Immigrants to Canada

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Hungarians, Croatians, Romanians, Slovaks and Czechs

The changing face of Europe makes the tracing of early Hungarians, Croats, Slovaks, Czechs (Bohemians), Romanians and others difficult. As these immigrants arrived in Canada from the then Hungarian Empire, they were labelled "Hungarians" or "Germans" by the immigrant agent regardless of their ethnic background.

The 1848-9 revolution in Hungary gave rise to the first wave of migration to North America. The numbers were few in relation to what would come for, in the 1880s, the number of emigrants leaving the country rose dramatically.

It is worth noting that the Hungarian government tried to restrict the distribution of emigration propaganda in Hungary. In 1881 it enacted a law dealing with emigration that prohibited the operation of emigration agencies in Hungary. Until 1900 this legislation was the primary legal means of discouraging emigration from Hungary. The adoption of this law can be explained by the contemporary view that emigration resulted from false claims of emigration agents who misled the uneducated masses. Whatever the merits of this argument, the law adopted had a very limited impact on emigration. In fact, Hungary experienced successively larger rates of emigration throughout the period from 1881 to 1900. Another somewhat more stringent law was passed in 1903, requiring strict controls at border crossings and limiting the emigration of persons of military conscription age. A third law was enacted in 1909, imposing penalties for illegal immigrants and requiring the payment of a fee for emigration permits issued to persons liable for military service. Neither law could be enforced. Extensive travel between Hungary and Austria and Germany, the ease of border crossings, and the vast experience available to prospective emigrants on ways to elude detection made the identification of illegal emigrants very difficult. Police reports and other contemporary accounts testify that these laws had no significant impact on the continuously increasing rates of emigration. (1) [p37]

Hungary was primarily an agrarian country with most of the land in the hands of the wealthy aristocracy. Economic conditions, as well as other factors, lead many young men to look for work in America. Letters written home spread the word and the prospective emigrants were encouraged to leave to join their countrymen in America.

As Hungarian settlers arrived in Canada in the 1880s they moved west and settled in Manitoba then pushed on into present day Saskatchewan (then called the North-West Territories). In 1885 Hunsvalley was established, near Minnedosa, Manitoba. Others settled at Esterhazy in present day Saskatchewan (then called Kaposvar). Many of these early settlers had first settled in the United States but did not like the mines of Pennsylvania and, enticed by Paul Oscar Esterhazy, headed west in search of a better life. Esterhazy, who acted as an immigration agent for the Canadian government, also recruited settlers directly from Hungary.

Other settlements grew up at Otthon, southwest of Yorkton and others near Kipling and St. Luke, Saskatchewan. St. Luke, had close to 200 residents by 1898. Another colony was established near Plunkett and settlers from the southern Bukovina (today Romania) settled in Székelyföld, Saskatchewan.

Bohemians/Czechs and Slovaks

Czechs and Slovaks were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the 1800s. By the mid to late 1800s, changes in boundaries and laws were again giving the Czechs and Slovaks in the Austrian sector some control over the use of their language and some voting rights. But, by the turn of the century, conditions were not much improved, and in some areas they had even worsened.

The Hungarian Empire was not as liberal with the Slovaks. In 1874 the Prime Minister had stated, "There is no Slovak nation"(1) and they closed the Slovak schools so children could not be educated in their mother tongue.

Few Czechs and Slovaks came to America before the 1800s but notable among the early settlers were the Moravians. They settled in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia. By the 1860s however, more were beginning to make the voyage and Chicago was the main centre for Czechs (Bohemians). Many of the early settlers to Canada came via the United States.

The Canadian Pacific Railway started to colonize their lands in the west in 1881 and Czechs and Slovaks made their way west. They settled at Kolin, in the District of Assiniboia (part of the province of Saskatchewan today). Others were recruited from various parts of the United States by Paul Esterhazy. On July 30, 1885 a party of mostly Slovaks was sent to Winnipeg, via Toronto from Hazelton, PA, where they had been miners. These people were sent to "Huns Valley," Manitoba.

In 1886 another party from the United States was sent to settle the lands on the Qu'Appelle River in present day Saskatchewan. The settlement was called Esterhazy after the man who had recruited them. Other settlements were started at Lethbridge, (today in the province of Alberta); Stair, Manitoba; Crow's Nest Camp, British Columbia (renamed Fernie); Derby, BC; as well as in Bellevue and Frank, North-West Territories (later the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan).

Since the immigration agents of the times often referred to all of these people as Hungarians one must not overlook this fact when searching the records.


Croatians, like the other ethnic groups of the area, left their lands in search of work. Many were landless peasants, driven out when the country failed to industrialize.

...In all of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, only Galicia and Bukovina ranked above the Croatian coastline in the number of landless day labourers, and Croatia easily ranked the highest in the percentage of small peasant proprietors on the land (71 per cent). At a time when it was estimated that one and a half acres represented a minimum individual subsistence, the average small landholding in Dalmatia was barely at this level. And in the rocky Lika-Krbava region to the north, according to the census of 1900, the average parcel per individual was three-quarters of an acre to one acre.(3) [p.31]

The depression period of 1873-1895 meant that work became scare and some families sent a son to America. The son was expected to send back money to help out at home. Some of them would return home after a few years but others stayed in America.

Leaving home was sometimes done through the port of Trieste. But the more favoured route was through Hamburg or Breman. As Rasporich describes it:

The hope of America was also carefully nurtured by a vast chain of economic enterprise that stretched from Vienna and Paris to London, New York, and Montreal. Bankers, travel agents, steamship companies, railways, and governments all participated in the promotion of emigration, and, they hoped, return as well. The village merchants and bankers, who acquired money at 6 per cent from Austrian sources, were excessively cautious about advancing any money to the peasant for farm improvement at rates any less than 12 to 40 per cent on loans and at specified minimums of $200. Subsidization of emigration was generally a more secure investment since cash flows and remittances from America provided more certainty than the output of a twelve-acre plot, which the banker in any case held as security against the loan. The Austrian government co-operated in encouraging labourers to migrate both to other parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire and abroad. Young men were often issued temporary passports only valid for one year, thus ensuring that a two-way ticket would be bought and that potential draft dodgers would return to complete their military service.

The most active agents in the promotion of emigration were the steamship ticket agents who literally combed the highways, byways, and hillsides of southern Europe selling steerage tickets at $25 one-way to prospective migrants. With the systematic policy of depopulating Croatian landholdings pursued by the governor, banus Khuen Hedervary, steamship agents representing American firms were allowed to roam freely over the hill country adjacent to the Karlovac-Rijeka hinterland. Work gangs were herded by the inducement of profitable contracts and high wages into the cities of Rijeka and Trieste where they boarded Austro-American lines sailing for New York. Or, conversely, they might board trains from Split or Dubrovnik for Zagreb and travel further by train to Paris and Le Havre where they might embark aboard a Cunard White Star liner headed for Halifax and New York.

But whether the destination was American or Canadian, and whether the steamship agents worked for Austro-American lines or Cunard and German Lloyd, they were universally suspected by the immigrant of excessive charges, bad advice, and exaggerated accounts of prosperity. In fact, the most blatant of these malpractices by American agents was by a Croatian-American named Frank Zotti, a powerful banker and steamship agent from Chicago, who had over 300 agents recruiting passengers in Europe during peak travel season....

On the European side of the Atlantic, the Swiss agents in Buchs, Johann Buschel and Viktor Klaus, very ably attracted legal and illegal migrants to come their way from Croatia. The mechanics of that intricate system have been well-described by Johann Chmelar in his study of pre-war Austrian migration. Many immigrants from Zagreb and Rijeka would come via Innsbruck and Feldkirch in Austria to Buchs just inside the Swiss border. Since a special agreement persisted between the Duchy of Liechtenstein and Austria, an effective border patrol could not be maintained on the Austrian side, and once in Buchs the emigrants could no longer be detained by customs officials. They were confronted there by a horde of emigration agents who attempted to direct them to prospective employers and to cheap hotels further on in Basel. The direction of the migrants to and from that point is vividly described in the report of a Swiss consular official in 1913:

The emigrants from the western countries and from Northern Croatia turn, as a rule, to an agency in Laibach (Ljubljana). The emigration agency "Putnik," located in Agram (Zagreb) is used less and less frequently. The formalities associated with clearance and also the required procurement of a passport, etc., make the people uneasy.

The most effective propaganda is conducted by those people who have already been in America once. They usually collect a number of emigrants at home and deliver them either to Laibach or to Buchs where they receive a commission for each passenger.

Because of the widespread urge to emigrate, the agents don't find it particularly necessary to advertise continuously. Only in the summer when the flow of migration subsides, do they send by means of the Imperial customs office in Buchs, printed propaganda material into the Monarchy.

Passage occurred only after a medical examination, and fares were not uniform. Sometimes different prices were demanded for the same route and the same class ticket....

Paternal treatment of illiterate migrants was demanded all along the route of travel, from the rural villages of Croatia to western Europe. And the slightest deviance from the prescribed route or mode of travel could result in the total loss of the small capital margin that most immigrants carried with them. Even quasi-legitimate agencies such as Viktor Klaus suggest this vulnerability in the carefulness of their instructions to the Croatian immigrants intending to travel through Switzerland and western Europe. They were counselled to forward their baggage well ahead of departure to avoid the payment of bribes along the way and to display yellow cards in their hats at their destination for purposes of identification. If all of these instructions were followed, Klaus agencies promised a trip without worry or care aboard commodious steamships that crossed the Atlantic in four and one-half days and never more than six or seven days! The Croatian immigrants themselves verified the widespread existence and persistence of such European agencies and illegal practices, for some of the immigrants who travelled along the Buchs-Basel route to northern European ports composed a rhyme on their experiences: "Jer agenti varalice Jesu, samo za se napunjaju kesu." (For the agents are surely swindlers, since they are always lining their own pockets.) (3)[pp. 36-38]

Some of the early Croatians to come to Canada arrived in British Columbia from San Francisco about 1859 at the time of the gold rush. Later, in the 1890s, some moved into the Yukon again in search of gold. By the late 1800s, Canada's west became a destination for some of these immigrants. However, restrictive immigration laws made it difficult, if not impossible for many to enter Canada in the late 19th century.

  1. N.F. Dreisziger, Struggle and Hope: The Hungarian-Canadian Experience, (McClelland and Stewart Ltd, Toronto: 1982).
  2. John Gellner and John Smerek, The Czechs and Slovaks in Canada, (University of Toronto Press, Toronto: 1968).
  3. Anthony W. Rasporich, For a Better Life: A History of the Croatians in Canada, Anthony W. Rasporich, (McClelland and Stewart Ltd., Toronto: 1982).

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© Marjorie P. Kohli, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 1997-2007
Last updated: February 14, 2007 and maintained by Marj Kohli