The SNF: Champion of Serbdom in America PT. 1

At the height of the American Civil War on June 21, 1863, John Dabovich was born in San Francisco – the first American-born Orthodox priest. After studies at St. Petersburg and Kiev Theological Academies, he was tonsured a monk with the name Sebastian and was ordained a deacon in St. Petersburg in 1887. He returned to San Francisco and on August 16, 1892, Father Sebastian was ordained to the priesthood by Rt. Rev. Nicholas, Bishop of Alaska. Fr. Dabovich established the first Serbian Orthodox parish in 1892 and built the first Serbian church on the North American continent in Jackson California in 1894.

Part One

By Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov

Ed Note: The 120th year of the Serb National Federation takes place in 2021. As we plan the future of the SNF through financial and membership growth, we take a moment to reflect on our origin, our commitments and our accomplishments. In her highly researched account written for the centennial book “Serb National Federation First 100 Years 1901-2001,” Dr, Krinka Vidakovic Petrov began with a quote by Dr. Paja Radosavljevic, president of the SOF Srbobran, who said in 1916:  “The first symbol on the Srbobran Federation banner is the brilliant Crown of King Dusan, under which all its subjects should come together when their great mother - the Homeland - calls on them to return to their abandoned homes. The second symbol is the white two-headed eagle unfolding its wings, gathering under the fold of the Srbobran Federation all the sincere, decent and honest people who are Serbs and Slavs in their thoughts and hearts.” We hope you enjoy Dr. Petrov’s work, as interesting and valuable today as the day it was written, as we present it in installments over the next several issues. – str.


The history of Serb immigration in America begins in the nineteenth century. It begins with individual immigrants whose biographies seem to be a combination of hardship and adventure. Such is the life of Djordje Sagic, known also as George Fisher, who arrived in 1815 and ended his long adventurous life as a judge in California. The early immigrants who came in larger numbers and managed to establish Serb communities in America came mostly from the coast of Montenegro – the Bay of Kotor and the Pastrovici area – known for its longtime seafaring tradition. They came at the same time as their Croatian neighbors from Dalmatia, both settling in the coastal towns of America – the Gulf of Mexico (New Orleans, Mobile, and Galveston) and the West Coast (San Francisco) – that seemed similar, in some ways at least, to their native lands.

A Serbian newspaper published in Vienna carries in its March 1848 issue an article by S. Popovic on Serb immigrants in America. According to this account, in the mid-nineteenth century there were Serb immigrants in many American communities, but their numbers were modest. The author reports that they all “live in peace and happiness” and that there was only one profound lack aching “their hearts and souls” – a  Serbian Orthodox Church in which they would be able to worship God according to the customs passed down by their ancestors.

With the Dalmatians – they had linguistic closeness in a shared feeling that they came from the “same” lands – the Adriatic coast, where for centuries Serbs and Dalmatians had lived together under Venetian or Ottoman rule. On settling in America, they were closer to each other than to anyone else in the new land they called their home.

However, in the very important aspect of religion, things were quite different. In the Old Country Serbs had for centuries been under Roman Catholic pressure from Venice (and later from Austria), so coming to America offered an opportunity to finally enjoy the religious freedom which had so often been denied to them in their original Homeland. Nineteenth century America was not only a land of economic Opportunity, it was the land of religious and political freedom.

The Serbs in America shared their religion with other Orthodox Christian ethnic groups such as Russians, Greeks, and Syrians. Because their communities were small, the only way to satisfy their religious needs was to establish parishes and churches together with their Orthodox neighbors – the Greeks, and/or the Russians. In the Balkans, there had always been a geographical and historical closeness between Serbs and Greeks, but the difference in language was a gap difficult to bridge. The Russians were geographically more distant, but the Serbs shared with them a long time Slavic cultural tradition. In addition, The Russian Orthodox Church, established in America since the eighteenth century, provided much needed support in these efforts.

While the early Serb immigrants in New Orleans and San Francisco were fairly well-organized by the end of the nineteenth century, other smaller Serb communities dispersed throughout America would achieve growth and gain significance in the second period of immigration, dating from the 1880s to the end of the second decade of the twentieth century (when immigration quotas were established). This was the period of great industrial growth in America, growth supported by a huge number of immigrants coming from impoverished lands of the Old Continent.

Most of the new immigrants came from Serbian lands controlled at that time by Austria-Hungary, and empire that extended through a large part of Europe. The reasons for emigration were social and economic, but also had to do with lack of political and religious freedom. For these people, America was the Promised Land as far as economic opportunities  were concerned, but also a land that offered them freedom – to be true to their faith and their political ideals. For America, these people were an enormous work force willing to satisfy the needs of a booming industry leading to unprecedented growth.

1900, Angels Camp, California, the boarding house started in 1890 by Lazar Tusup and his Irish wife known as “Stara Tusupova,” a woman who weighed over 250 pounds. The Serbs came to Angels Camp to work in the gold mines, these were the “best” of accommodations. Photo courtesy of Mary Ross of Stockton, California – her father is the first man on the right, second story. He later opened his own boarding house in 1904.

However, unlike the preceding immigrant generation, the newcomers – many of them young and illiterate peasants – would find themselves in an alien and deregulated industrial environment, where they had access only to the most difficult and lowest paying jobs. Nonetheless, they were determined to succeed and return to their homeland with savings that would secure them a decent life. One of the few immigrants who found the tie and inspiration to write about his firsthand experiences was Jovo T. Marich, who came to America in 1901. Marich explains his motives for emigrating, his first experience of America and his wish – one shared by many fellow immigrants – to return home once he had achieved financial security:

It was my wish to break loose from the barren and shabby land of my birth, the vastness of rutted rocks, unproductive sediment, unfruitful, as though the hand of God had thrown it aside to remain hills of stone. Such was my native Herzegovina, the place of my birth.

Life was bitter and painfully toilsome, but these distressful currents were overcome by my sole ambition of acquiring a fortune as soon as possible in order to return home with financial security for my family. Nothing – ill health, hunger, pain or deprivations of any kind, would change the promise I had made myself when I left home. I was to succeed in this new nation of opportunities and only death would put an end to this ambition. I clenched my fists, grit my teeth and sharpen my wits daily in order to grasp the least opportunity to go ahead. It was an empty life, living the way I didn't want to live and knowing it, not liking the way things were and unable to see any way to change them. [Marich:12]

The newcomers were from the Krajina region (Lika, Banija, and Kordun) and Vojvodina, from Bosnia and Herzegovina (controlled since 1878 by Austria-Hungary), but fairly far from Serbia. As a rule, they arrived through New York and went on from there in search of jobs. As people without any specific qualifications (and many of them illiterate, without knowledge of English), they found jobs in mines and the steel industry, in slaughterhouses of big cities, or they traveled throughout the country building railroads in the most inaccessible places. Many immigrants from Lika, Banija, and Kordun settled in Pennsylvania; those from Bosnia and Herzegovina settled in Chicago, Detroit, Gary, Milwaukee, and St. Louis; Montenegrin immigrants were in Butte, Montana, Pennsylvania (Hazelton), and Chicago; Vojvodina immigrants in Ohio (Akron, Barberton, and Cleveland).

On arriving in America, in most cases, Austria-Hungary was indicated as their “home” country. However, their ethnic background, which they were not required to indicate, was not clear in their immigration papers: some were registered as Austro-Hungarian (state affiliation), others as Serbs (ethnic affiliation), still others as Herzegovinians, Bosnians, and Montenegrins (geographical affiliation), and some as Orthodox Christians (religious affiliation). Therefore, statistical information on Serb immigration from this period is quite unreliable.

In 1910 Stevan Karamata (manager of the Serbian Bank in Budapest) came to the U.S. to assess the situation of Serb immigrants in America and report to the Serbian [patriarch in the homeland. According to his account, there were about 3,000 Serbs in Chicago, New York, and St. Louis; 2,000 in Los Angeles, Gary, Pittsburgh, and Butte; 1,000 in Akron, Steubenville, San Francisco, Detroit, and Wilmerding; and 1,500 in Johnstown, Cleveland, Steelton, Pueblo, Kansas City, Chisholm, Angles Camp, Cincinnati, Hibbing, and Lackawanna. There were smaller communities throughout the continent, from Douglas, Alaska to Bisbee, Arizona and Galveston, Texas.

Since most of the immigrants Were young unmarried men, they preferred to live in boarding houses that provided them with the cheapest lodging's in meals, as well as with the company of their countrymen. Once they acquired some savings, they would seek brides from their Homeland, get married and establish their homes in the new country or return to the old one. Those who could afford it, opened their own businesses (grocery stores, saloons, and restaurants). However, the majority continued working in the mines and steel Mills, where work was long and hard and the pay far from rewarding.

Miners and steel mill workers were exhausted by long working hours and precarious work conditions. Many were crippled in work accidents, others killed. There were no labor organizations at that time, no health insurance, no social security, and no protection of labor rights. The benevolent or fraternal organizations established at the turn of the century were meant to provide a minimum of security to their members. However , since most of their members were newly arrived immigrants from Europe, the latter tended to organize according to their ethnicity (and) cultural interests. Therefore, Serbian fraternal organizations had from their very inception two main aspects – economic and cultural.

In an account on the establishment of the first Serbian Orthodox church in America, Georgije Kodzic describes an accident at the Argonaut mine in California:

In a single day in August of 1922 eleven miners were killed in the Argonaut mine. Eleven martyrs of hard and dangerous work were buried in the mine-grave. What about others, dozens of young men, victims of earning money, battered in the flower of their youth, broken by accidents, who lie dispersed in the graves around the St. Sava Church in Jackson. [Kodzic: 78]

A similar account is given by S. Sobajic, a Montenegrin writer who visited and wrote about his countrymen in America. Here is an excerpt from a dialogue between the narrator and one of the participants of a fraternal organization meeting:

Are you telling me that the only thing that matters is this bloody money, and getting it in this way! – I cried out, offended by what the man sitting next to me had said. – Well why else would we all be here? – he replied calmly – I work until I get killed in an accident and my earnings are proportionate to my work. But our job is dirty; no American would do it, not even for a fortune. We are the ones who get the most dangerous, the most difficult work done and that’s why we can’t last long. What else could I do without knowing the language, without any qualifications?

In addition, I am at the mercy of the capitalists…who treat me like an animal. There is no factory where men are not killed in accidents every day, every hour. But the companies cover it up: when a man is killed, they quickly slip him out, bury him, cover everything, so his fellow workers go on believing they would be able to work a hundred years…Until one day misfortune strikes…[Sobajic: 46]

Transplanted from Serbian villages to American industrial centers, the immigrants had to cope not only with hardship associated with their jobs, but also with cultural alienation. First of all, they could not communicate with people in the American society. At the workplace, there was no need or opportunity of communication: understanding orders and doing the job was enough. After long working hours, communication with Americans was also out of the question: the immigrants were aliens who spoke strange languages and knew nothing about America and Americans. Therefore, the immigrants socialized with their fellow workers who lived in the same boarding houses, same streets, and same neighborhoods. They kept together because they could communicate and pray together, help each other, and celebrate the customs they shared. While Americans viewed them as inferior newcomers (“hunkies”) – they viewed Americans as aliens lacking human warmth and compassion. Bozidar Puric stresses this point:

They did not love America and America did not care for them…Each emigrant is a stone or a turf separated from the homeland, but tie grinds it to international sand and dust…Each emigrant is a personal history of sorrow, a personal drama, of an individual trying to ward off his destiny in the urge to preserve his name and language, the customs of his ancestors, and to organize his life as much as possible according to the pattern of his life in the old country [Puric: 32]

This is true of the first generation of Serbian Americans. Having come to America with a strong Serbian identity, they tried to preserve it and at the same time to adapt to the new environment. In doing so, they forged a new identity based on elements drawn from two quite different sources. The next generation was integrated in the American society, but maintained strong ties to the Serbian roots of their identity. However, as time went by from one generation to the next, the Serbian elements of this identity gradually moved into the background, while the American elements moved forth into the limelight. The proportion between the two elements, the manner in which they are juxtaposed, contrasted, merged or combined, also the ways in which they are reflected and expressed, the roles they played in the lives of Serbian Americans – all these affected their changing and shifting identity.

The first generation of newcomers who arrived at the turn of the century preserved most of the features of the identity they came with throughout the 1st two decades of their life in America. What made this possible was the isolation in which they lived and the difficulty of integrating into the American society under those specific conditions. Another factor was their determination to preserve this identity by resisting assimilation, a trait strongly rooted in the Serbian cultural tradition due to the historical experiences of the Serbs as a nation. Nor namely, during their long history in the Balkans, the Serbs had been under great pressures to convert to other religions and be assimilated by other cultures, which they had resisted at a very high cost. An especially important element of the Serb identity was the Orthodox Christian faith represented by the national church – the Serbian Orthodox Church. From the very beginning of Serbian medieval history, the Serbian Orthodox Church – the Church of St. Sava – had played a fundamental role in the preservation of the Serbian ethnic identity, strongest during long periods of foreign domination.

The determination to preserve their cultural tradition was maintained among Serb immigrants in America, notwithstanding the fact that this was the land of freedom and economic opportunities to which they had come voluntarily. For those who lived in Austria-Hungary immigration was an escape from the pressing poverty of a homeland dominated by a hostile foreign power.  However, although industrial America attracted the immigrants economically, culturally it was uninviting. On the other hand, Serbia - a land many immigrants coming from Austria-Hungary had never seen or set foot on – was not only a real land, but also the Motherland of all Serbs identified as the children of St. Sava. The language spoken by the immigrants, the oral tradition they shared, the historic memories they had in common – all of these were part of the Serbian identity introduced into the “foreign body” of American culture.

Next Installment: The Serbian Orthodox Federation Srbobran

About the author: Award winning Dr. Krinka Vidakovic Petrov was a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Literature and Arts in Belgrade, has been affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, is a renowned scholar and diplomat, and has authored several books and numerous articles in literature and history. She is a Belgrade native and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Zagreb. In addition to her books Serbian Americans: History. Culture. Press, From the Balkans to the Pacific: Serbian American Culture and Literature, The Great War 1914-1918: The Kingdom of Serbia, the United States of America and the Serbian American Diaspora, and Essays in Comparative Folklore, she has co-authored several language textbooks, and published in professional journals in at least six countries including the United States and the former Yugoslavia. She is a past editor of the English section of the American Srbobran. Dr. Petrov researched, compiled and served as managing editor of the Serb National Federation centennial book Serb National Federation First 100 Years 1901-2001, in which this article "The Serb National Federation: Champion of Serbdom in America" was originally published in its entirety.

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