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Czech-Moravian Heritage in Texas

in Current Issue/Views

By Clinton Machann

Before retiring as a professor of English at Texas A&M University in 2017, my principal academic interest was in the field of nineteenth-century British literature and culture, but my interest in the history of Czech – primarily Moravian – immigration to Texas and the Czech-Moravian community there is longstanding. It goes back to the days of my professional training in English literary studies. In fact, I had just completed my PhD in English at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1970s when I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to visit what was then Communist Czechoslovakia. Although unimpressed with Communist ideology and institutions in my journeys to the “old country” in 1976 and 1977, I did become fascinated by the possibility of studying the origins of the Czech-Moravian heritage of Texas, and I organized a symposium that was held in Temple, Texas in 1976. Temple is, among other things, the home of the Texas Czech fraternal organization SPJST (Slovanská podporující jednota státu Texas). Included in the symposium papers that were collected and published in 1979 was Robert Janak’s groundbreaking “Tombstone Inscriptions as a Source of Geographic Origins,” (1) which led to his own expanded work on that topic and which serves as one of the sources for Eva Eckert’s Stones on the Prairie: Acculturation in America (2). Also included were other essays which are related to the study of Czech-Moravian heritage in Texas: Rev. Alois J. Morkovsky, “The Church and the Czechs in Texas,” and Richard Michalek, “The Ambivalence of Ethnoreligion.” Another symposium relevant to the preservation of Czech-Moravian culture in Texas was entitled “Czech Music in Texas: A Sesquicentennial Symposium” (1986) and once again there was a published collection of papers, including one by Josef Škvorecký (3).

 

By Miroslav Konvalina, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Among my other publications in the field of Texas Czech studies, which necessarily implies a heavy emphasis on Moravian heritage, were two books co-authored with James Mendl: Krásná Amerika: A Study of the Texas Czechs, 1851-1939 (1983) and Czech Voices: Stories from Texas in the Amerikán Národní Kalendář (1991) (4). Later came Perilous Voyages: Czech and English Immigrants to Texas in the 1870s, with Lawrence H. Konecny, in 2004 (5). I also want to mention a 1999 book I edited: Czech-Americans in Transition (6), which included, among other important essays, one on Moravian folk songs preserved in Texas by Joseph Roštinský, one on “documenting Czech immigrant arrivals” by Texas Czech historian Leo Bača, an “ethnolinguistic study” of the Czech language in Texas by Ludmila Dutková, and a study of the Czech Heritage Society and “bridges to the Czech Republic” by Robert Janak.

 


Although unimpressed with Communist ideology and institutions in my journeys to the “old country” in 1976 and 1977, I did become fascinated by the possibility of studying the origins of the Czech-Moravian heritage of Texas.


After I became editor of the journal Kosmas in 2000, we published several articles which focus on aspects of Czech-Moravian heritage in Texas. In this essay I will survey some of those articles and discuss significant interrelationships between language, religion, and other cultural markers related to ethnicity in this body of work.

I will begin with a sketch of the historical circumstances that led to the Czech-Moravian immigration. In 1849 the Rev. Josef Ernst Bergmann, an Evangelical pastor bilingual in Czech and German, who in his Silesian home was very much aware of Hussite traditions but also appreciated German religious and intellectual culture, decided to bring his family to Texas.  He settled in the little German community of Cat Spring in Austin County, where he served as pastor and teacher, and wrote letters to his Czech friends in Europe, describing his Central Texas home. His letters were circulated among groups interested in emigration in the towns and villages of northeastern Bohemia and across the border in Moravia, and one was printed in the newspaper Moravské noviny. A new English translation of that letter appears in the Fall 2006 issue of Kosmas. In that same issue, David Chroust challenges the description of Bergmann as the “Father of the Czech-Speaking Immigration in Texas” that had become popular among Texas Czechs over the years, pointing to his relative indifference to Czech nationalism and the fact that he did not actively promote immigration to the State in his correspondence. (7) Nevertheless, Bergmann’s letters provided essential information to potential immigrants, and one of them, Josef L. Lešikar, organized a group in the area around Nepomuky and Čermna in northeastern Bohemia. This first group of Czech immigrants, under the leadership of Josef Šilar, set out in late 1851 on a circuitous route that took them from the German port of Hamburg to Liverpool, New Orleans, and finally, Galveston. By the time they reached Cat Spring, Texas, in the spring of 1852, about half of the original party of 70 had died of illness along the way.  The second group, under the leadership of Lešikar himself, fared much better. They sailed directly from the German port of Bremen to Galveston, landing a few days before Christmas in 1853. This direct Bremen to Galveston route was preferred by most subsequent groups, which, from the mid-1850s on, were dominated by Moravians rather than Bohemians.


This first group of Czech immigrants, under the leadership of Josef Šilar, set out in late 1851 on a circuitous route that took them from the German port of Hamburg to Liverpool, New Orleans, and finally, Galveston. By the time they reached Cat Spring, Texas, in the spring of 1852, about half of the original party of 70 had died of illness along the way.


 

By Jeannette Piecznski, used with permission, source.

Although the number of foreign-born Czechs in Texas stood at only about 700 at the beginning of the American Civil War, when immigration came to a virtual halt, it began to accelerate rapidly in the decades after the end of that war, and by 1910, U.S. census figures indicate that there were over 15,000 foreign-born Czechs living in Texas, along with about 41,000 “foreign white stock” for whom Czech was the principal language in the home. By 1920, the number of “foreign white stock” speaking Czech had grown to nearly 50,000, though Czech immigration had declined sharply with the beginning of World War I and would never again reach the levels attained prior to the war. (8) All the evidence points to a large majority of Moravians among the Czechs immigrating during the peak years, including a study of tombstone inscriptions by Robert Janak that suggests about eighty percent of the immigrants came from eastern and northeastern Moravia, from Lachia and Wallachia. (9) Frequently mentioned points of origin are the towns of Frenštát, Vsetín, Zádveřice.  It is not surprising that researchers have found the vernacular Czech spoken in Texas up until recent times to be strongly influenced by dialects spoken in these regions of Moravia during the nineteenth century. (10) Apart from language, an important cultural feature of the Texas Czechs is the relative prominence of religion – both in terms of a strong Moravian Catholic tradition and the unique revival of the Protestant denomination Jednota Bratrská (Unity of the Brethren). And, conversely, the legacy of nineteenth-century Czech Freethinkers is much less prominent than it is in many Czech-American communities in the Midwestern United States, for example. (11)

 

One of the most intriguing acknowledgments of the distinctive Moravian identity of the Texans is found in a 1924 essay published  by the Midwestern Czech-American (Bohemian) journalist Ludvík W. Dongres in the kalendář or yearbook issued by the Chicago-based, Czech-language newspaper Amerikán(12) Dongres had visited Texas for the first time in 1893 as a reporter for the Czech-language newspaper Hospodář (published in Omaha, Nebraska until 1961, when it moved to West, Texas, where it was published until recently, and edited by Jan Vaculík, of Moravian origin). As Dongres rode his horse in a rural area that he had been told was populated by Texas Czechs, he was amazed to meet many people who spoke fluently in Moravian dialects. Dongres noted that some young Texas Czechs were losing the ability to speak their native tongue, but he nevertheless concludes his essay with this prediction:

Years from now, in Bohemia, when they teach children the ethnographic divisions of the Czechoslovak nation, they will say: “The Bohemians live in Bohemia, the Moravians in Moravia, the Slovaks in Slovakia. In North America there once lived American Czechs, after which came the Czech Americans. In Texas lived the Texas Moravians, who were the last to become extinct.” (Czech Voices, 133)

By Promex GmbH, used with permission.

It remains to be seen whether the Texas Moravians are the last to become extinct. In terms of language, the descriptive word “death” is sometimes used in linguistic scholarship. The Spring 2001 issue of Kosmas included complementary studies by C. S. “Woody” Smith and Lida Dutková-Cope offering a scholarly look at the Czech language as it was still spoken in Texas. (13) In fact the title of Smith’s paper is “Texas Czech: A Study in Language Death.” Cope’s title, on the other hand, refers to efforts to maintain the language through various educational programs: “The Future of Czech in Texas: How can You Learn Something If It’s Not Offered to You.” Though neither author is optimistic about the survival of “Texas Czech” far into the future, it is clear that the Czech language will continue to have symbolic importance among Texans who claim Czech ethnicity, and Cope refers specifically to programs designed to stimulate language studies. I would like to refer to two examples from my own experience. At Texas A&M University since the fall of 1999 we have had the CEFT (Czech Educational Foundation of Texas) Hlavinka Fellowship. Since that time I have been in contact with officials from Palacký University in Olomouc and Masaryk University in Brno, who nominate CEFT Fellows and, usually, these Fellows from the two Moravian universities have alternated in two-year terms. The numerous duties of the CEFT Fellow have included teaching weekly Czech language courses open to the public, speaking on Czech history and culture and acting as a consultant to various regional clubs and organizations (The Czech Heritage Society of Texas, The Caldwell Kolache Festival Committee, local churches, etc.), organizing Czech-related exhibits for local schools, and translating documents from Czech to English. In recent years we have coordinated arrangements for the Czech classes with the Brazos Valley Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society.

About ten years ago, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, John Tomecek, carried out an ambitious project to interview Czech speakers in Texas and coordinate his data with other collections, in a study of Czech-Moravian dialects as they have been spoken. Tomecek followed in the tradition of researchers such as James Mendl (who wrote a Master’s thesis on Moravian dialects in Texas many years ago), as well as Smith, Cope, Eckert, and others. Let me offer this quotation from Cope’s 2001 Kosmas article that summarizes information about the Moravian dialects in Texas:

Most of the first Moravian settlers to Texas originated in the remote regions of Northeastern Moravia. The Moravian basis of Texas Czech, then, specifically the Lachian (Lašský) dialect of the Silesian subgroup, the Valachian (Valašský) dialect of the East Moravian subgroup, and, less so, the Hanak (Hanácký) dialect of the Central Moravian subgroup, makes it distinct from immigrant varieties of Czech in the US. (80)

Because Czech music is so popular in Texas (I have found through the years that it is the most prominent marker of Czech ethnic identity here), some have suggested that it is ironic that this strong musical tradition is not based primarily on the traditional Slavic folk music of northeastern Moravia but rather on the popular music of nineteenth and early twentieth century Bohemia: the polkas and waltzes associated with popular dechovka ensembles and lidovka song lyrics rather than “authentic” (lidový) folk music. Nevertheless, John K. Novak is the scholar who has studied the music of Texas Czechs most extensively, and his Kosmas article “The Czech Song in Texas: Style and Text” (Spring 2004) (14) is a valuable source for anyone who wants to understand the “upbeat moods of the polkas and the lyrical qualities of the waltzes [that] have made these songs truly enduring in Texas, in other states of the United States, and in the Czech Republic” (55). There is in fact a continuing awareness of Moravian folk music traditions, and there is a Moravian connection in a CEFT program that began in 2007: the Kostohryz Residency in Czech Music and Culture at the University of North Texas in Denton. The UNT College of Music is one of the nation’s largest and most respected comprehensive schools of music. Its programs have the highest national rankings of any academic music establishment in Texas. Thomas Sovik, a Professor of Music at UNT, with a particular interest in Czech composers and musical traditions, began to coordinate a cultural exchange program between the UNT College of Music in Denton and the Janáček Academy of Music and the Performing Arts in Brno, Czech Republic. The CEFT Residency has expanded Czech-related exchanges, with an emphasis on the Moravian connection, and is designed to 1) bring distinguished Czech musicians, composers, artists and educators to UNT for teaching, performing, conducting research in Czech music and culture, and for purposes of outreach throughout the State of Texas, particularly to Texas-Czech centers of population; 2) stage colloquia and festivals of Czech music and culture; and 3) mount the production of Czech operas, emphasizing usage of the Czech language. The program is not restricted to operas and classical music. Sovik also has an interest in folk music traditions, and he brought the Petr Mička cimbalom orchestra from eastern Moravia on a tour of Texas in October 2007. The group featured two violins, a viola, bass, clarinet, and of course the traditional hammer dulcimer. Since then, there has been a series of tours and opera productions, and in 2017 the dechovka band Stříbrňanka came for a visit.


By 1920, the number of “foreign white stock” speaking Czech had grown to nearly 50,000, though Czech immigration had declined sharply with the beginning of World War I and would never again reach the levels attained prior to the war.


By Kytka Hilmar-Jezek, TresBohemes.com, used with permission.

One of the most powerful analyses of Czech-Moravian ethnicity in Texas is the Spring 2003 essay by Kevin Hannan entitled “Reflections on Assimilation and Language Death in Czech-Moravian Texas.” (15) Hannan is aware of the relevant scholarship by Janak, Smith, Eckert,  Cope, and others but obviously it is his own personal experience growing up in Texas in the 1950s and 60s, with an emphasis on the group of his relatives living in farming communities near Taylor, Texas, that motivates this study. He generalizes that “Because of the isolation of the rural settlements and the cohesiveness of their community, the Texas Czech-Moravians were able to preserve their culture, language, and ethnic consciousness decades after Czechs in other states had assimilated as Americans” (112). Nevertheless, assimilation has now triumphed, and Hannan emphasizes his opinion that “it is now possible, after more than a century-and-a-half of endurance to consider Czech in Texas as a dead language” (110). Once again we get the emphasis on language death, and Hannan’s pessimism is reinforced by his judgment that efforts to preserve or revive the ethnic consciousness of Czech-Moravians in Texas are artificial and ineffective: “the loss of ethnic consciousness led recent generations within that community to ‘imagine’ an ethnic identity that did not truly reflect the ethnic identity of immigrant ancestors” (110). Hannan’s emphasis on loss, however, does not make his personal anecdotes cynical or painful; he maintains a respect and an affection for the old days that helps the reader appreciate his efforts to preserve his memories about this family with complex Silesian roots that included Polish as well as Czech-Moravian elements. Adopting the term Texas Czech Vernacular (TCV) from Eckert to refer to the variety of Czech spoken in recent decades (considered substandard by Czechs in Europe), he finds that around the year 2002 “some definite change had taken place in the linguistic attitudes” of elderly contacts who had previously conversed with him in TCV, and they no longer were willing to do so.

It is appropriate that Hannan made use of Eckert’s important work on the Czech language and ethnicity in Texas, and earlier I referred to her book Stones on the Prairie. I would like to point out an important study of Czech journalism in Texas which she published in the Fall 2002 issue of Kosmas: “The Years of Svoboda in the Texas Czech Community, 1880s-WWI.” (16) Svoboda is the name of a very significant Czech-language newspaper that was founded by Augustin Haidušek in La Grange, Texas, in 1885. In her article Eckert analyzes evidence of assimilation and acculturation in the contents of Svoboda through the years. Hannan does not confine himself to language, however, and describes both the Catholic and Brethren heritage of his family, though the emphasis is on the Catholic Church, of which he was a member, and he makes affectionate references to the popular Catholic Bishop Morkovsky, whose origins were in fact in northeastern Moravia. He also makes references to the popular Texas Czech music studied by Novak.


Though neither author is optimistic about the survival of “Texas Czech” far into the future, it is clear that the Czech language will continue to have symbolic importance among Texans who claim Czech ethnicity, and Cope refers specifically to programs designed to stimulate language studies.


Finally, returning to the topic of religion, I will refer to a 2006 article from Kosmas: “Religious Pluralism among Czech Immigrants to Texas: Critiquing the Narrative of American Catholic History,” by Sharon Perkins. (17) Her concern is with “religious pluralism” among Czech immigrants to the state of Texas during the period 1850-1920. She looks at relationships between groups of Catholic and Protestant Czech immigrants and the emergence of new religious institutions. As one with first-hand experience of this phenomenon in Texas, I had a special interest in reading her article.

I hope that this brief survey of “Czech-Moravian” connections to Texas related to my own academic and personal experiences and readings through the years will assist others who would like to follow up on this topic.


Courtesy of Clinton Machann

Clinton Machann
Emeritus Professor of English
Texas A&M University

 

 

 

 

 

 


Clinton Machann, ed., The Czechs in Texas: A Symposium (College Station: Texas A&M University, College of Liberal Arts, 1979), 70-74.

Eva Eckert, Stones on the Prairie: Acculturation in America (Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2007).

Clinton Machann, ed., Czech Music in Texas: A Sesquicentennial Symposium (College Station: Komenský Press, 1987), 159-69.

Clinton Machann and James Mendl, Krásná Amerika: A Study of the Texas Czechs, 1851-1939 (Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1983);  Czech Voices: Stories from Texas in the “Amerikan národní kalendář(College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991).

Lawrence H. Konecky and Clinton Machann, Perilous Voyages: Czech and English Immigrants to Texas in the 1870s (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994).

Clinton Machann, ed., Czech-Americans in Transition (Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1999).

Jozef Ernst Bergmann, “Extracts from a Friendly Letter from America,” trans. Gabriela Sochnová, Kosmas 20.1 (2006), 65-76; David Z. Chroust, “Jozef Ernst Bergmann, ‘Father’ of the Czech-Speaking Immigration to Texas?,” Kosmas 20.1 (2006), 48-64.

8 A summary of U.S. census dates related to the population of Texas Czechs through the years is given in Machann and Mendl, Krásná Amerika, 41.

Robert Janak, Czech Inscriptions on Texas Tombstones (Beaumont, TX, 1997).

10 See Hannan’s 2003 article in Kosmas, cited in note xv below, and “Ethnic Identity among the Czechs and Moravians of Texas,” Journal of American Ethnic History 15.4 (1996): 3-31; C. S. Smith, “Texas Czech: A Study in Language Death,” Kosmas 14.2 (2001): 65-79; Lida Dutkova-Cope, “Texas Czech: An Ethnolinguistic Study,” in Clinton Machann, ed., Czech Americans in Transition, 76-96, “Texas Czech of Texas Czechs: An Ethnolinguistic Perspective on Language Use in a Dying Language Community,” Brown Slavic Contributions 11 (1999): 2-10, “The Language of Czech Moravians in Texas: Do You Know What ‘Párknu káru u hauza’ Means?,” Southwest Journal of Linguistics 20.2 (2001): 51-84, “Texas Czech: The Language of Texans Who Say They Speak ‘A Different Kind of Czech,’” Southwest Journal of Linguistics 20.1 (2001): 29-69, and “The Future of Czech in Texas: How Can You Learn Something If It’s Not Offered to You?,” Kosmas 14.2 (2001): 80-104; Eva Eckert, “Language Variation in an Ethnic Community,” Brown Slavic Contributions 11 (1999): 11-37, and “The Years of Svoboda in the Texas Czech Community, 1880s-WWI,” Kosmas 16.1 (2002): 63-78; Sean N. Gallup, Journeys into Czech-Moravian Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998); Joseph N. Roštinský, “The Moravian Folk Song: The Best Means of Preserving Czech Culture in Texas,” in Clinton Machann, ed., Czech Americans in Transition, 44-49. It should be noted that Kosmas, an English-language, academic, peer-reviewed journal that focuses on Czech, Slovak, and Central European studies, was published at Texas A&M University during the period 2000-2012.

11 See Machann and Mendl (1983), 105-32.

12 An English translation of Dongres’s essay is included in Machann and Mendl, Czech Voices, 113-33.

13 Kosmas 14.2 (2001): 65-79; 80-104.

14 Kosmas 17.2 (2004): 43-57.

15 Kosmas (2003): 110-32.

16 See note x above.

17 Kosmas 19.2 (2006): 67-82.

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