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Main Page > CS America > Czech Pioneers in Wisconsin

Czech Pioneers in Wisconsin

by Miloslav Rechcígl, Jr.

Contrary to the general belief, it was neither Chicago nor New York nor Cleveland that initially most attracted Czech immigrants to settle there but rather the state of Wisconsin. This can be verified by the existing statistics. According to the US Census of 1860(1), in Wisconsin lived 7,060 Czech settlers, as compared to 3, 132 Czech immigrants in Missouri, 2, 700 in Iowa, 2,438 in New York, 2,106 in Illinois, and 1,317 in Ohio. Ten years later the statistics (2) were very similar. Wisconsin led again with 10,570 Czech settlers, followed by Illinois with 7,350 settlers, then came Iowa with 6,765, Missouri with 3,517, Minnesota with 2,160, New York with 2,071, Michigan with 1.1,770, Nebraska with 1,170 and Ohio with 1,423.Wisconsin was still ahead of other states in 1880 (3). However, in 1 890 (4) it fell to the third place, behind Illinois, and Nebraska. In 1 900 (5) it dropped even further to fifth place, behind Illinois, New York, Nebraska, and Ohio.

Wisconsin was incorporated into the Union in 1848 which also marked the beginning of the mass emigration from Austria-Hungary and Central Europe to the United States. First attracted to Wisconsin were Germans, who were soon followed by Czechs and Scandinavians. As a new state, Wisconsin was interested in securing as many settlers as possible and developed an active and lively advertising campaign to attract European emigrants. One advertising pamphlet (6) read. “Come! In Wisconsin all men are free and equal
before the law… Religious freedom is absolute and there is not the slightest connection between church and state… In Wisconsin no religious qualification is necessary for office or to constitute a voter; all that is required is for the man to be 21 years old and to have lived in the state one year.

The state went as far as appointing in New York City a salaried official, Immigration Commissioner, whose duty was to seek to divert the flow of newcomers thither. This commissioner advertised extensively in the foreign language press, mainly German, sending besides, generous quantifies of printed matter to points in Germany, Austria, Switzerland (7).

Czechs who moved to Wisconsin had primarily an agricultural background. The State, of course, possessed advantages over others for these type of people. The climate, though severe with long winters, was salubrious and singularly free from those frequent and unhealthy changes which prevail further south. The soil was adaptable to the raising of maize, rye, wheat, oats, and vegetables – the crops with which the Czechs husbandman was familiar. Furthermore there was no competition with black labor (8). Czech immigrants
were also regularly informed about the virtues of Wisconsin from the Czech Wisconsin weekly Stavie.

Wisconsin, for a long time, stood at the front of Czech effort in the United States One can say that in those early days there was no Czech-American household who would not have heard about such Wisconsin cities as Milwaukee, Racine, Caledonia, Manitowoc or Kewaunne. At one time or another, Wisconsin was the home of Vojta Naprstek, Jan Balatka, John Herman, Frank Korizek, J. B. Letovsky, Vaclav Simonek, Vojta Masek, Charles Jonas, Ladimir Klacel, Franta Mracek, John Borecky, John Karel. Here were published the first Czech newspapers in the United States and here were projected and came into existence the first Czech language schools. Wisconsin also housed one of the oldest Czech organizations, “Slovanska Lipa” with its numerous branches. The importance of the Czech Wisconsin community is also indicated by the fact that the first Czech-American selected for the Consular service in Prague came from that state.

Milwaukee was usually the first destination point of Czech immigrants in Wisconsin. Although many of them eventually moved to other places in Wisconsin, the Czechs established in Milwaukee one of their oldest settlements in the US, around the mid of the 1 9th century, with which only St. Louis could rival. According to Habenicht (9) the following Czechs lived in Milwaukee at the end of 1848 and the beginning of 1849: Vaclav Zlab from Cinov, Jan Richter from Valovice, Josef Mann, Josef Schramm and Hynek Belier from Roudnice, Josef Zima from Kralovice near Plzen, and Frantisek Fiser, however he did not provide any documentation..

On June 16, 1850 arrived in Milwaukee Vojta Naprstek (1826-1 894) (10) who sparked the national life among Czech Americans, not only in Wisconsin but in the entire country. He published his famous Milwaukee Flugblatter there and gave impetus for publishing Czech newspapers in the US. He was preceded here in September 1949 by a Czech musician Jan Balatka (1827-1899) who established the famed “Milwaukee Musikverein”(11) in Milwaukee. They both were political refugees who sought refuge in America, following the unsuccessful revolution of 1848.

Contrary to popular belief, that Naprstek was the first Czech settler in Milwaukee, there is plenty of evidence of the fact tat prior to his, and for that matter also prior to Balatka’s arrival, several Jewish families from the Czechlands lived in the city (12). Among them the oldest were Isaac Neustadtl and Solomon Adler who settled in Milwaukee in 1844. Isaac Neustadtl (died 1877) was a political refugee who established in Milwaukee an association for aiding political refugees from Europe. He started out as a retail grocer and
later involved himself in the insurance business. In 1852 he was elected city alderman and later served on a nominating committee for the Republican city convention . He was one of the founders of the renowned German-English Academy and one of the managers of the Milwaukee Music Society. It is also of interest that in 1847 12 Jewish pioneers held their first services in his home, leading tote establishment of the first Jewish congregation in Milwaukee and Wisconsin (13).

Solomon Adler (1816-?) was a clothier who was first in partnership with Jacob Steinhart. Following the arrival of his brother David Adler (1821-1905), in 1852, who had previously resided in New York City, the two brothers jointly operated a retail clothing store. Later on, the third brother, Jacob joined the firm. The enterprise prospered greatly during the civil war, with sales reaching as high as $ 600, 000 in one year.

In 1846 another Bohemian Jew, Josef Schram, who lived for some time in Boston previously, arrived in Milwaukee. He opened a grocery store in the same year and operated it successfully for 26 years The following year several other Jews, mostly from Bohemia, came, including Adolf Weil from Prague, Nathan Pereles from Sobotiste, Mrs. Nathan Pereles from Prague, and Henry Katz from Neustadtl, Bohemia. In 1849 they were joined by Bernard Heller of Citov, Bohemia, Jabob Morawetz and Jonas Schoenmann, both from Bohemia.

Racine was one of the first cities with significant number of Czech immigrants. Czechs called it affectionately “Czech Bethlehem”. The first Racine settler from the Czechlands was presumably Antonin Kroupa (1 826-1900) from Vlasim who settled in the city in 1848, soon after the Prague uprising of 1848. From humble beginnings as a laborer he brought  himself up to the level of manager and owner of a large hardware store. Among other pioneer settlers were Josef Novotny of Brandys nad Orlici, Jan Ligler from Borovany near Ceske Budejovice, Frantisek Hajek from Sloupnice near Brandys nad Orlici, and Matej Zika from Strakonice.

Matej Zika (1840-?) was an unique individual. He came to this country in 1853 with his parents who settled in Caledonia. After two years he came to Racine to learn the saddle trade. It did not take long before he established his own workshop and then a store. He began manufacturing travel luggage and his business eventually became one of the largest of its kind in the US. He was elected mayor of the city and later changed his name to Secor.

Another Racine pioneer deserving mentioning here was Frantisek Korizek (1820-1899) who had the distinction of being the first publisher of Czech newspapers in the US. He was native of Letovice in Moravia, who settled in Racine in 1848, after his initial stay in Boston. He held a variety of jobs, from chopping wood to bricklaying, upholstery, clerking and teaching music. He was always patriotically inclined and at a relatively mature age (he was about 38 at the time) he got the idea of publishing Czech newspapers in America “to enable the Czech nationality to build a real new home here and to maintain spiritual contact with the homeland”. Without any previous training whatsoever he proceeded to learn the printing trade, using music and voice lessons as his primary means of support. Despite scepticism by his friends and colleagues, Korizek accomplished his goal. On January 1, 1860 the first issue of his Slowan amerikansky came out, making Korizek the Nestor of Czech journalists in the US. It had to be printed in German Gothic since the Czech alphabet was not available at that time. Korizek then went ahead and prepared additional 23 issues with his own hands, without any editorial assistance (14).

The newspaper was later renamed Slavie, first under the editorship of Vojtech Masek and since 1853 under the editorship of Karel Jonas. Karel Jonas (1840-1896), a native of Malesov, near Kutna Hora, was a great patriot who was frequently persecuted for his literary activities in his native land. Under his editorship, Slavie became the most respected Czech newspaper in the US. Besides journalism, Jonas published a number of Czech-English dictionaries and grammars. In 1871 he was elected chairman of the city council and two years later state senator. The culmination of his political career was his appointment as American Consul to Prague and Deputy Governor of the State of Wisconsin (15).

Just as Racine became the principal Czech city in Wisconsin, the neighboring village Caledonia assumed importance as the major agricultural Czech settlement in the state. Jan Posler (born 1823) and Frantisek Andrle (born 1820) of Luze, Bohemia, who settled here in 1850, were among the first pioneers. In 1851 they were joined by Vaclav Mazanek, and the following year by Jan Houdek from Chocen, Josef Mikulecky from Sloupnice, Katerina Klofandova and Vaclav Kroulik from Vysoke Myto, Frantisek and Danek from Stritez near Litomysl, Josef Gaberhel, Jan Stritesky from Dolni Ujezd, Daniel Stritesky from Radim and Jan Zitko from Chrudim.

North of Milwaukee County lies Manitowoc County which began to be settled by Czechs in 1851. One of the earliest Czechs to come here was Frantisek Fiser, or Fischer, as he later spelled his name, who originally lived with his parents in Milwaukee. He established a new village under the name Kossuthtown. This village distinguished itself by producing the first Czech drama production in the US in September 1856. It was also here in Kossuthtown, two months later, where Naprstek called the first political gathering of Czech Americans in the US for the purpose of declaring their support and for initiating a campaign for the Republican candidate for President, John C. Fremont, a strong supporter of the anti-slavery movement. When the Civil War broke out, Fischer was one of the first Czechs to volunteer in the Union army. Another Caladenia pioneer was Michael Kellner, the founder of the village Kellnersville. Other early immigrants from the Czechlands included the Chaloupka family from Kutna Hora, Petr Straka and Petr Kostlivy from Domazlice, Frantisek Stupecky from Vyhan near Cesky Brod, physician Jan Mendlik from Polstyn, Vaclav Maly, Jan Cizek and Frantisek Vozab from Stremy near Melnik, and Frantisek Kostomlatsky from Kostomlaty near Roudnice.

Manitowoc borders with Kewaunee County which also attracted numerous Czech settlers, who began to arrive here in 1854. At that time the region was still covered with desolate forests. Among the first Czech settlers were Jan Stika from Jankov near Velky Cakov and Vojtech Stransky from Velka Retova. Vojtech Stransky (1835-1904) who started cultivating soil in the midst of a forest, later moved to Kewaunee where he operated a mill. Hr then became one of the first sheriffs of the town of Kewaunee and also judge of the whole county.
Later came Josef Valenta from Semily near Zelezny Brod, Mikulas Kaleik from Nemcice near Klatovy and Vaclav Sauer from Kozojedy near Plzen.

One of the most enterprising Czech settlers in Kewaunee was Vojta Masek (1839-1907) from Pohovorice near Vodnany who preceded Karel Jonas as editor of Slavie in Racine. He subsequently moved to Kewaunee with $150 and rented a hotel there. He then, jointly with V. Stransky, purchased a pharmacy with a grocery After the first year of successful operation he bought his partner out and continued as an independent merchant. In two more years he also engaged in lumber business and transported his goods on his own ships to Chicago and Milwaukee. His business went so well that he purchased the Kewaunee harbor and built another one some distance away with a branch office. Later on he purchased a large track of land in Door County and started building sailing ships and became a wholesaler. In 1888 he also entered the banking business.

Another successful Czech in Kewaunne was Jan Karel (185 1-1914) from Nemecka Briza near Plzen. Like Masek, he also became very successful in business and established a banking house in Kewaunne. In 1876, and again in 1878, he was elected member of the Wisconsin legislature. In 1893 President Cleveland appointed him Consul to Prague and later to Petersburg. His two sons who were also well educated and wealthy businessmen became members of Wisconsin State legislature, as well.


1. Population of the US. in 1860. Compiled from the original returns of the Eighth U.S. Census under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, Washington, DC., 1864.
2. Ninth US. Census, June 1870.
3. Tenth US. Census, June 1,1880.
4. Eleventh US Census, June 1, 1890.
5. Twelflh US. Census, June 1, 1900.
6. Jolm U. Gregory, Foreign Immigration to Wisconsin. Address delivered before the Wisconsin state Historical Convention at Milwaukee, October 11, 1911.
7. Albert B. Faust, The German Element in the United States, vol. 1, p. 477.
8. Thomas Capek, The Czechs (Bohemians) in America. Boston and New York: Houghton Miflin Company, 1920, p.37.
9. Jan Habenicht, History of Czechs in America. St. Paul, MN: Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, 1996, p.307.
10. Zdenek Stolle, Vojta Naprstek ajeho doba (Vojta Naprstek and His Times). Praha: Felis, 1994.
11. J. J. Schlichter, “Hans Balatka and the Milwaukee Musical Society”, Wisconsin Magazine of History (September 1943), pp.40-55.
12. History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Chicago: The Western Historical Company, 1881, vol. 2; Louis J. Swichkow and Lloyd P. Gartner, This History of the Jews of Milwaukee. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1963.
13. in comparison, the first Czech Catholic missionary in the state of Wisconsin was father Joseph MaIy (1829-1903) from Bechyne, near Tabor. He arrived in Wisconsin un 1855 and visited isolated Czech colonists scattered over several counties. Thanls to his efforts, churches and parishes were established in many Czech settlements.
14. Thomas Capek, Padesat Let Ceskeho Tisku v Americe (Fifty Years of Czech Press in America). New York: Bank of Europe, 1911, pp. 13-18.
15. Karel D. Bicha, “Karel Jonas of Racine: ‘First Czech in America’ “,Wisconsin Magazine of History 63 (Winter 1979-1980), pp.122-140.