Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lithuanians in Pennsylvania

Many people know Charles Bronson - a son of a Lithuanian coal miner father and an American-Slav mother. At the turn of the 20th century, many a coal town in Pennsylvania had a significant Lithuanian population - often-times at least 25%. Even now, many of these towns have high percentage of people with Lithuanian heritage.

Did people at the end of 19th century leave their homeland en masse and came to the US to have a life that was extremely hard and dangerous? From the Lithuanian perspective, the story is one of loss and sadness - with an eventual happy ending - just as the life of Mr. Bronson. But who were these people - and how and why did they come to Pennsylvania? And why there was such a large Lithuanian percentage - Lithuania is such a small country compared to Germany or Poland?

One can over-simplify and say that it all was because of the Russian oppression. After all, Mr. Lenin called the Tsarist empire the "prison-house" of nations. The reasons are various, and here is my take on it.

Lithuania was absorbed by Russia in 1795. Shortly afterwards there was the Napoleonic invasion, where locals greeted the invading French and were glad to support their army. However, as this chart shows - the French were not successful and the Russian rule established itself in Lithuania for the next 100 years.

There were uprisings, general population discontent, suppression of religious freedom, suppression of writing in Lithuanian (in some cases even talking in Lithuanian) and even banning of "Temperance societies" that encouraged people not to drink.

However, there were two events that in my opinion were the most significant in increasing the emigration.

Poland - Lithuania - Ruthenia

The first one was the compulsory draft into the Russian army and the resulting uprising of 1863. The compulsory service time was around 25 years - and nobody wanted to do that - not only because of the length of service but because it was for a country nobody really cared for. As the result of this uprising, property was confiscated (the government confiscated 1,660 estates in Poland and 1,794 in Lithuania), many people were executed or deported, a lot of people have gone to the US; and a good part went to Prussia - there is an allusion to this in the book called "Palangos Juzė" by Motiejus Valančius.

The second one is the abolition of serfdom in 1861. This affected not only the former serfs but the remaining free people as well. The thing was that for example in some parts of Samogitia (Western Lithuania) in 1795 around 90% of people were free, i.e. they could move around as they pleased. On the other hand, in the Russian empire there were no free people - there were only serfs or large landowners. So, the Russian administration started considering the free people as "foreigners" and imposing the "pillow tax" (the term "pillow tax" implies that each person in the household has a pillow; in other words, each member of the household has to pay this tax) that was double the usual rate. So, by 1858 in Samogitia only 20% of population remained free. In addition to that, the free people were allowed to buy land only in 1882, and the buy-out price was apparently set at 2-3 times higher than for everybody else.

So we find large groups of people who did not have a full freedom of religion, who were not allowed to write in their own language, and who were treated unfairly - who in essence were driven off their land. Of course - (despite the Czarist bans on emigration to prevent such a drastic loss of population - they emigrated in droves and made small towns in Pennsylvania (Shenandoah, Minersville, Fracksville etc) their new home.

An interesting note aside - for example the Wikipedia page on Shenandoah  lists its famous people - and there are Lithuanian names. Katalinas, Matuza, Racis - all of them American football players who preceeded Johnny Unitas. And here are the pictures of St. George Church - it looks just like the ones in Lithuania. Lithuanian names oftentimes underwent a transformation as well. Since these people emigrated from the Russian empire where the writing in Lithuanian was forbidden, their papers had their names written either in Polish or Russian. Upon arrival to America these names oftentimes retained the Polish spelling - and apparently this currently makes it hard to do a precise ethnic study of this region. Some other names were Anglicized. For example, in Lithuania there is a lot of names that end with "-evicius" - such as Jankevicius, Stankevicius, Vaitkevicius, Butkevičius. The ending "-kevicius" turned into English "-cavage" - so for example "Vaitkevičius" in the US became "Whitecavage", "Stankevicius" - "Stancavage", "Butkevičius"-"Butcavage" etc. Lithuanians returned the favor - they in turn called their little town of Shenandoah by the name of Šenandorius ;) and the neighboring Wilkes-Barre - "Vilkų Baras"

Next time I am in the region, I will make sure to visit some of these little towns and try to imagine how my countrymen used to live there one hundred years ago. Maybe I even visit some places where Dr. Jonas Šliūpas used to live.

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