Part II: Lithuanian Immigration to the United States

Mass Immigration

The latter part of the nineteenth century witnessed a great influx of Lithuanians. This was due to various socio-economic and political factors, including a lack of available land for the rapidly increasing Lithuanian population, the ban on the use of the Latin script and teaching of the Lithuanian language, the fleeing from conscription into the Russian army, and the famine in the early 1860’s.

Whatever the specific reason, the number of Lithuanians in America continued to increase. This movement was further aided by “letters from America” and by agents sent to Lithuanian villages to tell of America’s riches in quite glowing terms, all of which gave life in America an almost utopian atmosphere for the relatives and friends back in Lithuania.[1]

Various ship companies also lured Lithuanians to America through agents stationed in the villages and towns of the country. Their effective advertisements caused many to inquire about passage. For a fee agents would take the customers to the border, where another agent would stealthily transport them in groups, since few had passports, to port cities, generally Hamburg. From there the immigrants undertook an arduous passage across the Atlantic. In the first years of this immigration, 1860-1870, the poorer immigrants had to take sailing ships, which were still in use and generally took three to six months to reach America. Jonas Babkauskas, one of these passengers, wrote the following about his experiences:

“We left Hamburg on May 11, 1868. The ship on which we sailed was the ‘James Foster.’ There were seven Lithuanians in all aboard the ship — four Catholics and three Lithuanian From Protestants from Marijampole… We were given food only once a day. Everyone received seven cookies, approximately six to seven inches wide, a piece of bad meat, two raw potatoes, a measure of rice, about a half quart of oat flour, and a quart of water. We had to cook the food ourselves. This was in the beginning. Later we could not even do this. It came to pass, that during the third month, people began to die; there were days when several died at once. Of the Lithuanians, although some were very sick, not one died.”[2]

Lithuanian Peasant. From LITHUANIA LAND OF HEROES.
Lithuanian Peasant. From LITHUANIA LAND OF HEROES.

Conditions were somewhat better on steamships. They sailed faster, were cleaner, and most important, the passengers received food from the common mess. However, all the comforts were aimed at the first and second class passengers, not third class, in the “steerage” or cargo section. There, were most Lithuanians had to travel, the wide, two level bunks used for sleeping had to be shared by several people. The quarters were not adequately ventilated and the stale air became unbearable. The ship was constantly rolling and the passengers invariably got seasick. Third class passengers were considered little better than cargo: the ship companies ignored their hardships; the ships’ crews frequently were discourteous to them.

It is difficult to determine the number of Lithuanians who immigrated during the latter part of the nineteenth century, since it was not until 1899 that Lithuanians were classified as a separate group. Previous to this period, they were listed as either Russians, Poles, or Germans, depending in general upon their point of departure. Various estimates have been made for the pre-1899 period, and in general it is believed that about 275,000 Lithuanians immigrated to the United States.[3] Statistics from the Immigration Bureau indicate that from 1899 to 1914, when the First World War started, 252,594 Lithuanians came to America,[4] and after the War continued to arrive until restrictions came into effect in the early 1920’s. Taking into account those who returned to Lithuania, the post World War II immigration, and succeeding generations of Lithuanians born in this country, a fairly stable number of Lithuanians found in the United States today would be in the vicinity of one million.

With this mass movement of Lithuanians to the United States, communities began to form and leaders emerge. One of the first to gain recognition was Augustinas Zaicas (Zeytz), a Franciscan monk, who came to this country as a result of the Russian purges against the clergy following the revolt of 1863. He arrived in 1872, and soon thereafter began to work among the Lithuanians in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. He also translated a number of literary works into Lithuanian. Later he moved to Shenandoah, where in 1877 he established the first Lithuanian aid society, the Saint George’s Society. When the first Lithuanian newspaper, Lietuwiszka Gazieta, was published in this country, he became one of its principal collaborators. He wrote a series of articles on religion and Lithuanian nationalism. Zaicas was the first Lithuanian who attempted to separate the Lithuanians from the Poles and urged the establishment of purely Lithuanian societies.[5]

The settlement of Zaicas among Lithuanians in the coal mining areas of Pennsylvania was natural, since this was where most of them originally settled. When the immigrants arrived at the port of New York, some sought work on the farms around the city, while others moved into New England and south into the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas. But most headed West. Important in this movement was the work of railroad agents, who enticed the new immigrants to work in the mines of eastern Pennsylvania.[6] The first significant settlement was found in Danville, where by 1872 some 200 Lithuanians were located.[7] Besides Danville, Lithuanians were found scattered throughout the coal mining area of eastern Pennsylvania, but one city, Shenandoah, was to become the first “capital” of Lithuanians in the United States. It was here that we find one of the best examples of a process occurring in the majority of Lithuanian colonies at the end of the nineteenth century: the separation of the Lithuanians and Poles, an event which simultaneously came about among the peasant masses of Lithuania and their counterparts in the United States.

In 1872 a combined Lithuanian-Polish society, the Society of Saint Casimir, had been formed in Shenandoah. The bylaws of the society had been written in both Lithuanian and Polish, but Lithuanians made up about 95 percent of the membership. However, they still needed a parish, so in that same year they managed to have Reverend Andrew Strupinskas, who had fled Lithuania in 1863 and arrived in America in 1866, appointed as pastor of all of the Lithuanians in the Shenandoah area. At first, he conducted services in a German church in Mahanoy City, and then in the German church of the Holy Family in Shenandoah. In 1874, after the St. Casimir Society had collected enough funds, a lot was purchased on North Jardin Street and a frame church, St. Casimir’s, was erected. This church, built by the Lithuanians, was not to remain in their hands for long, since it had been erroneously registered as a Polish Catholic church. After Strupinskas left in 1877, he was replaced by a Polish priest, Reverend Alexander Lenarkiewicz. A complete split then occurred between the Lithuanians and Poles, with the former rebelling when Lenarkiewicz used the Polish language in church services. The resulting feud ended in the courts, where, since both the secular and ecclesiastical officials were basically ignorant of the differences between the two groups, the church was given to the Poles.

The process of separation continued in many communities, and it was not until 1889 that the first pure Lithuanian Roman Catholic parish was established, St. Casimir’s Parish in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. This was accomplished by Aleksandras Burba, a Roman Catholic priest who had fled Lithuania the year before, after having been arrested by Russian officials for writing in the Lithuanian press and distributing Lithuanian books.[8]

From this point on the number of parishes quickly grew, but it is difficult to determine the exact number.[9] From a comparison of various lists, such as that of S. Michelsonas’[10] Metraštis 1916m (1916 Yearbook)[11] and others, it appears that about 125 Lithuanian parishes existed at one time or another. There were also a number of Protestant and Lithuanian National Catholic parishes established. In many instances the Protestants did not have their own churches, but used others of similar faith. Larger groups were able to construct their own churches, such as the Jerusalem Lutheran Church built in Collinsville, Illinois, in 1903,[12] and the Lithuanian Evangelical Reform Church in Chicago. A Lithuanian Bible Association was also initiated.[13]

The Lithuanian National Catholic Church was an offshoot of the Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church, and was largely the result of very nationalistic minded Lithuanians resenting the building of churches and schools that were controlled and owned by the “Irish” and “German” bishops who headed the dioceses. The first parish was created in 1902 by Reverand Vincas Dilionis in Waterbury, Connecticut, and parishes were later founded in Baltimore, Du Bois, Scranton, Providence, Worcester, Chicago, Lawrence, Massachusetts, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre, and Westville, Illinois. Some of these lasted only a short time, and only two are in existence today: St. Joseph’s in Scranton, founded in 1913; and Blessed Heart of Jesus, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, established in 1916.[14]

Although the first settlers tended to concentrate in Eastern Pennsylvania, it was not long before they were in almost every section of the country. Račkauskas’ 1915 account of Lithuanians in America mentions them being scattered from Auburn, Maine, to Cle Elum, Washington.[15] An earlier work of Ir. Jonas (Jonas is a pseudonym for Žilius), Lithuanians in America, also mentioned Lithuanians being in Texas and New Mexico, with one owning a saloon in Blossburg, New Mexico in 1899.[16]

In Shenandoah, the Lithuanians also began opening their own businesses, and by 1899 a total of 109 Lithuanian-owned establishments existed.[17] In politics many of the top positions were held by Lithuanians, including six mayors who ran the city for over forty years.[18] The working conditions in the mines were difficult, however, and the new immigrants were treated little better than animals, with nine-and ten-year old children working next to their fathers. When miners died on the job, due to cave-ins or other causes, their bodies were simply wrapped in canvas and thrown upon the front porch of their residence for the children and wife to find.[19] Because of the abuses, Lithuanians began to find employment where working conditions were better, and this was generally in the newly developing industrial areas, such as Rochester, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. The last mentioned, Chicago, replaced Shenandoah as the Lithuanian center and in time approximately 100,000 Lithuanians lived there, with their three daily Lithuanian newspapers, eleven Roman Catholic parishes, two Protestant parishes, one National Catholic parish, fourteen banks, and hundreds of other businesses and organizations.[20] Other large colonies were found in Boston, Brockton, Illinois, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and New York.

Some Lithuanians, although the percentage was small, returned to farming. In the early 1890’s the editor of the newspaper Lietuva (Lithuania) tried to establish a farming colony in Arkansas. He was successful for a short while and the small village of Lietuva came into being. However, the farming conditions did not prove attractive enough, and the colony disbanded. Other Lithuanians, bought farms close to the city in which they settled, with substantial groups in the Connecticut Valley and Wisconsin, and the largest located in the Freesoil and Custer areas of Michigan. Here, on market day when the farmers gathered in Scotville where a Lithuanian club existed, the Lithuanian language dominated the streets. In June, 1920, a Lithuanian monthly journal, Ūkininkų Žinios (Farmer’s News) also appeared in Scotville. This followed by two years the newspaper Amerikas Ūkininkas (The American Farmer), printed in Hart, Michigan.[21] In Custer, St. Mary’s Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church served the needs of the farm community.

  1. S. Michelsonas, Lietuvių Išeivija Amerikoje (1868-1961) (Lithuanian Immigration to America 1868-1961) (South Boston, 1961), 14.
  2. Ir. Jonas, Lietuviai Amerikoje (Lithuanians in America) (Plymouth, 1899), 14, 15.
  3. For discussions on immigration see S. Michelsonas, Lietuvių, 13-16, and Vytautas Širvydas, Juozas O. Širvydas 1875-1935, (Cleveland, 1941), 87-91.
  4. Michelsonas, Lietuvių, 13-16.
  5. L.E., XXXV, 16.
  6. Jonas, Lietuviai, 15, 16.
  7. Michelsonas, Lietuvių, 17.
  8. Antanas Kučas, Shenandoah, Lietuvių Šv. Jurgio Parapija (St. George's Lithuanian Parish of Shenandoah), (Brooklyn, 1968), 169-171. Sv. Kazimiero R.K. Lietuvių Parapijos (St Casimir's Lithianian R.C. Parish), (Wilkes-Barre, 1939), 17.
  9. E.L., I, 441.
  10. Michelsonas, Lietuvivų, 482-486.
  11. P. Lapelis, Metraštis 1916 M. (1916 Yearbook), (Chicago 1916), 290-370.
  12. L.E., IV, 76.
  13. Michelsonas, Lietuvių, 135-137.
  14. L.E., XXX, 434, 435. M. Valadka, Lietuvių Katalikų Tautinė Baznyčia Scrantono Parapija (The Lithuanian National Catholic Church of Scranton), (Scranton, 1949), 7.
  15. V.K. Račkauskas, Amerika (New York, 1915), 217-283.
  16. Jonas, Lietuviai, 159.
  17. Jonas, Lietuviai, 40, 41.
  18. Kučas, Shenandoah, 193.
  19. For one of the better accounts of the conditions of the east and south European immigrants in the mines, see Victor R. Greene, The Slavic Community in Strike (London, 1968).
  20. For one of the most extensive accounts of the Chicago Lithuanians see, Aleksas Ambrose, Chicagos Lietuvių Istorija (A History of the Lithuanians of Chicago), (Chicago, 1967).
  21. Frank Lavinskas, Amerikos Lietuvių Laikraščiai 1879-1955 (The Lithuanian Press in America, 1879-1955), (New York, 1956), 79, 80.


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