THE FIRST CROATIANS IN AMERICA
During the Middle Ages, the Adriatic ports of Croatia’s “Dalmatian Coast” were thriving centers of commerce and trade. The Italian ports of Venice and Genoa fought for control of the high seas, as did the small but powerful independent Republic of Ragusa, a city-state in Croatia now known as Dubrovnik.
Skilled Ragusan navigators and seaman were in great demand, as well as crew members on most European ships. Many scholars believe Dalmatian sailors were on Columbus’ ships to the New World. An often-repeated Croatian legend has it that one of Columbus’ sailors amassed considerable wealth in gold and returned to his native Ragusa to build a beautiful palace at Bonda.
In 1494 Ragusa signed a treaty with Spain, which allowed Ragusan ships to trade with Spanish colonies. Because Ragusa’s government had banned slavery in 1416, the Ragusan ships were not allowed to transport slaves from Africa to the colonies. Many Ragusan sailors remained in the colonies, married English women, and changed their names. It is documented, for example, that brothers Mato and Dominko Kondjević sailed to America in 1520 and remained for 30 years before returning home with substantial wealth.
Legend and early American history unite in the story of John White, who in 1587 established an English colony on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. When poverty and disease threatened the survival of the settlement, White returned to England to seek aid. The colonists had agreed to leave a sign on a tree if trouble developed or they were forced to leave. Upon his return to the island, White found the houses in ruins and no sign of life, but discovered the word Croatan deeply etched into the bark of a tree. It has been theorized that the Ragusan ship Croatian, believed to have left for America in the 1580s, touched the shore at Roanoke, picked up the surviving English colonists, and was later lost at sea. Another story tells of survivors of a sunken Ragusan ship who were helped by friendly Native Americans who later became known as the Croatians. Years later, a visitor noted that some of the Croatian Indians had light skin, fair hair, and blue eyes—characteristic of Ragusans.
These stories remain undocumented legend; however, a letter sent by the government of Dubrovnik to its diplomatic representative in Madrid, states that by 1600, “many Ragusans” were already living in America.
The work of Croatian and Slovene missionaries in America is well documented. Priests and members of religious orders ventured into the American wilderness. One of the first was Baron Ivan Ratkay (Ratkaj), a wealthy Croatian nobleman, who early in life rejected the comfortable existence into which he was born to commit himself to doing God’s work. After joining the Jesuit Order, he underwent rigorous training in Rome and Madrid and was named a missionary to the uncharted regions of New Spain.
Ratkay arrived in America in 1673 and began teaching and baptizing the Tarahumara Indians of the Southwest. A scholar, he also pursued interests that included the study of the area’s physical geography. Detailed records of his travels through the New Mexican region proved valuable to many of the pioneers who followed him. In 1683 Ratkay died at age 36 at the hands of Native Americans—supposedly poisoned for forbidding drinking and dancing.
Another missionary, Father Ferdinand Konscak, worked in the unsettled regions of California and Mexico under the name Padre Consago Gonzales. The son of an army officer, Father Konscak was born in 1703 in Verazdin, Croatia, and attended the Jesuit College in Budapest, Hungary. For more than 22 years he remained in California at the San Ignacio Mission. A traveler, Father Konscak also discovered that Lower (Baja) California was a peninsula rather than an island and constructed an accurate, detailed map of the region. In 1770 J. Baegert copied the map in his pioneer guidebook Nachrichten von Kalifornien. Father Konscak also founded the village of San Antonio Real.
Croatian missionary Josip Kundak worked in the Midwest with Native Americans and growing German and Swiss immigrant populations. In 1854 he established the Benedictine Abbey in St. Meinhard, Indiana. He also founded a mission in Jasper, Indiana, and the town of Ferdinand. Honoring the centennial of his death, the governor of Indiana proclaimed December 8, 1957 “Father Kundak Day” to show, in his words, “tribute to a great missionary, pioneer, and citizen who left Croatia, the land he loved, to come and colonize the wilderness of this great state, for which we owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”
DALMATIANS IN THE SOUTH AND WEST
When the Civil War began, Dalmatian colonies (Dalmatia is a region in Croatia) had spread into Mississippi and Alabama. U.S. Census records of the 1850s and 1860s reveal hundreds of Dalmatian saloonkeepers, grocers, tugboat operators, and restaurant owners. By 1880 an estimated 20,000 Croatians lived in the United States, primarily in the South and the West. Not surprisingly, many fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War, forming the Austrian Guards and two Slavonian rifle units.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Dalmatian sailors jumped ship at major American ports, especially at favored locations such as New Orleans. The former seamen found the oyster business a natural transition. Some, like Luka Jurisich, who arrived in Bayou Creek, Louisiana, from Duba, in 1855, are credited with building the trade in the region. Dalmatians also became early developers of oyster fisheries in Biloxi, Mississippi. Today, the huge fishing industry in these regions is heavily populated by descendants of the early Dalmatian settlers.
Many Dalmatians moved from New Orleans to ports in the Far West, establishing large colonies such as the one that grew in and around San Francisco. Some arrived as early as 1835, predating settlers from the Eastern states. Although gold enticed many Croatians to move west, those who settled in California were captivated by the climate, which they likened to that of their sunny Adriatic homeland. Most made their living, not from gold, but by operating businesses. According to one study, more than 50 Dalmatian businesses occupied a single San Francisco street in the 1850s and 1860s.
In 1857 the Slavonic Illyrian Mutual and Benevolent Society was formed in San Francisco as the first Slavic charitable society of its kind in America. In 1861 the Society purchased land for the first Croatian-Serbian cemetery in the United States. Vincent Gelcich, president of the Society in 1860, was a physician who served as a surgeon and colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War. This society, which helped immigrants survive in the new land, is still in existence today.
Perhaps the most important Dalmatian contribution to America was made in agriculture. Mateo Arnerich, a sailor from Brac, arrived in San Francisco in 1849, the year after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. One of the first Dalmatians to settle in the Santa Clara Valley, Arnerich bought land and established the vineyards that made his wealth. His two sons became lawyers and one, a member of the State Legislature, was the first Croatian to hold public office in the United States. In the 1870s, Mark Rabasa introduced the apple industry to northern California. Another Dalmatian, Steve Mitrovich, imported the Dalmatian fig to Fresno and displayed the “Adriatic fig” at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, winning first prize.
Because of Dalmatian success at growing and developing a superior quality of grapes, figs, plums, apples, and apricots in Pajaro Valley, the region was called New Dalmatia. Although the novelist Jack London feared “alien” control, he described the flourishing 12,000-acre apple paradise of the Dalmatians in his 1913 novel Valley of the Moon : “Do you know what they call Pajaro Valley? New Dalmatia. We’re being squeezed out. We Yankees thought we were smart. Well, the Dalmatians came along and showed they were smarter…. First, they worked at day labor in the fruit harvest. Next, they began, in a small way, buying the apples on the trees. The more money they made, the bigger became their deals. Pretty soon they were renting the orchards on long leases; and now they own the whole valley, and the last American will be gone.”
The discovery of silver in the Nevada Territory in the late 1850s inspired the influx of Croatian settlers into towns like Virginia City, Carson City, Austin, and Reno. These Slavs were commonly referred to as “Sclavonians” or “Slavonians.” The successful Slavonian Gold and Silver Mining Company at Resse River, Nevada, was organized in 1863, but most settlers made their living in businesses that served miners. The largest food provision house in Nevada in the 1860s was owned by Dalmatians, and Marco Medin, one of the first men to arrive in Nevada during the silver fever, grew rich in the fruit and saloon businesses.
The lives of Antonio Mazzanovich, Antonio Milatovich, and Captain John Dominus illustrate a more colorful side of Croatian history. Mazzanovich enlisted as a bugler in the U.S. 6th Cavalry when he was 11 years old and helped pursue the famous Apache Geronimo through the Southwest, which he recalled in his memoirs, Trailing Geronimo (1931). Milatovich sued the Republic of Mexico when a revolutionary change of government deprived him of more than one million acres of Mexican land he had acquired. He lost his fortune when the new government refused his claim on the basis of his Austrian citizenship. The Croatian Captain John Dominus, who sailed to America in his own ship, subsequently settled in Hawaii, where he built a lavish mansion that was later used as the official residence of the Governor. Captain Dominus disappeared at sea while attempting to reach China. His son, John Owen Dominus, married the Hawaiian princess Lydia Kamekaha Kapaaka in 1862. She became Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning queen of Hawaii, and Dominus served as her Prince Consort until his death in 189l.
THE GREAT MIGRATION: AFTER 1880
From 1880 through 1914, Croatians and other Eastern European peasants immigrated to the United States in large numbers. Fleeing from poverty brought on by changes in land inheritance laws, blight, and deteriorating farming soil quality, and a decreasing infant mortality rate that increased the population, a young generation looked to America trbuhom za kruhum (“with belly after bread”).
Because statistics were so poorly kept in general, and Slavs were so often lumped together or confused with other groups, it is not known how many Croatians entered the United States during the Great Migration. In the 1930s Croatian historian Ivan Mladineo estimated that approximately half a million Croatians were living in America at that time.
The first wave of immigrants consisted of primarily illiterate, unskilled male laborers who came to the United States to make their fortunes and then return home. Many made frequent trips between the United States and Eastern Europe, and became known as “birds of passage.” These men sent money to their villages, markedly improving the economic conditions of the Croatians who remained at home. In 1938 the South Slav Heraldreported that two thirds of the new homes built in Croatia during the previous 30 years had been built with American money.
According to the 1907 Immigration Commission survey, about 66 percent of Croatians who came to America returned home. Between 1899 and 1924, the rate was nearly half. The thousands who returned to Croatia took new ideas with them, including ideas about democracy. In 1906 Croatian writer Antun Matos wrote “America is presently the most important factor in the creation of Croatian democracy.”
Following World War II, millions were left homeless, and the rise to power of Communist regimes in Yugoslavia and other parts of Eastern Europe meant that others could not return home. Of the 400,000 Displaced People initially admitted into the United States, 18,000 were “Yugoslavs.”
Laws like the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 and the Refugee Escape Act of 1960, and the demise of the quota system in 1965, facilitated more Croatian emigration. This new wave included many educated professionals. In “A Clash of Two Immigrant Generations,” Bogdan Raditsa discussed the sharp contrast between the earlier, unskilled Croatian immigrants and their later counterparts, revealing the “bitterness that divides the Croatians who came here as displaced persons after 1945 from the Croatian American families established in this country for four or five decades.” According to the 1990 U.S. Census, there are an estimated 544,000 Croatian Americans living in the United States.
Today, Pennsylvania’s Croatian population of nearly a quarter million is the largest in the country. During the Great Migration, most Croatians settled in the industrial cities of the Midwest in already established immigrant communities. In places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Indiana, they worked in coal mines, and in the iron and steel mills. California also supports a sizable Croatian population. There settlers found employment in fishing and mining. In San Francisco Croatian Americans introduced new methods of drying fruits, packaging, and shipping.
The traditional patriarchal Croatian family structure, which emphasized control and rigid discipline, remained a part of the early immigrant lifestyle and contributed to the Slavs’ reputation as a dependable hard worker. Aside from arrests for drunkenness, there was little crime among the Croatians in America. Industrialists struggling against labor unions often exploited the new immigrants, making them scabs during worker strikes.
Croatian-Americans form a large and vibrant community. According to the most recent figures, there are 434,000 Croatian-Americans. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2009 American Community Survey). This figure probably undercounts the number of Americans with Croatian ancestry as the census survey also includes 325,000 “Yugoslavs”. Of Croatians in the US, 23% live in the Northeast, 40% in the Midwest, 15% in the South and 23% in the West.
The state with the largest Croatian population is now Pennsylvania, especially Pittsburgh and its surroundings. Chicago and Indianapolis are also major Croatian centers making Illinois the state with the second largest Croatian population. California and Ohio also have significant Croatian communities. For a detailed history of Croatian immigration to America see Croatians.com
Acculturation and Assimilation
Although events since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s have made Croatia more visible internationally, Croatians are still mislabeled and subsumed into larger classifications such as Austrian-Hungarian or Yugoslavian. Croatians have also been the object of discrimination.
During the period of the Great Migration, Croatians and other Slavs were often lumped together and assessed as an uninspired, stolid, sluggish people who were only useful as drudges and unskilled grunts. They were called derogatory names like “Hunkies,” “modgies,” and “strams” and labeled “Bo hunks” or “dumb Polacks.”
The unskilled, often illiterate early immigrants gave little thought to assimilation. They clustered together, often in cooperative boardinghouses called drustvo, and worked at unskilled labor 12 to 16 hours a day, and in the process, resisted acculturation. One Slavic commentator wrote, “My people do not live in America; they live underneath America. America goes on over their heads.”
During and after World War I, when many Croatians who had planned to return to Europe could not, the number who became American citizens increased sharply. By 1919 a study showed that 60 to 65 percent of the immigrants had taken out naturalization papers. The Jugoslav Central organization—formed in Detroit in 1932 to promote unity among Slovenians, Serbians, and Croatians—had as one of its chief goals the encouragement of U.S. citizenship.
THE ROLE OF THE NEWSPAPER
Even though many Croatian immigrants were illiterate, newspapers assumed an importance in the “Little Croatias” of America. They reported changes in American immigration law, carried employment opportunities, and kept up with major European events.
The most popular newspaper among early immigrants was Narodni List (1898), published in New York by Frank Zotti, a colorful and controversial Croatian figure of the time. Zotti’s tabloid featured gutsy topical reporting, melodramatic fiction and popular peasant poetry. The Croatian Fraternal Union‘s Zajednicar (Unity) began in 1905 in Pittsburgh, and is still published today with a circulation of 70,000.
DANCES AND SONGS
The popular kolo or circle dance is performed to the accompaniment of the tamburitsa, a traditional mandolin-like stringed instrument. The tamburitsa is a modern version of the one-stringed gusle used for centuries by the village poets. A tamburitsa band performed at the White House during Theodore Roosevelt‘s presidency and in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1900. Today, Duquesne University supports tamburitsa orchestras and festivals and runs the Tamburitsa School of Music-the only one of its kind in America.
Singing societies, which have also been popular, are patterned after an early group called “Zora” (Dawn), which was founded in Chicago in 1903 to keep old folk songs and past experiences alive.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
For Croatians, food, tradition, and folk culture are interconnected, especially as a part of holiday celebrations. In many Croatian households, the Christmas celebration begins on Christmas Eve with a meal of cod fish. On Christmas Day, sarma (cabbage and sauerkraut) and orehnjaca (nut cake) are traditional favorites.
St. Nicholas Day, Easter, and Independence Day are also important holidays to Croatians. St. Nicholas Day, December 6, is a children’s holiday for giving presents. Lamb and ham are central to celebrating Easter, a celebration of eating following a meatless Lent. Pogaca is an Easter bread that is braided and decorated with painted eggs. Food is blessed in the church and sometimes broken egg shells are scattered throughout the household. Independence from the former Yugoslav Federation, gained in 1991, is celebrated on June 25.
In Croatia, name days paid homage to the saint for whom you were named. As immigrants and later generations gradually adopted the American custom of celebrating birthdays, this traditional celebration disappeared.
Traditional Croatian dress is distinguishable by its fine embroidery. Women wear long linen dresses, often white, covered by a colored apron and a shawl over the shoulders. They usually cover their heads with a kerchief. Croatian men wear white shirts topped with a colored vest or jacket. Their pants are often dark linen or wool, worn with high leather boots or knee-socks. The outer garments are embroidered in red or gold with geometric designs or images such as birds or flowers. Today, such costumes are only worn on holidays or during special occasions.
In the early days of settlement Croatians relied on home health care. The local midwife, a Croatian woman, most often handled childbirth in the home. Because there were no labor compensation laws then, men injured on the job had no benefits for hospitalization. Folk remedies, the use of practiced “bonesetters,” and superstitions often were used in place of English-speaking doctors (dropping hot coals in water to dispel headaches from evil eyes, for example), but there was little involvement with the American medical establishment. Those involved with settlement houses in cities—as with Jane Addams’ in Chicago—became conversant with doctors and health care—matters of ventilation and cleanliness, for example. Croatians were hesitant to accept welfare. In New York before World War I one charity group reported that it had never had one application from a Croatian. There have been no studies done of mental health conditions among Croatian immigrants, and little on their health care. Successive generations, of course, have adopted American ways for dealing with the medical community.
The Croatian language spoken by early immigrants was largely dialect, identifiable by the region from which the immigrant came. The three primary dialects of Croatian are cakavski, from Dalmatia, kajkavski from the far northwest near Zagreb, and two varieties of stokavski (stokavski ijekavski is the literary variant for Croatians). These dialects are often so various that Croatians in America sometimes have difficulty understanding each other.
Writers like Louis Adamic and Clement Mihanovich have pointed out the manner in which Croatians have added familiar endings to English words. Some linguists distinguish this as a “new” dialect. For example, the Croatian word for automobile is kola and the Americanized-Croatian word is kara (car); novine (paper) has become papir; soba (room) is now rum. This bastardization of the language has alarmed many purists.
Until the breakup of Yugoslavia, the official language was Serbo-Croatian (Srpskohrvatski ) or Croato-Serbian ( Hrvaskosrpski ). In America, many Croatians refuse to use the term “Serbo-Croatian,” an issue which became less significant when Croatia gained independence. Several American colleges and universities teach Serbo-Croatian, including Stanford University, Yale University, and Northwestern University. According to the 1990 U.S. census, about nine percent of all Croatian Americans (about 45,000) declared Croatian as their mother tongue; presumably the remainder consider English as their main language.
Family and Community Dynamics
Because most of the early immigrants were single men, the saloon became their most important social institution. More than a place to drink, the Croatian saloon provided a place to exchange news about the Old Country, translate letters, and do banking.
Immigrants also organized benevolent fraternal associations for protection in the event of on-thejob injury or unemployment. These included the Slavonian Mutual and Benevolent Society, organized by Croatians and Serbians in San Francisco in 1857; the United Slavonian Benevolent Association, founded in New Orleans in 1874; and the Austrian Benevolent Society (later the First Croatian Benefit Society), established in New York in 1880, among others.
As more and more men decided to settle in America, they sent for their wives and marriageable women. Coming from a pre-industrial, Roman Catholic peasant culture, these women were occupied with housekeeping and child rearing. The rural concept of the godmother and godfather ( kum and kuma ) survived for some time in America. The parents of a newborn child selected family members, or friends considered part of the extended family ( zadruga ), to care for the child in the event that something happened to the parent and to take charge of the child’s spiritual well-being, a responsibility that was taken seriously.
“I n Croatia I enjoyed my godparents as really my real parents. They never talked about my mother and father in America. So, in other words, I didn’t know that there was somebody in America. I didn’t even know where America was or heard of America. Nothing.”
Louis Zauneker in 1923, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).
Communal Croatian life and the tradition of taking in as many boarders as possible to earn money had socialized women to serve large numbers of people. Men went into the workplace and, thus, the larger American society, and children went to American schools where they learned the language and mores, but women remained isolated in the home. Divorce was uncommon, but did occur. Although both partners were ostracized by the larger community, the woman was more harshly treated.
Over time, however, the woman’s subservient position in America changed, largely because women ran most of the boarding houses and achieved some measure of economic security from doing so. As Croatian American women became more “Americanized,” some men argued that once “a Croatian woman becomes Americanized and accepts the liberalization policy of American women … permissiveness with the children develops.” Some Croatian women countered that because they bore fewer children and were free of the patriarchal restraints and demands of the Old Country, successive generations of mothers maintained better relationships with their children.
As the educational and economic lives of second- and third-generation Croatians improved, most left the Little Croatia ghettoes and the parochial schools where Croatian nuns taught in Croatian, and these communities began to die.
INTERACTION WITH OTHERS
Croatian interaction with Serbians and Slovenians grew out of a similarity of language and the fact that they often settled near one another. Croatians also interacted with other Slavic peoples who emigrated from Austria-Hungary, as well as with Germans, Italians, and Hungarians, with whom they shared the common bond of Roman Catholicism. Although immigrant men attend Catholic Mass with their Irish foremen, they had little social contact.
Alliances with Serbians were temporary and topical as old enmity persisted. There is a saying that “There is no putting history behind one’s self in the Balkans; the battles one’s ancestors fought are today’s battles as well.” Fights and flare-ups still erupt today.
Devout Roman Catholics, the Croatians organized the first U.S. Croatian parish in 1895 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. Despite California’s large Croatian population in the nineteenth century, a Croatian parish was not organized there until 1903. As late as 1912, there were still only 12 Croatian parishes and four parochial schools in America. The number doubled within the next decade. By the 1970s only 30 Croatian parishes and two dozen parochial schools remained for a declining Catholic Croatian population. Today’s Croatians are heavily disaffected with religion, and with the clergy in particular.
Most of the small number of Protestant Croatians came from Slovakia and Slovenia. Croatian Muslims who emigrated to America largely from Bosnia arrived after World War II and settled in Cleveland and Chicago.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Many companies paid immigrants’ passage to America in return for a guaranteed period of servitude. Although this practice was outlawed in 1885, industrialists found ways around the law and Croatians were sent to coke foundries, iron mines, lumber camps, and factories across America.
A 1910 study revealed that Croatians in Pennsylvania were the lowest paid of the immigrant groups, and their unemployment rates the highest, with only 34 percent full-time, full-year employees. When Croatians arrived in industrialized American cities, manufacturers coerced them into replacing striking workers. Uneducated and often unaware of the dynamics of American labor-management politics, the immigrants were happy to have jobs. Manufacturers were adept at pitting one ethnic group against another. Railroad magnate Jay Gould once declared: “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”
By 1900 when labor unions were gaining power, Croatians and other Slavs played a role in establishing the viability of the United Mine Workers of America, which helped break the cycle of using immigrants as scabs and strikebreakers. In 1909 Anton Pavisic was a leader in a coal miners’ strike at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, where more than 2,000 fellow Croatians followed him. The first miners’ compensation law introduced into the Michigan legislature was introduced by Anthony Lucas, a Croatian.
Politics and Government
Politically, Croatian Americans have been torn between concern for Croatia and involvement in American democracy. Early immigrants were more preoccupied with the former, and this concern persisted for many generations. Croatian organizations formed in America campaigned for political goals abroad. These organizations ranged from conservative to radical.
During the years of the Great Migration, groups like the National Croatian Society (NCS) and the Croatian League combated the tyrannical Austria-Hungary rule. In 1912 the Reverend Nikola Grsković founded the Croatian Alliance, calling for complete Croatian independence from the Hapsburgs and advocating an alliance with the other South Slavs.
Influential South Slavic Americans, like Serbian American Michael Pupin, worked on committees dedicated to the formation of the new nation of Yugoslavia after World War I. Michael Pupin and other high-profile South Slavs were joined by Reverend Grsković, Joseph Marohnić, and other leaders to create the South Slavic National Council of Chicago, with its main goal being the formation of Yugoslavia. When the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was realized in 1918, Croatian Americans were dissatisfied with the pan-Serbian centralist Yugoslav government and appealed in vain to the League of Nations for more encompassing ethnic representation.
During World War II, the Yugoslav Relief Committee was created to aid those living under a Nazi-installed puppet government in Croatia. After the war, American South Slavs—often under the guidance of high profile leaders like Slovenian American Louis Adamic—compelled the American government to lend its support to the Partisan cause in Yugoslavia. Increasingly, Americans were supporting Tito and his partisan forces. At a 1943 meeting, the Congress of American Croatians advocated support of Tito, a momentous decision called for by the more than 700 affiliates of the Congress.
With the installation of Communism in Yugoslavia by Tito after 1945, and rumors of mass killings of Croatians by Tito’s command, many Croatians withdrew their support. The émigrés who came to America at that time included many radicals expelled from Yugoslavia. They organized in America and perpetrated terrorist acts to advance the cause of an independent Croatian state. The majority of Croatians in America condemn such extremists.
Although interest in the homeland and its politics continues, the intensity of this interest has gradually diminished. Represented prominently in the Democratic Party, Croatian Americans have won local legislative seats, governorships, and positions in Congress. Active as voters and local campaigners, Croatians have become an integral part of American life.
RELATIONS WITH INDEPENDENT CROATIA
The majority of American Croatians have supported the newly independent Republic of Croatia. In fact, as the old Yugoslav federation began to crumble, American Croatians mounted letter campaigns and fund raising events to support the creation of a new government. In particular, when Germany recognized the new Republic in 1990, many Croatian Americans wrote to the American government to do likewise. Since independence, there has been the on-going war with old guard Serbian nationalists, both in Croatia proper and from without. Croatian Americans have worked to raise funds for war relief, health care, and for political action groups. The casualties in human life have alarmed many here, as has the wanton destruction of venerable old landmarks, like those in Dubrovnik. Some organizations, like the Croatian New Yorker Club, a group of business and professional people, organized a traveling exhibit of art work done by Croatian and Bosnian children in refugee camps in Croatia—to heighten awareness of the war in Croatia and Bosnia and to raise money to aid some displaced children, many orphaned by the war.
Individual and Group Contributions
Despite their small, low-profile population, Croatian Americans have made distinguished contributions to American literature, music, science, and business.
ACADEMIA AND JOURNALISM
Dr. Henry (Zucalo) Suzzallo (1873-1933) was born in San Jose, California, and earned degrees from Stanford, Columbia, and the University of California. During World War I, he advised President Wilson, and was appointed to the War Labor Policy Board in 1918. Suzzallo assumed the presidency of the University of Washington in 1915, a position he held until 1926. During his tenure at Washington, Suzzallo helped increase enrollment, raise academic standards, and create new programs. In 1927 he became chair of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and served as president of the foundation until his death. His books (such as Our Faith in Education ) are examples of the commitment he always felt to the children of America.
Other notable Croatian Americans include: historian Francis Preveden, who did comprehensive studies of Croatians; Ivo Banac, a professor of comparative literature at Yale University; Clement S. Mihanovich, a St. Louis University sociologist. George Prpić has done extensive writing on Croatian culture in both America and Croatia. Vlaho S. Vlahović, a Dalmatian, edited the Slavonic Monthly. Bogdan Raditsa was a columnist and journalist for years.
FILM, TELEVISION, AND THEATER
Actor Peter Coe (Knego) left a football career with the Detroit Lions to play “touch-guy” roles in numerous motion pictures. Silent screen star Laura La Plante reached her peak during the 1920s. Walter Kray was one of the stars of the television series “The Roaring Twenties.” Slavko Vorkapic (b. 1884) acted throughout the 1920s and later became a director who worked with film montage and special effects. John Miljan was in more than four hundred movies, playing lead opposite such actresses as Joan Crawford and Virginia Bruce. Gene Rayburn is a television emcee. Michael Lah brought a new sensitivity and artistry to the animated cartoon.
INDUSTRY AND AGRICULTURE
Hugo Tomich was a metal manufacturer and Marcus Nalley (Marko Narancic) a food-processing manufacturer. Samuel Zorovich, who came from Dalmatia in 1923, built an empire manufacturing cement. Nick Bez (Nikola Bezmalinović) emigrated from the island of Brac in 1910 and eventually owned a fleet of salmon vessels, ultimately controlling much of the industry in Alaska. Paul Marinis, entrepreneur, was called “The King of Salmon” in the 1950s. John Slavich was owner of Del Monte Fruit Company, one of the largest in America. Nikola Sulentić was the inventor of the first valve-spring lifter.
In 1901 Anthony Lucas (Lučić) became the first man to discover oil in Texas. In 1936 the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering established the Anthony F. Lucas Medal, an award for “distinguished achievement and practice in finding and producing petroleum.”
Works like Ivan Mladineo’s Zetva ( Harvest ) remain inaccessible to the English-reading audience. The popular almanac ( kalendar ), filled with popular poetry, written in the ever-present decameter, was the wellspring for the start of a Croatian American literature. Zdravko Muzina, an influential journalist, issued Hrvastko-Amerikanska Danica za Godinu 1895. Josip Marohnić, “the founder of popular Croatian literature in America,” published the first book of Croatian poetry in America, Amerikanke.
In 1937 Gabro Karabin published the autobiographical “Honorable Escape” in Scribner’s. The tale of his psychological journey from the steel mills that were his home, the story promised a literary career that never materialized. Victor Vecki wrote Threatening Shadows (1931), the story of a Croatian American doctor in California. Antun Nizeteo’s Bez Povratka ( Without Return, 1957). and Nada Kestercanek-Vujica’s Short Stories, 1959, were written in Croatian. The poet Boris Maruna, who lived in America, also wrote in Croatian. Joseph Hitrec, a Croatian whose works do not deal with Croatian experience, came to America after years of travel, mostly in India. In 1946 he published Ruler’s Morning and Other Stories, tales set in India. Other works by Hitrec include Son of the Moon (1948) and Angel of Gaiety (1951). George Vukelich wrote short stories and a novel. Edward Ifković wrote Anna Marinkovich (1980), the story of a Croatian immigrant family living on a farm in Connecticut during the Depression.
Milka Ternina (1863-1920), an operatic soprano, sang for nine seasons with the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. She premiered in the United States in the opera Tosca with Enrico Caruso. Hailed by Italian conductor Toscanini as the “world’s greatest artist,” Ternina returned to Zagreb in 1906, where she discovered the young Zinka Milanov. Ternina coached Milanov for three years. Milanov made her Met debut in Il Trovatore and for three decades remained as the Metropolitan’s in-house coloratura. Violinist Louis Svecenski (b. 1862) studied in Zagreb and Vienna, and in 1885 accepted a bid to become first violinist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He performed in the United States for 33 years. Guy Mitchell was a popular recording artist in the 1950s and had his own television series in 1957. His recordings include “The Roving Kind,” “Singing the Blues,” and “My Heart Cries for You.” Tony Butala was one of The Lettermen, whose most famous recording was “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”
Rudolph G. Perpich, a dentist who began a career in politics in 1956, served two terms in the Minnesota state senate. Elected lieutenant governor in 1970, he became governor of Minnesota in 1976 when Governor Wendell Anderson resigned. Perpich was elected to two more terms in 1982 and 1986.
Mike Stepovich, the first governor of the state of Alaska, had earlier helped establish a colony in Alaska. Nick Begich, of Alaska, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1970. Michael A. Bilandić was elected mayor of Chicago in 1977 after the death of Richard Daley. Dennis J. Kucinich served as mayor of Cleveland in the 1970s.
Teodor Beg, a wrestler from Croatia, won eight gold medals for wrestling. Baseball players of Croatian descent include Walt Dropo of the Baltimore Orioles, Joseph Beggs of the Cincinnati Reds, and Roger Maras and Mickey Lolich, stars of the 1968 World Series. Joseph L. Kuharich coached the Washington Redskins football team from 1954 to 1958 and in 1955 was named coach of the year. “Pistol” Pete Marovich had a nationally publicized career with the New Orleans Jazz. Eleanor Laich was one of Olson’s All-American Redheads. Mike Karakas played hockey for the Chicago Black Hawks, and Johnny Polich for the New York Rangers. Helen Crienkovich won world diving championships. Fritzie Zivich was the world welter-weight boxing champ in 1941.
Ivan Mestrović (1883-1962) showed his marble sculptures in one-man shows in Belgrade, Zagreb, and London, before establishing a studio in Paris in 1907. After World War I, he joined the art faculty of Syracuse University in New York, and then taught at Notre Dame University, where he lived until his death. Mestrović’s work demonstrated a consciousness of the suffering of people in Austria-Hungary. His work also shows the influence of Michelangelo, whose art he studied for four years in Rome. The first artist to hold a one-man exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Mestrović has left a legacy of works that can be found throughout the United States in churches, parks, and institutions that include Grant Park in Chicago and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
The painter Vlaho Bukovac (1865-1963) studied art in Paris and worked in San Francisco. His home in his native Cavtat is now a museum. Another painter, Maksimiljan (Makso) Vanka, studied painting in Zabreb and Brussels. He came to the United States in 1934 with his American wife and attracted fame when he painted the towering frescoes for St. Nicholas’ Catholic Church in Millvale, Pennsylvania. Louis Adamić’s novel Cradle of Life (1936) is based on Bukovac’s life.