Slavs, or even at times the pejorative, ‘bohunks’, were constantly listed as ‘Bohemian’ in all the records I was finding? Being a lover of history, I took an educational side-trip to learn where my ancestors came from. World-class genealogy, I believe, requires that we know the milieu and culture that were our ancestors’ worlds. I soon came to believe, perhaps most importantly of all, that I am deeply blessed to have their Bohemian blood running through my veins.
Actually, I have two Bohemian branches in my family. Both of my maternal branches are Bohemian carrying the surnames of Knechtl and Vicha and both made the decision to emigrate from Bohemia to Cleveland, Ohio. As a consequence, I decided that as I worked to find my elusive great grandfather I would expand my focus to include both of these key family branches.
I knew my great-grandfather’s name, my great-grandmother’s maiden name too, but there it stopped abruptly. No family Bible to help in my case. I soon learned that both branches of my Bohemian family were ardent Freethinkers and as such eschewed organized religion of all types, especially that of the Roman Catholic Church. So I really had to start with the basics.
I quickly discovered that my ancestors were indeed 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. They were centuries ahead of all of Europe in their educational system, cultural development, and political 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 ‘met’ St. Wenceslas, St. Procopius, Karel Havliček, and of course, Jan Hus. I 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 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.
Bohemian birth document for travel authority for Vaclav Knechtl
I was not left to wonder why my ancestors may have left Bohemia. I knew my family legend of the onus of military service (conscription for a ten year term) to a foreign master. I also knew of their persecution because of their Freethinking ideals (1). 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 in Bohemia 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 to America 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.” (2) I found this particularly interesting since in the Bohemian records I have located, several of my ancestors were indeed “chalupník”, or cottagers.
As I learned more about the land and history of my ancestors I began to trace them in the United States. My most significant roadblock was that while I knew the home village of the Knechtl family (Nenačovice) I did not know my ancestral village for my Vicha family. You can read the story of how I found, without a clue, my Vicha ancestral villages of Milevsko and Rataje, Bohemia, in Slovo, the journal of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (3).
The extensive search I am undertaking to find my great-grandfather Vicha has now familiarized me with information on the early Cleveland Bohemian community. This experience has been one of elation mixed with significant frustration and significant sadness. Elation at what I did find. Frustration at how ignored this community and its’ history and multitude of contributions to Cleveland, and indeed the entire United States, have been. Sadness at how much of this is now very likely lost for us all, forever.
Unfortunately, I shouldn’t have been surprised. A member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, Professor Francis Dvornik, stated 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.” (4)
Probate Document from the Cuyahoga County Archives that listed all the heirs-at-law for my Vicha family in 1897.
According to Jan Habenicht, in his seminal work, History of Czechs In America and translated into English by Miroslav Koudelka, the first Bohemian settlers arrived in Cleveland right around 1848. One of the first real groups of Bohemians to immigrate to Cleveland came in 1852 and included Jan Havlíček and Václav Zak from Varvažov, Josef Kříž, a cooper from Smetanova Lahota, Jan Vitoň, a bricklayer from Černá, Josef Zelinka of Śerkov, and Frantiśek Knechtl, a blacksmith from Nenačovice, who is my direct ancestor. (5) These immigrants stayed in the backyard of fellow Bohemian Leopold Lévy (from Smetanova Lahota) according to Professor Dvornik. I’ve read that these folks could see the Indian teepees in Newburgh from this spot. (6) Not quite the Cleveland of today. 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. (7) 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 to Cleveland. 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. (8)
Leo Baca’s series of books, Czech Immigration Passenger Lists, can be a huge help for Bohemian immigrants to Cleveland as these include not only Ellis Island immigrants, but also those who entered the United States via Castle Garden, New Orleans, Galveston, and Philadelphia. (9) 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. (10)
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 (11). Remember this key date when you are searching records for early Bohemian ancestors. They very well may be categorized incorrectly as German, Austrian, or some other nationality.
An early picture of my Nana.
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.” (12) 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” (13)
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 from Austria-Hungary, they (Czechs) ranked highest in the percentage of skilled laborers and of literate adults – 98.5 percent …” (14)
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 (15). 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.” (16)
In the case of my family, both the 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 (17) 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 Cleveland 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.
Other Cleveland/Cuyahoga County resources have also been invaluable as I have searched for my great-grandfather and other individuals. These include; the Cleveland Public Library’s Necrology File (available online), Woodland Cemetery’s online database, Title Insurance company records via the Ohio Genealogical Society library, the database of all burials in cemeteries owned by the City of Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Archive with Judy Cetina and her wonderful team, the Cuyahoga County Recorder’s Office, the City of Cleveland Archive, and County and District Court records for documents relating to estates, wills, marriages, criminal cases, commitment hearings, divorces, guardianships, and other issues. Additionally I found the Cuyahoga County Morgue autopsy and case files can often hold amazing genealogical information in the few cases where an ancestor met their death at the hands of others.
These all were very important resources for me as I delved into my Vicha and Knechtl families, but unfortunately, my great grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha remains lost to me. I have had great success in tracing him from his birth in Milevsko to the United States. I discovered him in Cleveland with his parents and siblings, working as the President of the Cleveland Labor Union, and as the Director of the State of Ohio’s Free Employment Bureau Cleveland Office. I was filled with pride to see that this is where he fought against child labor and sweatshops, often in the face of significant confrontation with the likes of powerful Clevelanders like Mark Hanna and Max Hayes. I have followed his steps as President of the CSPS, organizing Union workers on Cleveland street corners, and helping to get Cleveland Mayor Thomas McKisson elected. Then, in 1909, mysteriously he deeds his half interest in the family home on Warren Avenue to his wife and disappears. While highly frustrating, I keep working on my quest to find him. It is impossible not to when my mother’s simple request continues to ring in my ears.
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 Cleveland and actually 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!
Now, I just have to find some more time because I plan on being a part of the effort to further study and document the still untold story of the Bohemians of Cleveland.
My Great Grandmother Knechtl in the center.
P.S. In all of my genealogy undertakings, there are many people who deserve my thanks for their help with my journey. Chief among these is my wife, Mary Kay, for her love, steadfast support, and understanding of what I call ‘my sweetest passion’; my mother, Laverne, who has been a patient and amazing fountain of knowledge; Dr. Gregory M. Stone, for his mentoring and friendship; and Ginger Vogl Simek, President of the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, for her crucial early education, patience, and continued support. I appreciate each of these individuals more than they may ever know.