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First Serbian emigrants to the American soil came in the eighteenth century and settled in the southern states of the United States, namely Louisiana and New Mexico, which were at the time under Spain and France.  It has been noted that a certain Jovan Mišković spent five years in these parts even as early as 1740.  In 1841 orthodox Serbian and Greek emigrants even established their first parish in New Orleans.  In 1848, with the discovery of gold on the west coast, Serbs went to California in great numbers. You could find Serbian merchants, linguists, sea-men arriving there from the Adriatic coast and Montenegro – Bokeljs, Dalmatians, Montenegrins – but also peasants from Hercegovina who became miners and farmers. Till 1860 these Serbs were statistically listed as emigrants from the ‘Germanic states’.  Results of the census of American population between 1850 and 1880 underline the conclusion that of a million persons from the ‘Germanic states’ only one percent denotes the Serbs. 

It is assumed that today between 700,000 and one million Serbs and Montenegrins reside in America.  They immigrated to the US en-masse in five big waves.

The first migration lasted from the beginning of the 19th Century until the beginning of the World War I.  Until 1914 the largest number of Serbs and Montenegrins by far, about 150,000 people, immigrated to the US.  They were mostly Serbs from the Austro-Hungary and Montenegro. At that time the entry was through California and first Serb immigrants settled in Los Angeles, San Francisco and then proceeded to spread slowly toward the continental parts, toward Nevada and Arizona.  In these cities Serbs establish their first national societies, raise and open churches and, sadly, first cemeteries. 

The second wave, from the founding of Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918 till the beginning of the World War II, encompassed a smaller number of Serbian populace since the US instituted quotas for the emigrants.  About 100,000 of Serbs and Montenegrins immigrated in that period.  Most of them settled in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.  Several Serbian political organizations were formed in that period such as Serbian National Defense – SNO, Serbian Cultural Club St. Sava – SKKSS and others.

The end of World War II in 1945 started the third immigration wave of Serbs and Montenegrins into US, and it lasted full twenty years.  Until 1965, approximately 250,000 Serbs immigrated to US, mostly past prisoners of war, refugees and displaced persons, opponents of Communism in new Yugoslavia, who obtained status of political emigrants.

In the mid sixties, when a middle-class was formed in the population of SFRJ, consisting of well situated families of professionals and intellectuals as well as successful business people, many of them left for America to study, to specialize in their profession or to work.  That fourth wave of economic immigrants lasted from 1966 to the end of the eighties.  Those Serbs populated large educational and industrial centers in California, west Pennsylvania, West Virginia and east Ohio, Chicago area, north-west Indiana, Milwaukee, New York and Jew Jersey.

According to the US population census of 1990, 116,795 individuals declared themselves as Serbs and 257,994 as Yugoslavs, which means that in US there were registered approximately 400,000 of our countrymen.  Assessment of the migration specialists noted that at least another 200,000 people were assimilated and that they already considered themselves Americans.

The fifth wave of Serbian conquest of America started at the dissolution of SFRJ and in 1991 the beginning of war conflict in that part of the Balkans.  From the homeland it carried, above all else, young people, students and young men of military-age, then experts and families forced to go to the US in search of securing a living existence.  Their first station in America was the largest Serbian city abroad – Chicago, then New York, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, Pittsburg, Los Angeles, San Francisco.  The largest number was in Chicago, over 150,000 while the smallest was in Atlanta, only 150.  It appears that in the last ten years another thirty thousand Serbs and Montenegrins entered US.

Serbian Consulate in Chicago


While the earliest Serbian immigrants came to the United States after 1815, the largest wave of immigration took place from 1880 to 1914. There were arrivals between the two world wars followed by refugees and displaced persons after World War II. Lastly, arrivals since 1965 have included the influx resulting from current events in the former Yugoslavia. Generally speaking, it is difficult to determine the exact number of Serbs who came to America in the early waves of immigration because immigration records often did not distinguish between various Slavic and, especially, South Slavic groups. The term Slavonic was most often used in recording immigrants from the various parts of the Eastern Europe. Church records are more helpful in distinguishing the Serbs, for these documents clearly state religious orientation of the parishioners. In addition, census statistics compiled before World War I had further confused the issue by listing immigrants by their country of origin. Thus, the Serbs could be included with the Croats, Slovenians, Austro-Hungarians, Turks, Bulgarians, or Romanians, or simply listed as Yugoslavs after 1929, when the kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was renamed Yugoslavia. According to the 1990 U.S. Census figures, there are 116,795 Americans of Serbian origin living in the United States. It is impossible to tell, however, how many out of the 257,995 who in 1990 reported Yugoslavian origin actually have Serbian ancestry. It can safely be assumed that the total number of Serbian Americans today might vary from 200,000 to 350,000 and up to 400,000, according to some estimates. By American standards, this is a rather small immigrant group.

The smallest numbers of Serbian immigrants came from Serbia proper. The people there still worked large family land that formed collectives called zadruga , which provided enough economic stability to entice them to stay. In addition, the emergence of Serbia as an independent nation during the nineteenth century offered hope for more political stability.

The historical map of the Balkans in the early 1800s explains the pattern of Serbian immigration. The Serbs who came to America at that time were from the areas which were under the domination of either Austro-Hungarian or the Turkish Empire.

Because the Austrian Empire was constantly subjected to Turkish invasions, it encouraged Serbian families to settle along the frontiers dividing the two powers, giving them land, religious, economic, and political freedom. In exchange, the Serbs agreed to protect the border areas against the Turks and to build fortifications in peacetime. The Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564) officially recognized this agreement in 1538, and granted self-government to the Serbian villages. In 1691 Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705) signed the "Privilegija," a document which granted the same rights to the Serbs who had fled to the Vojvodina region. Thus, a number of generations of Serbs formed a "buffer population" between the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish Empires. Therefore, the first Serbs to leave their native land for America were from the military frontier areas—Kordun, Krajina, Luka, Slavonija, Vojvodina, Dalmatia, and other coastal areas—precisely the areas where generations earlier had taken refuge from Turkish reprisal. Serbs from Dalmatia were actually the first ones to emigrate because of the close proximity to the sea and relative ease of transportation offered by the steam operated ships.

Poverty and ethnic and religious persecutions were behind the decisions to leave one's village, family, and way of life for America, whose allure as the land of opportunity appealed to able-bodied young men. In 1869 the Austrian Emperor dissolved the age-old agreement with the Granicaris. The Serbs felt betrayed by the Emperor, and in the words of Michael Pupin, who came from Vojvodina, they felt "delivered to the Hungarians," who then subjected them to a severe campaign of Magyarization, insisting on officially use of the Hungarian language in schools and courts, as well as seeking to convert them to Roman Catholicism.

The greatest numbers of Serbs arrived during the peak period of immigration to America between 1880 and 1914 from Austro-Hungarian Croatia, Slavonia, and Vojvodina, as well as from Montenegro. Although the overwhelming majority of Serbian immigrants were uneducated, unskilled men in their prime working years—mostly peasants from the countryside—they did not come to America particularly to be farmers, and they did not intend to stay. Instead, they wanted to remain in the United States long enough to earn money enabling them to return home and improve the lives of their families, in keeping with a practice called pečalba (pechalba). They settled in the mining areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, northern Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, as well as in the big industrial cities of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago, working in steel mills and related industries. Others found works with the major meat-packing companies in Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Omaha, and St. Paul, and in the lumber industries in the Pacific Northwest. The Serbian motto čovek mora da radi , "a man has to work" served them very well in this country.

by Bosiljka Stevanović


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