Genealogy of the Earliest Cleveland Bohemians: Connecting Ancestry to Today
In 1894, Bohemian-American newspaperman and author, Hugo Chotek, did something quite marvelous for genealogists and historians. He set out to find, interview, and preserve all he could discover regarding the very earliest Bohemian (Czech) immigrant settlers of Cleveland, Ohio who arrived circa 1849. Unfortunately, for the past 119 years this story and its facts were basically lost in the mists of time. It was further removed by the fact that it had only ever been published in the Czech language. Then in 2011, as you will soon read, I found this fascinating book by author Chotek while undertaking some unrelated research. As soon as I rediscovered this work, along with two additional works that are also focused on the earliest Czech immigrant community of Cleveland, Ohio, my firm, Onward To Our Past®, began to undertake the task to translate these documents to English and bring these long-hidden genealogy and history gems back to life.
The year after Chotek conducted his interviews he was solicited by the ‘Committee of Czech Associations’ to write a book documenting the history of the Czech immigrant community of Cleveland. This work resulted in what is currently believed to be the earliest history book ever written about any Czech immigrant community anywhere in the United States and it covers 192 pages. The title is “Česká Osada a Její Spolkový Život v Cleveland, O. v Severni Americe. Vydano Čechy Clevelandskými za odbývání Národopisné Výstavy v Praze roku 1895, Tiskem Volnosti v Cleveland, Ohio” and is translated as “A Czech Settlement with its Social Life in Cleveland, Ohio, North America. Published by Czech Clevelanders for the Czech 1895 Ethnographic Exposition in Prague. Volnost Publishing, Cleveland, Ohio.” For ease of use, I will refer to this work hereinafter simply as “Česká Osada”.
During the translation of “Česká Osada”, I read a seemingly innocent sentence where Hugo Chotek said “I took it upon myself to determine who were the first Czechs to settle in Cleveland and in 1894 (last year), I personally visited all of the oldest settlers of Czech origin, such as Mrs. Žáková, Mrs. Havlíčková, Mr. Josef Novák, Martin Kerjčí, J. Kříže, J. Štĕdronský, Leo. Levý, B. Wiedenthal, M. Stein and others.” He then went on to say “I wrote about my entire meeting with Levý in my article in the book Amerikán.” I must have read and re-read this sentence dozens of times to make sure I was correct in what I believed he said. Then I set out to find this most intriguing article that author Chotek alluded to.
The first thing I discovered was that the ‘Amerikán’ that Chotek referenced was actually the Amerikán Národní Kalendář (Amerikán). Amerikán, an annual journal, was published in the Czech language in Chicago, Illinois continuously from 1878 through 1954. Each issue of this journal contained a collection of short stories, articles, poetry, images, and other items of general interest to the Czech and Slovak populations of the United States. I discovered that the most complete set of these publications is held at the Archive of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad, which is housed within the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago. Through the good offices of the director, Ms. June Pachuta Farris, I obtained a digital copy of this shorter 11 page article by Hugo Chotek in Volume XVIII published in 1895 and titled “Pamĕti prvních Čechů v Cleveland, O.” which translates to “Memories of the First Czechs in Cleveland, Ohio” (“Memories”). With the assistance of our partner, Karl Kosman, owner of KENAX Translation Agency, after we completed our translation of “Česká Osada” we translated this second work by Chotek and found that just as Chotek had said this article was the result of his interviews with members of the very earliest Czech immigrants to Cleveland. For the first time in history the words sprang from the pages in English. The more I read, the more I was intrigued by the details, names, and stories of these Czech settlers.
Immediately we recognized the historic value of what we were reading. This was especially true given the lack of study that has been given to the Czech immigrant population of Cleveland and indeed everywhere else across the United States. Consequently we made the decision that these translations deserved to be available free of charge to anyone who was interested. You can read these two Chotek translations and a third from Volume I of Amerikán Národní Kalendář, published in 1878, written by fellow Czech-American newspaperman, Václav Šnajder, “Clevelandajeh Čechové” (Czechs of Cleveland) on our website at http://OnwardToOurPast.com.
In Chotek’s “Memories” he does something that every genealogist loves: he provides us with surname after surname. Additionally, the interviews are wonderful reading and as you would expect from a good newspaperman, Chotek presents us with an unvarnished look into the lives of these earliest Czech immigrants. I also couldn’t ignore how pleased I was when I discovered that one of the interviews was with one of my own ancestors, Frank (Frantisek) Knechtl. You see, I had read in Jan Habenicht’s “History of Czechs in America” that Frantisek Knechtl was reported as one of the early settlers, but I had not been able to confirm his statement with any other account until I read the interview conducted by Chotek. As a result, it wasn’t long before I found myself wondering about all of these earliest Czech immigrants, their families, and their descendants. Were there other ‘Cleveland Originals’ around? If so, were they aware of the fact that their roots ran deep to the earliest of all the Czechs who subsequently settled in Cleveland?
Connecting Genealogical History with Today
As a genealogical historian, I have always been fascinated with the connection between our ancestry and the persons we are today. I love the fact that I constantly see and find new aspects of my ancestry in my life and in the person I am today. This was most likely the seed that sprouted into my thoughts about any additional descendants of the other original Cleveland Czechs. Are there any others beside our family through our Knechtl branch? The more this thought roiled in my brain, the more convinced I became that I needed to investigate it and see if the Czechs of yesteryear were still around in their descendants today. And so it begins.
I have decided that I will begin with Chotek’s first interviewee, Leopold Levi (sometimes Levý). It wasn’t long and I had identified such records as his arrival in the States in 1848, and in the U.S. Census records of 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. As I progressed through his life in documents, I discovered that the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) reported that Leopold was appointed as an enumerator and assistant assessor in 1899, was named as the executor of the will of Deborah Wiedenthal, and located him at his dry goods store on St. Clair, just as Chotek had reported as the location of his interviews with Levi in 1894. I continue to piece together clues from various documents, newspaper articles via GenealogyBank.com, the Jewish Genealogy Society of Cleveland, and the website Cleveland Jewish History. In a matter of weeks I found myself on the telephone leaving a message for someone I hope is the ‘right’ person!
Stay tuned for further updates on this project and see what I discover about other links to these Czech Cleveland pioneers!
Onward To Our Past®