Czechs are a Slavic people from Bohemia, Moravia, and parts of Silesia. Among the first Czechs to arrive in Texas were the writer Carl Postl (Charles Sealsfield), who may have visited the Texas-Louisiana borderland as early as 1823; Frederick Lemský, who arrived in 1836 and played the fife in the Texas band at the battle of San Jacinto; Bohumir Menzl, a Catholic priest who moved to New Braunfels in 1840; and Anthony M. Dignowity. Rev. Josef Arnošt Bergmann, however, can best be described as the "father" of Czech immigration to Texas. Soon after arriving at the Austin County community of Cat Spring, Bergmann began writing to his friends in Europe about the opportunities that awaited future immigrants. His letters stimulated Bohemian and Moravian immigration.
The first immigrants were chiefly poor laborers from the area around Nepomuky and Cermna in northeastern Bohemia. On August 19, 1851, headed by Josef Šilar, they began the long, circuitous journey that took them to Hamburg, Liverpool, New Orleans, and eventually Galveston. Dangerous and unhealthful traveling conditions reduced the group's numbers by half. Two years later, a second group of immigrants from the same geographical area came to Texas. Their leader, Josef L. Lešikar, who had been influenced by Bergmann's letters, had helped organize the first group. In the following years many groups of immigrants came from Moravia, particularly the eastern part of that province. The transatlantic voyage grew less dangerous, and Galveston became established as the preferred port of entry. Cat Spring continued to be the point of dispersal for the immigrants. The Central Texas counties of Austin, Fayette, Lavaca, and Washington had early Czech settlements, and Fayette County in particular became established as the center of Czech population in Texas.
About 700 Czechs had established themselves in Texas by the time of the Civil War. By 1900 the number of foreign-born Czechs in the state had climbed to 9,204, and by 1910 to 15,074. After this time, however, Czech immigration decreased; foreign-born Czechs numbered 14,781 in 1920, 14,093 in 1930, and 7,700 in 1940, although the number of Czech "foreign white stock" (defined by the United States Bureau of the Census as those who spoke Czech at home during childhood) had climbed to 62,680 by that year.
During the years of greatest immigration before World War I, the abundance of good, relatively inexpensive farmland in Texas undoubtedly provided the chief motivation for the immigrants, most of whom had been small landowners who saw little chance for economic achievement at home. Political and religious oppression and military conscription in the Austrian Empire also encouraged emigration.
By the twentieth century approximately 250 Czech communities had been settled in Texas, especially in Blackland Prairie areas where farming looked promising. The greatest concentration was found in Lavaca and Fayette counties, though Czech settlement extended into Washington, Burleson, and Brazos counties. North of this strip was a larger belt of Blackland Prairie, where more scattered Czech communities were located in an area running northeast from Williamson County through Bell County and into McLennan County, with smaller offshoots to the north in Hill, Ellis, and Kaufman counties. Most of the other Czech communities were in the Coastal Prairie, with concentrations in Wharton, Fort Bend, Victoria, and a few South Texas counties.
Two basic characteristics of the Czechs in Texas lie at the heart of their social structure: the extremely close-knit family unit and the attitude toward land. The typical Czech farm family was a largely self-contained economic and social unit whose main purpose was to cultivate the land. Farming was a way of life not clearly separated from other life goals and not seen merely as a way of making money. The rural Czech settlements were characterized by such cooperative institutions as the beef club, designed to provide each member family with a supply of fresh beef weekly during the spring and summer. Settlements also often had an egalitarian social structure, a characteristic that helps to explain the Czechs' pronounced enthusiasm for American democratic ideals. Communities became established, and social clubs and organizations began to proliferate, first on a local, then on a state, level. The result was the establishment of fraternal organizations such as the SPJST (Slovanská podporující jednota statu Texas, known in English as the Slavic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas) in 1897; and the KJT (Katolická jednota texaská) in 1888 and the KJZT (Cesko-rimská katolická podporující jednota zen texaských) in 1897, Czech Catholic organizations for men and women, respectively. Each of these organizations grew out of a national Czech fraternal order but split away to become a Texas institution.
Perhaps as many as 90 percent of the Czech immigrants were Catholics in their homeland, and the majority of these maintained an allegiance to the Catholic Church in Texas. Their first church, a small log structure, was built at Ross Prairie in 1859. The most important pioneer Czech priest in Texas was Rev. Josef Chromcík, who arrived in Fayetteville in 1872. A significant minority of the immigrants were Protestants, however. Several independent congregations (the first had been established at Wesley in 1864) were organized into the denomination known as the Unity of the Brethren in 1903, chiefly through the efforts of Rev. Adolf Chlumský. Members of this group considered it to be a continuation of the traditional Czech religious movement of the same name, which had been suppressed by the Austrians in the seventeenth century. The Czechs in Texas also included freethinkers, who openly challenged all religious authority, but in general the freethinking movement among the Czechs was much less significant in Texas than it was in other parts of the United States, especially in the Midwest, where it often dominated Czech-American culture.
Organized education in the Czech language began early in Texas. Bergmann was conducting lessons in both Czech and German at Cat Spring as early as 1855. In 1859 Josef Mašík became perhaps the first formal Czech teacher in the United States when he opened his school at Wesley. The Catholic school he built in 1868 in Bluff (later Hostyn), with Terezie Kubálová as the first teacher, may have been the first of its kind in the United States. Czechs were also especially active in establishing schools in Lavaca County late in the nineteenth century. The first school to offer instruction in both Czech and English was established at Praha in 1870. Although instruction in Czech in the public schools declined rapidly in the late nineteenth century, Czech-American clubs and organizations continued to advocate study of the language, particularly at the college and university level. The continued promotion of such study in the late twentieth century is significant, for language is the most important indicator of Czech ethnic identity.
Because the majority of Texas immigrants came from Moravia, the Czech spoken in Texas is largely characterized by Moravian dialects, which vary to some extent from the Bohemian dialects spoken by most Czech-Americans. Czech-language journalism has been very active in the state over the years. Thirty-three newspapers and periodicals have been published. As of 1993 one weekly newspaper, Našinec, published at Granger, and one monthly, Hospodár, published at West, were still being published entirely in Czech. Other periodicals such as Vestnik and the Brethren Journal contained sections printed in Czech.
A wealth of oral literature has also been preserved in Texas, including stories, proverbs, and especially folk songs. Singing and dancing were the most popular forms of folk art maintained in Texas, but other forms, such as certain games and elaborate wedding rituals, have been preserved. In addition, certain ethnic foods, such as the pastry kolach (koláč), have become well known to virtually all Texans.
In spite of the development of such ethnic institutions as the fraternal organizations and the ethnocentric Brethren Church and efforts to preserve the Czech language and folklore, Czech-American leaders have generally argued for full participation in the political and economic life of the state and nation. Community leader Augustin Haidušek, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, articulated assimilationist ideals most prominently and influentially.
Friction between Czechs and Anglo-Americans was most pronounced during the Civil War. Many recent immigrants did not fully understand the conflict between North and South, and at the same time they were suspect as foreigners. Most significantly, virtually none of them had any allegiance to the institution of slavery, not only for moral reasons, but also because the concept of slavery was alien to their system of intensive family farming.
Ethnic pride among Czechs in Texas perhaps reached its height during World War I and immediately afterwards, for it was spurred by popular enthusiasm for the newly founded free state of Czechoslovakia. Such groups as the Czech National Alliance, which identified with the Czech cause in Europe, found support among the Czechs in Texas. As measured by the widespread use of Czech in churches, fraternal organizations, journalism, and books, as well as the preservation of ethnic music and other folk arts, Czech ethnicity remained strong in the state until World War II. Beginning in the 1960s, as part of a national interest in ethnic awareness, Czech ethnic festivals and celebrations became increasingly popular, although the use of the language continued to decline.
In the mid-1980s a Czech society, Texana Ceskeho Puvodu (Texans of Czech Ancestry), was formed to organize a celebration of the Texas Sesquicentennial and the role of Czechs in Texas history. Related projects included compiling community histories, pioneer registries, family histories and information on Czech cemeteries, schools, and churches. In the early 1990s the SPJST had more than 140 lodges statewide and maintained the Czech Heritage Museum in Temple. The Fayetteville Museum also contained many items on Czech history and culture. The Czech Heritage Society, founded in 1982, had fourteen chapters in Texas by 2003. A number of Czech festivals were held in the state annually, including Czech Fest in Rosenberg, Czhilispiel in Flatonia, Westfest in West, and the National Polka Festival in Ennis. Several radio stations in Central Texas regularly played Czech music. As of the 1990 census, 168,023 people in Texas were of at least partial Czech descent, and the 2000 census listed 187,729 people reporting Czech ancestry. In the 1990s various Czech organizations across Texas, through the coordination of the group Texans of Czech Ancestry, helped develop a project for a statewide Czech cultural center. By 2004 the first phase of the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center had opened in La Grange, and the master plan for this complex included a library and archives, museum, auditorium, historic structures, gardens, and a gift shop.