by Susan Rektorik Henley-- (c) Copyright 2002
Why are there so many Czechs in Texas?
To full answer this question, I will need to address a number of issues. This will read as an essay. I apologize for the length but I do not know how else to do it.
First let me just briefly set the stage is the Czech Lands. The constitutional changes generated by the Revolutions of 1848 made it possible for the first for the peasants (in large numbers) to consider leaving their homeland. Also with the constitutional changes came even higher taxes and economical burdens on many of these peasants. In the area of Vlassko, the heavy and vindictive yoke placed on the Vlachs by the resentful Habsburgs remained in place long after assessments and taxes were lessoned in other areas.
Next, let me set the stage in Texas. The 1800’s continued to be turbulent times in Texas. We saw the rise and fall of the Republic of Texas. In East Texas and along the rivers, Anglo settlers from the southern states of America settled and established plantations and a lifestyle consistent with the Old Confederacy. More significantly for the Czechs, in 1831, the Germans saw an opportunity in Texas. The key factor in this movement was the Vereinzum Schutzw deutscher Einwanderer, a society composed of wealthy Germans who were interested in overseas colonization for both economic and philanthropic reasons. These promoters hoped, by purchasing colonial lands and settling them with Germans, to realize a profit on their investment as land values increased with the development of the area, while at the same time to provide a safe and prosperous future for thousands of emigrants. After some consideration, Texas was chosen as the site for the colony. The German settlement patterns were far different from those of the Anglos. They settled in land grant areas away from the rivers and in central Texas. They also came as businessmen and entrepreneurs. This placed them in many towns. Also, clusters of German farms sprung up throughout the central-eastern portion of the state. These small settlements generally were created in areas of gently rolling hills which is said to be similar to parts of Moravia.
This is a study in itself, but, also during this period, steamship transportation came to the Gulf of Mexico. Charles Morgan would establish steam packet transportation to Texas from New Orleans at a fairly reasonable rate. Later in the century, railways would be built from the port cities which also helped to make Texas accessible to emigrants (the Czechs would settle at the end of the railway or as far as the could travel beyond that point.).
Although until 1848, not many Czechs could immigrate, some did. These early arrivals gravitated to the German communities due to the similarities. Several of these early immigrants found life in frontier Texas much better than life in the Czech homeland. (I should mention that Texas was still frontier land at this time. Only about half of the current state was settled by non-native inhabitants. The Comanche still hunted bison on the plains, raided settlements, tortured, maimed, killed, and took slaves. Only a few stage coach routes and cargo transportation roads to Mexico traversed South Texas. The only trains were in in a small section of East Texas. Texas was still wild.) Anyway, several of these early immigrants who found life good in the wilds of Texas wrote letters to family and friends in the Czech lands. As an aside, the same thing happened in the 1850’s with the Silesians. A Father Leopold Moczegamba came to Texas as a missionary and found the land full of opportunity. He wrote home and became the father of the oldest Polish colony in the United States, Panna Maria, Texas. But, be it in the Czech lands or Upper Silesia, the written descriptions of the personal freedom and free or low cost land, fell on needy and eager ears. Waves of migrations were started by the letters of Rev. Arnost Bergmann and Josef L. Lesikar.
The American Civil War stopped, temporarily, the Czech migration to Texas. Those Czechs already in Texas were appalled by the call of the Confederacy. These were dark times for the Germans and Czechs in Texas. There was a strong “Anti-foreigner” movement. A political party calling themselves the “No Nothing Party” came into prominence and they terrorized the minorities and incited riots against those of foreign birth and/or language. The Czechs and Germans who refused to fight for the Confederate cause were hunted down with dogs. Deserters were shot.
Luckily, the Union prevailed. Although there still was an anti-foreigner climate in some locations (around the Polish communities of Panna Maria and Cestohowa for example), over time order was restored and Czechs started to again migrate. This time in even greater numbers. Letters still played a role in the movement but free enterprise now had a roll in the continued selection of Texas as a destination. In the Czech Lands, travel agents, ship line companies, and the railroads saw a goldmine in the movement of the emigrants. They promoted Texas as a land of milk and honey…they said the fertile black soil was eight feet deep! In many cases, these firms worked deals so the potential immigrants would use their services. Often, they would make arrangements for the fares of the immigrants to be paid by relatives already in Texas.
Also, the Austrian governmental practice of more easily granting visas and travel permits to individuals who could attest they were leaving the Czech lands to join family in Texas or someplace else encouraged immigrants to go where they already had connections. And, there was the human and economical reason to go where you had friends and relatives. You could stay with family or friends while you earned money, found land, and established yourself. Some early Texas Czechs lived in sheds, under large trees, and in barns until they could get out on their own.
Interesting, while whole villages were emptying in Moravia, the peasant populations of those villages were again gathering in new aggregate Czech communities in Texas! Friendships and blood connections in Moravia (and Bohemia to some degree) transferred to Texas. These bonds stayed firm even until the early 1900’s when the sons of immigrants to Texas (who had established themselves in a single, small ethnic Czech community) made a second migration, in mass, to another area of Texas just opening up for development to form a second ethnic enclave.
As long as the Texas Czechs were able to remain in rural ethnic colonies, we were able to keep our language and our identity. However, around 1940, when the time came that the farms and small towns could not support the great-grandchildren of these immigrants (and the lure of the cities called), we saw a disbursal of the Czechs and more of an assimilation into the homogeneous American culture.
However, the last twenty years has seen a resurgence in Czech pride and ethnic awareness.