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Who are the Vlachs of Vlassko

By Dr. Gary Kocurek, 104 S. Georgetown, Round Rock, Texas 78664

People of Czech ancestry in Texas are not representative of the modern Czech Republic or of the former Czechoslovakia as a whole. Rather, a great many “Tex-Czechs” trace their heritage to the Vlassko region in eastern Moravia (figs. 1,2). Vlassko is situated along the northwestern rim of the Carpathian Mountains, which historically have served as both a refuge and a conduit for immigrating groups of peoples. Vlassko was largely settled during the 16th Century by colonist immigrating from the east and southeast, and whom were referred to at that time as the “Vlachs.” Historical events during the 17th Century, especially the Thirty Years War, set the stage for the massive immigration of people from Vlassko to Texas after the Revolution of 1848.

Figures One and Two

Vlach,: “Valach,” “Volach,” “Vlakh” and other variations of the term date back in time nearly 2,000 years and refer to a variety of “Latinized” people whose origin is ultimately the Roman Empire (Magocsi 1993). In archaic Czech, for example, “Vlassko” means Italy, and “Valach” refers to “Italian” (Radio Prague 1999). Today, only isolated groups of peoples in the Balkans (Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria) are referred to as Vlachs and these people speak Aromanian (e.g., Wace & Thomson 1914, Winnifrith 1987, Caragui 1999). The Romanian and Moldavians, who speak another language derived from Latin, Daco-Romanian, represent the largest concentration of Latinized people of southeastern Europe. Historically, Romanians and Moldavians were known as Vlachs. The Romanian province of Walachia was named for the Valachs and served as their traditional homeland. Other groups of Vlachs have been assimilated into the local populations. The Vlach culture of Vlassko was largely destroyed at the end of the Thirty Year War (1648).

The purpose of this paper is to ask some very simple questions. Who were the Valachs of Vlassko? What is their relationship, if any, to other groups of people called “Valchs“? What events caused their migration to Vlassko? Unfortunately, the answers to these simple questions are stymied by the same problems that have confronted all Vlach research. First, there is little written history about the Vlachs. Second. On lifestyle Vlachs were largely nomadic shepherds who lived in remote mountainous locales and were known to travel great distances. In fact, Vlachs are tied into the difficult mosaic of Balkans History. Fourth, Vlachs were famous (and still are) for their ability to assimilate into which ever culture they happened to find themselves (Balamaci 1995). For Example. Vlachs who migrated into Bosnia readily dropped Christianity in favor of the local Islam, and the Vlachs who migrated into the Habsburg Empire were “Slavicized” in both religion (Orthodox to Roman Catholic) and language (Winnifrith 1987). Fifth, the term “Vlach” has historically been loosely used by others and oftentimes referred to any outsiders who were shepherds. Although conclusive answers are not forthcoming, it is clear that the history of Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary, the Balkans) is at least as important as Czech history in describing the ancestry of Tex-Czechs.

Tracing the Vlachs Though History

Roman Era

The maximum extent of the roman Empire in southeastern Europe occurred after 106 AD when conquest of the Dacian people extended the empire from modern Greece to Romania. By all accounts, the Latinized people of the Roman Empire represented both a variety of indigenous people as well as colonists who came into the region (e.g. Magocsi 1993). Under barbarian pressure, the Roman Legions retreated from Dacia (modern Romania) in 217. According to at least Romanian historians, Roman colonists and the Latinized Dacians retreated into the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania after the Roman Legions withdrew from the area. This view is supported to the extent that archeological evidence does indicate the presence of Latin-speaking people in Transylvania by at least the 8th Century (Carragie 1999).

By the late 4th Century, the Roman Empire was plagued by internal problems and, in southeastern Europe. By the incursion of the Germanic tribes. By the 7th and 8thCenturies, the Roman Empire existed only south of the Danube River in the form of the Byzantine Empire with its capitol at Constantinople (Fig.3). In this ethnically diverse closing area of the Roman Empire, Vlachs were recognized as those who spoke Latin, the official language of the Byzantine Empire until the 6th Century when Greek came to dominate (Balamaci 19956). These original Vlachs probably consisted of a variety of ethnic groups, but who shared the commonality of having been assimilated in language and culture into the Roman Empire.

Figures Three and Four

The remainder of Central and Eastern Europe north of the Danube River was occupied by shifting groups of (1) Slavs, who immigrated into the region during the first few centuries of the millennium from the northwestern Ukraine, (2) Germanic tribes (e.g., Goths, Vandals, Sueves), (3) Asiatic groups (e.g., Alans, Huns, Avars), and (4) the Turkic Bulgars who migrated into area in 679 (Magocsi 1993).

The Vlach Empire and Expansion

The Byzantine Empire was weakened by (1) the split of the Roman and Orthodox Churches in1054, (2) Norman conquests of Byzantine territories in Italy, (3) Turkish conquests of Byzantine territories in the east beginning in 1071, and (4) the seven crusades between 1096 and 1254 (Magocsi 1993). Against this weakened Byzantine Empire, a Vlach Revolution occurred in 1185086 in protest against a harsh tax imposed on sheep-goat herds and was lead by Ivan and Peter Asen (Magocsi 1993). This “Asenid Empire” or “Empire of the Vlachs and Bulgars” existed south of the Danube River within present-day Bulgaria, and reached its zenith between 1218 and 1241 (Fig. 4). The first written record of Vlachs north of the Danube River (in Transylvania) is in 1210 (Caragiu 1999). This group has been considered as representing a northward influx of Vlachs from the Asenid Empire and/or Vlachs who had previously retreated into the Carpathian Mountains when the Roman Legions withdrew.

By 1242, the Vlach Empire was weakened by Mongol invasions. However, Vlachs during the late 1200’s spread eastward to establish Moldavia, which alternated as a vassal state of Poland and the Ottoman Turks (Magosci 1999). By the late 13th Century as well, continued Vlach migration into the plains north of the Danube gave rise to Walachia in 1290 (Magocsi 1999). Walachia was established as the new “homeland” of the Vlachs and as a province of Hungary (Fig. 4). From 1330 until 1340, Walachia, under the rule of Basarab I, existed as a nearly independent state. Walachia again emerged as a near independent state ruled by Mircea between 1386 and 1390.

During this period, the Carpathian Mountain range of Vlassko in Moravia was largely uninhabited, and formed the northeastern border of the Bohemian Kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire (Magocsi 1993). Slovakia was part of Hungary. During the middle 14th Century, Hungary reached its maximum extent, and Bohemia-Moravia began its “Golden Age” under Charles IV (1346-1378) as he assumed the title of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Ottoman Turk Era

Southeastern Europe was forever changed by conquests by the Ottoman Turks beginning near the close of the 14th Century (Fig. 5). These conquests or formation of Turkish vassal states include: Bulgaria in 1396, Albania in 1415, Walachia in 1390 and again in 1446, Serbia in 1459, Bosnia in 1463, Herzegovina in 1466, Moldavia in 1512, and the other remaining parts of the Byzantine Empire between 1453 and 1460 (see summary in Magocsi 1993). Initially, the Vlachs are believed to have assisted the Turks by acting as guides and guards through mountain passes that were well known to the Vlach shepherds (Sugar 1977). In time, however, Vlachs numbered among those resentful of the Turkish presence. Indeed, the most prominent resistance against the Ottomans occurred in the Vlach states of Walachia and Moldavia. Vlad II Dracul took Walachia to the status of semi-independent state between 1436 and 1446. His son, Vlad III Tepes (the historical figure for Dracula of fiction) used both diplomatic and brutal means of war to establish Walachia as an independent state between 1453 and 1460. And again in 1476. Stefan the Great maintained Moldavia free from Ottoman rule from 1457 until 1504 (Magocsi 1993).

Exodus From Ottoman Lands and Settlement of Vlassko

One outcome of the Ottoman Turk westward advance and the political insanity that it brought was a major exodus from the conquered lands accompanied by a massive influx in Habsburg lands. In an early immigration, Slovak peasants in 1514 immigrants to southern Moravia (Strani and Hrozenkov areas) as a result of the Dozsas Rebellion (Kann & David 1984). In 1526, the Hungarians were defeated by the Ottoman Turks at Mohac, allowing expansion of the Ottoman Empire to near the borders of the Habsburg Empire (Fig. 5) (Magocsi 1993). All that remained of Hungary was Royal Hungary (including Slovakia), which was in name ruled by the Habsburgs but in practice paid tribute to the Ottoman Empire until 1601, and acted as the buffer zone between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. As a result of the Hungarian defeat, huge areas of the former Hungary were depopulated as Christian Magyars (Hungarians), Vlachs and Slavs (Largely Croats, Serbs, and Slovaks), fled into Habsburg lands (Magocsi 1993). Another major exodus occurred during the Turkish Wars between 1593 and 1606 when Orthodox Serbs and Vlachs fled into the southern part of Royal Hungary (Croatia) (Kann & David 1984).

Figure Five

The frontier border (Royal Hungary and adjacent areas such as Vlassko) between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires was the zone of both colonization and conflict between the great powers. The area was subject to frequent raids by the Turks, and the Habsburgs, in turn, attempted to fortify this zone with military camps and to welcome the colonists who, if not completely loyal to the Habsburg, at least regarded the Turks as the greater enemy. In a move that would haunt Habsburgs later during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), numerous privileges were bestowed upon the new colonist, who were typically organized into military bands (Kann & David 1984, Magocsi 1993). These rights included (1) the right to bear arms, (2) tax exemptions, (3) election of their leaders, (4) no compulsory work for feudal lords, and (5) the grazing rights (Podolak 1969, Sugar 1977, Kann & David 1984). In Vlassko, these rights were referred to as “Valachian Law” and stood until the Thirty Years War (Polisensky 1971).

The overall picture that emerges for the 16th Century is a massive flux of people from the whole of southeastern Europe into the borderlands of the Habsburg Empire as the Ottoman Turk wave spread westward. Against this backdrop. The Vlassko area of Moravia, which already had ethnic Moravians inhabiting the lowlands, received colonists who largely occupied the highlands. Although it seems certain that the immigrants were largely shepherds and peasant migrating along the Carpathians from Slovakia, it is impossible to state just which ethnic wave they represented.

The Vlachs of Vlassko

Because there is no written account that identifies the ethnic character of the Vlachs who settled Vlassko, only indirect evidence can be called upon. The evidence includes: (1) period reference to the people as a distinct group called the Vlachs or Wallachians, (2) some elements of the language, (3) surnames, and (4) the distinctive pastoral culture.

Period References

As early as the 14th Century, Vlach shepherds of a definite Romanian origin are documented as migrating into Slovakia (Podolak 1969). Somewhat later, disorganized bands of Romanian Vlachs are noted in the Carpathian Mountain regions of Ukraine, Poland, and Moravia. This initial influx of Vlachs does coincide with the early Ottoman conquests in the Balkans, but appears to represent only disorganized bands of shepherds traveling along the Carpathians and is small in comparison to the later influx in the 16th Century.

In Vlassko, the first widespread reference to Vlachs occurred during the Thirty Years War and are well documented in Dostal (1956) and Polisensky (1971). For example, Jan Amos Comenius wrote in 1960 “Moravians of the mountains around Vsetin, called Wallachians, are a warlike people…they refuses to accept the Habsburg yoke and for three whole years defended their freedom with the sword.” Later, in 1624, he wrote “the inhabitants of the lordship of Vsetin and the mountains thereabout (who are called Wallachians) continued to resist with arms and could not be brought to deny their faith or offer submission…” In 1628, Jesuit missionaries, in abandoning their attempt to convert the Vlachs to Catholicism, stated that the “inhabitants of Vlassko were Valachs and hence utterly infractory.” Zlin town records from 1621 refer to “the Wallachians, who are the local rabble,…” Albrecht Waldstein, Habsburg Military lord of Vsetin, wrote in 1621 about the expected uprising of the locals and referred to the Vlachs as “Wallachians” against whom he did not have sufficient support to mount a campaign. A Habsburg commissioner in 1622, writing about the local Moravians, stated that “the people are inclined more to the enemy and the Wallachians.”

The significance of these period references is that the Vlachs of Vlassko were both considered apart from the Moravians, and referred to as Wallachians. Walachia is the Romanian province and the homeland of the Vlachs. This later distinction is important, because, as noted below, “Vlach” came in Moravia to refer to shepherds in general.

Language

Linguists make the argument that the Moravian dialect spoken by the Vlachs had its roots in Slovak, but that the vocabulary concerning aspects of the raising of sheep and goats was Romanian (e.g. Podolak 1969, Hannan 1988). In fact, there is a clear evolution of the Vlach language along the Carpathian Mountains. Ukrainian Vlachs spoke a language that had a strong Romanian influence. Slovakians Vlachs, in turn, spoke Slovak, but with a strong Ukrainian character. The Moravian spoken by the Vlachs in Vlassko had the Slovak character. This geographic evolution of language can be interpreted as an assimilation of the Vlachs in terms of language as they migrated into new areas. The overall pattern shows a westward migration of the Vlachs from Romania into Moravia via the Carpathian Mountains and over a time scale significant enough for local assimilation of the language to have occurred. The only aspect of the language that remained unchanged throughout the Carpathians was that related to the Vlach style of sheep and goat tending (see below), and for which there were no local words that could be used. The counter argument--that this geographic sharing of language would be typical for any groups into cultural contact--is weakened by the fact that the drift in language is in one direction. Ukrainian Vlachs do not show a Slovak influence, and so forth.

Surnames

Hanna (1988), based upon a compilation of Czech names typical of Texas, demonstrated two important points. First, the most common names are not typical of the Czech Republic as a whole, but rather are distinctive of Vlassko and surrounding areas. Second, many of these names are not Czech in origin but rather Romanian (Baca, Balcar, Sandera), Hungarian (e.g. Orsak), Slovakian (e.g. Fajkus), and Polish (Adamcik). The collection of surnames from Vlassko is probably representative of origins of peoples who settled in Vlassko, and also coincides with the presumed route traveled by the Valachs through the Carpathians.

Culture

A remarkable aspect of Vlachs found everywhere along the Carpathian Mountains is that the culture associated with herding remained the same despite the evolution in language (Podolak 1969). As with those aspects of language associated with sheep and goat tending, this cultural aspect of the Vlachs likely did not change because there was no competing culture--the Vlach methods and associated rituals of sheep and goat tending were unique and newly introduced by the Vlachs. Although sheep and goats were long associated with agriculture practiced in the lowlands adjacent to the Carpathians, it was the Vlachs that introduced grazing in the highlands and the emphasis upon the production of milk and cheese. Podolak (1969) describes a set of methods and rituals of Vlach herd tending that were not only unique but also essentially identical along the entire belt of the Carpathian Mountains from Moravia to Romanian and then along the adjacent mountains into Serbia and Bulgaria. Similarly, the style of Vlach log architecture remained the same along the length of the Carpathians (Polisensky 1971). The semi-nomadic lifestyle practiced today by the Vlachs of the Balkans (as described by Wace & Thompson 1914) seems largely unchanged from that of the 16th Century or earlier.

The Thirty Year War

Whatever the origin of the Vlachs of Vlassko, the Thirty Year War and subsequent events most profoundly changed the Vlach culture, and, as argued in the next section, set the stage for the next wave of Vlach immigration. The most detailed accounts of this war in Vlassko are found in Dostal (1956) and Polisensky (1971).

The Thirty Year War began in Bohemia in 1618 with the Battle of White Mountain near Prague. The war had numerous roots, but the primary one was the religious battled between Catholicism that the Habsburgs deemed to prevail over all their lands and the growing Protestant movement that had it roots with Jan Hus and later reformers such ass Luther and Calvin. War spread to Moravia in 1619 and Waldstein, lord of Vsetin, was appointed military commander for Habsburg forces in Moravia. With the exception of Vlassko, the Moravians were defeated in less than two years, with the Moravian government collapsing soon after the Bohemian defeat at White Mountain, and most Moravian towns and villages surrendering to Habsburg Imperial forces without a fight. It was the Vlachs, who at this time had largely become Protestants of one sort of another and who considered themselves freer than the lowland Moravians, who proved the thorn in the Habsburg side.

Vlach warfare against the Habsburgs consisted of raids, including those against Malenovice, Zlin, and Valasske Mezirici. Waldstein stated that the Vlachs fought as a “Horde” and Vlach forces were victorious against the Habsburgs during the initial years of the war. During portions of these initial years as well, Vlachs were joined by Protestant Hungarians, and by 1621 all of Moravia east of the Morava River was controlled by Vlachs. Hungarian forces, however, were defeated by the Habsburgs at Olomouc in late 1621 and withdrew from Moravia in 1622. Vlach forces were subsequently subdued in 1623, accompanied by a series of public executions.

Renewed Vlach attacks on Vsetin occurred in late 1623. The Hungarians, now aided by the Ottoman Turks, reentered the War, and fighting occurred as far west as Brno. The Turks, however, were an older enemy of the Vlachs, and the Vlachs did not join their former allies, the Hungarians. A second peace between Hungary and the Habsburgs was signed in 1624. The Habsburgs seized this opportunity to attack the Vlachs in March 1624 in the mountains west of Vsetin, but the Vlachs prevailed in what was described as a “slaughter” of Habsburg forces. Vlachs captured Lukov in 1626, and joined by Danes, who had entered the war against the Habsburg, also captured Hranice in 1626.

In 1627, Waldstein’s counter-attack forced the withdrawal of the Danish army from Moravian, and sent the Vlachs into retreat. By 1630, Vlachs controlled only their Carpathian strongholds. The final Vlach uprising occurred in 1640 when the Swedes invaded Moravia to do battle with the Habsburgs. Combined Vlach-Swede forces won back portions of Moravia, but then the Swedes withdrew in 1643 to concentrate on a war with Denmark.

In January 1644, a massive Habsburg raid was conducted against the Vlachs in the mountains east of Vsetin, The Habsburg rout was completed by this time with a battle that culminated in the burning of Vlach villages (e.g. Hovezi, Huslenky, Halenkov, and Zdechov), disarming of the Vlachs, destruction of the fields and livestock, and an estimated 20 percent of the males of Vsetin were killed or later executed. Vlachs who fled the area were pursued by the Habsburgs as far as into Hungary. Ultimately, about one third of the total Vlach population was killed. With the Conscription of Vlassko on February 16, 1644, a complete registration of the remaining Vlachs occurred. Execution or oath of allegiance to Habsburg and conversion to Catholicism were the choices. Many Vlachs were executed during the infamous executions of 1644 in Vsetin. By March 1644, essentially all the remaining Vlachs who had taken refuge in the high high Carpathians had been pursued and killed. Plague then struck the region in September 1644.

War continued with one more attempted invasion of Moravia by the Swedes and Hungarians. The war ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In Moravia alone, 63 castles, 22 towns, and 330 villages had been annihilated during the war.

Destruction of the Vlach Culture in Vlassko--Stage-Setting for Immigration

The net result of the crushing Vlach defeat with the close of the Thirty Year War was the destruction of Vlach Culture. Retribution by the Habsburg was severe and the Vlassko area remained one of the most repressed in Europe. A harsh serfdom was imposed upon the Vlachs. Whole groups of people and families were relocated. Taxes were raised to the point (two-third of total gross) that extreme poverty resulted. Overlords were entirely foreign. Serfdom was not lifted until the Revolution of 1848 (Pech 1969), one of the last places in Europe. Immigration to Texas began in earnest in the 1850’s.

Conclusion

In returning to the three simple questions posed at the beginning of this paper, what conclusions can be drawn?

Who were the Vlachs of Vlassko? They were certainly migrating shepherds from Slovakia. If the period references are taken at face value, they were Wallachians or Romanians. The complicating factor, however, is that these Vlachs may have been in migration for a generation or more and had been assimilated in language and probably through marriage to Ukrainians, Poles, and Slovaks.

What is the relationship to these Vlachs to other Vlachs scattered throughout southeastern Europe? First, the original Vlachs were not a single ethnic group, although many were Dacian. Vlachs show every inclination toward assimilation, hence, there are Serbian, Moravian, and Romanian Vlachs. They are united by a shared history, and language and culture to some degree. The strong tie to Romania exists in the historical location of the Vlach homeland and the continuation of the Latin-derived language there.

What caused the migration of the Vlachs into Moravia/ The Ottoman Turks caused the westward migration of Vlachs and other ethnic groups of people. Vlach westward migration along the Carpathian Mountains ended in Moravia were the Carpathians terminate.

References

Balamaci, N.S., 1995. The Balkan Vlachs: Born to Assimilate? http://farsarotul.org/n118_htm

Caragiu, M., 1999. Historical Snapshots. <wysiwyg://130/http://www.free yellow.com/ members2/bastian/hist.html.

Dostal, F., 1956.Valasska povstani za Triceltilete Valky. Nase Vojsko, Praha, 237 pp.

Hanna K. 1988. Tracing Valach Surnames in Texas. Vesnik 7 December, 11-12.

Kann R.A. & David, Z.V., 1984. The Peoples of the Eastern Habsburg Lands, 1526-1918. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 543 pp.

Magocsi, P.R., 1993, Historical Atlas of East Central Europe. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 218 pp.

Pechm S.Z., 1969. The Czech Revolution of 1848. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 286 pp.

Podolak, J. 1969. The pastoral culture of the Carpathians as a subject of an ethnological study. Ethnologia Slavica, v. 1, 67-82.

Polisensky, J.V., 1971. The Thirty Years War, University of California Press, Berkely, 300 pp.

Radio Prague, 1999. Living Czech. <http.radio.cz/English/language/18-6-99.html>

Sugar, P.F., 1977. Southeastern Europe under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 365 pp.

Wace A,J.B. & Thomson, M.S., 1914. The Nomads of the Balkans, an Account of life and Customs Among the Vlachs of Northern Pindus. Methuen & Co., London.

Winnifrith, T.J., 1978. The Vlachs: The History of a Balkan People. St Martin’s Press, New York, 188 pp.

Permission to reprint received from the author on November 28, 2001.

 

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