Part II: New World Beginnings
While most of the immigrants who came to America came for economic reasons, some of the very early ones were more fortunate in that most of them had been well educated and even wealthy. Though they were the admitted few, we think their inclusion will give some needed respite from the basically hard life of the average Slovak we have thus far portrayed.
(Stit-NITS-key) While the great waves of emigration for the Slovak people occurred late in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, there were some hardy trailblazers. As far back as 1583 a Slovak-born scholar and educator named Stephen Parmenius Stitnicky came to North America with the expedition of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. He had been born of Slovak parentage in Hungary during the Turkish occupation. After completing studies in a number of European schools and universities, he decided to live in England where he learned about Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s plan to sail to North America with a group of prospective colonizers. Impressed by their spirit and their general attitude toward the venture, it is not surprising that when the group set sail for Plymouth harbor on June 11, 1583. Parmenius was also a member of the expedition. His special assignment was to keep an accurate and scholarly account of all that would be noteworthy on the voyage.
After many terrifying experiences which tested the valor of the admiral and his crew, the admiral brought his ships past the banks of Newfoundland on August 3, 1583. At the end of an exhausting voyage of seven harrowing weeks, the company landed, and claimed the harbor and surrounding lands in the queen’s name making this the first English colony in North America.
Shortly after, however, Sir Humphrey Gilbert found it necessary to return to England with his little fleet. Unfortunately, a wild storm wrecked the ships at Nova Scotia and among the victims was the poet-scholar Stephen Parmenius Stitnicky, who very likely was the first Slovak to cross the Atlantic to the New World. Little did he dream that his fellow Slovaks would follow him one day but for reasons vastly different from his own.
(SHAH-ris-key) Established a first, too, by coming to the United States in 1677. He had been born of a wealthy Slovak family in Šariš (SHAH-rish), Slovakia. Employed as a teacher in Windsheim, Germany, he there learned about William Penn and his novel experiments for providing real freedom and needed opportunities for the people under his form of government. The people of Windsheim knew about William Penn because a group that had been persecuted in Europe went to Penn’s colony under the leadership of Francis Daniel Pastorius, the son of the mayor of Windsheim. The son kept his father informed of the group’s progress and he shared news of their progress and trials with the teacher Šarišský. This news whetted Šarišský’s interest and he soon expressed a desire for joining them, because he saw an opportunity to employ not only his teaching talents but also to fulfill his calling to a spiritual ministry.
His decision made, he journeyed to what is today Germantown and Philadelphia and there became preacher and teacher to these pioneers. After spending two years in their service, he found that the blessings of this colony were at least matched if not outweighed, by the sacrifices that were demanded of the colonists. He found it difficult to adjust to the rigors of this environment, so that in 1679 he decided to go to Maryland either to improve his position or to leave from Baltimore on a return trip to Europe. Unfortunately, we have no historic record about what he finally did. It is enough to know that among the early pioneers of Germantown was a young Slovak teacher who tried his best to fill a void for other brave and courageous pioneers.
(YELL-ik) Another early Slovak in America was the much traveled Andrew Jelik who left his native Slovak home in 1764. Largely by force of circumstances, he became quite a traveler. Jelik was the son of a soldier, but he did not care for a military career and decided to become a tailor. Army life was not for him and he did all that he could to avoid it.
As a tailoring journeyman, he visited many places: Vienna, Prague, Germany, England and France. He had many exciting experiences, for he seemed fated to come into a town or village just when men were being recruited into the army. Naturally, he had to do his utmost to avoid getting involved. Often he had to use his wits very speedily to escape conscription officers. Once he escaped by boat only to be shipwrecked at sea. He saved himself by clinging to some debris and then found himself stranded, but alive, on the shore of England.
After this terrifying episode, he decided to leave Europe by joining a Dutch ship bound for the West Indies and America. It was on this voyage that he came to the United States but for only a very brief period. On concluding the business of the expedition, the captain and crew returned to Europe. As a member of the crew, Jelik also returned.
In 1778, after more exciting adventures, Jelik finally extinguished the flames of his somewhat enforced wanderlust, and returned to his native Slovakia where he died in 1783.
(PO-ler-ETS-key) In 1780 Major John Ladislaus Polerecký came to America. He was a Slovak nobleman and soldier who had joined the French-Hussar Cavalry Unit under the Duke de Lauzun. As an auxiliary French army under the leadership of General Rochambeau, these Hussars had come to help Washington conquer the British in the Revolutionary War.
When they arrived in the summer of 1780, there seemed to be no hope of victory for Washington. The British had been gaining ground steadily and had the advantage in men and supplies as well as in morale. The American situation was bleak. The colonial army was starved and had no money, food, or reserves of any kind. Many American men were sick and broken in spirit. In that dark hour Providence sent Washington 6,000 crack troops in six strong French vessels.
All these men were eager and determined volunteers. Although they were a French legion under the command of the experienced French veteran Count Rochambeau, they were soldiers of mixed nationalities. And among them was Major John Polerecký, son of Count Andrew Polerecký of Turiec County, Slovakia. He, too, was a volunteer in the making of American history. He had earned his rank with the French Hussars who were now part of Rochambeau’s relief unit helping Washington in the historic struggle for American freedom.
When the company moved into action, Polerecký was often assigned to communications and dispatch services. His unit fought in the White Plains and Kingsbridge area of New York, and then became responsible for the defense of New York City itself. Before long, however, they had to respond to a counter order. They were commanded to turn southward to support General Benjamin Lincoln and his hard-pressed company.
Following Washington’s strategy involving action in the southern section to block Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, the French and American forces converged on him and the rest is history. Heavy bombarding started in Yorktown on October 7. Elegantly uniformed French troops fought side by side with the tattered colonial soldiers. All that mattered was that they fought a united action. At last, after 10 bitter days, the frenzy began to subside as the sounds of answering British fire died. With the appearance of a British officer waving a white cloth, bloody fighting was over in Yorktown on that October 17.
After both sides met to arrange terms and to sign the surrender document on October 19, 1781, there yet remained the ceremonies at which the conquered troops were to deliver their arms. As Washington, Rochambeau and their aides appeared on horseback on this ravaged field of war, the columns of soldiers were still and at ceremonial attention. It soon became apparent that Lord Cornwallis was not leading the weary and crushed British as they neared the designated place. This position was assigned to the British Brigadier-General O’Hara and in the intensity of the moment, it was clear to Washington that since a deputy of Cornwallis was charged to offer the official British surrender, it would be proper for an American deputy of similar rank to accept that formal surrender. With great composure Washington indicated that General Benjamin Lincoln was to act in his name, and so this officer moved into position to face O’Hara. After the symbolic gesture of receiving O’Hara’s sword, General Lincoln indicated where the British were to lead their men for the general stacking of their arms.
The place was an open field beyond the American and French lines where the cavalry contingent of the Duke of Lauzun was at attention in a semi-circular position under the poplars. Major John Polerecký was in this company of horsemen at whose feet the British yielded their weapons. He experienced the full impact and the tension of that hour as he witnessed the mood of the vanquished British soldiers. Some restrained their natural feelings with great discipline and conducted themselves with utmost dignity. Some were sullen and ill at ease; some wept; some swore. All were sad and undeniably crushed, all 6,000 of this British army and 840 seamen who participated in this act of surrender.
It may seem out of place to recount so much of American history in the telling of the story of Major Polerecký. Of course, it is evident that we are proud of the part he played in procuring for all of us the liberty we so cherish. But we were also struck at the incongruity of his witnessing the emotions of the vanquished British soldiers as they yielded their weapons and for a few moments we could not help but see the Slovak people in their long struggle for freedom. How many times must they have “restrained their natural feelings with great discipline and conducted themselves with utmost dignity?” How many times must some of them have been “sullen or ill at ease — or wept — or swore?” How many times must they have “been sad and undeniably crushed?” No one knows the answer to these questions and perhaps that is good.
With the war over, Count Rochambeau stayed on in Virginia with the prisoners of war, but he sent the Duke of Lauzun as his personal messenger to report to King Louis XVI in Paris that the French and the Americans had distinguished themselves in a brilliant and crucial victory at Yorktown, Virginia. Major John Polerecký was honored to be part of that delegation that reported to the King. After this mission was completed, he decided to return to America, but only after resigning from the French Volunteer Legion on October 1, 1783.
As a civilian, Polerecký chose to stay in America permanently. He had formed a deep friendship with General Benjamin Lincoln and Colonel Henry Dearborn. Through the real estate office of Lincoln he bought a farm in Dresden, Maine and became a neighbor of Dearborn. His naturalization papers were signed by John Hancock, the famed signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1785 Polerecký married Nancy Poshard. Over the years he held a number of public positions: deputy marshall, census commissioner, town clerk of Dresden, and lighthouse keeper.
Polerecký died at the age of 82 and was buried between two linden trees which he had planted in his courtyard. When a community cemetery was designated 40 years later, all the Polerecký graves were transferred to it. On Memorial Day, the American Legion annually honors Major John Polerecký, a one-time Slovak aristocrat who became a defender of American freedom and a distinguished Slovak American citizen.
(BE-nov-skey) Here is one Slovak of Vrbová, Nitra county in Slovakia who came to America solely out of a sense of adventure. His personal account of travels and experiences has been preserved in two volumes and his autobiography has been translated into several languages.
Beňovský was born in 1741. He came of an aristocratic family that had a well established hereditary title and an estate that could be traced to Medieval times. He spent his boyhood in Vrbová and received the kind of training that would prepare him for a career in social circles and a future suited to the expectations of Vienna where the emperor held court. When he was only fifteen, he proved himself in military action against the King of Prussia. Family problems and inheritance quarrels later complicated his early manhood and he left the family estate. He then joined the Polish army to fight against the Russians for Polish rights, but he was taken prisoner and sent to Siberia.
In captivity he busied himself tutoring the children of Russian officers while he secretly planned his escape. When he finally succeeded in breaking out of his confinement, he roamed the wilds of Siberia as far as Kamchatka and made for the open sea. By pre-arrangement he joined the crew of escaped fellow prisoners who had taken a Russian ship which they sailed as far as China, hoping to secure freedom. They were successful, but Beňovský did not stay in China. He traveled to France and then decided to go to Madagascar where he was in charge of the French colony by 1773. Surviving accounts indicate that he administered impartial justice and that he sought to improve the lot of underprivileged classes. For this the grateful natives acclaimed him their champion and proclaimed him their king. This hardly pleased the staunch government who did not approve of his benevolence toward the long exploited natives.
To offset an unwelcome confrontation and to seek better trade relations with other countries, Beňovský left Madagascar. He visited the South Sea Islands and then went to Europe, hoping to find understanding and support there. France, England, and Austria showed no sympathy for his cause, but he came upon unexpected good fortune when he met Benjamin Franklin who happened to be in London and Paris soliciting support for the American colonies. Franklin took an interest in Beňovský’s efforts. He provided him with letters of recommendation to American friends of influence.
In London, Beňovský also met Hyacinth Magellan, a descendant of the famed Ferdinand Magellan, who advanced him 4,000 pounds for his project. With these funds and letters of recommendation, Beňovský came to America in 1775. He was so deeply impressed by the American ideal of freedom and democracy that he joined the American troops in the Revolutionary War. He fought with a cavalry corps in Pulaski’s Legion and engaged in the siege of Savannah.
After visiting his homeland once more, he returned to America on the ship Robert and Anne with his wife. Count and Countess Beňovský sailed from London on April 14, 1784 and arrived in Baltimore on July 8. They were the first titled Slovak couple that came to America.
Beňovský was serious about helping the natives of Madagascar. He even considered the idea of colonizing the island for America whose democratic principles he greatly admired. He received substantial aid from a Baltimore firm and fitted out the ship Intrepid with stores of food and 30 cannons. He provided for his wife’s comfortable settlement in Baltimore and then sailed for Madagascar on October 25, 1784. He met hostile French forces on the island and was killed in heavy fire. He is buried in Madagascar. His wife spent the rest of her life in the United States.
(GAY-zah MI-ha-lo-tsi) Among Slovak settlers who came to Chicago even before the Civil War was a man named Gejza Mihalócy. He is remembered mainly through a letter which he sent to President Abraham Lincoln on February 4, 1861, two months before the attack on Fort Sumter. He wrote:
Chicago, Feb. 4, 1861
To the Hon. A. Lincoln
We have organized a company of Militia in this city, composed of men of Hungarian, Bohemian and Slavonic origin. Being the first company formed in the United States of said nationalities, we respectfully ask leave of your Excellency to entitle ourselves “Lincoln Riflemen of Slavonic Origin.”
If you will kindly sanction our use of your name, we will endeavor to honor it, whenever we may be called to perform active service.
Respectfully on behalf of the Company,
Gejza Mihalócy, Capt.
Lincoln responded by writing on the request:
I cheerfully grant the request above made.
In the course of events, this company of volunteers composed of immigrants became the first volunteer unit from Chicago to go into action in the Civil War. It trained as a distinct company until June when it became part of the 24th regiment of the Illinois infantry with Gejza Mihalócy ranking as lieutenant colonel.
Mihalócy was a native of Zemplin county in Slovakia. He graduated from the military academy of Vienna and was raised to the rank of lieutenant before serving in the uprising of 1848. He next became captain and for personal safety he left for London. Political involvements and loyalties climaxed in a duel which left him seriously wounded. After recovering, he left London for Chicago and turned his interest to farming but not for long. He soon realized that this occupation did not satisfy him and he returned to what he knew and loved best — military activity.
Mihalócy’s sympathies were with the North because he favored liberty and freedom for all. His regiment of Lincoln Riflemen first came under fire at the battle of Perryville and then at Murfreesboro, Chattanooga, Missionary Ridge, Tunnel Hill and at Bussetrost where he was mortally wounded on February 24, 1864. He died on March 11 of that year, leaving a widow. His grave is marked No. 439, Section A in the National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tennessee.