Part II: Immigration and Settlement

Settlement in the United States

Dragoslav Georgevich

First Settlers

The first Serbian settlement in the United States was in New Orleans, Louisiana. Sailors from ships that traded with the United States visited several ports before deciding to settle in one of them. Principal settlers in New Orleans were Serbs from Dalmatia, Bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska), Crna Gora and areas of the old Republic of Dubrovnik. The first settlers arrived in Louisiana during the middle 1830’s. Their main occupations were fishing, the oyster industry and sea transport, but by 1840 some of them had their own businesses. Among them were Jovan Vidakovit from Hercegnovi who came to Louisiana in 1839, Antonije Konjevi from Konavlje who arrived in 1835, M. Giuranovic, N. Ivanovic, Teodore Stanic, N. Marie, Marko Radovic and A. Petrovic. Many were well established by 1840 and owned businesses such as coffee houses, billiard parlors, groceries, fruit stands and restaurants. One of the richest settlers was Marko Givanovic from Dubrovnik. He owned the Home Place Plantation a few miles north of Alexandria, Louisiana. The value of his plantation together with the slaves, buildings and furniture was $325,000. He died in 1896 and a community on the Cane River is called Marco in his memory.

Before 1860 most of the settlers came from the geographical area between the mouth of the Neretva River and the Bay of Kotor. Since they knew one another, they lived in the same part of New Orleans around the French Market. They were intelligent, capable people who spoke several languages and were able to cope with the complex way of life in New Orleans and Louisiana.

California Gold Rush

After the discovery of gold in California in 1848, many settlers left New Orleans and participated in the gold rush. Other Serbs from Dalmatia, Bay of Kotor and Crna Gora went directly to California by way of the Straits of Magellan. Several ships sailed from the Adriatic coast to the Golden Gate carrying hopeful prospectors. Some of them established companies such as the Serbian and Slavonian Mining Company in 1876, Adriatic Mining Company and the Slavonia Gold and Silver Company.

Only a few Serbian prospectors were successful in gold mining. By the 1850’s and 1860’s most of them, especially those from Montenegro and Dalmatia, went into other businesses. Here are a few names of businessmen in San Francisco, a majority of whom were from the Bay of Kotor (Boka Katorska) and Crna Gora.

Nikola Pavlovic (1851) Fruits Pastrovic
Nikola Dabovic (1856) Fruits Boka
Toma Radonjic (1852) Fruits Risan
Spiro Obradovic (1858) Restaurant Boka
Marko Milinovic (1859) Coffee Saloon Boka
Jovan Markovic (1856) Saloon Crna Gorna
Petar Orlovic (1861) Saloon Boka
George Fisher (1860) Lawyer Vojvodina
Stefan Miletic (1870) Saloon Serbia

The first Greek Russian Slavonian Orthodox church was organized in 1864 in San Francisco. Its president was the Russian consul, but the vice-president was Nikola Dabovic and trustees were Jovan Franeta, Luka Zenovic, Savo Martinovic, Ilija Celovic, Bozo Radovic, and Petar Vukanovic, all Serbs from Crna Gora, and George Lazarevic, a Serb from Belgrade. The president of the Pan-Slavonic Society was the most prominent Serb in San Francisco in the early 1860s, Judge George Ribar-Fisher. He was a Serb from Vojvodina who was educated at the Serbian Orthodox College in Sremski Karlovci under the charge of Stefan Stratimirovic, a Serbian Orthodox Archbishop. He joined Karageorge in 1813, escaped to Austria after the fall of Belgrade, immigrated to America in 1815, and settled first in Mississippi where he married and became a naturalized American citizen. He worked at many jobs and finally became a Mississippi plantation owner. He arrived in California early in the 1860s when he was over sixty years old and became a judge in San Francisco. King George of Greece appointed him Greek Consul in 1870. When he died at the age of seventy-eight, this article in the San Francisco Bulletin reflected the genuine respect in which he was held in 1873:

The late George Fisher, who for some years before his death held the honorable position of Greek Consul at this port, and whose death has been announced in the papers of State, was a gentleman of sterling worth and unimpeached integrity…

During the 1850’s and 1860’s many Serbs settled in Sacramento and opened restaurants, saloons and coffee houses. Some of them organized boardinghouses for prospectors who were going to the gold fields of the Mother Lode. Those businessmen were from the general area of Dalmatia and the Bay of Kotor and many of them came by way of Louisiana. Here are a few names of those early settlers in Sacramento.

Nikola Trianovic (1854) Saloon Boka
Nikola Zambelic (1854) Saloon Boka
Petar Mandic (1860) Sebastopol Saloon Boka
George Mandic (1860) Barkeeper Boka
Marko Zenovic (1860) Saloon Pastrovic
Nikola Pavlovic (1851) Fruits Pastrovic
Paul Vlautin (1861) Universal Coffee Saloon Konavlje
Paul Vlautin (1852) Gold Miner, Amador County
Petar Mandic (1859) Saloon Boka

The number of Serbian gold miners is unknown, but one estimate says that there were a few hundred of them. It can be said that Serbs participated in the California gold rush. Although few of them got rich by mining, they were successful as businessmen.

Later on, beginning in 1880, a respectable number of Serbs settled in Los Angeles. Most of them came from the mining fields. One of the early settlers was Jovan Lazarevic from Crna Gora who owned a grocery store. Others were Jovan Mitrovif from Boka, the brothers Polic, N. Milovic and Nikola Mitrovic from Boka. They organized prosperous businesses of various kinds. Many Serbs settled in the San Joaquin Valley around Stockton or Fresno, while others became fruit growers in the Santa Clara and Pajaro Valleys.

Serbs organized their own social institutions in California soon after they settled there. The first Serbian church in America was built in 1874 in Jackson, Amador County. Although many were officially listed as being Austrians or even Italians for administrative purposes, Serbs established Slavic or South Slavic societies. The names of some of these organizations were: Slavonic Illyric Benevolent Society of San Francisco, established in 1859; Slavenska Citaonica of San Francisco, established in 1869; Russian and Pan-Slavonic Benevolent Society of San Francisco, established in 1869; Greek-Russian-Slavonian Benevolent Society of San Francisco, established in 1872; and Serbian-Montenegrin Benevolent Society of San Francisco, established in 1881.

Settlements in Other States

One of the first Serbian pioneers in the Nevada territory was Marco Medin from Budva. He came from San Francisco in 1861 and in 1863 he formed the Medin Gold and Silver Company. He lived in Virginia City where he also had a fruit store. Serbs in Nevada included Marko Milinovic, Petar Radovic, Jovan Ivankovic, Nikola Dabovich, Jovan Savic, and the families Vukovic, Gregovic, Radulovic, Bralic, Drobac, Markovic, Matic, Mitrovic, Pavlicevic and Vulicevic.

Arizona copper mines also attracted a number of Serbs to settle and work there. In the early 1900’s Bisbee was the center of the richest copper district in the United States. Besides other Slavs, there were about 300 Serbian families. They had a lively cultural life, celebrated Christmas on January 7 (December 25 by the old calendar), produced a yearly “Night in Belgrade,” celebrated Vidov-dan and enjoyed Serbian customs, music and folklore. Among these Serbs were Petar Ragenovic, David Radovic, Jovan Gregovic, Jova Lukin, George Giurovic, Petar Markovic, Jovan Savie, Mihailo Peri sic, Jovan Glumae, George Kovie, Jovan Zenovic, Nikola Giurovic, Luka Radulovic and V. D. Medigorit. They lived in various counties and very often along with Slovenes.

At the turn of the century many Serbs settled in the northwest. There were economic opportunities in western Washington in lumbering, fishing, agriculture, mining and manufacturing. Here, as in other western states, Serbian immigrants were mostly from the Adriatic coast, Crna Gora, Hercegovina and Croatia. Following their cultural heritage, the Dalmatians continued to fish. The Serbs from Crna Gora were mostly from Podgorica and they worked in mining in the area of Roslyn. A number of Serbs lived in Wilkenson and had a small Orthodox church there, although a few of them were Moslems. According to official statistics, there were 872 Serbs in Washington in 1910. They organized societies in Roslyn, Seattle and Spokane, all of them lodges of the Serb National Federation.

Serbs settled during the 1870’s and 1890’s in Minnesota, Michigan, the coal districts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kansas and the southern parts of Ohio and Illinois. A number of settlers were attracted to the copper mines in Montana, Utah and other western states. Pay was good in iron and copper mines, about $1.25 a day. A large group went to work in Milwaukee, Chicago, Joliet, Cleveland, New York and other large industrial centers.

Types of Settlements

Before 1880 Serbian settlers often established their settlements in the same places as Croats. That was primarily in large cities of the northeast and the northern central parts of the United States. An exception to this pattern occurred in New England states. Large Serbian and Croatian colonies were in Saint Louis and Kansas City. Many of those settlers had come by way of New Orleans, an important port of entry for immigrants from Southern Europe.

Most Serbs lived in urban districts, a pattern of settlement begun at the end of the 19th century since later immigrants tended to follow the pioneers. Newcomers usually went to the places with best employment opportunities. As an example, the automobile industry in Detroit offered good employment after 1920, so many immigrants left Pennsylvania and moved to Detroit for well-paid jobs. Since new immigrants did not know English, their best solution was to settle near countrymen who could advise them in their search for work. Therefore, early Serbian communities in large cities became ghettos. Since the immigration law of 1924 required a sponsor for each new immigrant, Serbs who entered the United States after that date usually went to the places where their sponsors lived. Sponsors were often relatives who helped the new-comers find suitable work and living arrangements.

The mobility of new immigrants who knew English was greater than that of those who did not. They could move freely from place to place and settle where they liked. The American-born children of Serbian immigrants moved even more freely than their parents did. The new urban mobility of the American white population has been exhibited by Serbian groups. They are gradually leaving their ghetto-like settlements in large cities and moving to the suburbs. Thus the old immigrant colonies are disappearing and both old and new immigrants are being dispersed. They are in touch with one another because they have telephones and cars. Their social institutions which usually center around the church keep them together. Their desire to preserve their national, religious and cultural inheritance is very strong. Although the necessity to live together is gone, Serbs are still a close group because of modern communications and their national heritage.

Social and Economic Conditions

The main Serbian settlement in the United States began during the era of the reconstruction and expansion after the Civil War. At that time communication and transportation were expanded, manufacturing was converted from workshop to factory, machinery was perfected and increased both in size and number, business grew and corporations were created. America was gradually converted from an agricultural to an industrial country. Such changes in the national economy brought many social changes. American rural society declined in the number of its members while the new industrial society grew rapidly. The phenomenal growth of cities transformed the United States into an urban nation.

Since new machines and industrial processes eliminated the need for skilled and experienced labor, jobs for unskilled workers grew constantly in number. In order to protect their interests experienced skilled workers organized trade unions. When employers did not comply with worker demands, strikes broke out periodically. Employers began to search for cheap manpower in eastern, central and southern Europe. South Slavs who were used to a low standard of living in their home countries became victims of industrial exploitation. Many were forced to accept jobs with low wages and unsafe, unsanitary working conditions. Thus they were welcomed by American industrialists but not by their fellow workers and their labor unions.

Organized labor was against immigrant workers. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers signed a contract with industry which excluded all unskilled workers. Serbs, other Slavs and Italians belonged to that category. They had to work for considerably lower wages than those paid to the skilled English-speaking union members. Their work day was 12 to 14 and even 16 hours and they were not paid for overtime. A similar situation prevailed also in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Generally speaking, newcomers were willing to work for lower wages and therefore they were used as strikebreakers. In the mills, and in lumbering, stockyards, automobile, aircraft and textiles industries, working conditions were at first as bad as the mines; but gradually Serbs learned English, joined labor unions and improved their status. From early strikebreakers they became some of the staunchest union supporters.

As already mentioned, Serbian immigrants to the United States settled mostly in the Northeast, Midwest and the Far West. Here are a few statistics compiled in 1940 regarding distribution by regions:

New England… 220

Middle Atlantic… 12,900

East North Central… 17,180

West North Central… 2,960

South Atlantic… 1,320

East South Central… 20

West South Central… 80

Mountain… 1,280

Pacific… 1,680

The distribution of new settlers by Serbian mother tongue was 33,260 in the north, 1420 in the south and 2960 in the west. By states Serbs were found in significant numbers only in Pennsylvania (31,900) and in Ohio (6000).

According to the 1940 census the number of Serbs in cities of 500,000 or more inhabitants was:

Baltimore… 140

Boston… 20

Buffalo… 20

Chicago… 2,480

Cleveland… 640

Detroit… 3,360

Los Angeles… 240

Milwaukee… 300

New York… 540

Philadelphia… 60

Pittsburgh… 1,340

St. Louis… 440

San Francisco… 180

According to government data the number of Serbs living in urban areas was 12,540 while in the rural-nonfarm classifications there were 3,960 and on farms only 740. Only two states showed Serbs in their census in rural-nonfarm areas, 3100 in Pennsylvania and 860 in Ohio. Although incomplete, these statistics provide a fairly clear picture of the distribution of the Serbs in the United States. It is interesting to note that the Serbs who were mostly employed in agriculture in their home countries changed to urban industrial workers in America. One important reason for this was the lack of capital for modern farming in the new land. An immigrant was forced to start his life in the United States as a worker. If after many years of hard physical labor he acquired some capital, he would probably decide not to become a farmer again but a businessman. He quickly learned the advantages of a capitalistic economy and adjusted his life to it.

The distribution of Serbian immigrants who came after World War II was similar to the former. Most of them settled at first in the well-organized Serbian colonies of Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and California. Later on they moved to other states according to job availability. Since most were already skilled or professional people, they needed only a short time to learn English and move on to other places. Today Serbs live in almost every part of the United States.

These newspapers and periodicals are published in the United States in both the Serbian and English languages. Half a dozen more, published in Canada and in the United States are not shown here.
These newspapers and periodicals are published in the United States in both the Serbian and English languages. Half a dozen more, published in Canada and in the United States are not shown here.


Serbian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © by Dragoslav Georgevich. All Rights Reserved.

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