People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Czech Americans

About the Czech Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Czech-Americans and more.


Where They Came From: The Czechs are a Western Slavic people. Their homeland, the kingdom of Bohemia, was overrun by the Austrians in 1620 and later incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After 300 years' resistance, the Austrian-ruled Czechs and the Hungarian-ruled Slovaks coestablished Czechoslovakia in 1918.

Why They Left: Czech Protestants were forced to flee the aftermath of Catholic victory in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). The attempts of the Moravian Protestant Church to reestablish itself in overseas colonies encouraged Czech migration throughout the 18th century. In 1840, the potato crop failed and widespread famine forced a large exodus. Austrian political repression prompted an even greater wave of immigration in the two decades following the revolutionary tumult of 1848. More Czechs fled to the U.S. when the Germans overran their country.

Where They Settled: Czechs arrived in the U.S. when abundant farmland was still available, and they entered agriculture on a large scale. In the prairie states of the Mississippi Valley, and in Nebraska and Texas, they filed homestead claims and were among the first farmers to break and clear the land. The earliest important Czech settlements were founded around 1848 in Wisconsin. Czechs are still centered in the rural Midwest today. Large urban concentrations are located in Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Omaha, and also in New York City.

Numbers: The high point of Czech immigration was in 1907, when 13,554 entered the eastern ports. By 1910 the Czech population was 349,000, and by 1940 it was 1,764,000. The U.S. Bureau of the Census reported that nearly 800,000 foreign-born and second-generation Czechs were residing in the U.S. in 1970. Since this figure does not include Czechs who have been living in the U.S. for several generations, it is fair to assume that the actual number of Czech Americans is much higher.

Their Story in America: The first Czech to arrive in America was Augustine Herrman in 1633; he surveyed Virginia and Maryland and introduced tobacco culture to Virginia. His great-grandson, Richard Bassett, was a signer of the Constitution.

While the earliest settlers were well-to-do Protestant emigres, the bulk of Czech immigrants were 19th-century refugees from Austrian political oppression and rural poverty. For the Czech peasant families, the free, uncultivated land of the American prairies provided unlimited possibilities. In the cities, Czechs tended toward skilled labor, such as cigar and pearl-button manufacturing in New York. They generally formed independent and self-reliant communities, though they also gravitated toward heavily German areas, where they felt at home. Upon arrival, fully half of the Czech newcomers abandoned Catholicism, which they had been forced to accept in Europe, for the anticlerical freethinking movement.

Famous Czech Americans: Biochemists Carl and Gerty Cori, corecipients of the 1947 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine; composer Rudolf Friml; chess master Wilhelm Steinitz, who held the title of world champion from 1886 to 1894; business executive Joseph Bulova; actor Walter Slezak; and Chicago's Mayor Anton Cermak, who was murdered by an assassin's bullet intended for President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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