Part II: New World Beginnings

The Four Waves of Immigration

The first of these mass movements of Slovaks to the United States took place roughly in the last quarter of the 19th century and shortly after that. By the opening days of World War I in 1914, the United States had received a third of the total population of Slovakia.

First Wave

The year 1873 can be called the beginning of a mass exodus, for in that year 1,300 Slovaks came to America. Most of them probably came from the Spiš (Spish) county of Slovakia where the emigrant tide began with jobless miners, tradesmen and small farmers. These were followed by weavers and cloth makers who at one time had had a flourishing industry, operating out of their own cottages. Once the first groups established a pattern of leaving in order to seek a better livelihood, the fever of emigration spread and before long even boys of 14 and 16 began to leave home for America. Eventually the villages and towns had practically no one left for the tasks that had to be done, and hired hands had to be brought in from neighboring regions.

The Zemplin district felt the new movement by 1879 and it is significant that by 1883 about 8,500 persons left that region. In his study of the early phase of emigration to the United States, Jan Hanzlik observes that in this instance there were many cases of entire families from the Zemplin region migrating to America, timing their departure for the days after the harvest season. The home of an emigrating family was generally sold at a bargain price, sometimes as low as from five to twenty florins or gold pieces. Very many of these emigrants sought employment in the mining towns of the United States, but there was also a decided trend to settle in Cleveland where quite a few worked in the Kuntz Plant, an enterprise owned and managed by one of their own countrymen from Zemplin.

When legislation on compulsory military service bound all men under the age of 50 to remain on home territory, an increasing number of women dared, with their men, to face the rigors of an exhausting voyage and all the trials of living in an alien land and a new social environment. They had the extraordinary courage to brave pioneering hardships because their survival and the survival of their families demanded this kind of heroism.

Women, too, dared to take their chances by emigrating. It has been note noted by Schneider, for example, that 5,961 persons emigrated from Šariš (Sharish) in 1905 and of these 2,139 were women.

K. Čulen records that it was the Slovaks of Passaic, New Jersey who welcomed the first Slovak women to join their colony in 1879.

Out of these beginnings, the tide of emigration steadily increased as reports spread that there were brighter prospects in America. This word of mouth was generally substantiated by the presence of some who had returned and really brought home the means to improve their homes and their position in general. The following figures speak for themselves.

District[1] Year Span Emigrants Total Population in 1900 Peak Year Emigrants
Šariš (Sharish) 1870-1878 2,676 174,470 1905 5,873
Spiš (Spish) 1880-1890 19,601 172,091 1905 6,009
Zemplin up to 1883 8,055 327,993 1905 8,206
Abauj with Košice (Koshice) 1881-1890 19,912 196,462 1905 5,138
Trenčín (Trenchin) 1900 472 287,665 1905 3,652
Turiec 1899 144 51,956 1905 1,298
Liptov 1899 162 82,159
Orava 1881-1890 4,615 85,000 1905-1907 5,175
Gemer 1899 1,241 183,784 1905 3,589
Nitra 1893 1,124 428,246 1907 4,523
Bratislava 1900 123 367,502 1907 1,904

As this first tidal wave of emigration began to lose momentum, and as the political program changed with the creation of Czechoslovakia, there was much hope that the new experiment of a federated republic would greatly improve conditions in the homeland of the Slovaks. This promise was unfortunately doomed because many mistakes of the past were repeated through Czechizing pressures that made themselves felt before long and left the hopes of the Slovak nation shattered.

Second Wave

The period 1918-1938 became another critical era in Slovak history and again emigration siphoned away large numbers of threatened, tried and disenchanted Slovaks who turned away from a land that had become to them a foreign state rather than a homeland. Many of them felt that they could be of more help by leaving than by staying. Many sadly realized that they were strong enough as a nation to endure but not strong enough to overcome.

Those who chose to withstand the new trials remained at home doing their utmost to support the life and the rights of the nation directly. Many who felt compelled to find other solutions to life’s problems turned to the United States for asylum and survival. About 60,000 Slovak immigrants came to this country during the years when immigration quotas were already imposing restrictions, and many more who would have chosen to enter the United States found that they had been deferred and would have to wait a number of years before they could be admitted. Some of these sought asylum in other free parts of the world; e.g., Canada, South America, Australia.

Third Wave

Later when the Soviet invasion ruthlessly ground into Czechoslovakia in 1945, and barbed wire barricades, watch towers, forced labor, concentration camps and deportation to Communist Russia became a scourge upon the land, there was a third wave of departures from Slovakia. But this time it was different. Few were permitted to leave, and for the 8,000 Slovaks who succeeded in escaping, there were many others who did not succeed in their attempt. Many lost their lives for making a bid for freedom and democracy.

Fourth Wave

A fourth mass movement of emigration took place after the Dubček period closed and the ominous rumble of Soviet tanks struck terror throughout Czechoslovakia. Under the paralyzing action of the merciless invader about 30,000 Slovaks managed to risk all and find a way out, eventually reaching the United States.

This is a rough survey of the mass waves of Slovak immigration to America, but just as the traits of Americans have changed over the years of our nation’s history, so too did marked differences occur in the social and professional characteristics of the Slovaks who came to our land from distant Slovakia at various times.

In the beginning it was the men and boys who first decided to come to America. Most of them had little or no formal education and came with their good will, their native talents, and their physical strength as their chief assets. Later waves brought not only men and boys but married women and younger girls as well. Many who came after 1920 had a good education and a sharpened sense of world vision. Those who came in the last two waves were generally equipped with professional training and academic credits, degrees, certification and experience as well as a cosmopolitan view of life and the world.


The U.S. Census Bureau records the fact that in the years between 1899 and 1920 there were over 619,860 Slovaks in the United States.

Those who study sociological sciences estimate that today there are about two million people of Slovak background living in the United States. It is very likely that persons of Slovak origin can be found in everyone of our fifty states, some cities and states having larger concentrations than others. Among these Americans of Slovak background some are relatively recent newcomers to our country; others are second, third, fourth and even fifth generations of Slovak immigrants.

Why would such large masses of people leave their native land and venture into an unknown world? It was a daring decision for each one of them to make and sometimes it was a traumatic experience to leave all their dear and familiar scenes behind, to become a stranger among strangers, to undertake a perilous and long journey under extremely trying conditions, to struggle against an intimidating language barrier, to pit one’s strength against unfamiliar forces and to prove oneself against all odds. Under normal conditions this would have been a rare and unusual step, and very few might have considered it seriously.

But it is no news to us that conditions in the world are not always normal for all people. Four times in modern history the Slovaks in their homeland found the prevailing situation so intolerable that they felt compelled to leave their homes and their native land in large numbers, and to seek a better way of life elsewhere. Each time many of them chose to find a haven in the United States.

  1. Statistics selected from K. Čulen: Dejiny Slovákov v Amerike. I. Bratislava, 1942. pp. 49-57.


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

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