Austin County 

 

Czech Migration

The following was published as the lead article in Volume I of a series of books published by the Texas Czech Genealogical Society in 2005 and 2007 titled “Czech Family Histories.”

AN ACCOUNT

OF

THE FIRST GROUP MIGRATIONS OF CZECHS TO TEXAS

by

 James Woodrick

pages 1 - 11

The first group migration of Czechs to Texas occurred during 1851, followed by

several other groups in the next several years. This account identifies these pioneers and

explains why they chose to come to Texas, some of the difficulties they encountered in

their journeys, and some of their early experiences in their adopted land. A glance at the

lists of Czech immigrants to Texas during 1851 to 1855 will reveal many family names of

current residents who can trace their heritage to these pioneers. For the purposes of this

account, “Czechs” refer to people of Slavic origins primarily from the geographic region

known as Bohemia (Cechy) and Moravia in the 18th century and today known as the

Czech Republic. Included in this account also are Slavic people of Czech origin living in

Slovakia and Silesia. Most were under the political control of the Habsburg dynasty of

Austria in 1850.

Among the first Czechs to come to Texas were Dr. Antonin M. Dignovity (1832),

Bedrich Lemsky (1836), the everend Bohumir Menzel (1840), the Reverend Josef Arnost

Bergman (1849), and Vaclav Matejovsky (1851). These men came either alone or with

their families as members of German or Dutch groups. They were not accompanied by

groups of other Czechs.

The Reverend Bergman, who left Prussian Silesia in 1849 and came to Cat Spring,

Austin County, Texas in early 1850, set the stage for the first several groups of Czechs to

become attracted to Texas. Bergman wrote from Cat Spring about the advantages of his

new home to the Kolacny family, friends from Silesia whom he wished to persuade to

join him in Texas. He liked the climate, was impressed with the local people and the

abundance of available timbered and watered land, and especially appreciated the

religious and political freedoms. Some of the letters were circulated among the people in

that region, and a copy was obtained by Joseph Lidumil Lesikar from the Landskroun

region of northeastern Bohemia who was at that time was encouraging friends to leave

the area to seek more opportunity in another country. Lesikar forwarded a copy of the

Bergman letter to an acquaintance named Klacel who reproduced the letter in “Moravske

Noviny”, a Czech-language newspaper that was circulated in Moravia and Cechy. The

first of Bergmann's letters is included in Appendix VII.

The favorable reports about America which were written by Karel Antonin Postl, a

native of Moravia who wrote under the pen name of Charles Sealsfield, may also have

had some influence on the enthusiasm of the first groups. Postl's work definitely had an

effect on later Czech immigration.

There were many reasons why the Czech people were willing to leave their

homeland. One reason was the religious persecution of the Protestants. Family

manuscripts from Europe depict how a Kroulik ancestor was physically beaten because of

his religious faith. Several Krouliks were condemned for reading non-Catholic books.

Such books, when found, were confiscated and burned. The Czech people also resented

the Germanization of their homeland by the Hapsburgs, the ruling family in neighboring

Austria. The Czech language was saved from extinction only by the peasants, who kept

the spoken language alive. The Czech people, especially the young men, were willing to

leave their homeland in order to avoid serving in the Austrian army under their vicious

oppressors.

Northeastern Bohemia, as most parts of the Czech lands, was not very industrialized.

It was difficult for the people to obtain employment, especially if they did not have

Teutonic surnames. This was one of the reasons why many Czechs felt it necessary to

adopt German family names. Some Czech names were Germanized by the Hapsburg

government. This latter procedure-- Germanization by the government--was especially

applied to the names of most of the Czech villages and cities.

The climate and soil conditions of northeastern Bohemia were not very conducive to

the production of agricultural crops. Only a small portion of the people owned land, and

usually these were only small plots because of the subdivision of family land over time

among a number of children who would survive their parents. The small plots of land did

not produce enough to support a family. The majority of the people were laborers, but

there was little demand for their work. Living conditions were very congested. Often

more than twenty individuals lived in one small cottage. The people were poor; perhaps

at times even hungry.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the Czechs felt that they had little chance of

gaining relief from the authority of the Catholic church and the absolutism of Austria's

repressive regime. The encouraging letters about Texas from Bergman were of great

interest, and there was much enthusiasm about starting a new life in a new land. Meetings

were held, and plans were formulated for the transfer. Much of this planning was done

under the leadership of Josef Lidumil Lesikar, an advocate of Czech migration.

Lesikar was born to Josef and Rozalie (Prokop) Lesikar of Herbortice, Cechy, on

May 16, 1806. As a young man he spent some time in the Banat region of the Balkans.

Later he settled in Nepomuky, Cechy, where he was a tailor. He was a Notary Public and

also served as secretary to the Justice of the Peace. The Hapsburgs considered him an

agitator. Josef Lidumil Lesikar married Terezie Silar, daughter of Jan and Rozalie (Rypl)

Silar of Nepomuky, on February 18, 1828.

At about the time the Bergman letters were appearing, the Czechs living in the

northeastern part of Cechy were considering moving to the Banat in the then Hungarian

Empire, which at that time contained diverse ethnic groups. However, the Magyars

(Hungarians) were not very receptive to having more Slavs (nor Germans) settle in that

region. Thus the Czechs abandoned the idea of settling in the Banat and began looking to

Texas.

Details of how the Czechs of the Lanskroun area prepared for their departure have

been uncovered in Czech archives and reported by Frantisek Silar, historian from the

Landskroun area, in the 1970's and 1980's. On August 19, 1851, about 118 passports

were issued to Czechs desiring to leave their homeland. The passports for the Czechs

were issued in Vienna, Austria. Most of the people began making final preparations for

the journey. They sold their property if they had any, and many of their personal

belongings in order to have enough money to make the journey and hopefully to have

enough left to purchase land and the essentials to live in the new land.

As the day for departure approached, however, about 44 of the people who had

obtained passports decided, for various reasons, not to go. Mr. and Mrs. Josef Lidumil

Lesikar and their four sons originally did plan to go with the group in 1851, but later Mrs.

Lesikar decided that she could not abandon her way of life and start over in an alien land.

This left the group without a dominant leader, but apparently a 61-year-old widow from

Nepomuky, Mrs. Pavel (Johanna Balcar) Silar, became the spokesperson for the group.

This partially blind and devout Christian woman was leaving her homeland with eight of

her children and nineteen grandchildren. Another son of Johanna Silar, Frantisek Silar,

recently married to widow Rosalie Coufal Lesikar, remained behind. They later came

with a second group on the SUWA.

On November 6, 1851, about 74 Czechs left their homes in Albrechtice, Dolni

Hermanice, Horni Cermna, Horni Tresnovec, and Nepomuky (all small villages near the

town of Lanskroun in northeastern Bohemia) to board the train in Usti nad Orlici for the

first leg of the long journey ahead. The boarding of the train at 4:30 a.m. on November 7,

1851, was a very emotional experience not only for those who were leaving their

homeland forever, but also for the relatives and friends who stayed behind.

The group left Usti nad Orlici for Hamburg, Germany, where they were scheduled to

board a German ship directly for Galveston, Texas. Misfortune beset the Czechs in

Hamburg, where they were defrauded by a man named Hirman, who talked them into

abandoning their plans of taking a German ship directly to Galveston and taking instead a

ship from Hamburg to Liverpool, England, boarding another ship at Liverpool bound for

New Orleans, Louisiana, and finally a third ship to Galveston, Texas. His selling point

was that although there would be transfers, in the long run the trip would be cheaper.

Unfortunately the Czechs fell for his sales pitch - the decision ultimately cost the lives of

half of the group.

It is believed by some historians that a ship of the VICTORIA line took the group

from Hamburg to Hull on the Leeds in eastern England, and that then the passengers went

overland to Liverpool.

The group left Liverpool for New Orleans on December 1, 1851, on the sailing

vessel MARIA. A passenger list (Appendix I) compiled in Liverpool of the people who

sailed on the MARIA on that trip is in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It

contains the names of 74 Czechs with surnames as follows: Coufal, Jezek, Lesikar,

Mares (Maresh), Motl (Mottle), Rosler (the Roslers were from Dolni Hermanice, Cechy,

but they may have been descendants of Sudeten Germans.), Rypl (Ripple), Silar,

Szornovsky and Votava. Thirty-one of the 74 names listed were of the surname Silar

(later Shiller or Schiller).

The MARIA was built in Quebec, Canada, in 1849, of oak, hackmatock and pine.

She was of 1014 tons register or 837 tons net. She had one main deck and a poop deck,

and was 150 feet long, 32 feet wide and 22 feet in depth. As the MARIA left Liverpool,

there were about 295 passengers on board. Besides the Czechs, there were German and

Irish people coming to America. This made the living conditions rather congested. The

food was scarce and of inferior quality. Much of it was stale. The rationed water was

dispensed in an unsanitary fashion. As a result of the poor living conditions, many of the

passengers became ill.

About 63 days after departing from Liverpool, the MARIA reached New Orleans on

February 3, 1852. Many of the Czechs who had become ill entered a hospital in New

Orleans, and several of them died in that city. Much of their financial resources were

exhausted in medical payments and in living expenses for the unanticipated delay in their

journey to Texas.

After staying in New Orleans for 10 days, 36 of the healthier Czechs departed on the

coastal steamer MEXICO, leaving those still very ill in New Orleans to follow later. This

first group landed in Galveston on February 17, 1852.

From Galveston the surviving Czechs went to Houston via Buffalo Bayou on a

steamer. Two infants died on this leg of the journey and were buried in Galveston Bay.

Arriving in Houston on February 18, the Czechs again faced delays due to illness and

difficulty in obtaining land transportation. They were in Houston for 14 days, during

which time 18 more of the group died, including their leader Johanna Balcar Silar. It is

presumed that these dead were buried in the old city cemetery by Jeff Davis hospital.

Some Houston newspaper accounts (Appendix IV) mentioned the Czech immigrants and

their troubles, suggesting that immigrants like these were becoming a burden on the

Houston residents and perhaps should not be allowed to land.

The journey from Houston to the Cat Spring area in Austin County was made

mostly on foot. There were no railroads along that route at that time. Some of the

heavier possessions and a few of the individuals were transported by ox-drawn wagons.

The first group left Houston March 4, and arrived at the Brazos River near Brookshire on

March 10. The river was flooding at that time, forcing the Czechs to camp on its bank

for 18 days. During this time, those who had remained behind in New Orleans caught up

and reunited with the first group. They ran out of food and had to pay a high price to

have supplies shipped from Houston. Six more died before crossing the Brazos. The

survivors finally arrived at Cat Spring about April 5, 1852. There is no accurate record of

how many of the approximately 74 Czechs reached Cat Spring almost five months after

departing from their homes in Europe. Most estimates are that fewer than half (about 34)

reached their destination. Apparently the entire Szornovsky and Votava families died or

went elsewhere from New Orleans, because there are no known records in Texas of them.

Of the Lesikar family (this was not the Josef Lidumil Lesikar family), only two small

children reached Cat Spring where they were raised by other families.

An account of the journey is told in a letter found in Czech records in 1987, believed

from MARIA passenger Vincenc Silar, written October 26, 1852. This letter is

reproduced in Appendix V.

Most of the surviving Czechs settled in the Cat Spring/New Bremen/New Ulm/

Industry area of Austin County. Instead of settling in a colony, they scattered among the

Germans, depending on where they were able to buy or rent land. Most of the Czechs

were fluent in the German language, which was to their advantage under the conditions

as found at that time.

A small group of Czechs from the Hradec Kralove area arrived in Galveston on May

25, 1851, on the ship “Herschel”. These included Vaclav Matejovsky, Franz Herrmann (7

persons) Joseph Slievensky, Catharine Schultz and George Pech. The Herrmann family

returned to Bohemia after a short stay in Texas. Matejovsky lived for a short while in

Bastrop, then married and settled northeast of La Grange, founding the town of Nechanitz

(named for his home in Bohemia).

Another early group of Czechs influenced by Rev. Ernst Bergman's letters migrated

to Texas in 1852. They sailed on the Brig WANDERER (Captain J. D. Halden) on

October 12, 1852, arriving in Galveston on December 1, 1852. The passenger list printed

in a Bremenhaven newspaper indicates 118 individuals, but other sources indicate 148

people. Occasionally poorer "steerage" passengers were not included on the published

lists. The passengers were mostly from Germany, but there were eleven families aboard

who were of Czech ancestry from the town of Mnichovo Hradiste (renamed

Munchengratz by the Hapsburg Austrians). Mrichovo Hradiste is located north of Prague

and adjacent to Zapudove, where the Rev. Bergman was born. It is assumed that this

group of immigrants decided to do so because of Bergman's letters, which were received

by family and friends and printed in several issues of the newspaper, "Moravske Noviny".

These Czech families numbering some 42 individuals were as follows (some names

Germanized):

Josef Kostka (6)

Michael Bubak (4)

Manuel Lammatsch (7)

Mathias Kuna (3)

Anton Stupl (6)

Dorothea Marek (1)

Theresia Wollman (1)

Anton Brodek (8)

Josef Stiebeler (1)

Michael & Anna Prokop (2)

Anton Medelenka (4)

It is believed that the Josef Kostka and Anton Medlenka families settled in

Houston. The Anton Stupl family first settled in Austin County. One of the children

became a well-known photographer in Industry, with descendants moving to Houston.

The Michael Bubak family first settled in Austin County, but later moved to Dallas.

Mathias Kuna first settled in Millheim in Austin County; descendants later moved to

Hempstead.

Another large group of Czechs who left for Texas about 23 months after the

first group was from Horni Cermna, Nepomuky, Dzbanov, Voderady and other small

villages near the towns of Lanskroun and Litomysl in Cechy. Many of this group were

relatives of the MARIA group, and had received word of the results of their journey.

Josef Lidumil Lesikar was the leader of this group. Mrs. Lesikar had finally consented to

leaving her homeland for the new foundations in a secular country. They were aware of

the fate of the MARIA group before they left, through the receipt of the letter mentioned

above from Vincenc Silar in Texas. This fact would later be related in a letter from Josef

Lidumil Lesikar in his later years (Appendix VI).

The group left their homes by railroad on about October 9, 1853, for Bremenhaven,

Germany, where on November 11, 1853, they boarded the German bark SUWA, bound

direct for Galveston. There were about 206 passengers, mostly Germans, on board the

SUWA. At least two Czech infants, Jan Janecek and Amalie Silar, were born on board

the SUWA at sea.

The towing of the bark SUWA into the docking area at Galveston apparently

occurred on December 23-24, 1853. The arrival of the SUWA at Galveston is recorded in

the Galveston newspapers for that week. The passengers disembarked the SUWA on

December 26, 1853.

After a few days rest in Galveston, the Czechs went by water on a schooner to

Houston, where they remained just long enough to purchase the necessary supplies and to

make the arrangements for the overland trip to the Cat Spring area in Austin County. As

was the case with the earlier group, most of the settlers proceeded on foot, with a few

individuals and the heavier possessions transported by ox-drawn wagon. This 60-mile

overland journey lasted about 14 days, and the group probably reached the Cat Spring

area about the middle of January 1854. Austin County deed records indicate that three of

the families of the SUWA group (Kroulik, Janecek and Cermak) pooled their interests and

paid $300 cash for an 80-acre farm a few miles west of Industry on January 19, 1854.

A copy of the official passengers list for the SUWA has been located in Germany.

The January 13, 1854, issue of the Neu Braunsfelser Zeitunq, a copy of which is in the

Texas State Archives in Austin, contained a list of the surnames of the families. A

translated copy is included as Appendix II. On this SUWA passenger roster, the first

name was given only when one or two people were of the same family name. In other

cases only the number of individuals of the same surname was given. The names of the

cities where the passports were issued were shown, rather than the names of the villages

from where the people originated. To complicate matters, all of the Czech names except

one (Janecek) were misspelled and/or Germanized. Fortunately, in July 1987, Frantisek

Silar of Horni Cermna, Czechoslovakia, developed a detailed list of the SUWA

passengers from Cechy, including additional data on the families and individuals obtained

from records on their passport applications. This partial list of the SUWA passengers is

attached as Appendix III. Czech surnames on the SUWA include Busek, Cermak, Coufal,

Janecek, Jarasch, Kroulik, Lesikar, Marek, Mares, Pavlicek, Pechacek, Rypl, Silar, Slezak

and Tauber. There were about 85 Czechs in the group. The Silars again comprised the

largest group. At that time the Lanskroun district in Cechy had over 200 individuals with

the surname Silar (Shiller).

This group of Czechs also dispersed out of the Cat Spring area to various parts of

Austin County, and apparently to other parts of Texas. Some of the people settled in

Colorado County, especially near Frelsburg.

Arriving in Galveston on January 23, 1854, on the bark “WESER” from Bremen

were 27 Czech families including:

Barta, E.

Baca, Joseph, wife and 2 children

Fiala, Johann

Kutej, Tomas, wife and child

Guttish (?), Johann, wife and son

Hajek, Johan and wife

Hajek, Joseph

Hrdlika, Joh. and wife

Holy, Jacob

Janecek, E.

Kaleb, Mathias and wife

Kollatschny, Gottleib and Jon.

Kunc, Thomas, wife and 3 children

Meussel, Gerog

Piwonka, M. and wife

Chalupka, Jacob, wife and child

Chalupka, MartinSunka, Franz, wife and child

Sunka, Franz, wife and child

Sunka, Vaclav and wife

Svoboda, Joh. and wife

Stanek, Franz and Joh.

Stock, Franz and Joh.

Wotipka, Joh. and wife

Wotipka, Joh., wife and child

Wunder (Munder?), L. and wife

Ziegelbauer, W. and wife

 

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