A Brief History of the Croatians in America

Upon their arrival in southern Europe in the beginning of the seventh century Croatians settled on the coast of the most beautiful Adriatic Sea where through time they intermarried with the native Roman-Illyrian inhabitants. This is where the Croatian ties to the sea were established, and probably even at times given a destiny. They were known as excellent seafarers, and for a while, especially during the time of the first Croatian King, Tomislav in the tenth century, they ruled the Mediterranean with their navy. In later centuries the independent Republic of Dubrovnik continued this seafaring tradition and traded with the whole known world. The majority of historians claim that some Croatian seafarers were part of the famous Christopher Columbus expedition which resulted in the discovery of the New World in 1492, the American continent, which at that time was erroneously thought to be the western shore of India. Others, such as L. Adamic, hold that the seafarers from Dubrovnik came to the shores of America even before Columbus! At any rate, it is a historical fact that with their own ships, the people from Dubrovnik traded with America in the first decades and centuries after the discovery of that continent. Of extreme interest is the mention of the Croatian name as far back as the sixteenth century. One native tribe was called the Croatan; the children had unusually “pretty light brown hair”, and they used certain words in their own language that sounded much like Croatian words. They lived in North Carolina, on the Island called Roanoke and in its proximity. When Governor White returned to that settlement to see the English immigrants in 1590, no one was there. All that was left behind as proof of their existence was the word CROATOAN carved on an oak tree. Unfortunately, it seems that this long ago remnant of Croatian mention on an oak tree remains a mysterious secret, bordering between historical truth and legend, as no one will ever be able to confirm that fact.

The similarity of the names Croatan or Croatoan to the Latin form of the Croatian name is very apparent and gives credibility to speak of the existence of “Croatian Indians” in the long ago sixteenth century.

However, in these first centuries, Croatian colonies were very few and only a small number of Croatians continued their new lives in America. Seafarers outnumbered the ones deciding to stay and settle down in that new lavish country. At that time, there were more Croatians living on the west coast, California. In then nineteenth century, when hard times hit Croatians in their own land both politically and more so economically, the news of this lavish country began to spread, as did the increase of Croatian immigration. At that time, the majority came from the Dalmatian coast and its islands, but also from Lika, Slavonia and other Croatian territories. The number of Croatians from Bosnia and Herzegovina was minimal because they had difficulty escaping the Turkish rule, and most probably news of the outside world had little chance of getting to them. Only after the Austro-Hungarian occupation of 1878, did their numbers grow. However, the largest number of Croatians, as well as other nationalities, started coming to America in the last decades of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century. At that time, America was becoming the strongest industrialized nation in the world. She extended the opportunity of good wages, and most importantly, she allowed newcomers the freedom of national and religious expression. According to some statistics (Emily Balch), up to the year 1910, around 400,000 Croatians had immigrated into America! However, it is very hard to give an exact number since when Croatians were coming into the immigration ports, they were erroneously classified under the immigrant columns as “Croatians and Slovenians” while others were classified as “Dalmatians, Bosnians or Herzegovinians”. Therefore, in the latter classification, it was by regions and not by nationality. However, large portions, classified both in the first and in the second instance, were of Croatian ancestry. At this point it is important to mention that many of them returned to the old country. According to some statistics every third Croatian up to 1914 returned back home.

Economic conditions at that time in Croatia were very difficult. Poor soil rendered very little: for every living person there existed enough sun and nothing more.

The political situation became especially difficult upon the implementation of absolutism during the 1850’s. Croatians lost many of their historical rights because of the formation of the dual Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1867. They were torn into three sides: followers of Austria, followers of Hungary and followers of the independent political leadership of Starčević and Kvaternik. None concerned themselves with the Croatian peasants. The government decision to decrease the number of seafaring ships in the 1870’s, causing the seafarers to lose their jobs, was one of the main reasons for the mass exodus. Around 200,000 people were left without earnings after the onset of the vine disease phylloxera in their vineyards. The abolition of the Vojna Krajina (military frontier) took away the livelihood of many who had no other way of making a living. The construction of the railroad between Karlovac and Rijeka took away the livelihood of many kirijaši who used to transport merchandise from Karlovac to the Dalmatian seaports as their main source of income. Prior to the construction of the railroad between Karlovac and Rijeka, they had to transport goods to the seaport of Rijeka by horse. A large number of these deprived individuals, inspired by sensational stories of the riches in America, made a decision to depart from their homeland and take the “road to nowhere.” The majority discovered, too late, that most of the stories about rich America were blown out of proportion. At the same time their lands were being populated by German and Hungarian settlers! There is nothing worse than being under foreign rule!

New Croatian settlers in America tried to organize themselves under new conditions. They helped one another with problems that arose such as job related injuries, death, little or no knowledge of the English language, and their rights as citizens. Various support groups were established in order to take care of funeral arrangements for their members and to help their families. Interestingly in the beginning some Croatian colonies owned their own graveyards as a possible illusionary link to the old homeland. Main gatherings took place in Croatian owned saloons. Also they often lived together in houses and shared bedrooms. The main problem was marriage because there were very few Croatian women there at the time. For this reason many boarded ships and journeyed for over a month to go back home and find themselves a wife to bring back to America. A large number married women of different nationalities. In California they often married Mexican women, and in other states they married Irish or Polish women. If they were not able to find a Croatian woman, they had to find a Catholic one.

Most Croatians lived a hard life. Basically they were illiterate and did not speak the English language, and so they had to take on the most backbreaking jobs such as coal mining and the construction of railroads, other roads and tunnels. Others worked as longshoremen. In the south and west, namely the Mississippi delta and California, they were fishermen and raised shellfish, while others cultivated various fruits and had their own vineyards. The Gold Rush enabled some to do very well in precious metal mines, and some became quite rich as a result. Others had tough lives, dying very young; few lived past forty years of age. The two characteristics they had in common were being hardworking and ambitious. There were very few that did not succeed. However, the fruits of their labor were not going to be enjoyed by them but by their children and grandchildren.

As staunch Catholics they longed to have more Croatian churches and more Croatian priests available to take care of their many needs. They wanted to experience spiritual guidance as those had in their homeland. However, up until the very end of the nineteenth century, there were no Croatian priests available in this new land. For that reason, many attended other churches but were not totally satisfied because it was not what they had wanted. Therefore, a lot of them left the church altogether. The first Croatian priest that worked in America was Rev. Dobroslav Bozic, born in Kraljeva Sutjeska in Bosnia. He came to America in 1894, being prevailed upon by Bishop Strossmayer, and soon thereafter established the first Croatian parish in Allegheny, Pa. (now Pittsburgh) where a large Croatian colony already existed. Even though he was not the first active Croatian priest, he was the first to work with the Croatians. There were others who came before him who worked with the native Americans or other peoples, mainly with German immigrants.

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