One of my earliest conscious thoughts as a child centered on the question of why I happened to be born in the United States. My birth occurred at a time when the world was still picking up the pieces of World War II. Europe, decimated by war, struggled to house thousands of displaced refugees. The Cold War had begun and half of the European continent lay behind the Iron Curtain. The United States, on the other hand, was experiencing one of the greatest economic booms of its history. Since its factories and infrastructure had escaped wartime damage, the United States began rebuilding Europe and other war torn regions. As America exported its goods, services and lifestyle to war ravaged countries, its own standard of living improved.
How was it that I, instead of being born among those attempting to survive the wounds of war, had been born in a spot seemingly isolated from the world's problems? Of all of the places on Earth, why had I been born in Kansas? The pondering of that question has led me to seek the answer through the study of my family history. Ignoring, for the moment, the randomness of birth and presuming that the cast of ancestors remained the same, I can see now that the choices made by my predecessors were instrumental in my placement on the planet. If, for example, my great grandparents, Francis Zvolanek1 and Joseph Dvorak,2 had not chosen to leave Bohemia and eventually homestead in Kansas, I could have been born among the refugees of World War II or quite possibly behind the Iron Curtain. I doubt that my great grandparents considered how significantly their choices would affect someone four generations into the future. Nevertheless, their decisions had an impact, not only on me, but on all their other descendants. For instance, my second cousin, a member of my generation, still farms land in southwest Kansas that encompasses the acreage homesteaded by Joseph Dvorak and Francis Zvolanek. Although my great grandparents may not have started their lives as farmers, their decision to homestead and dedicate their lives to the farm created a dynasty of Kansas farmers.
If my great grandparents could have seen the many subsequent lives affected by their decisions, they might have been paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of their choices and remained frozen in place. As it was, I doubt that they entered lightly into the decisions that changed their own lives so radically. Choosing to leave Bohemia, the land of their birth, no matter the conditions at the time, would have been difficult. Realizing that they probably would never see family and friends again would have complicated their decision. Voyaging across the Atlantic under less than ideal conditions to reach the shores of America, where they did not speak nor understand the language, would have been disconcerting. Living for ten years in crowded tenements in New York City performing menial repetitive tasks in the manufacture of cigars, would have been mind-numbing. Finally, investing everything they had and committing the rest of their lives to farming untested land halfway across the country, seems to me to be the ultimate leap of faith in the lives of two people who had already risked so much. Their story, as I see it, is about two individuals who seized opportunities when they arose, made decisions based on limited information and committed themselves to the lifestyles created by their choices. Exploring the influences of their ethnic and family group, reveals some of the reasons behind those choices that so greatly altered the course of their lives.
The Decision to Leave Bohemia
One story, often repeated among Joseph Dvorak's descendants, states that he emigrated in 18763 from his native Bohemia to avoid conscription into the Austrian army.4 A rumor among the same family suggests that Francis Zvolanek, left Bohemia in 18755 as a single woman with a young daughter.6 To date, neither of these stories has been totally corroborated by documentation. However, conditions within Bohemia at that time and the emigration patterns of the Czech people, shed credible light on the family stories and may provide reasons for the couple's emigration.
Francis Zvolanek and Joseph Dvorak were born in mid-nineteenth century Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. Both individuals came from towns in central Bohemia, within the vicinity of Prague. Sobin,7 now part of greater Prague, was the birthplace of Francis in 1853.8 In 1859,9 Joseph was born in Sedlcany,10 a town roughly forty miles south of Prague on the Slaba River. Both communities, because of their proximity to Prague, lay at the heart of Bohemian culture.11 However, Francis and Joseph were born into a country long subjugated by a monarchy bent on destruction of that culture. The Austrian Empire, with its capital in Vienna, and German as its official language, had controlled the Czech speaking Bohemians since 1527.12 Shortly before their births, the relationship between Bohemia and its autocratic ruler began to change.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, the Czechs witnessed a resurgence of Bohemian nationalism, characterized by a rebirth of their language, and a weakening of Austrian control. A revolt in 1848,13 one of many that swept Europe that year, failed to gain autonomy for the Czechs, but triggered the emigration tidal wave of which Francis and Joseph would be a part. Although individual reasons for leaving the homeland remained complex, changes in the country's laws, rulers, and economics created an atmosphere conducive to emigration.
At the time of the 1848 revolution, Franz Joseph of the ruling Hapsburg family became emperor of Austria. Bowing to growing unrest among his subjects, the new emperor began to loosen the fetters that had kept the people in check for centuries. One of the first acts of parliament under his rule freed the serfs in 1849.14 The abolishment of forced labor among the peasantry created a labor shortage, which in turn necessitated increased mechanization in farming. Soon, only large land holdings could provide the capital for investment in farm machinery. As larger farms flourished, many small farmers, unable to compete with mechanized farming, relinquished their land to work on large estates. By necessity, subsistence farmers with no more than five acres hired out family members to other farms or took up additional trades. The negative economic impact struck the least productive farms the hardest; forced many small farmers off their land; and prompted them to emigrate.15 Up until 1848, the government had tightly controlled emigration, primarily by threatening to confiscate the land of those who left the country without official permission. Despite the threat, following the failed 1848 revolt, Bohemian political dissidents began streaming out of the country to avoid government reprisals. The original political reasons for leaving soon gave way to the economic ones, as word from friends and relatives in America told of opportunities in a new land.
The government attempted to stem the tide of illegal emigration, but failed. Following war with Prussia in 1866,16 territorial losses diminished the power of the Austrian crown and resulted in the constitutional compromise of 1867,17 which recognized Hungary as a nearly equal ruling partner. The newly formed Austro-Hungarian Empire, still under singular Hapsburg rule, but with separate parliaments, liberalized the emigration laws when it adopted the new constitution.
For those, such as Francis and Joseph, fortunate enough to be born in time, the changing political climate offered an opportunity previous generations had not had, the chance to freely emigrate. Personal reasons for leaving now played against a backdrop of freedom to choose. For young Bohemian men, like Joseph Dvorak, the prospect of being drafted into the Austrian army, especially following its defeat to the Prussians, would have weighed heavily in their decision making. The 1867 law granted amnesty to those who had previously left the country to escape military conscription. However, Austrian officials still checked young men wishing to emigrate for prior military service.18 Because he was seventeen when he emigrated, it is doubtful that Joseph Dvorak had served in the military. Therefore, it is likely that his chief reason for leaving was to avoid military conscription. Although this family story may be true, it raises the question of how he managed to circumvent the government authorities, if he left the country legally.
The story of Francis Zvolanek's emigration is more complex and not as easily categorized. It was not unusual for Bohemian women to emigrate ahead of the men in their lives. However, the pattern usually involved several wives traveling together, leaving their husbands to continue working the land in the old country. Once the women had established a foothold in the new land, they sent for their husbands.19 Without knowing whether Francis was married or single when she emigrated, it is impossible to determine if she fit into this emigration pattern. Since sources indicate that her older sister, Mary Teresa, emigrated earlier,20 it is possible she helped Francis make the journey. Evidence of the sister's influence surfaces again later with the family's relocation within America. The identity of the daughter, who may have emigrated with Francis, remains a mystery, although supporting documentation indicates that she did exist.21
These stories, viewed in the context of their place and time, correlate to patterns of other Bohemian emigres. The specific reasons for Francis' and Joseph's departure from their homeland may never be known. Whatever the underlying cause, the fact remains that these two individuals lived at the right time to capitalize on the emigration opportunity. The freedom to choose existed. Along with thousands of their fellow countrymen, who had left or were planning to leave, they were part of a vast wave of migration. They were young and possibilities for their lives lay before them. Hoping to improve their lot, they took that leap of faith and left Bohemia for America.
New Choices in New York
When Francis Zvolanek and Joseph Dvorak arrived in 1870s New York, no Statue of Liberty greeted them. The federal depot at Ellis Island did not exist. Instead, new immigrants passed through Castle Garden, an inspection station established by the state of New York at Battery Park. Although used primarily to protect the uninitiated from swindlers and thieves, officials here also inspected new arrivals for disease; provided information about boarding houses and employment; and gave newcomers directions to destinations.22 However, it is difficult to imagine Francis Zvolanek or Joseph Dvorak making connections in a city teeming with immigrants without further help from someone familiar to them. For Francis, that someone might have been her sister, who by now had married fellow countryman, Joseph Tonar.23
Limited opportunities existed for new immigrants in New York City. Their lowly economic state, after probably spending all they had on their ship's passage, determined that they lived in the poorest and most densely populated sections of the city. Where they lived and where they worked were preordained by their immigrant status. Their unfamiliarity with English meant that they congregated in areas where people spoke their native tongue. Czech immigrants settled in the "Bohemian district."24 Because Czech speaking immigrants had limited employment opportunities among English speaking Americans, they entered the one occupation undertaken by nearly all of their fellow Bohemians, cigar making.
Cigar making among the Bohemian immigrants of New York had its roots in the old country. The Austrian government, which monopolized the industry in Bohemia and employed only women in the trade, operated a large cigar factory in the town of Sedlec. In the 1860s, several cigar makers from Sedlec emigrated to New York and subsequently wrote home about the good wages they earned. Soon others arrived to further transplant the industry to the lower east side of Manhattan. By 1869, employment of women in New York City cigar factories had increased primarily because of the influx of Bohemian cigar makers.25 By the time Francis Zvolanek and Joseph Dvorak arrived in New York, cigar making had become a tenement industry.
Little separated tenement life for the Bohemians from their work. Some cigar factories, situated within buildings where the workers lived, consisted of entire floors where many people worked together bunching, cutting and rolling tobacco into finished cigars. However, most of the so called cigar factories consisted primarily of families working together in their living quarters producing goods for their employer, who was also their landlord.
Men, women and children work together seven days in the week in these cheerless tenements to make a living for the family, from the break of day till far into the night. Often the wife is the original cigarmaker from the old home, the husband having adopted her trade here as a matter of necessity, because, knowing no word of English, he could get no other work.26
The pattern of the trained women arriving first created a team work approach within the cigar making process, where one person "bunched" the leaves and another rolled them. The men, who had remained behind until the women became settled, worked at other trades and as a result lacked skill in producing finished cigars. They began their apprenticeship in the factory as leaf bunchers.27
Although Joseph Dvorak and Francis Zvolanek probably did not know each other upon arriving in New York, they could have met in one of the larger cigar factories, where men and women worked side by side. Since the work was done entirely by hand, conversation would have been possible. Because of the long hours on the job, other time for socialization would have been limited. Where, specifically, the couple were residing and what they were doing for a living is not known until after their marriage and subsequent birth of their first son, Charles, in 1881.28 His birth certificate indicates that they were living on Second Street, which would have been in the heart of the Bohemian district. The certificate lists the occupation for Joseph Dvorak as cigar maker. Knowing the nature of an industry that employed every able bodied family member, Francis, more than likely, was also a cigar maker.
Among the Bohemians there is less prejudice against the work of married women than among most other nationalities. There is also the fact that cigarmaking is to some extent a home industry; and further, it is a skilled trade at which competent women can earn higher wages than they can in most other industries that are open to women.29
Perhaps the tedium of cigar making or the prospect of bearing another child30 in the tenements of New York drove Joseph and Francis Dvorak to make the next major leap in their lives. Whatever the reason, the decision was sudden and the move momentous. The couple, to whom New York had been their first home in America, where they met, married and had their first child, left the city for a homestead in Kansas.
Deciding To Homestead in Kansas
Several factors indicate that Joseph and Francis Dvorak did not consider homesteading when they first came to America. Their stay of ten years in New York belies the profile of immigrants in a rush to secure land. The Homestead Act of 1862 enticed thousands of Czechs to America after the Civil War.31 The act made one hundred sixty acres available to "any person who is head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such."32 Most immigrants wasted no time qualifying and laying claim to affordable land, a commodity long absent in Bohemia. Joseph Dvorak could have qualified as early as 1880, the year he married and turned twenty-one. However, he did not declare his intention to become a citizen until March 4, 1886,33 while still living in New York. One month later, on April 8, 1886,34 he filed his land claim in Larned, Kansas, for the quarter section adjoining the homestead of Joseph and Mary Teresa Zvolanek Tonar. The Tonars had emigrated from Bohemia ahead of the Dvoraks, in 1874,35 and married that same year in New York. Because of Teresa's health, according to family legend,36 they left New York in 188137 to a homestead twelve miles northeast of Spearville, Kansas. The relationship of the two sisters, Teresa and Francis, may hold the key to understanding the sudden and dramatic change in the Dvoraks' residence, occupation and lifestyle. The move from urban New York to raw, rural western Kansas may have been as significant a culture shock as the original immigration to America. The trust demonstrated by the Dvoraks in moving to the homestead land, sight unseen, underscores the influence that Teresa and Joseph Tonar had on the couple's decision making. That apparent influence lends credence to the account of the Dvoraks' arrival in Kansas. According to a family story, the Dvoraks traveled by train from New York, only to be greeted by a blizzard as they disembarked at the Kinsley, Kansas depot. At that point, Joseph Dvorak purportedly wanted to turn around and go back to New York.38 Obviously, others persuaded him to stay, because he successfully "proved up" on the land and received a patent deed for the "South East quarter of Section twelve in Township twenty four South of Range twenty two West of the Sixth Principal Meridian in Kansas" on December 15, 1892.39
Behind the life altering choices of Joseph and Francis Dvorak are two major factors, ethnicity and family. It is enlightening to view the patterns of change within their lives, while considering how family and ethnic ties influenced their decisions.
The Czech language, which symbolized the rebirth of Bohemian culture in the land of their birth, continued to be spoken by the Dvoraks and their children in America.40 In fact, Francis Dvorak spoke only Czech and never learned English.41 As a result, it was important for her to remain among those who spoke Czech after immigrating to this country. Her adherence to the native language may have determined her choice of residence, occupation and, to some degree, even a husband. In the Bohemian district of New York, surrounded by others from her country, language would not have been a barrier. However, socialization with Kansas farm families posed a problem. Francis' relationship to her sister and her Czech husband takes on greater significance considering that they may have been the only people, outside her immediate family, with whom she could communicate. Rural American farm life would have been doubly isolating for her without the ability to freely socialize with neighbors.
As with their language, the Dvoraks continued to practice the religion of their homeland. Unlike many other Czech immigrants, they remained true to their Catholic faith. Since the Thirty Years War, the Austrian crown had forced Catholicism onto the Bohemian people. The government used the state run churches and corrupt clergy to further subjugate the people.42 After escaping the tyranny of the homeland through emigration, many Bohemians cast off the last vestige of oppression by rejecting the Catholic faith. The opposite was true for the Dvoraks, whose adherence to their faith and support of the church in Kansas, indicates that they bore no deep seated resentment toward the political system they left behind.43
By becoming cigar makers in New York, the Dvoraks definitely marched in step with their ethnic group. When few options existed, the choice of this occupation over others would have been an easy one. With so many Bohemians employed in the industry, cigar making, though repetitive and tedious, afforded the Dvoraks the opportunity to mingle with individuals who shared the same language, customs and social status. In many ways, the cigar factories provided an ethnic buffer between the new immigrants and the greater American society.
When the Dvoraks did venture beyond the Bohemian neighborhoods of New York, they continued to follow the pattern of Czech immigrants. Like the Dvoraks, the Czechs tended to migrate to the central plains, where most took up farming. In many cases, large numbers of Czechs settled in one area and created communities populated predominately by their ethnic group. Town names, such as New Prague, Minnesota, Protovin, Iowa, and Pilsen, Kansas,44 reflected the ethnic origins. In other instances, as with the Dvoraks, the Czechs settled among German speaking immigrants,45 an ethnic group familiar to them from the old country. Since they had grown up with German as the government's official language, the Dvoraks probably had an understanding of the language and the customs of its people.
A key to the Dvoraks' success as farmers may also relate to their ethnicity. As a rule, Bohemian immigrants practiced "risk avoidance" as they began their lives as farmers.46 By avoiding debt, they were able to survive the economic pitfalls that caused other farmers to fail. This conservative approach to farm investment may have allowed the Dvoraks to hold on during one particularly difficult period to eventually "prove up" on their homestead. Although farming conditions had been favorable for their first few years on the prairie, drought struck Hodgeman County in 1890. Depression followed, banks failed and many settlers lost everything. Families pulled up stakes, moved eastward, and "only the hardiest stuck out the bitter years."47
Of course, the same ethnic proclivity to conservative farming affected the Dvoraks' neighbors and relatives, Joseph and Teresa Tonar. Within the couples' relationship, the influences of the ethnic group blend with those of the family. The Tonars were instrumental in helping the Dvoraks escape the cigar factory tenements and begin their lives as homesteaders. The Tonars probably "reserved" the Dvoraks' land until the couple arrived to file their claim.48 With demand for homesteads in Kansas running high at that time, an opportunity to acquire land required a quick response. The urgency surrounding the Dvoraks' decision to homestead is evidenced by the abrupt filing of the first naturalization papers; the move from New York; and the registering of the Kansas land claim, all within the span of one month. Without help from the Tonars, who were familiar with the territory and the homestead process, the Dvoraks might have missed the chance to secure land and may never have left New York.
The Tonars further aided the Dvoraks by providing them shelter in their home until the new arrivals could construct a dugout in a hillside.49 The closeness of the two families continued as they provided assistance to one another through the ordeals of homestead life. To insure their mutual survival, they more than likely shared the implements, the work and the fruits of their labor. As Teresa Tonar continued to suffer the effects of the tuberculosis that prompted the move to the plains, her sister, Francis, regularly walked across the families' adjoining fields to tend to her.50 After Teresa's death in 1898, Joseph Dvorak arranged the marriage of his niece, Mary Anna Volavka, to the widowed Joseph Tonar.51
The introduction of Mary Volavka, the daughter of Joseph Dvorak's sister, into the Tonar household, reveals how strongly family ties influenced individual lives. Mary's immigration story mimics that of the Dvoraks and lends credence to the theory that a family support system existed for the earlier immigrants. Mary Volavka arrived in New York in 1888 from Sedlcany, Bohemia. Working as a cigar maker, she was joined by her sister one year later. Both sisters worked at cigar making to pay the passage of their parents and siblings, who immigrated in 1890.52 Mary stayed in New York for over ten years, until asked to be the second wife of Joseph Tonar and stepmother to his children. Although they had never met, she agreed to move to his Kansas homestead, if he came to New York to get her.53
Mary's arrival in Kansas effectively reinforced both family and ethnic ties between the Tonar and Dvorak clans. Not only was she a blood relative to Joseph Dvorak and stepmother to Francis Dvorak's niece and nephews, she was also a recent Bohemian immigrant. Like Francis Dvorak, she spoke only Czech.54 As a result, the two women relied on their husbands and their American born children to communicate with neighbors.55 Whether planned or not, the language barrier and dependency on family for socialization, created an ethnic enclave of the Dvorak and Tonar farms. Without others of their nationality around them, the two families became their own isolated ethnic group. Lacking reinforcement from a larger Bohemian community, folk ways became family ways.
Through subsequent generations, the lines between ethnicity and family have blurred. To what extent either ethnicity or family alone influenced the choices Joseph and Francis Dvorak made, remains inconclusive. Without the individuals to speak for themselves, it is impossible to determine what compelled them, deep down, to repeatedly make such life altering decisions. Whatever the personal reasons, their choices were not made within a vacuum. As Francis and Joseph demonstrated in the changing patterns of their lives, their decision making could not escape the sphere of influence created by their ethnic and family origins. Just as their descendants cannot ignore the legacy their choices created.