South Slavic immigration in America

George Prpic



The Bulgarians and Macedonians


I. The Role of the Americans
II. Suffering Macedonia
III. Earlier Bulgarian Immigrants
IV. It Was a Long Struggle


The smallest of the South Slavic ethnic groups in America are the Bulgarians. One branch of them are the Macedonians. Even though they were the last to join the migration from the Balkans to the North American continent, one of them was among the sailors of Columbus when he discovered America in 1492. His name was Dragan. He was a native of the town of Ohrid, an important center of Bulgarian culture and religion which is now located in the Macedonian Republic, Yugoslavia. Dragan belonged to the Bogomil sect which was regarded as heretical by both Catholic and Orthodox churches. He made his way to Spain, but was discovered as a religious dissenter and was condemned by the authorities to die on the stake in Salamanca. He was saved from certain death by Columbus who was gathering his motley crew before sailing to America. Dragan who was a experienced gunner thus became a valuable member of Columbus crew.


Following the discovery — before Columbus returned to Spain — Dragan vas left with forty-two other saliors at the newly built fortress La Navidad. Subsequently he survived the Indian massacre. "Drahan da Lihnida" is mentioned in contemporary eyewitness accounts in the Spanish court. Lihnida is the old name for Ohrid. [1]



I. The Role of the Americans


Even before the liberation of Bulgaria from Turkish rule in 1878, numerous Bulgarians migrated to other countries in Europe and the Near East. Some worked as seasonal laborers, merchants, tradesmen, and gardeners. A great majority were peasants. Over seventy-five percent of all Bulgarian immigrants







were from Macedonia which was under Turkish rule until 1912.


Between 1899 and 1920 U.S. immigration authorities limped together Bulgarians, Serbs, and Montenegrins. After 1920 they listed Bulgarins as separate nationalioty. However, at no time did our immigration authorities list Macedonians as a distinct nationality. Some Bulgarians came from the Balkan provinces of Thrace and Dobruja, outside the Bulgarian state. Some emigrated to America by the way of Rumania, Greece, and even, Austria.


After the middle of the last century American protestant missionanes became increasingly active in several provinces of the Ottoman Empire. In 1860 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions of the Congregational Church founded a college in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, then under Turkish rule. Congregational missionaries became active in all Bulgarian provinces. Robert College was established under the same auspices in 1863 in Constantinople, the Turkish capital. Some Orthodox Bulgarians became converts to Protestantism. A considerable number received their first education from the American Protestants. Over the years many young Bulgarians were sent to various Protestant colleges in the United States to complete their education. A few of them became Protestant ministers, teachers, and physicians. Some remained in America. In Bulgaria the wort of the missionaries and the reputation of those who returned as educated people aroused interest in America. This in turn contributed to an increase in immigration to the United States. [2]


The Methodist Episcopal Church also started its activities in Bulgaria as eariy as 1857. The Methodists worked primarily in the northern parts of the country. In 1878 the American Bible Society published the complete Bible in the Bulgarian language. The translation was done by Dr. Elias Riggs, an American missionary and linguist, who chose the Thracian Bulgarian dialect for his work. By 1905 Methodist congregations existed in Sofia and eighteen other towns. [3]


A different kind of missionary was the American journalist A. MacGahan (1844-1878) who was born in Ohio of Irish immigrant parents. After covering the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the Russian military actions in Turkestan, he returned to London during the time of the Bulgarian revolt





and the Turkish massacres of 1876. The London Daily News sent him to Bulgaria. There he witnessed the destruction commited by the Turks and his reports sent to the Daily News during July and August 1870 aroused public indignation in Great Britain. MacGahan's reports resulted in Gladstone's writing of Bulgarian Horrors and an official investigation. Finally, Russian intervention brought about liberation of Bulgaria. On account of his contribution to their cause the Bulgarians called MacGahan "the Liberator of Bulgaria". On June 9, 1878, he died near Constantinople of typhoid. In 1684 his remains were moved to New Lexington, Ohio. The inscription on his tomb monument reads "MacGahan, Liberator of Bulgaria". For many years the Bulgarian envoys in Washington made ceremonial visits to his grave and the American Bulgarian papers still pay him tribute.


From the 1860s until the 1920s American Protestant missionaries founded and maintained schools in Bulgaria from kindergarten through junior college including an agricultural school. These educational and charitable projects were organized and carried on by people of the highest integrity. The consequence was that America was hold in high esteem by many Bulgarians


Students sent by missionaries for further study in America, generally returned to Bulgaria after 1878, to help build the new country. Almost all of them were sons of peasants or small shopkeepers. At the time over ninety percent of the Bulgarians belonged to the peasant class; they were engaged in agriculture, forestry, the raising of sheep, and cattle. [4]


The city population was low. The country on the whole was backward because of five centuries of Turkish rule, neglect, and exploitation. Though poor, the peasantry still was better off than in most parts of the Balkans. There were no large land-owners and every peasant owned at least a small plot of land. Over ninety percent of all Bulgarian immigrants between 1890 and 1914 were peasants or common laborers. Before 1914 the number of educated people, especially university graduates, was very small. Hundreds of young Bulgarians studied abroad: Western Europe, Russia and at the University of Zagreb in Croatia.


Heavy taxation and low living standards as well as the rising





dissatisfaction of the people with the government spurred emigration. In 1908 the yearly salary of King Ferdinand was $200.000, four times higher than that of the President of the United States. With a standing army of 53,000 and a reserve of 322,000 the burden of military service was heavy. By the 1900s Socialists were very active. The number of their increased in the homeland and especially in the Bulgarian colonies in America. [5]



II. Suffering Macedonia


The bulk of these immigrants came from Macedonias Vilayet (Turkish province) of Monastir (Bitola). In western Macedonia, in the town of Resan, the Macedonian patriots founded in 1893 the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. The IMRO, as it was popularly known, fought tor liberation of the three predominantly Macedonian vilayets. A great majority of its leaders insisted that an independent Macedonia should join the mother country, Bulgaria.


As Turkish oppression became unbearable the Macedonian patriots started a revolt on St Elias Day, August 2, 1903. Over thirty thousand armed rebels, organized in many chetas companies) scored initial successes against the Turks. This Uinden Uprising won considerable sympathy in the West. Western politicians, missionaries, writers, and journalists responded with innumerable reports, articles, and books in favor of the Macedonian cause. The Macedonian problem became a serious concern of diplomats in the West (including the United States) and in St. Petersburg.


Some two hundred thousand Turkish soldiers crushed the revolt. Hundreds of patriots were killed in numerous engagements. About five thousand innocent civilians were massacred, 10.000 homes were burned, and over fifty thousand people were made homeless. Altogether two hundred villages were destroyed. The main strength of the IMRO was broken. [6]


Even though IMRO opposed the emmigration of Macedonians, thousands of people now decided to eave for America while their comitadjis (guerrilla fighters) still remained in the mountains. Columns of young men journeyed to the port of Salonica





for their voyage across the sea. One of them was Stoyan Christowe, a future writer in America. [7]


A great number of these refugees came fom one small district in Monastir vilayet, Kostur, where the fighting during the revolt was especially fierce. The immigrants listed by United States authorities as "Bulgarian, Serbian and Montenegrins" jumped in number from 204 in 1900 to 6.500 in 1903 when Macedonia was in revolt. In 1904 some 4,500 and in 1905 over 5,800 of this group came to America. The number climbed to almost 12,000 in 1906, and 27,000 in 1907. In 1908, when Stoyan Christowe reached this country, 18,000 of the group — most of them Macedonians — came to our shores. [8]


The year 1908 was also the year of the Young Turk Revolt, a serious crisis in the Balkans, and of Bulgaria's proclamation of complete independence from Turkey. Among the thousands of Bulgarians flocking to the midwestern United States, were also people from Bulgaria proper, especially from the district of Tirnovo. This region "had long been over-populated and emigration began across the Danube into Rumania, where the Bulgarians first came into contact with Macedonian refugees, and were incited by them to leave for America." [9]


These Bulgarian immigrants were better schooled than those from Macedonia as this latter province had been woefully neglected in educational matters by the Turks, while the Bulgarians had the advantage of fundamental education. The continued persecution by the Greek Orthodox Church, which was opposed to the existence of an independent Bulgarian Church, and the closing of Greece as a market for Macedonian labor also had an impact on the rising emigration to America. [10]



III. Earlier Bulgarian Immigrants


In the first years of the twentieth century a few Bulgarian colonies existed on the East Coast, notably in Philadelphia and Alfred, New York. When young Peter D. Yankoff, the future physician, arrived in 1905 in New York City, he joined a group of his countrymen in the brickyards of Alfred. Here as in many parts of the country the Bulgarians constituted a predominantly male society. From the East, after earning some money, they





moved to the Midwest. They established strong settlements in southern Illinois. The largest before 1914 was Granite City. Here at times some ten thousand Bulgarians worked in various industries. They were also recruited in railroad labor gangs.


In St. Louis, too, Bulgarian colony was established, while many were spreading to different parts of the Midwest and adjacent regions. Young Yankoff went in the summer of 1906 to the Methodist Park College in Parkville, Missouri. He mastered the difficult English language and by working his way through college he obtained his B.A. in 1914. He then attended the Medical School at Lawrence, Kansas, to become one of tthe first Bulgarian physicians, educated m America. [11]


The Bulgarians also founded their settlements in towns of Pennsylvania, especially in Pittsburgh and vicinity where they joined other South Slavs. They established smaller or larger groups in Ohio; Michigan (with a large number in Detroit); Indianapolis, Indiana; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; Butte, Montana; South Dakota; Seattle, Washington; and else where. Thousands were railroad workers who built tracks from the Midwest to the Pacific. They loved this kind of work under open skies, living in railroad cars and eating their hearty dishes prepared by their own cooks. After a few months they would return with their earnings to Granite City, St. Louis, or to some other place which was their home in America.


Coming from a country that for centimes had struggled against oppressors, these immigrants were anything but passive and submissive. On April 8, 1908 the Chicago newspapers reported a very interesting incident: some six hundred unemployed and starving Bulgarians marched on the city hall demanding work. The demonstration was a rare occurrence for that time. It was as harmless as it was ineffective, but aroused considerable interest on the part of some concerned Americans. The League for Protection of Immigrants investigated this case and interviewed 106 Bulgarians who had participated in the march on the city hall. Subsequently, the League published reports that shed light on the background, social conditions, life, and work, as well as on causes of immigration for the Bulgarians. [12]


Some educated Bulgarians in Chigaco tried to help their countrymen who numbered a few thousand in 1908. One was





P. D. Vasileff, a Methodist minister. He secured the help of influential Americans in Chicago and Illinois. Together they appealed to Governor Denee of Illinois who was sympathetic to the Bulgarians in distress and did intervene in Chicago to help them obtain employment. Another was Ivan Doseff who had come to America in 1902 and studied at the University of Chicago. He was widely known in college circles as the star tackle of the 1907 football season. During the winter of 1908–1909, when hundreds of Bulgarians were starving, Doseff spent all his savings and a lot of his time to help his unfortunate countrymen. [13] The American Socialists, very active among the Slavs also tried to help the Bulgarians as much as they could.


In 1910 close to fifteen thousand Bulgarians lived as steel workers in the ghastly town of Hungry Hollow, Illinois. Thousands were single men, their ages ranging from the teens to the late forties, who lived under most primitive conditions. Hungry Hollow, like several other Balkan immigrant settlements, was worse than any present-day slum in America. [14]


The main Bulgarian base remained Granite Cily, Illinois. Its population was highest during the winter months when there was no seasonal work on the railroad lines Eventually these migrations stopped, many Bulgarians did not return to the city, and their population decreased sharply.


In 1909, Albert Sonnichsen, considered an expert on the Bulgarians, served as agent for Bulgarians on the U.S. Immigration Commission. He wrote a book on the revolutionary struggle in Macedonia entitled Confessions of a Macedonia Bandit. In his opinion there were forty thousand immigrants from Bulgaria and Macedonia, one fourth of whom were working on the railroad lines in Montana, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Minnesota in 1909. Sonnchsen told Emily Balch: "I hope you are not making any racial distinction between Bulgarians and Macedonians... The distinction between the Bulgars from Bulgaria and those from Macedonia is purely political. Many of those who are registered as Greeks are so in church affiliation only, being Slavic by race and tongue." [15]


In 1909 Sonnichsen visited ten large gangs of Bulgarian railroad workers, each group averaging fifty men. Over ninety percent of them were from Macedonia. He made these interesting





comments: "I have been quite surprised at the similarity between the speech of the Bulgarians and Croatians (Horvats). I found I could converse quite freely with them, and that they took me for a Horvat coming from a different province from their own... I am especially interested in the Slavs. I have great faith in their virility as a race, in proportion as they are un mixed with Turkish or Greek blood." [16]


Besides living in their main settlements, the Bulgarians were also scattered in every state and territory, including alask and Hawaii. Somewhat surprised, Miss Balch exclaimed: "Scuh a dissemination of the peoples of the earth sometimes fills one with amazement. How did 110 Servians [sic] and Bulgarian happen to... go to Alaska, or 116 to Oklahoma, or 137 to New Mexico, one wonders. [17]


And Grace Abbott who studied the Bulgarians of Chicago remarked: "These Bulgarians are splendid material for skilled workers, strong, quiet, sober, intelligent and eager to work. There should be some way by which they, could bo turned more qtiiefcly and with much less suffering into the valuable citizens they are sure to become." [18]



IV. It Was a Long Struggle


In spite of their good traits the Bulgarians had a difficult time on their long road to success and recognition. To a people who survived five centuries of Turkish rule and had to fight against all neighbors in modem days to preserve its independence, constant struggle is a way of life. When the Bulgarians in Macedonian villages heard about America, there was a new nope for many of them. The letters from America jlayed an to important role in the life of the villagers and in stimulating their emigration to the land across the ocean.


When the letters arrived in Stoyan Christowe's Macedonian village from compatriots in St. Louis, they "struck the village like a comet". Such a letter usually contained a check. And it was "that magic slip of paper, more than wonders which the letter narated, that started the exodus to America and changed the the life of Selo [village] and the neighbouring villages." The contents of those letters exaggerated and distorted were passed





from mouth to ear until all manner of queer beliefs and opinions about america came into being." [19]


For a young Bulgarian, either from Macedonia or Bulgaria proper, emigration was heartbreaking step. He left a village where his ancestors had lived for many generations. Going to faraway America in most cases meant leaving forever. When villagers of Macedonia were departing, they were accompanied for miles by their parents, relatives, and friends. It was on such occassion that the brave peasant women, who had experienced much tragedy in their past, cried aloud, walling as if lamenting the dead.


After the tearful farewell (usually at a mountain top) the prospective emigrants walked the long distance to the railroad station. From there a train took them to the port of embarkation. Stoyan Christowe and his Macedonian fellow travelers, bound for Cherbourg, wore a red. button with a white star upon it, to identify them to agents as passengenrs on the ship Oceanic that would take them to New York. It carried a thousand steerage passengers. [20]


Some Bulgarians who traveled by way of Germany had a nightmarish experience that they remembered for many years. How they fared in an emigrant train, in the German emigrant station in Leipzig, on the trip to Hamburg and its detention camp was dramatically described by Peter Yankoff in his autobiography. He claims that life in such emigrant camps for "Bulgarians, Serbians, Montenegrins, Russians and other nationalities" proved to be much worse than even that of prison." [21] For a young teen-aged boy, who was lonely and without any relatives to accompany him, this phase before reaching the destination in America wax real agony.


According to Bulgarian eyewitness accounts, the crossing of the Atlantic was for these Balkan peasants the most dreadful experience. They feared it more than the uncertainty of the strange world that awaited them. The sight of the Statue of Liberty was therefore the moment of great relief. Before entering America, one had to pass through the "Island" (Ellis Island) about which they had heard so much. Everybody feared it. For it was here that some people were refused admission into the land of hope. Some had mortgaged their fields and houses to





raise the needed money for their journey only to be returned from the "Island" when they were within sight of the skyscrapers of New York. There were also stories of "people jumping overboard rather than to return to their villages." [22]


Those Bulgarians that passed through the "Island" and came eventually to their settlement in St. Louis, Missouri — as Christowe did — usually joined a group of their countrymen. In on apprtment twelve of them lived sharing six beds during two different shifts. The place was filthy with dirty blankets and no sheets on the beds. Shano, the Bulgarian, was the majordomo of the group. He presided over it "with patriarchial authority and had to be consulted about everything." All the men did thir share of work in rotation. The hard economy which they practised and the toil in the shops had imprinted themselves on "drawn and haggard faces." As for their toil, in St. Louis the ertswhile Balkan plowmen "cleaned noses of groaning locomotives, emptied carloads of ashes from their cylindrical bellies and stuffed their yawning jaws with coal." They did it for twleve hours every day including Sundays. Their daily wage was $1.50. [23]


Other jobes were not much better and they took their toll in health and lives. The conditions were similar in all large industrial cities. In Pittsburgh and vicinity, for instance, the Bulgarians lived under equally appalling conditions. In 1908 in West Homestead twenty homes held some three hundred Bulgarians. There were only three women among them! The men care dlittle about how they lived as long as they lived cheaply. They wre industrious men, all bent on saving money in order to be able to return to the old country as men of property. In one apartment of two rooms and a kitchen lived the "boarding boss", his wife, two babies, and twenty men.


At this time Slavs in metropolitan Pittsburgh performed the most hazardous and difficult work. In 1907—1908, only twenty-three percent of them received a daily wage of $2.50 to $5.50, which was considered very good. Only five percent of them received above $5.00 a day, regarded as unusual earnings. However, the Bulgarians in West Homestead were making only from $9.00 to $12.00 a week. Out of this sum they paid three dollars a week for a place to sleep, their laundry, and their





food. The boarding boss worked in the steel mill and ran the boarding house. In this way he accumulated considerable sums of money. On Saturdays they all had plenty of beer to drink. Though fights broke out and often the police had to be colled in, one officer said that in general these men were good matured and easy-going. In his nine years of experience he had never arrested a sober "Hunkie" as he called these Slavs. [24]


Those Bulgarians who saved a few hundred dollars and decided to stay here dreamed of establishing a little restaurant of their own, or a grocery. Or even having a farm. Many, however, did not remain but went back to the homeland. Hundreds returned in 1912 and 1913 when the Balkan Wars broke out. They responded to the call of their mother country. In late 1912 the first Balkan War as a war of liberation was started by Bulgaria, Montenegro, Serbia, and Greece against Turkey. In the summer of 1913, after Turkey had been defeated, Bulgaria went to war against her former Balkan allies because of Macedonia. Bulgaria lost the war. After five centuries of harsh Turkish rule Macedonia was partitioned between Serbia and Greece and only a small section was awarded to Bulgaria. In Macedonia the long Turkish oppression was now exchanged for Serbiand and Greek oppression. To all the returned emigrants who had joined the Bulgarian troops the loss of Macedonia was the most painful disappointment of their lives. These returned volunteers either settled in Bulgaria or came back to the United States to continue their political struggle for liberation and unification of Macedonia.


Some Bulgarians who returned from the Balkan struggle to America in late 1913 encountered another kind of struggle. It was the labor struggle in the West, in Colorado where nine thousand miners struck against the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. The miners and many of their families lived in their tent settlement in Ludlow near Trinidad. When, on October 31, the National Guard arrived under the command of General Chase they were greeted by friendly strikers. Chase reported later that among those lining the road "many of the men were in strange costume of the Greek, Montenegrin, Servian and Bulgarian armies; for the colony numbered among its inhabitants many returned veterans of the Balkan wars. The little children





were dressed in white, carried small American flags, and sang union songs. This friendly atmosphere changed later. In clashes between the strikers and the guardsmen (infantry, cavalry, and field artillery) at least a dozen men were killed on both sides.


The culmination of violence was reached on April 20, 1914. The guardsmen opened fire against the tent colony and later burned it. According to one version, twenty-one people, including eleven children, were massacred by the Guard. Another estimate was "sixty-five people . . . forty-three of whom were women and children." [25] Among the strikers, besides the Bulgarians and other South Slavs, there were Italians, Mexicans, Anglo-Saxons, Negroes, and Japanese. The Ludlow Massacre was but one of many incidents in which the Bulgarians participated.



[Back to Index]