Part II: New World Beginnings

Characteristics of Slovak Immigration

The Slovak’s percentage rate of emigration was the highest of any group. In fact, the rate of emigration of Slovaks per 1,000 was 18.6; double that of any other race of people except the Hebrew and it was 18.3.

The average age of the emigrating Slovak was 28 which represents the most productive age.

Social Injustice

Most of the other emigrating peoples came to a new and strange land as a family unit: father, mother, and children who could be of mutual assistance as they faced a new chapter in their lives. But a look at the census ratio figures for the emigrating Slovak male and female shows that their venture was largely made on a solitary basis without the comfort of family ties. In the year 1900 the total number of Slovak immigrants was established at 29,243. Among them were 21,235 men and only 8,008 women, a ratio of 5.66 men to one woman. This ratio diminished later to 4:1. The ratio of men to women among other nationalities from Hungary was 2:1 or 3:1.

Mutual Needs

The immigrants and America needed each other. When businessmen began to industrialize the United States in a big way after the Civil War, they had to solve two major problems — a shortage of men to work in their factories and the refusal of native Americans to accept low wages. Businessmen could conceivably have approached the millions of Blacks in the South who had recently been freed from slavery and were desperate for work, but southern plantation owners also valued Blacks as a source of cheap labor and northern whites, quite as racist as southerners, did not want to see Blacks moving into their neighborhoods. Industrialists, therefore, sought and found the answer to their problems in Eastern Europe. They sent agents to persuade the newly-emancipated peasants to come to America. A Slovak making 15 to 30 cents a day on a noblels estates in the 1870’s needed little prodding to try his luck overseas where he might earn $1.00 to $1.50 a day in the steel mills and coal mines. The trickle of peasants who had experienced life in America in the 1870’s turned into a deluge after they returned home with their savings in the 1880’s. Only 5,000 Slovaks had made the trip in the years 1870-1880. By 1920, however, over 600,000 (one quarter of the Slovak nation) lived and worked in the new land.

Back-breaking Labor

Like other immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Slovaks found work chiefly in the coal mines, steel mills, and oil refineries of the United States. Native Americans shunned unskilled work in these industries because it was so onerous, so poorly paid and so hazardous. While native Americans earned on the average, between $2 and $3 a day in skilled work between 1870 and 1910, unskilled Eastern Europeans could hope for little more than $1.50 a day, and quite often less. Furthermore, unskilled laborers worked 10 to 12 hours a day six days a week (in the steel mills it was seven days a week) and thousands died of industrial accidents because their bosses valued profits over safety. The main reason Slovaks and other Eastern Europeans initially put up with such conditions was that they had no intention of remaining in America. Most had come to make their “fortune” (usually $1,000) and then return home. Slovaks had a yearly return rate of 20 percent and thus could be considered as long-distance commuters of the late 19th century.

In America, Freedom

However, many of those who returned to the old country left it shortly after returning and came back to America to stay. John Mlinik typifies those who changed their minds. His story:

It was John Mlinik’s ambition to be a well-to-do farmer in Hungary in a few years, and recently he and his wife made a preliminary visit to his old home and bought a farm. They remained a few weeks — but those few weeks were quite enough. He came back quite cured. “Every little clerk in the village looked down on me because I did not speak the official language, Magyar,” Mlinik said. “He was an official while I was just a peasant. He didn’t earn a quarter of what I do, yet I had to bow to him. That made me sore. In America, I’m a free man. Besides, live got a better chance to do well than in the old country. Yes, America is good enough for me.”

The Long Voyage

Once it was decided to leave the homeland there was no great problem in gathering the few necessities that would be taken on the voyage. Those who were leaving had little of material value and very little money. Some travelers provided themselves with a packet of food for the way and a small bundle of personal belongings. They set out for the port of their choice on foot, by train, or by horse-drawn wagon. Genoa and Fiume were the less favored ports of departure. Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Antwerp were more popular choices but German ports were most highly favored, Bremen being the top choice (for about 60% of the travelers) and Hamburg ranking as second most favored port of embarkation (for 25%).

Unscrupulous Dealings

Steamship company agents were about, making attractive offers and suggesting inducements of every kind, for it was in their interest to provide workers for a growing American industry. There were promises of jobs with regular pay; there were advertisements and offers to pay the passage of a worker coming to America. Overzealous agents even solicited prospective emigrants to leave their homeland without the government’s sanction and instructed them on steps to take for clandestine departure. They recommended routes that might be safest to take out of the country. They provided information of every kind.

Steamship companies did a thriving business and when the demand for transportation exceeded the capacities of the great Cunard Line which held an exclusive franchise from the Hungarian government, this company invited other shipping lines to form a Continental Pool in order to accommodate all those who applied for passage across the Atlantic. This organized enterprise made great gains for itself and it benefited the government in various ways as it exploited its passengers. Its rules and provisions were related not to the welfare of travelers but rather to the sharing of the spoils of the business. Sad to say, the Continental Pool offered the most miserable accommodations, the poorest meals and the worst type of navigation.

Once he had purchased his ticket for 50 crowns or about $20, or once he had arranged for the equivalent of this price, the prospective traveler had to wait patiently in the port city until an assigned departure date. This might be a few days or a few weeks away. If he happened to be booked for a ship that was already oversold, he would have to wait until another ship could be scheduled. In the days or weeks that intervened, he could become the victim of cheats and schemers of every kind. If he was lucky, he sometimes found interim jobs to pay for temporary lodging and food.

On the ship itself living conditions were unspeakable. The immigrant cargo was not generally in first, second, or third class accommodations. Oftener than not, they were herded into the steerage, occupying space that could not be assigned to general freight or any profitable purpose. The lack of ventilation and common hygienic facilities made the air oppressive and stifling. Bodies were crowded so closely that there was no privacy, no comfort of any kind. Drinking water was rationed out only at infrequent intervals. Food was spooned into a cup which was given to each passenger with instructions that he was to look after it until the end of the voyage when it was to be returned. Because ship’s fare was inadequate, many depended on supplemental staples that they had brought with themselves. Sleeping quarters were skimpy bunks in tiers of three or four levels with just straw mats for bedding. Men, women and children shared the same area.

The ship itself was not generally a strong or safe craft. Elemental forces battered it unmercifully and during a voyage of from 15 to 60 days the passengers in steerage felt that they were easy pawns between life and death and all the agonies that could be squeezed in between. Prayer and hope were their main sustenance. They counted on simple and old peasant remedies to alleviate some of their physical ills and miseries. They knew how to accept suffering and if this, too, was to be part of the price for a better life, they were paying it.

Ports of Entry

The usual ports of entry were New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Boston. The tremendously impressive and symbolic approach was, of course, through New York harbor, welcomed by the monumental Statue of Liberty. Disembarking, however, was not yet the end of the voyage. There was the need to pass through the immigration station at Ellis Island (Castle Garden) with its gamut of officialdom, inspections, and red tape formalities. Indescribable anxieties mounted here. The unendurable fear was the nightmare of being denied clearance into the promised land of America.

Once this trial was passed, the stranger in the new world had arrived and all too often was left to his own resources. His residual funds could amount to less than $10 and if he was not careful, he could lose it all.

If he was very fortunate, he might find a relative or an acquaintance waiting for him as he began to explore his new surroundings. In that happy meeting he was assured a good start in a world that promised him a new life and better fortune. If he had to find his own way, he often set out in the direction of a railroad and hoped to find, not the proverbial pot of gold at rainbow’s end, but the opportunity to work for a decent living and a chance to make some savings for himself and for those back home.

If he came through company agents, or, if he was hired by agents at Ellis Island, he went to whatever center they directed him. Ordinarily this would be a mining area or a factory site. Since the coal, steel, and oil industries of America were concentrated in the industrial Northeast, most Slovaks settled in this area. Pennsylvania led the way, attracting almost 300,000 of the newcomers by 1920 while Ohio came second with 79,000 (Cleveland received one-third of them), New Jersey had 50,000, New York 46,000, Illinois and Connecticut 21,000. Smaller numbers appeared in Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia, and Colorado.



Slovak Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © by Cleveland State University . All Rights Reserved.

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