Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Czechs were among the largest groups of continental European immigrants to settle on the American Great Plains from 1865 through 1914. Of the more than 620,000 Americans who reported Czech to be their mother tongue in the 1920 census, 22.8 percent, or 141,782, lived in the six Great Plains states from Texas through North Dakota. Ten years earlier, 125,140 citizens in the same states constituted 23.6 percent of all Czech Americans nationwide. Of the latter group, 72.8 percent resided in Nebraska and Texas and the remaining 27.2 percent in Oklahoma, Kansas, and the Dakotas. An additional 5,308 Czech Americans in 1910 lived in the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Of these residents, a majority had settled on the High Plains. Within the above ten states, at least 90 percent of all Czech Americans resided east of the 100th meridian and primarily in eastern and southeastern Nebraska, eastcentral Texas, central Oklahoma, northcentral Kansas, southeastern South Dakota, and eastern North Dakota. Almost all of these citizens lived on farms or in small towns. In this enormous ten-state area, the only city with a large Czech American population was Omaha, which ranked fourth nationally in this regard after Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City. From the 1870s to the 1950s Omaha was second only to Chicago as an American Czech-language publishing center and home to the Hospodár, the largest Czech-language agricultural periodical in the world.

By contrast, few Czechs migrated to the Canadian Plains, or to Canada as a whole, before U.S. immigration quotas in 1921 and 1924 made Canada a more attractive destination. The 1921 census put the national Czech population at only 8,840. Yet Czechs were present in the Canadian Plains as early as the 1880s: Kolin in Saskatchewan was probably the first settlement. By the early twentieth century Winnipeg had a significant Czech population. Most of these early settlers were farmers, miners, and artisans. Among the Czechs who migrated to the Prairie Provinces in the 1920s were sugar beet farmers who settled around Lethbridge, Alberta.

Like many European immigrants of the period 1865 through 1914, most Czechs departed from regions characterized by "agricultural overpopulation." The typical Czech immigrant couple left a farm of ten to fifty acres in size that was not large enough to support a family. Other landless Czech immigrants seldom had capital and usually sought employment in large industrial cities, notably Chicago, where one in four Czech Americans resided by 1920. In the trans-Missouri West, Bohemian Czechs predominated in Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, and Oklahoma, whereas Moravian Czechs were more numerous in Texas and North Dakota.

Czech immigrants were divided not only by social class, occupation, and regional origin but also by religious differences. At least half of all Czech immigrants up to 1914 were "freethinkers" (svobodomyslné Cesi) who chose not to affiliate with any organized religion and who established fraternal and benevolent associations to advance many of the same goals as those promoted by churches: fellowship, community solidarity, and civic service. Outstanding among these associations were the Sokol, dating from 1862 in Bohemia and 1864 in the United States, and the various benevolent associations, including the CSPS (Ceskoslovanský podporuici spolek or Czecho-Slavic Benevolent Society) and its trans-Mississippi offshoots and rivals, the ZCBJ (Západni ceská bratrská jednota or Western Bohemian Fraternal Association), founded in Omaha in 1897, and the SPJST (Slovanská podporuici jednota státu Texasu or Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas), founded in 1898 and affectionately referred to as the "Special People Jesus Sent to Texas." The founding of the ZCBJ by trans-Mississippi members of the CSPS reflected their desire to admit women to membership on the same terms as men and to obtain lower insurance premiums for western lodge members, who tended to be younger and have longer life expectancies than eastern industrial workers.

Nearly half of all Czech immigrants were practicing Catholics, who established Czechspeaking parishes in almost all urban and rural areas with sizable Czech populations. Protestants numbered no more than 5 percent of the Czech American population and organized independent congregations only in Texas. In the other Great Plains states, fledgling Czech Protestant congregations developed with the support of mainline Protestant denominations, notably the Presbyterians. After several decades of acculturation, tens of thousands of Czech freethinkers and their descendants joined liberal Protestant denominations or returned to their ancestral Catholic faith. Czech-speaking Jews usually a.liated with local synagogues and other Jewish organizations, and some, like the Rosewater and Brandeis families in Omaha, rose to positions of political and commercial leadership.

Similar social, occupational, and religious divisions were evident among the tens of thousands of Czech immigrants who came to the United States immediately after World War I and before the immigration quotas. The most recent waves of Czech immigrants–in 1938– 39, 1948, and 1968–fled Nazi or Communist oppression and included a larger percentage of professional and managerial people. These waves flowed heavily into the largest American and Canadian metropolitan areas.

Three times–after 1914, 1939, and 1948– Czech Americans, regardless of occupation or religious outlook, made common cause with a majority of Slovak Americans. Their first joint effort supported the Czechoslovak National Council abroad during World War I in its successful effort to establish an independent Czechoslovak republic. In early September 1914 Czech Americans in Omaha conducted the first public subscription of funds to support Czech interests against the Austro- Hungarian government. The Czech National Bazaar of Freedom (Ceský národní bazar swobody) in Omaha in September 1918 was the largest of many American fundraisers for the Czechoslovak independence movement led by T. G. Masaryk.

After Nazi Germany's occupation of Bohemia and Moravia on March 15, 1939, Americans of Czech and Slovak ancestry, including Roman Hruska from Nebraska, met at the University of Chicago to help former Czechoslovak president Edvard Bene¡s organize a Czechoslovak government in exile and work for the restoration of Czechoslovak independence. Similarly, during the cold war, many Czech American and Slovak American organizations welcomed immigrants who had fled from Czechoslovakia after the Czechoslovak communist coup of February 1948. These organizations also helped expose Czechoslovak communism's ongoing corruption, mendacity, and disregard for human rights. The restoration of democracy and a market economy to the Czech Republic and Slovakia after November 1989 facilitated an intensification of personal and institutional contacts between Americans of Czech ancestry and the citizens of the Czech Republic.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Czech Architecture.

Bruce M. Garver University of Nebraska-Omaha

Garver, Bruce. "Czech-American Freethinkers on the Great Plains, 1871–1914." In Ethnicity in the Great Plains, edited by Frederick Luebke. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980: 147–69.

Gellner, John, and John Smerek. The Czechs and Slovaks in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.

Jerabek, Esther. Czechs and Slovaks in North America: A Bibliography. New York: Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in America and Czechoslovak National Council of America, 1976.

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