Conference of Compatriot Genealogists in the U.S.A.
Conference of Compatriot Genealogists in the U.S.A. – written by Miroslav Koudelka
The city named after the famous member of the House of Capet, St. Louis, the well-known metropolis of the State of Missouri, on October 26 – 29, 2011 hosted the 13th genealogical and cultural conference organized by the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International (CGSI).
That society has already had an almost quarter-a-century tradition. Established it was in 1988 in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, and which is especially pleasing, by a relatively young generation, many of the founders then were in their thirties. By the end of that year the society already had 160 members and their number was growing on. A new impulse for our compatriots’ interest in the old fatherland and their family roots was undoubtedly given by the substantial political changes in our country after November 1989. At present, the membership of the society counts around three thousands. Its core is in the United States, namely in the Mid West (states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and other) but members are found in many other countries of four continents including Czechia and Slovakia. There is a larger number of genealogy based societies of our fellow countrymen in the USA – you know the saying that if three Czechs meet, they will establish four associations – but this one is biggest. Because of the frequent changes of the political, territorial and ethnic structure in our country during the recent century it was rather complicated to determine the geographical frame of the society. The declared goal of CGSI eventually became the support of genealogical activities of the descendants of ethnic groups from the territory of former Czechoslovakia as it had been established after 1918, no matter if their searched-for ancestors considered themselves Bohemian, Moravian, Silesian, Slovak, Rusyn, German, Jewish, Polish, Hungarian, Roma or possibly other. And by the way, it is witnessed by a brief view of the names of some of the active members: Makousky (originally, Makovsky from Borova near Policka), Bina (Bina from Stara Hlina near Trebon), Kracha (Krejca from the Pelhrimov area), Baca (Baca from the Vsetin neighborhood), Fristensky (from the family of the famous wrestler from Kajhanek near Kolin), Kudlac (Kudlac from Olesna, Kysuce), Dzugan (from Eastern Slovakia), Vornberg (from the foothills of the Bohemian Forrest) and so on.
The society organizes those conferences every other year (and in even years, smaller symposiums) and publishes a newsletter, Nase rodina and other publications referring to emigration from our lands to the US and genealogical research. Also, they enable the members to get to maps, dictionaries, history books, fairy tales and similar materials. An important means of communication and information today certainly is the society’s web site www.cgsi.org. CGSI tries to cover a territory as large as possible, certainly emphasizing the areas where the descendants of immigrants from the Czech Lands, Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia live. So the conferences took places, for example, in the cities of Countryside (Illinois), Green Bay (Wisconsin), Bloomington (Minnesota), Cleveland (Ohio), Lincoln (Nebraska), Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) or Houston (Texas). And in 2005 – with the motto Back to the Homeland – the CGSI conference took place in Bratislava and Prague.
St. Louis did not become the place of this year’s conference just by chance. This city, located near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and generally known as the Gateway to the West, played an unforgettable role in the period of the main immigration wave from our country to the US. Our early compatriots arrived there from the late 1840’s. The oldest Czech Catholic church in America, consecrated to St. John Nepomuk, was built right there as early as 1854, and the Cesko-slovansky podporujici spolek (C.S.P.S.) – later on widely known all around the United States – was established there in that same year; and the founding meeting of the local Sokol took place there much earlier than in many a Czech town or village – on February 14, 1865. Along with the Parish of St. John Nepomuk, an important publishing company worked, issuing – among other – a very popular newspaper, Hlas, and in 1910, it published a fundamental work by a Czech physician and amateur historian living in Chicago, Jan Habenicht, History of Czechs in America. Thousands of names of Czech immigrants, as well as towns and villages on both side of the Atlantic contained in that book have been so far a hardly replaceable source of genealogical information. The descendants of Czechs in St. Louis have been proud that one of them, Hynek Dostal became one of the signatories of the May 1918 Pittsburgh Agreement.
This year’s conference, sponsored among other by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, was attended by around three hundreds of the society members and other interested persons from 31 American states and four other countries. After the US, Czech and Slovak anthems it was open by the CGSI President Ginger Simek and Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic for Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas Sharon Valasek. The main part of the conference were 39 presentations, most of them followed by informal, live discussion. The presentations ran parallel by three and their topics covered a wide spectrum from those “purely genealogical” (e.g. Beginning Genealogy; Tools for Genealogists Who Don’t Speak Czech; How to Research Czech Birth, Marriage and Death Registers on the Internet; Tracking St. Louis Land Ownership and Occupancy) thru immigrant (Documenting Czech Immigrant Arrivals; Eastern European Emigration via Hamburg; Immigrant Steamships 1890-1950; Bohemian Jews in St. Louis; First Czech Protestants in the USA) and general historical (Early History of Christians and Jews in the Czech Lands and Slovakia; Live in War and Peace in Eastern Slovakia in the 19th Century; Professions of Our Czech Ancestors; Czech Service and Sacrifice in the American Civil War) up to those oriented to heritage (Traditional Czech and Slovak Cuisine; ABCs of Czech and Austrian Glass Collecting; Czechoslovak Embroideries as a Visual Language). Their authors were two dozens of experts and enthusiasts from all around the United States from California to New York and from Minnesota to Texas, and also Rebekka Geitner from Hamburg, Michal Razus from Presov, Jan Dus from Policka and Miroslav Koudelka from Olomouc.
In addition to these presentations, attendees took excursions of the Czech and Slovak neighborhood of St. Louis and took part in special “regional networking sessions” – workshops arranged by areas in the old countries, making it possible to get into closer contacts with other persons having ancestors from that territory. Part of the conference also were exhibitions and sale of souvenirs and artifacts from our countries, and library and translation services. And of course, more or less successful attempts at typical Czech and Slovak meals with a chance to wash them down not only with ice tea and oversugared sodas but also good imported Czech beer. The conference was traditionally crowned with a Parade of Krojs. As far as I can judge, a vast majority of them were authentic – inherited or purchased in the places that one’s ancestors had left for America, and just here and there completed with good will and a certain portion of creative invention on the other side of the Big Pond.
The CGSI thirteenth genealogical/cultural conference was successful both by its organization and contents. And it was definitely not the last one. Next it will be held in 2013 in the city that around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries competed with Vienna to be called the second after Prague biggest Czech city in the world; in the city of Mayor Cermak and his fight with Al Capone, in Chicago.
Originally published in Czech in “Genealogicke a heraldicke listy” [Genealogical and Heraldic Letters. Newsletter of the Czech Genealogy and Heraldry Society in Prague]. Vol. 2011, No. 4, December 2011.
(The author Miroslav Koudelka is a professional genealogist – see www.czechfamily.com)