ONCE UPON A HISTORY
Finding an Identity A Tale of Lithuanian Immigrants in America
Nicholas L. Irving, B. A.
When immigrants from the area known today as Lithuania came to the United States, they were accounted for in US immigration records, just the same as any immigrant traveling into the country. However, from 1850 until the 1910 United States census, Lithuanians were unaccounted for as their own nationality in those records. They were instead classified under a number of different nationalities, including Polish, Russian, and German.1 Not being officially recognized as their own distinct nationality in the United States caused Lithuanian immigrants to become one of the least known about groups in our country. Despite years of having their heritage and identity either taken away from them or altered, immigrants from Lithuania had a culture of their own while living in the United States based on several factors – how life was back in their home country, why they chose to leave, and where they went and what they did once they came to the United States. In order to properly examine how and why Lithuanian immigrants were seemingly stripped of their nationality in the first place, one must look at how their lives back in Lithuania forced many to leave their homeland for a new world. There would be no Lithuanian immigrants if there were not some reasons back home that made them decide to leave. Famine started spreading across Lithuania during the 1850’s, and people started leaving the 1
Joseph Slabey Roucek, “Lithuanian Immigrants in America,” The American Journal of Sociology 41: 4 (1936), 447.
country in search of a new place to call home. This is when the first influx of Lithuanian immigrants started coming to America.2 In addition, many of the farmers could not find a stable market to sell their rye, wheat, and flax in; as a result, most of these farmers would find themselves bankrupt. Along with not having a market to sell to, the Russian regime was also placing extremely high taxes on any goods that were sold, severely cutting most of the profit farmers would make from selling their crops.3 Along with the famine, there were also numerous insurrections that were being staged by Lithuanian political rebels; unsuccessful insurrections in 1863, 1867, and 1868 drove out even more people; the ruling Russian regime further tightened its grip on the people living in both Lithuania and nearby Poland as a result.4 Russia’s attempt to get rid of Lithuanian culture through “Russification” led many proud Lithuanians to leave an area where their culture and heritage emanated from, because their culture and heritage was being stifled.
In Russia’s eyes, Lithuanians were either “potential
Russians” or “potential Poles,” but never just “Lithuanians.”5 Theodore Weeks wrote, “…the Russian Empire certainly had no respect for national
Ibid., 447-448. Ibid., 448. 4 Ellen Gordon, “The Revival of Polish National Consciousness: A Comparative Study of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine,” Nationalities Papers 24 (June 1996), 217. 5 Theodore Weeks, “Russification and the Lithuanians, 1863-1905,” Slavic Review 60: 1 (2001), 96-97. 3
culturesâ€Śâ€?6 and it was true. All attempts at Russification were aimed at stomping out any bit of culture that failed to fall in line with that of the motherland. These forces led many Lithuanian citizens to pack up their belongings and leave for the United States, a decision shared by many other European people around this period. When many of the Lithuanian immigrants settled in America, they immediately faced problems. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Lithuania was not recognized as a country at immigration centers in the United States. Instead, people coming in from Lithuania were mostly labeled as being Russian, Polish, or German.7 This is because at the time of these immigrants coming over to the United States, Lithuania was not yet a separate country of its own. Instead, being Lithuanian was just a nationality that the immigrants were classified under, but not as a separate country of origin. Many Lithuanian immigrants carried Russian passports with them due to the Russian regime ruling Lithuania at the time. Those who presented this passport at the immigration ports were labeled as Russians. At these immigration centers, people were asked questions so that the immigration officials could properly document these new citizens. Those referring to
Ibid., 98. Roucek, 447.
themselves as Roman Catholic were usually labeled as Polish.8 Lithuanian surnames were often either misspelled or even changed by the immigration officials, which could make family tracing almost impossible to do for future generations. In Lithuania, each surname has three variations. The first of which is the masculine form, and the second and third are feminine depending on whether you were married or not.
immigrants reached immigration centers, however, they were almost always given the masculine form of the name, regardless of sex or marriage status.9 Beginning in 1910, the US government decided to include Lithuanians as a separate nationality due to the large number of immigrants who came into America. This would come as a pleasant surprise to Lithuanians, who now seemed to be gaining recognition from the US government, which would help these people to keep their identities and their cultures from back home. Even after the US census of 1910, however, Lithuanians struggled to gain recognition as a separate nationality from that of Polish or Russian. According to Oliver Carsten’s article, “The tendency to congregate… is most noticeable among the Poles and the Lithuanians… The Lithuanian colony is not so distinct as that of the Poles.” He also goes on to say that the
Ibid., 448. Alfred Senn, “Lithuanian Surnames,” American Slavic and Eastern European Review 4: 1 (1945), 127.
Lithuanians segregated themselves from the Poles.10 These efforts were to help Lithuanian immigrants let their neighbors and co-workers know that they were not Polish or Russian, but a nationality different from the two countries that surround their small homeland. Once Lithuanian immigrants reached America, they tended to cluster together in the cities that they reached. Many settled in colonies throughout the states of New York and Pennsylvania in cites such as Amsterdam, Rochester, Birmingham, and Niagara Falls in New York, and Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Shenandoah, and Pottsville in Pennsylvania. Despite settling mostly in these two states, the largest single colony of Lithuanians was in Chicago, where an estimated 100,000 Lithuanian immigrants live, and that remains true to this day. Other large clusters of Lithuanians can be found in the cities of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, St. Louis, Kansas City, and others.11 In Connecticut, successful labor strikes in New Britain led to a strong bond amongst the immigrant workers, of which Lithuanians contributed greatly to the 41.1 percent immigrant population of the town according to the 1910 census.12 By the 1930 census, 193,606 foreign-born Lithuanians and 245,589 “native white of foreign or mixed parentage” were
Oliver Carsten, “Ethnic Particularism and Class Solidarity: The Experience of Two Connecticut Cities,” Theory and Society 17: 3 (1988), 437. 11 Roucek, 450. 12 Carsten, 442.
living in the United States. These numbers are often debated however, because many Lithuanians were categorized under other nationalities.13 These people usually sought out industrial jobs, even though most of the immigrants coming over had an agricultural life back in Lithuania. Most immigrants associated farm work with the â€œruinous taxes and unprofitable drudgery experienced by them back in Lithuaniaâ€? according to Joseph Roucekâ€™s article on Lithuanian immigrants. Many settled for jobs such as mining, tailoring, textile weaving, and other skilled and unskilled industrial work.14 The Lithuanians had a sense of community and would often try and form societies, clubs, and co-operative stores with other Lithuanians in their city. The first Lithuanian co-operative store opened in 1885 in Waterbury, Connecticut after the efforts of a Lithuanian priest in the town encouraged it. Clubs and groups formed by Lithuanian immigrants include the Knights of Lithuania, which is somewhat like the Knights of Columbus, and associations for Lithuanian groups such as doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, labor unions, education awareness, and Roman Catholic women, among others.15 Many of these groups still run to this day in order for Lithuanian immigrants and their descendants to better assimilate to life in America, and 13
Roucek, 448. Ibid., 449. 15 Ibid., 451. 14
to help preserve the culture that might be lost in later generations that have never been to Lithuania and only know of life in America. As Lithuanian immigrants became further assimilated to life in the United States, they became increasingly less isolated. This is shown by observing intermarriage charts; by looking at these it is easy to see what nationalities intermarried with other groups, and who tended to stay with their own people. In a 1952 survey taken in New Haven, Connecticut, Ruby Jo Reeves Kennedy displays that as time went on, Lithuanian immigrants became fore intermingled with people of other nationalities. In 1900, nearly 100 percent of Polish-Lithuanian immigrants married people of their own nationality. As time went on, however, this number would decrease. By 1930, that number was down to 68 percent; by 1940, that number was 52.7 percent; and by 1950, it was down to 40.7 percent.16 This shows that second-generation immigrants were much more likely to marry someone of a different nationality than their own as opposed to their first-generation parents. This means that the second-generation was able to more easily assimilate to life in America, including dealing with people that they would have never seen or interacted with in their home of Lithuania.
Ruby Jo Reeves Kennedy, â€œSingle or Triple Melting Pot? Intermarriage in New Haven, 1870-1950.â€? The American Journal of Sociology 58: 1 (1952), 56-57.
The story of Lithuanian immigrants in America can either be one of fear and isolation, or one of opportunity and triumph. The first of these two stories can be told by Josephine Koncavage, a woman who was born in Lithuania in 1886, and then came over to the US in 1893 with her parents Martin and Antanette.17 They settled upon Shenandoah, Pennsylvania where her father worked as a miner. Despite having only a 6th grade education, Josephine was able to write very proficiently in both English and Lithuanian.18 At the age of sixteen, she was married to another Lithuanian immigrant, William Yescalis, in 1902. Her skill and joy of writing led her to log an extensive family history that included births, weddings, communions, confirmations, deaths, and more. Unfortunately, deaths were a common occurrence in her family once she started having children. Her first child did not make it past five months of age. As written in her diary: “My baby girl Martha Ann was born May 3, Sunday, 1903, evening 7:50 p.m. … Martha Ann died Sept., 1903, age 5 months, buried in St. George’s Cemetery.”19 She would go on to lose her next two children, George and John, just days after they were born in 1904 and 1905, respectively; this was followed by a miscarriage later on in 1905.
Joseph Duffy, “A Lithuanian Grandmother, Triumph of Spirit over Circumstance,” Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences 29:3 (1983), 1. 18 Ibid,, 1. 19 Ibid., 1.
Twin boys Francis and Joseph both died within minutes after birth in 1913, and then as Josephine writes: “Feb. 22 1914 – Sunday night I had a [miscarriage] about 3 months gone. I was pretty near gone – inflammation set in – bed for 9 days – fever 104.”20 Her fifth miscarriage nearly ended her life. In 1916, her longest-living child to-date, Walter, died of disease after living only one year and five months. In 1919, Josephine’s father Martin died in a mining accident, which was a common occurrence for those who worked in those deadly areas. Four years later, her husband would also die in a mining accident. From the year that she married her husband in 1902 until her death in 1956, Josephine witnessed more death than anyone would choose to endure, but she kept to her faith and she loved her family dearly. The other side of the story of Lithuanian immigrants in America can be seen in the case of Anton Vasnus, who came over to the US in 1904. Barbra Vasnus, the granddaughter-in-law of Anton says that, “when [Anton] came over here, the people at Ellis Island misspelled his last name Vasnes, and it wasn’t changed back until his son got it changed.”21 Anton left for America from Glasgow, Scotland, where he had moved to shortly before departing for the US. On his passenger record filled out once he reached
Ibid., 1. Barbra Vasnus, interview by Nick Irving, West Hartford, Ct., May 3, 2008. Transcript in possession of this writer. 21
Ellis Island in New York, he was listed as Russian and Lithuwaniansh under ethnicity. During that time, Lithuanians were regularly classified as being ethnicities other than Lithuanian. After arriving in New York, Anton â€œspent several years in the City (New York City) and then moved over to New Britain, Connecticut where he stayed the rest of his life.â€?22 Living in New Britain, he would go on to work for several different factories and eventually settled down with a wife and had a family, which included a son named Roger Vasnus, who was born in 1908. Roger would go on to live in West Hartford, Connecticut where he would marry a woman by the name of Abigail and have a son named Robert Vasnus in 1932. Robert would end up joining the Navy, where he was stationed out in California. Soon thereafter, he would marry Barbra Crockett, whose recent descendants had come over from France two generations beforehand. They had their first child, Donald, in San Francisco before moving back to Connecticut. In 1958, they would have a daughter by the name of MaryAlice Vasnus. Mary-Alice would live in West Hartford and go on to marry George Irving, also of West Hartford. The couple would then go on to have their first son in 1988, by the name of Nicholas Irving before moving to Bristol, Connecticut. Nicholas is recently graduated college in New Britain, 22
Connecticut where he anxiously tries to find his Lithuanian heritage from past generations. The way Lithuanian immigrants dealt with being overlooked and largely forgotten as a separate nationality speaks volumes towards their makeup as people and as a community in whole. They stuck with their values and their heritage throughout famine and economic hardships back in their home country.
They stayed true throughout numerous failed
insurrections against the ruling Russian regime that wanted to strip Lithuanians of their culture and their nationality. In America, the firstgeneration immigrants clustered together in communities that mimicked their homeland, while the second-generation bravely ventured out and tried to assimilate themselves to their new American homes. In total, Lithuanian immigrants had in deed their own culture and heritage that had been shaped by a number of factors, including how life was back home, why they chose to leave, and what the immigrants did once reaching America. While they may be one of the lesser known immigrant groups in this country, they are certainly a group all their own.
Bibliography Carsten, Oliver. “Ethnic Particularism and Class Solidarity: The Experience of Two Connecticut Cities,” Theory and Society 17:3 (1988): 431450.
Duffy, Joseph. “A Lithuanian Grandmother: Triumph of Spirit over Circumstance,” Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences 29:3 (1983), 1.
Gordon, Ellen. “The Revival of Polish National Consciousness: A Comparative Study of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine,” Nationalities Papers 24 (June 1996), 217.
Kennedy, Ruby Jo Reeves. “Single or Triple Melting Pot? Intermarriage in New Haven, 1870-1950,” The American Journal of Sociology 58:1 (1952): 56-59.
Roucek, Joseph Slabey. “Lithuanian Immigrants in America,” The American Journal of Sociology 41:4 (1936): 447-453.
Senn, Alfred. “Lithuanian Surnames,” American Slavic and Eastern European Review 4:1, 2 (1945): 127-137.
Vasnus, Barbara. Interview by Nick Irving. West Hartford, Ct., May 3, 2008. Transcript in possession of this writer.
Weeks, Theodore. “Russification and the Lithuanians, 1863-1905,” Slavic Review 60:1 (2001), 96-97.