Part II: Lithuanian Immigration to the United States

Lithuanian Immigration from Colonial Times to the Late Nineteenth Century

It is only recently that serious research has been carried on concerning Lithuanian immigration to the United States, particularly in regard to the colonial period. Nevertheless, it appears likely that almost from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 there were Lithuanians settling in the new world. With the election of Captain John Smith to head the colony, Jamestown’s wavering position began to stabilize, and in 1608 artisans were invited to settle there to produce such commodities as tar, pitch, and glass. These newcomers were called Poles and Dutchmen by Smith,[1] but the term Pole, Polonian or Polander historically has been used loosely.

Ties between Lithuania and Poland led to a general classification of the inhabitants of the Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Polish areas as Poles. Smith himself testified to this situation when he stated that, “Muscovia and Polonia doe Yearely receaue many thousands, for pitch, tarre, sope ashes, Rosin, Flax, Cordage, Sturgeon, masts, yards, wainscot, Firres, glasse, and such like….”[2] He is referring to trade products, but made no reference to Lithuania, which occupied a large area between Russia and Poland, and was rich in many of these resources. The tendency to include Lithuania under the title of Poland can be found also in another contemporary report about trade by Sir George Peckham.[3]

On Sunday
On Sunday

This situation was further complicated by the gradual process of the Lithuanian nobility speaking Polish and losing their linguistic identity with the peasants. This tendency of the nobility to identify with their class rather than with those below them is perhaps best captured by Czeslaw Milosz in Native Realm. In this work he asks himself who he really is, since he has the blood of the Russian, Jew, German, Pole, and Lithuanian running through his veins. His attitude towards the nobility of Poland is then seen when he states, “Our Grand Duchy of Lithuania was ‘better’ and Poland was ‘worse,’ for what would she might have accomplished without our kings, poets, and politicians?” This was the cult of separatism practiced by his family, according to Milosz,[4] and it was to manifest itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The intricacy of the situation is seen by the stance assumed by two sets of brothers. In the Pilsudski family, Joseph became a leader in Poland while his brother Bronislas had been a member of the Lithuanian Council in Switzerland, which worked for the independence of Lithuania. The Narutowicz family produced the first president of Poland, Gabriel, while his brother Stanislas was one of the signers of the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence.

Thus, it is necessary to look at each individual very closely in order to determine his national leanings. In some cases there is no doubt as to the rationality, while in others clear evidence is still lacking. An example of the latter is Stanislaw Sadowski, who is listed among the first Poles to come to this country. He is listed as coming from Random, in October, 1608, which may be true.[5] However, in 1594, Stanislaw Sadowski, a Calvinist writer who authored an anti-Jesuit monograph entitled Idolatriae Jesuitorum Vilnensium Oppugnatio,[6] is found residing in Vilnius. Sadowski was probably forced to leave Vilnius because of his writing, since the Counter-Reformation was in progress there. From Vilnius he more than likely immigrated to America via Random.

In addition to the religious controversies, there was also a series of wars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which caused a good deal of unrest in Lithuania. As a result, Lithuanians left and a number found their way to America. In many cases it is likely that they remained in Western Europe for awhile before leaving for the new world, and in these instances their point of departure has been used to identify their country of origin. Nevertheless, a cursory genealogical search of seventeenth and eighteenth century sources reveals a number of definite or possible Lithuanian names. In Henry Whittmore’s Genealogical Guide to the Early Settlers of America, we can find such names as Curtenius and Curtis (Curtice, Curtise or Curtize). The number of words beginning with ‘kur’ are numerous in the Lithuanian language, and ‘kurtis’ is a verb meaning to establish oneself, to settle, or to arise. Also found are Jecockes, Kiskeys, Luckis, Ludecas, Lunerus (who is listed as “A German or Polish doctor in Boston….”), Penticus, Pickes, and Pretious.[7] Besides these Jenckes,[8] Dilkes,[9] Oblinus,[10] Broukes,[11] and Malines,[12] also appear.

Around the end of the seventeenth century a small Lithuanian colony appeared in Germantown, Pennsylvania. In a genealogical study of the Yerkes family, the following is found:

“The place of nativity of Anthony Yerkes remains a matter of conjecture. It has been assumed by others that he was a German, but the writer has found no evidence to establish such an assumption. It is possible, however, that he came to Pennsylvania from Germany, and was a resident of the latter country at the time of his emigration.”[13]

It is the author’s opinion, Josiah Granville Leach, that an Anthony Yerkes came to Pennsylvania about 1700 or perhaps a few years later and that he found there “some old acquaintances and possibly some kinsfolk.” One of these was sheriff of Germantown in 1692, David Scherkes. In the Lithuanian cemetery in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, there is a tombstone with the name of Sherkness inscribed on it. This is, of course, very similar to Anthony Yerkes’ friend’s name, Scherkes.

It is assumed by Leach that the following are variations of the Yerkes name in Pennsylvania: Gerkes, Gerches, Jerghes, Jerghjes, Yercas, Yerkhas, Yerkas, Yerkiss, and Yerkus; in New York the variations are Jurcx, Jurckes, Jurcksen, Yerks, and Yercks.[14]

Additional evidence of the Lithuanian settlement in Germantown can be found in a list of immigrants in Pennsylvania. In Germantown, for the 1683 to 1710 period, these names are found: Peter Keurlis, Paul and Johannes Klumges, Johannes Gorgas, Andreas Solpis, David Scherges, Peter Kenlis, Anthoni Jerghjes, Johannes Kelpius, and Mattheis Nezelius.[15] One final individual who was to settle in Germantown and there obtain a place of prominence was Jacob Pastorius. He was born in Sommerhausen, Germany, in 1651, and his family had likely fled to Germany as a result of the Counter-Reformation. In 1683 he arrived in Philadelphia and later moved to Germantown. He spoke several languages, held a prominent position within the community, and wrote the first original school book printed in the state.[16] Pastorius, in the Lithuanian language, means pastor, parson, or Protestant minister.

Further evidence that the above mentioned individuals were Lithuanian can be found in the movement of Mennonites living in Lithuania. At the end of the seventeenth century funds were collected to aid the Swiss, Palatines, and Litthauer or Lithuanian Mennonites, many of whom settled at Philadelphia and northward along the Delaware River.[17]

Other Lithuanians were found along the eastern seaboard. In Manor, New York, in the winter of 1610 and the summer of 1611, Johannes Schuc and Johannes Schultheis resided,[18] and in Georgia between 1734 and 1741, Reverend Joh. Martin Boltzius, Samuel Leberecht Boltzius, Johannes Scheraus, and Johan Scheraus Jr. settled.[19] New immigrants Georg Brosius, Johan Martin Cass, and George Vitus Cass came to the New York area in 1728,[20] while in the early 1730’s the following individuals arrived in America: Jacob Lanius, Wilheim Kerkes, Johan Landis, Johannes Grawius, Georg Peter Schultes, Johan Jacob Timanus, Peter Cornelius, Benedict Tomas, Johannes Mevius, Peter Fickus, and Philip Cunius.[21]

The fact that a number of Protestant clergy in America held Lithuanian names is also a result of the Counter-Reformation on Lithuanian immigration to America. The probable cause was that those leaving Lithuania because of religious pressures first settled in the Netherlands, Germany, or England, where because of their strong beliefs they became clergymen, and then moved to the new world. Reverend Jacob Fabritius is a case in point. This itinerant minister, who was blind since 1682 and preached in communities around Philadelphia, was believed to be “by birth a German or Pole, but more probably was Lithuanian.”[22] Others included Reverend Samuel Drisius, who was a minister in Manhattan in 1654;[23] the above mentioned Rev. John Martin Boltzius; Rev. Anthony Curtenius, who was pastor of five Dutch churches in Kings County and died in 1756;[24] and Rev. J.L. Yantis.[25] Rev. Vincentenius Antonidas, who was a minister in Kings County and died in 1744,[26] and Rev. Arthur Mann Backus, who died in 1878,[27] had typical Lithuanian names, and the latter name is found on a tombstone in the Lithuanian cemetery in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. There are a number of variations of the name Backus, including Backis, Backas, and Bachis. Two additional names are the Rev. J.M. Goetchius, who was born in 1739,[28] and Rev. William Kirkus of Baltimore.[29]

Another personality who had an impact on colonial America and who for years was claimed to be other than Lithuanian, was Dr. Alexander Carolus Cursius-Curtius. In 1652 Curtius entered the University of Leipzig, “as a Lithuanian with a doctorate in theology and the degree of licentiate in jurisprudence.” That same year he left for America where he became rector of a new established Latin school in what was then called New Amsterdam and is now, of course, New York City.[30] He can thus be considered the first secondary school teacher in New York City. A number of documents refer to his Lithuanian origin. In a resolution of the Amsterdam Department of the Hest India Company, which appointed a Latin schoolmaster for New Amsterdam, the following is found: “Before the Board appeared Alexander Carlus Curtis, late professor in Lithuania mentioned in former minutes….” In a letter to Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, a similar reference is made. Later, when Curtis returned to Leiden University to obtain a degree in medicine, the inscription “Carolus-Alexander Curtius, nobilus Lituanus…” is in the record book for 1661.[31]

Dr. Curtius
Dr. Curtius

Another native of Lithuania, who was to serve as a defender of freedom for a number of countries, including the United States, was Thaddeus Kosciusko, a member of a minor noble family.[32] Kosciusko was to aid America, Lithuania, and Poland, and all can rightfully be proud of him. In a letter to Czar Alexander, after Kosciusko found out that Lithuania was not to receive the advantages of a constitution, as Poland was, he made the following plea on June 10, 1815: “I was born a Lithuanian sire, and I have only a few years to live; nevertheless, the veil of futurity still covers the destinies of my native land, and of so many provinces of my country.”[33] In the first of two wills, Kosciusko requested that his property in the United States be used to purchase, free, and educate slaves; while in a second will he again refers to himself “as a native of Lithuania in Poland…”[34]

Another individual, the Pole Casimir Pulaski, who was also born in Lithuania and served under Charles, Duke of Courland, after studying law, served the United States in her fight for freedom, as did Kosciusko. In 1777, he joined Washington as a volunteer, and distinguished himself at the Battle of Brandywine. As a result he was promoted to brigadier general of a cavalry division. Later, he received permission from Congress to organize an independent corps of light infantry and cavalry, which became known as Pulaski’s Legion. The possibility that there were Lithuanians serving with Pulaski is quite good.[35]

In addition, there is evidence that Lithuanians fought in both of the American wars for independence. The historian Kostas Jurgela, in searching pertinent army documents for the War of 1812 located some 100 names of possible Lithuanians who had found their way to the shores of America during the first half of the nineteenth century.[36] Some of these were refugees of Napolean’s defeated army; others came as a result of the unsuccessful revolt of 1831. For the Civil War, Jurgela found well over 500 names.[37]

During the mid-nineteenth century, three individuals from Lithuania were to make their mark in American historical annals. The first of these was Alexander Bielaski or Bielecki. Unfortunately, not enough is known of his exact place of birth or national leanings: Some sources list him as being born in the Minsk Province of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, while others list him as coming from ethnographic Lithuania. What is definitely known, however, is that after participating in the unsuccessful revolt of 1831, he came to the United States, settled in Springfield, Illinois, where he became a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War he fell in the first battle fought by General Grant on November 7, 1861, and according to Colonel John A. Logan, who witnessed the death, “A braver man never fell on the field of battle.”[38]

The second was Jozef Hordynski, who also took part in the 1831 revolt, and then immigrated to America. In the United States he related his experiences in Lithuania during the 1831 uprising in a monograph entitled History of the Late Polish Revolution. At the end of the work he wrote a history of Lithuania that reveals he, unlike Kosciusko, was entirely Polish in sentiment.[39]

The third was Henry Kalusauskas, who was born in the Utena district of ethnographic Lithuania. He attended the University of Vilnius, and later worked in Marijampole, which was a center of Lithuanian nationalism. After serving in General Gelgaud’s Corps, he went to France where he was a member of the Lithuanian military committee. In 1838 he immigrated to the United States and became a citizen in 1846. With the outbreak of the 1863 uprising in Lithuania and Poland, he returned to Paris, where he was selected by the revolutionary committe as a delegate to the United States, with the right to three crests: Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian. When he returned to America, he began to organize and publicize the plight of Lithuania and Poland. Kalusauskas died in Washington in 1894, leaving his personal 3,000 volume collection, containing much information on Lithuanian and Polish immigration to America, to the Polish Alliance of America. In 1939 a fire destroyed the unused collection, a great loss to both the Lithuanians and the Poles.[40] Kalusauskas was well aware that he was Lithuanian, but at the same time believed that Lithuania and Poland could stand up against the imperialistic designs of Russia much better if they did so together.

One other figure who deserves special mention is Prince Demetri Gallitzin (Galicinis), whose father was the Russian ambassador to Holland. When the family converted to Catholicism, they lost all of their possessions in Russia, so at the urging of his mother, Gallitzin travelled  extensively and finally arrived in America. Here he became the first Catholic priest to receive his complete religious education and ordination. Gallitzin took great pride in tracing his lineage back to King Gediminas, and when he died in 1840, he was buried in Loretto, Pennsylvania, with the Lithuanian coat of arms inscribed upon his tombstone.[41]

  1. William Simmons (ed.), The Proceedings of the English Colonies in Virginia since their First Beginnings from England in the Year of our Lord 1606, till the Present 1612, with all their Accidents that Befell Them in their Journies and Discoveries (Oxford, 1612), 42.
  2. Captain Smith, A Map of Virginia (Oxford, 1612), 18.
  3. Philip Alexander Bruce, Econimic History of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (New York, 1935), 46.
  4. Czeslaw Milosz, Native Realm (New York, 1968), 96.
  5. Arthur L. Waldo, First Poles in America (Pittsburgh, 1957), 5.
  6. L.E.; XXVI, 258.
  7. Henry Whittmore, Geneological Guide to Early Settlers of America (Baltimore, 1967), 124, 285, 307, 337, 411, 421, 437.
  8. John Osborne Austin, The Geneological Dictionary of Rhode Island (Baltimore, 1967), 112.
  9. Wilford Jordon (Ed.), Colonial and Revolutionary Families of Philadelphia (New York, 1933), I, II.
  10. Geneological Record of the Saint Nicholas Society (New York, 1902), 66.
  11. Jennings Cropper Wise, The Early History of the Eastern Shore of Virginia (Baltimore, 1967), 373.
  12. George Norbury MacKenzie and Nelson O. Rhoades, Colonial Families of the United States (New York, 19), II, 452. A lake by the name Milinis is found in Lithuania.
  13. Josiah Granville Leach, Chronicle of the Yerkes Family with dates on the Leech and Rutter Families (Philadelphia, 1904), 1.
  14. Leach, Chronicle of, 2.
  15. Daniel Rupp, A Collection of Upwards of Thirty Thousand Names of German, Swiss, Dutch, French, an Other Immigrants in Pennsylvania From 1727 to 1776 (Baltimore, 1965), 430-432.
  16. Charles F. Jenkins, The Guidebook to Historic Germantown (Germantown, 1926), 157, 158.
  17. Samuel W. Pennypacker, Historical and Biographical Sketches (Philadelphia, 1883), 178.
  18. Pennypacker, Historical and, 447, 448.
  19. Pennypacker, Historical and, 449, 451.
  20. Pennypacker, Historical and, 449, 451.
  21. Pennypacker, Historical and, 66, 68, 77, 79, 81, 83, 86, 105, 108, 113, 116.
  22. Charles P. Keith, Chronicles of Pennsylvania From the English Revolution to the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle 1688-1748 (Philadelphia, 1917), !,125.
  23. Wise, The Early, 147, 270.
  24. Kenneth Scott, Geneological Data from the New York Postboy 1743-1773 (Washington, 1970), 58.
  25. Mackenzie and Rhoades, Colonial, II, 96.
  26. Scott, Geneological, 3.
  27. Mackenzie and Rhoades, Colonial, 58.
  28. Mackenzie and Rhoades, Colonial, 738.
  29. Mackenzie and Rhoades, Colonial, 355.
  30. Stasys Budrys, and Vaclovas Paprockas (ed.), Dr. Alexander Carolus Cursius-Curtius (Chicago, 1967), 9.
  31. Budrys and Paprockas, Dr. Alexander, 44, 46, 48.
  32. James Fletcher, History of Poland from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (New York, 1831), 250. W.R. Morfill, Poland (New York, 1893), 239.
  33. Fletcher, History of, 303.
  34. Anicetis Simutis, Pasaulio Lietuvių Žinynas (Lithuanian World Directory) (Brooklyn, 1958), 68, 69.
  35. For a discussion of this see Kostas R. Jurgėla, "Lietuviai Amerikoje Prieš Masinę Imigraciją" (Lithuanians in America Before the Mass Immigration), Suvažiavimo Darbi (Collected Works) ( Rome, 1964), V, 466.
  36. Jurgėla, "Lietuviai", 486-490.
  37. Jurgėla, "Lietuviai", 490-517.
  38. Jurgėla, "Lietuviai", 474-475.
  39. Joseph Hordynski, History of the Late Polish Revolution, and the Events of the Campaign (Boston, 1833), 1, 2, 411-416.
  40. Jurgėla, "Lietuviai", 475, 476.
  41. P. Paul Gabis, "Prince Demetri", The Marian III (March, 1950). Antanas Kučas, Amerikos Lietuvių Istorija (A History of Lithuanian in America), (Boston, 1971), 16, 17.


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